Leadership by Path or Road?

In his essay entitled “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry writes about the difference between a path and a road. “A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity” he explains. Paths are an adaption to the landscape. Instead of going through the mountain, you go around it. They are a result of the interaction between a community’s habitual motion, familiarity with its location, and the passage of time.  As a rule, paths are not forged, they evolve. They are formed not so much by consensus as by congregation. A path represents the collective habit of a community as it moves in response to its environment. It often represents a community’s collective wisdom imprinted upon the landscape about the best route to take.

A road is something else. According to Berry, a road is a kind of resistance to the landscape. “Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement but haste” he explains. “Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort.”

Berry is talking about the ways we relate to our environment but he could just as easily have been writing about styles of leadership. Those who lead by path begin with a sense of place. They want to understand the cultural landscape and the habit of those they lead. They may sometimes feel a sense of urgency but they are not in a rush. Those whose leadership style is more like the road are simply trying to get from point A to point B. They want to achieve their objectives in the most direct and quickest way possible. This is especially true in a leadership environment which quantifies success. Calculation lends itself to impatience. Such leaders want to see improvement and they want to see it now.

Today’s church leaders seem to be more interested in building roads than following paths. They tend to focus on goals more than on people. More often than not, the habit of the congregation is regarded as an obstacle to be removed rather than an environment which must be understood. Because they are not interested in the congregational landscape, this sort of church leader reduces place to mere space. Their leadership is based on a list of objectives which they carry from one church to another.  The location does not seem to matter. They are not interested in the culture of the congregation. Because they are in a hurry, they do not take the time to adapt to the landscape. As a result, the changes they implement often turn out to be superficial.

A road is convenient but it makes its way in the world by enacting a kind of violence on the landscape. Berry explains, “The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; the modern road by the destruction of topography.” It is probably not an accident that the Interstate Highway System in the United States was essentially a military precaution, designed to facilitate the movement of troops from one end of the country to another.

The allure of the road is speed. The challenge of the path is its leisure. In more than thirty years of leadership, I have spent most of my effort building roads. In my sixty-five years as a person, I have spent most of my time following paths. All things considered, I think the path is probably better.

The Trouble with the 80/20 Rule

You know the 80/20 rule. You probably heard about it from your pastor. The 80/20 rule is the statistic which says that in the average church 20% of the people do 80% of the ministry. There is a problem with the 80/20 rule and it’s not the uneven distribution of labor.

Before I go any further I need to confess that when I was a pastor I used the 80/20 rule to try and motivate the congregation. It’s a helpful statistic, if your main goal is to get people to hang their heads in shame. It is also good for reinforcing the pride or the resentment of those who see themselves as part of the 20%. What it does not do is motivate the 80% to greater involvement. I know this from personal experience. I have been on both sides of the statistic.

But that’s not the reason the 80/20 rule is problematic. The real problem is the way this statistic defines ministry. When church leaders (and let’s be honest it’s usually only church leaders who use this statistic) speak of ministry, they almost always mean church programs. They are talking about the nursery or the Sunday school program. They mean VBS or the weeknight kids club or the latest short-term mission trip to some country that also sometimes shows up as a destination for the prize puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. What they don’t mean are the kinds of things you and I spend most of our time doing. Things like working at our jobs, raising our kids, caring for our families, relating to our neighbors, or being a citizen.

There is a reason for this. It has to do with the competitive environment in which the church does business. Most churches use the term ministry to describe the religious goods and services they provide. Those goods and services are the main product they offer to their customers. The more product they offer, the larger their customer base. Because most churches operate with limited staff, they rely mostly on volunteers. Those volunteers carry out this work in between everything else they are doing in their lives. It is their ministry. Everything else is pretty much dead space.

So what’s wrong with the 80/20 rule? The trouble is that the 80/20 rule is a calculation based on a definition of ministry that concerns itself with far less than 20% of what we do with our lives and leaves the rest out. It might be better described as the 90/10 rule or even the 98/2 rule. It is limited not only because the things that it defines as ministry fall outside those areas where most of us expend the majority of our energy but because of the limited number of options it provides. By this definition, there are only a handful of things that really qualify as a ministry.

