In our graduate program, we are careful about the metaphors for leadership we use. I believe that definitions of power and authority, which are not bad words in and of themselves, may be the thing that distinguishes Christian life and practice from other ways of being in the world. And, in large measure, Christians not only fail to distinguish themselves in the regard, but represent the worst of abusive forms of power and authority. We do our best to challenge the “leader as hero” metaphor, with all of its iterations (leader as visionary, leader as strategic planner, leader as guru). There may be aspects of these perspectives that are a part of being a leader in the mission of God, but when they rise to the level of an organizing metaphor, they become problematic.
There are several reasons for this, the main one being that the Triune God is a living God, and is always calling communities into a new future in God’s mission. The Triune God, therefore, calls and leads the church, not the heroic pastor. And because God exists in community, our discernment of the call of God also comes in community. We have for years used the metaphor of ecologist to describe the work of the leader. The ecologist is concerned with healthy environments that produce certain kinds of life. The pastor as ecologist keeps the congregational environment healthy so that the Word, or call, of God can continue to be spoken and heard, and so that the mission of God can be discerned and joined.
I think ecologist is a good metaphor. It corresponds to the notion of a living God. But good leadership metaphors should also reflect the moment we are in. And we are doing ministry in an age of crisis and dislocation. Metaphors, in other words, should also mark the pain we experience in liminality where we don’t know if we’re dying or finding new life. Shawna Songer Gaines is teaching me that “midwife” might be just the right metaphor. Her DMin thesis explored the work of actual midwives and pastors, bringing them together for conversation and reflection. What she learned will be what she presents at this year’s Streaming conference. rochesteru.edu/streaming.
In the opening of her thesis, she makes a very interesting observation. She was taught in seminary that the pastor “was the shepherd of the congregational flock. My role was to guide the sheep in and out of the pen, lead them into green pastures and beside still waters, and to protect them from the wolves and robbers.” Sounds familiar and right. But then she adds, “This metaphor seems to work in a church where congregations are full, pastors have a clear sense of where they are headed, pain is avoidable, and our innocence–like sheep–is unquestioned in the society at large.” She has set us up for a big turn. “But we find ourselves in a very different social moment.” We do indeed, one of pain and loss. For Songer Gaines, the metaphor of midwife is apt for a moment like this. It recognizes the pain we are in, but also suggests that the pain might be leading to the birth of something new. Our pain might be the necessary prerequisite for the new thing to be born. The difference between death and new life might be the capacity of the pastor to function as a midwife.