The Physics of Church Leadership (1/3)
Law 1 (simplified): A body at rest stays at rest, and, a body in motion stays in motion traveling
in a straight line, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
If the church is a perpetual motion machine (the only one of its kind) driven by resurrection horse power and fueled by the Spirit of freedom, what then is the leader’s role in the church? Certainly not to start the movement, nor even to keep it going, both of which are works of God in Christ alone. If anything, one could make a case that our modern forms, structures, rituals, traditions etc. are contributing to slowing down Gospel progress. We may do best in light of the spiritual application of Newton’s first Law to step out of the way and let Jesus “take the wheel!”
The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
At year eight in my senior pastorate I took a much needed 12-week sabbatical to learn such stillness. Unexpectedly, half of those weeks I was sick with three major sicknesses and the other half I was recovering from the first half! The Lord’s hand was truly upon me to hold me still. The church too had to learn stillness, but their lesson involved trusting in Him. During that time our church experienced a number of major crises, some of the worst we’ve faced (e.g. the rape of one of our young women was just one serious issue), and yet, they faced it mostly without me. When my wife and I finally returned home it quite literally felt like we were in a new and different church. Our missionaries in training came back to visit for a summer and affirmed the same thing. The people had learned to rely on each other in new and more profound ways. If only someone had told me earlier that by stepping away and being still the church would grow in depths unknown I would have done it sooner!
Similarly, Anglican missionary and prophetic voice in the desert Roland Allen argued that the Apostle Paul’s strategy was to prepare converts immediately NOT to depend on him. Paul preached in Lystra for six months, planted the church, appointed elders, then left for 18 months returning only briefly thereafter. He was in Thessalonica no more than five months and did not return for well over five years. The church in Corinth was established after 18 months and Paul at least 3 years. Ephesus received the most of Paul’s attention, with him spending about 3 years there. I see no reason why the spirit of what Allen says concerning missionaries does not also apply to all leaders in the modern church too:
The secret of success in this work lies in beginning at the very beginning. It is the training of the first converts which sets the type for the future. If the first converts are taught to depend upon the missionary, if all work, evangelistic, educational, and social, is concentrated in his hands, then the infant community learns to rest passively upon the man from whom they receive their first insight into the Gospel. Their faith, having no sphere for its growth and development, lies dormant. A tradition very rapidly grows up that nothing can be done without the authority and guidance of the missionary. The people wait for him to move, and the longer they do so, the more incapable they become of any independent action…They put him in the place of Christ; they depend upon him(p. 59 of Missionary Methods).
If getting out of the way is of first importance to remove friction and let God’s church burst forth, our main job thereafter becomes about either speeding it up, slowing it down (for good reason), or changing its direction.
Speeding up the church is all about adding momentum and at least one author with 40 years experience in organizational management argues that creating a genuine sense of urgency is the first step in an 8 step process of change. While his book, Leading Change, is not a Christian book on leadership, wise counsel might suggest we give Dr. Kotter a fair hearing:
“…if many others don’t feel the sense of urgency, the momentum for change will probably die far short of the finish line. People will find a thousand ingenious ways to withhold cooperation from a process that they sincerely think is unnecessary or wrongheaded”(p. 38).
If that doesn’t sound like the pastoral experience of leadership, I don’t know what does!
For every item on his “Sources of Complacency” graph (p. 42) can we not think of a church organizational parallel? How many church leaders have prayerfully taken inventory of the way in which they, their elders, their board, their structure, their words, their behavior, are perhaps in some way contributing to reinforcing this status quo?
