Leadership has quickly become the buzz word in the church today. As we declines (rather as we come to terms with the long-term decline that’s been happening for 50 years) a growing desire to cultivate effective leadership has gripped the priorities of our churches. It doesn’t help matters that a very large generation of leaders are about to retire in mass so you can add a heaping dose of urgency to this growing recipe for effective leadership.
One of the fun and frustrating transitions from life as a seminarian to full-time life as a pastor is the transition we make from the theoretical lessons we learn to the application of those lessons. I’ve just come back from our annual conference’s annual RIM Retreat [RIM stands for Residence In Ministry] required of those of us undergoing the ordination process. It was a great time of fellowship and learning together with friends and colleagues who are all at the same stage of their vocation in ministry as I am. We gathered and heard great speakers share on a variety of topics ranging from leadership to worship to preaching. But I would say that leadership was, by far, the connecting thread across the series of talks.
Interestingly, I walked away from the retreat both energized and confused. I’m energized because it’s renewing to share and be with those who are learning and growing along with you. I’m energized also because frankly I’m nerdy enough to get energized by the exchange of ideas that happens in a learning environment. But my energy is not why I’m writing. I’m writing because I also feel a sense of being confused, now more than ever, about what it means to live out a vocation of ministry in the local church.
Maybe it was because it wasn’t too long ago that I sat in a seminary classroom, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of whiplash in how the concept of leadership is presented once you’re out of seminary. It seems as though there are two worlds of thought when it comes to leadership and ministry: 1) the world of the practical, real-life experience found in the everyday life of the church; and 2) the theoretical world of leadership found in the academy. These worlds aren’t our own original creations, mind you. No, they’ve been here since before most of us showed up to learn what it meant to be a leader. Interestingly enough, these worlds seem to be pitted against each other at every turn you come to. Before I go into my confusion between these two worlds, maybe it would help to expound on them a bit more.
Leadership: An Academic Understanding
Most anyone who’s been to seminary can testify to the fact that you get into a sort of rhythm of thinking in the larger, more general sense. Theology is an invitation into an abstract world where ideas and platitudes exist in the place of people. Professors are accused (and some even admit to it) of isolating themselves into “the ivory tower” of the academy where they spend a life expounding on lessons for leadership and ministry that they’ll never live out.
On the one hand, some of the greatest minds the world has ever known have written from those ivory towers of academia. These minds have shaped the world as we know it and we can’t pretend that those who devote their lives to such work aren’t doing so out of a greater service to the world who would put to practice their ideas.
On the other hand, I get the criticism of this approach–I really do. If theology is not embodied in one’s life then it becomes an opportunity to excuse yourself from the world where God actually lives. Pontificating on theory becomes an excuse to avoid the reality of life itself. And so an imaginary world where ideas reign supreme is easily created. That’s not to say that theologians in the academy aren’t disciples. It’s simply to say that there’s a real temptation for that discipleship to be reduced to the very small world within the academy if we’re not careful. Here the problem rears its ugly head when leadership is more about points and theories than people and circumstances.
Leadership: A Practical Understanding
There’s also a world that have us believe that to lead, we must solely rely on experience. This sort of “trial by fire” approach to leadership is very popular among many who spend their time primarily in local churches, dealing with real people who have real problems. One can’t learn the kinds of lessons offered in this approach from books because you have to live it to learn it. And the beauty is that when you live these lessons, you will inevitably have a chance to grow with them.
I get the criticism of this approach as well. If you simply learn by living you surely miss out on a great deal of knowledge available by brilliant minds. I also admit that we have to be careful not to be prejudice towards knowledge out of some false sense of humility. Being smart is not a bad thing and we shouldn’t encourage mediocrity among leaders in favor of “not coming off as too smart.” Too often leaders who subscribe exclusively to this approach inevitably shrink their worlds as well–the context in which they lead becomes the center of the universe. If hiding one’s self in an ivory tower of theory is a dangerous form of isolation, then shrinking the world to only my context for leadership is navel gazing at its finest.
What’s a Young Leader to Do?
I’m reminded regularly that I’m still growing into this identity of pastor. And with that comes an identity as a leader. I’m aware that I’m still very young and inexperienced which means I have both a lot to learn and a lot to live. But I do want to bring to the surface the struggle that has plagued me for the past few months because surely I’m not the only victim of this struggle:
Why do we have to decide which world we want to exemplify as leaders? Why do we have to choose whether we want to be experienced-oriented or academically-oriented in our leadership? Why can’t we simply growth as both?
I know too much time in theological texts will leave me little time to be with people and learn to lead. I also know that I can grow dry and wilt when I’m not nourished by life-giving knowledge. These are questions I suppose I’ll struggle with between now and the time for my ordination interviews in a year. Maybe by then I’ll some better grasp on both approaches so that I don’t have to sacrifice either. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see…