This is more than a bad definition. Ultimately it reflects a failure of the church’s mission. The function of the church is not to train workers for the spiritual marketplace. It is to equip its members to live the Christian life. They live out this calling as a distributed community, dispersed in their various locations, jobs, and circumstances. Their ministry is to bear witness to the grace of God and the transforming work of Jesus Christ in whatever context they find themselves.

My friend Al is a good example of this. Before he retired, Al worked as a special education teacher in the public school system. Now he spends much of his time as a caregiver for members of his family. He not only tends to their practical needs by preparing meals or providing transportation but maintains a spiritual presence. Al prays for his family and talks to them about God. He doesn’t teach Sunday school or go on short-term mission trips. He doesn’t serve on church committees. In fact, most of what the church is concerned about seems removed from Al’s life. The church does not seem especially concerned about him except as a potential laborer. He is part of the 80%.

In reality, there is no 80%. There are only followers of Jesus, dispersed in their various callings and contexts and charged with the task of living for Christ. Some do it well. Some fail. Most muddle through without much encouragement or instruction from the church. When the pastor mentions the 80/20 rule, they hang their heads in shame.

Are You “The One?”

During a faculty workshop on leadership yesterday, it occurred to me that churches and Christian organizations are drawn to messianic models of leadership. Our prayers and search processes seek to reveal “the one” who will lead us into the organizational land of promise. Occasionally the search uncovers an individual who ushers in a “golden age” which lasts only as long as that leader’s tenure and is usually un-repeatable.

More often it results in disappointment. The search for a messianic leader proves unfruitful and the organization settles for an “ordinary” person who must lead in the face of unrealistically high expectations and the inevitable criticism that comes when their leadership falls short of the ideal. This cycle of search and disappointment is mirrored by leaders who share the same kind of idealism in their expectations of those who are led. The gypsy church member who wanders from church to church in a futile hunt for the ideal pastor has its parallel in the restless pastor who moves from congregation to congregation searching for “teachable” elders or a “responsive” flock.

The most revealing moment in the workshop for me came when the presenter cited Patrick Lencioni’s observation that functional teams succeed because they “acknowledge the imperfections of their humanity.”  This is not the natural tendency of idealistic cultures. Because we expect so much of our leaders, we are more prone to criticize their imperfections than to acknowledge them.

No wonder we are so often disappointed. If Lencioni is right, the first step to successful leadership does not lie in finding the perfect leader but in accepting our collective imperfections as a leadership team. Lencioni’s observation assumes that leadership is a community rather than an individual discipline. It is a messy practice marked by imperfect choices, occasional chaos and constructive conflict.

Worse Things Have Been Said

 

Not long after I graduated from seminary, I spoke to a friend about my discouragement with the church I was serving. Looking back I realize now that things were not as bad as they seemed. The opposition I faced was the sort that every young pastor deals with, especially when he is eager to prove himself. But at the time it seemed to me that I had made a terrible mistake.

Some of the church’s charter members were grumbling about changes I had initiated. A few even hinted that I had bullied the church’s leaders into seeing things my way. Their criticism was unfounded but it stung just the same. I began to wonder if I was wrong to accept a call to this congregation. My friend listened to my tale of woe but was unsympathetic. “Worse things have been said about better men” he told me. I was annoyed by his blunt reply but could not disagree with his point.

Jesus warned those who speak in his name that they will also share in his reproach: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matt. 10:24-25)

The problem here is ultimately one of authority. Christ’s words serve as fair warning to all who preach that divine authority does not guarantee a smooth path. We would like to think that God given authority also gives us leverage with our hearers. “Listen to us,” we want to say. “We speak for God.” But the same Bible that gives us our authority also offers ample proof of the congregation’s capacity for discounting that authority.

Preaching is an awkward business. The preacher does not give advice, the preacher declares. The preacher tells people what is right and what is wrong. When they turn to the right or the left, the preacher stands before them like the angel who stood in Balaam’s path, and says, “This is the way, walk in it.” What right do we have to make such demands? Who are we to tell others how to live?