For Kotter, “urgency” does not mean an “unproductive flurry of behavior” driven so often by “a platform of anxiety and anger.” Genuine urgency is comprehended and felt such that one’s daily behaviors change in the direction towards set leadership goals (see A Sense of Urgency; 8 Reasons Why Organizational Transformation Usually Fails). This requires open and honest discussions about core problems (instead of sweeping them under the rug), as well as providing opportunities for people to grow, and getting them serving on the front lines to see the personal effect of their decisions. More than that, there are times when he recommends allowing initiatives to sometimes completely implode rather than rush in and save them. This, he believes, may function as a wake up call to the team and make them more receptive to change. For many church leaders who tie their identity to the outward success of their church this is unfathomable and yet, perhaps, just what is needed to clear the ground for a new work. More could be said, and we have tried to apply this concept in another article on the urgency of making the return of Christ imminent, but we’ll let the reader determine the relevancy of this data to church life beyond this point.
Slowing down is good too. In some situations, speeding up the church might be about slowing down our own expectations so others can catch up. Our fixation with “speed” as immediacy could be doing more harm than good in our ministries. As G.K. Chesterton poignantly wrote, “There are two ways to get enough. One is to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” There is room for Gospel ambition to be sure, as well as room for Gospel longsuffering, and much wisdom in understanding which one is needed at any given moment.
There are times that slowing down the church for the sake of taking spiritual inventory of programs and motivations could be a good thing too. T.S. Elliot was concerned that the church in his day was moving too fast towards outside distractions (especially increasing in the “knowledge” of the world and lots of talk, but not a lot of listening and learning) and losing a true sense of worship in the process. Continuing from the stanza quoted above he says,
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
Likewise, Jesus chastised the Pharisees for getting distracted with too much gazing at the Word instead of gazing through it: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life”(Jn. 5:39-40). Who knew you could have Bible studies that miss the forest for the trees and miss Jesus in the process? Good to slow down and course correct if so!
Changing directions. This is the bread and butter of what so much leadership material centers on and circles around. Having set the expectation that Christian leaders need not get the ball rolling, we do need to face the reality that in every culture the forms of the church must adapt or die –change is inevitable especially when the church is heading towards a cliff. In another recent and practical book on leadership, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership In Uncharted Territory, Tod Boslinger defines the leaders task: “Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world” (p. 36). He claims that the future of Christianity belongs to those who learn to think differently, what he calls “adaptive capacity.”
To illustrate his concept we might say this: breaking an ankle requires a customary solution such as a cast, some PT, time to recover – i.e. the typical old fix, but losing a leg is an example of an adaptive challenge. It demands learning a new way to live altogether. But so much of the modern church is stuck in a cycle of insanity – as the saying goes, repeating the same mistakes but expecting different results. While often wrongly attributed to Einstein (Oh the glories of internet memes that nobody validates!), the first time that quote appeared in publication was in the 1981 Narcotics Anonymous Pamphlet to describe addicts! Indeed, the church is addicted to old forms and keeps returning back to them and killing herself in the process.
For example, in the powerfully persuasive little book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith is right to critique the modern approach to youth:
We have created youth ministry that confuses extroversion with faithfulness. We have effectively communicated to young people that sincerely following Jesus is synonymous with being 'fired up' for Jesus, with being excited for Jesus, as if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful, hurray-for-Jesus disposition like what we might find in the glee club or at a pep rally.
It is not just our approach to youth of course, but all our forms that must come under the laser scrutiny of the Word. For some, this creates apprehension. But Bolsinger paves the way forward with sage advice for the modern leader:
The next steps are going to be demanding. More than anything, this moment requires those of us in positions of authority (and even most of us who are not) to embrace an adventure-or-die mindset, and find the courage and develop the capacity for a new day. We are heading into uncharted territory and are given the charge to lead a mission where the future is nothing like the past”(chp. 1 – Seminary Didn’t Prepare me for This, p. 23).
Newton too was on the cusp of just such a paradigm shift. Old solutions would not work for the new problems he faced. When he needed to measure the speed of a moving object at a single moment in time he recognized that the existing math was inadequate to get the job done, so, in typical Newtonian fashion he created his own form of math – problem solved ipso facto ! Today calculus is used in every branch of science to solve all kinds of complicated issues.
