Recently, I visited with a group of church elders who felt the need to do something related to the issue of gender inclusion in their worship. Their instinct was to begin with a Bible study. This is because, in my opinion, not only do we think of the Bible (rightly) as an authoritative source, but we think of leadership in terms of marshall-ing information. We tend to move from information to application. Or, from theory to practice. We study the problem, come up with the best possible response to the problem, and simply implement the solution. So, we set a few measurables out there as goals and come up with a strategic plan. Nothing says “leading” like a five-year plan.
Problem is, there’s a congregation in there somewhere. And they tend to be obstinate because 1) they feel the fix is in, 2) they are treated like a problem to be solved, 3) they are, well, human. In my experience, the information–>application rhythm of leadership can be rather violent or conflict producing, especially if the stakes are high. Let me be clear, there is no such thing as change without a little conflict. But here, often the process itself inherently invites it or amplifies it.
But what if you don’t think of leadership, or the congregation, as a series of problems to solve? What if instead, leadership was thought of as releasing a divine, shared imagination? What I am suggesting is working in such a way that it becomes rather clear that this is ultimately God’s leading. The pay-off for this type of work is a statement like we have in Acts 15, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”
This takes a different kind of rhythm. Notice that the story in Acts 15 does not move from information->application. The apostles and elders do not consider the question of the Gentiles in the abstract as a problem to be solved. They don’t have a Bible study about it. Rather, they first listen to the stories of the Spirit’s work in their midst. Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Barnabas, the group from Antioch, even the opposition group (Christian pharisees). They spoke of their experiences with the living God.
One fascinating thing to me in this story is to notice how the implications of his experience grow for Peter over time. The more he recounts his story, the more he learns from it. The reflection on the event with Cornelius’ meaning takes place through the very act of reporting.
It is only after the stories have been told that the Scriptural warrants for the Gentile mission come into view. Luke Johnson makes this point vividly in the comments he makes on these stories. If the decision had been made on the basis of Scripture alone, the Gentiles likely would not have been welcomed as a part of the covenant people of God as Gentiles. The point here runs two ways. First, you can’t get there easily, without breaking a few eggs, from a simple reading of the Old Testament. Second, even if you could, familiar information tends to get absorbed by the way we’ve already come to understand things. In the Acts 15 narrative, a new reading of texts comes by way of reflecting on experiences of the living God. To be sure, the movement forward with the Gentile mission could only come if it corresponded with a sense of what God had revealed in Scripture. James takes pains in Acts 15 to quote Scriptural precedent. But it comes as recognition of what God is doing after new experiences and reflection.
As an aside, let me say that one of the tasks of leadership is to keep the word of God going at all times. Instead of seeing preaching and teaching as a tool toward achieving the leadership’s agenda, the task is to have a healthy diet related to the word so that its deep structures are always running in the shared imagination of the congregation. Scripture is not yours to put in service of the church’s agenda. Now, back to our main point.
Leading within the realities of the life of God means acting as if God is living and as if Jesus is raised from the dead and as if the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. While Scripture points to this reality and helps us to recognize this reality, the realities of a living God are greater than Scripture. So, in the church the rhythm of leadership moves less from theory to practice, and more from experience to reflection to action/articulation.
I know this makes you nervous as a leader. The only comfort I can give you is that you will be learning to place your life in the hands of the living God.