Preaching is impolite. When we preach we draw public conclusions about the motives of our listeners and impugn their character. We utter things from the pulpit that we would not dare to say in private conversation, at least not to strangers! 

This is the preacher’s prophetic responsibility. “Prophetic preaching does not necessarily imply that the preacher assumes the role of Jeremiah or Amos, but that the preacher remains faithful to the prophetic dimensions of biblical texts” Thomas G. Long explains. “If the word comes from God in the biblical text, the preacher remains true to that word, regardless of the reaction or the cost.”

Unfortunately, the prophetic mantle cannot guarantee that every barb that aimed in our direction is undeserved. Some of the complaints leveled against us are warranted. The reproach we bear is not always the reproach of Christ. Sometimes it comes as a result of rash decisions we have made or right words spoken in the wrong spirit. My friend was right. Worse things have been said about better men. And just as often better things are said about us than we deserve.

Deliver us From Our Strengths, O Lord

One of my summer goals is to read Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope. This morning I was struck by Trollope’s description of Mark Robarts, the vicar of Framley: “In person he was manly, tall, and fair-haired, with a square forehead denoting intelligence rather than thought, with clear white hands, filbert nails, and a power of dressing himself in such a manner that no one should ever observe of him that his clothes were either good or bad, shabby or smart.”

 It was Trollope’s characterization of the parson as intelligent rather than thoughtful that caught my attention. Here is someone who has a greater capacity to be well thought of than to think well. He knows how to fit in and has an ambition to do so. This is a good temperament to have if you want to be a politician. But not so good if you are called to be a prophet.  

 Trollope’s portrayal of Robarts makes me wonder how often my ministry has been shaped by my desire to be liked and improve my position. Or how often I have felt it was sufficient to exercise my intellect, when reflection was what was really needed. “He had too much tact, too much common sense, to believe himself to be the paragon his mother thought him” Trollope writes of Robarts. “Self-conceit was not, perhaps, his greatest danger. Had he possessed more of it, he might have been a less agreeable man, but his course before him might on that account have been safer.”

 From our strengths and social virtues, O Lord, deliver us.

Ministry Monday: Vision’s Dirty Little Secret

Wendell Berry writes that a farmer’s connection to the farm often begins in love: “One’s head, like a lover’s, grows full of visions. One walks over the premises, saying, ‘If this were mine, I’d make a permanent pasture here; here is where I’d plant an orchard; here is where I’d dig a pond.’ These visions are the usual stuff of unfulfilled love and induce wakefulness at night.”

 I would contend that something similar happens to the pastor who dreams of a different kind of future for the church. Like Berry’s farmer, thoughts of what could be drive sleep from us. Night falls and our work is only beginning. We imagine and plan. We create whole new worlds in our mind, striding across the landscape like giants. Until our spouse, weary from our tossing and sighing, tells us to either give it a rest or sleep somewhere else.

 Yet if it is to be realized, this imagined future must be shaped as much by reality as it is by vision. “One’s work may be defined in part by one’s visions,” Berry explains, “but it is defined in part too by problems, which the work leads to and reveals.” As powerful as vision is in motivating us to work for change, the change that eventually comes to pass usually differs from that which we initially imagined. Our dreams are transformed as we come to terms with the reality of our environment. Berry sees this as a necessary correction, one which “gradually removes one’s self from one’s line of sight.”

 In saying this, Berry has uncovered the dirty little secret of most vision work. Vision is often as much about us as it is about the future, a fact which explains why so many visionary leaders also turn out to be narcissists.

 There is, thankfully, a corrective built into the vision process, which is simply this: every leader is dependent upon others to bring the vision to pass. These “others,” usually consisting of the congregation, meddle with our dream. They resist it. Shatter it. Then eventually recast it in their own image. The result, if we are patient enough to wait and humble enough to submit, is often something even we would not have imagined.

Questions:

What do you think are some of the “best practices” for drawing stakeholders into the vision process?

How do you deal with the natural frustration that often arises when those stakeholders re-shape and change your vision?