When people complained about Galileo’s popular 6-foot telescope being inaccurate for scientific observation, Newton decided since no one had improved upon the design in nearly 60 years he would take up the challenge. His 6-inch telescope was radically different in that he replaced the customary glass with concave mirrors. He boasted he could see Jupiter and its moons clear as day. Today his design is followed for all telescopes in the store, on mountain observatories, and floating in space. He really illustrates the adage, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”
“But Newton was a genius,” you say? His own estimation was different: “My powers are ordinary. Only my application brings me success” (#437). He spent 18 hours a day in his study at Cambridge, 40 years developing calculus and testing it before showing it to anyone, and hundreds of hours pouring over his 30+ Bibles arduously calculating the prophetic calendar with elaborate charts (even predicting the end of the world in 2060– was he a proto-Advent Christian? – maybe, he also appears to hold to soul sleep, see Newton & Religion n. 24). He did not rely on his genius, he relied on hard work, thinking, and trial and error testing. Is that a different skill set then what the modern leader needs too?
One simple way our family learns adaptive capacity is when we watch Brain Games on Netflix. In one segment they ask: Which way is the bus going – left or right?
They say 80% of kids under the age of 10 can answer this in seconds (our twin 5-year old’s knew right away, but the rest of the kids and adults couldn’t figure it out – go find a child to tell you the answer!). In fact, studies show that children are fantastic at adaptive thinking, but often lose that ability as they grow older and learn “the way things are supposed to be.” While Paul negatively highlights the immaturity aspect of childish thinking (1 Cor. 13:11), and for good reason, Jesus also positively highlights their childlike nature, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14).
One element of child-likeness that both Newton and Einstein shared was the imagination. Without the tools and advances in science to complete all the experiments they wanted, both would come up with thought-experiments to test their ideas. Newton figured out the motion of heavenly bodies by imagining placing a cannon on top of a mountain that rises higher than the atmosphere of the earth and envisioning what would happen if a cannon ball were shot out of it at different velocities. The end result is that if the canon ball were shot with enough force it would circle the earth in perpetual orbit, much like the moon. Newton had stumbled across gravity and then set how to calculate it.
Likewise, Einstein was famous for his thought experiments. He saw it first and then figured out the math after. He moved from vision to reality. He once said in an 1929 interview, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
It’s hard to imagine today, but Newton was severely criticized for some of his claims simply because people could not understand what he was trying to communicate as they interpreted him through their own limited thinking and bias. His thought experiment actually gained him support because it relayed complex truth in an understandable way and people slowly came around as they adjusted their expectations. “No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess,” he said. We might rather say for church leaders, “without bold action.”
Bold action can still be paced action! Perhaps the best definition of leadership I have read to date is this: “Exercising leadership might be best understood as disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.” (Chp. 7 in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading)
It is all to easy to blame the church for not changing, for not getting on board with our vision, etc., but maybe as leaders we need to (a) help people see what we see first, (b) then calculate the math and all the steps of what it would really take to bring it to realization (Lk 14:24-34; sounds a bit similar to the book of Nehemiah – just remember, you are not Nehemiah, typologically Christ is! You’re just one of the servants building the wall!).
On a pragmatic note James K.A. Smith wants us to ask, have we lost imagination in our worship and perhaps, have we then lost the power of spiritual formation as a consequence? He says it better of course:
Formative Christian worship paints a picture of the beauty of the Lord--and a vision of the shalom he desires for creation--in a way that captures our imagination. If we act toward what we long for, and if we long for what has capture our imagination, then re-formative Christian worship needs to capture our imagination. That means Christian worship needs to meet us as aesthetic creatures who are moved more than we are convinced. Our imaginations are aesthetic organs. Our hearts are like stringed instruments that are plucked by story, poetry, metaphor, images. We tap our existential feet to the rhythm of imaginative drums…‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.’
In a similar way, Christian worship should tell a story that makes us want to set sail for the immense sea that is the Triune God, birthing in us a longing for "a better country - a heavenly one" that is kingdom come (Heb. 11:16). The biblical vision of shalom--of a world where the Lamb is our light, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, where abundance is enjoyed by all, where people from every tribe and tongue and nation sing the same song of praise, where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream--is the vision that should be enacted in Christian worship.
And again (seriously, just stop reading my fledgling attempts and go read Smith!),
Worship that restores us is worship that restories us. Worship that renews is worship that renarrates our identity at an unconscious level. In order to do that, Christian worship needs to be governed by the biblical story and to invite us in by speaking to our embodiment. It is this two-form conviction that informs historic Christian worship, which is why faithful retrieval of this heritage is a gift for the future of faith.
If all of life is worship, as we Evangelicals so often say, then our life habits great and small, harmless and hurtful are all formative for our soul for better or for worse. That means, even the simple task of say, reading a book for a Christian, especially one that activates the imagination, must be done worshipfully. An interesting recent contribution on that front is Karen Swallow Prior’s book, On Reading Well: Finding The Good Life Through Great Books. She claims:
“Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well.” Again she says, “Reading well adds to our life—not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.”
As Liberty University professor of English, she encourages her students to practice “deep reading” of the classics, focusing on nurturing virtue and avoiding vice as an expression of Christ-likeness.
Put this way, changing the direction or ethos of a church may practically begin with changing ourselves first, for where the shepherd goes, the sheep follow. Perhaps this is why Susanna Wesley offered this sage advice to her son:
Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself (The Complete Writings p. 109).
Practical Steps for Changing Direction
Changing the direction of a moving object, like so many billiard balls scattered on the pool table, is all about where to hit (contact point), when to hit (timing) and how much effort to apply (force) to move in the direction the Spirit is leading.
Contact point– who are the influencers that need to be convinced of the new direction or new plan? These influencers are not always people who have formal leadership positions on boards and committees. Rather, they are the one’s people look to in a room, or, who once they speak are able to change the opinion of a crowd (e.g. Acts 5 & Gamaliel). Kotter suggests that in an organization of 100 a leader needs about two dozen people to be on board to create momentum, but more than likely these factors depend on more variables for churches (history, dynamics, length of leadership service, trust with one another, etc.). For churches with more rigid structures this will likely be a certain order (e.g. roll out a new plan to the elders first, then to the board, then to the church). Failure to follow a certain logistical order may create unneeded chaos or confusion or create hurt or offense by not consulting some and by consulting others in the wrong order. Or, it may just be about delegating a task to a motivated, Spirit-led person who will fully invest. Chose the wrong contact person and suffer the consequences!
Timing– “Genius is patience,” said Newton. It’s crucial to take inventory of the movement on the table, to understand the rhythms that play themselves out. Praying for God’s providential timing, pleading for Him to line up multiple shoots for us, looking for His ‘open door’ of opportunity to take advantage of, observing what the Spirit is already doing in your congregation, are all factors here.
In our own setting I remember trying to hold a training seminar for Sunday School teachers in order to launch a new Sunday School initiative that had been dead for many years before I came. My first training seminar was exciting, but afterwards no one signed up to teach Sunday school. My second one was more productive, but the same thing happened. So, I stepped back for a year and waited. We lost guests who visited us but complained that we didn’t have a Sunday school for their kids. We had people trained but they were unwilling, or, just too afraid, to lead. Then a great young couple stepped into our community, heard the need, and before long the wife offered to orchestrate the entire thing. After the first training seminar she had a full staff of teachers in all grades and children filling the rooms. I unwisely used myself as the contact and chose the wrong timing. When a new contact person came in and the timing of urgency was finally upon the church, change happened and people were eager for it. This may sound like a small feat but the woman taught the teachers to follow a Paul-Timothy model (teacher-assistant) each responsible for recruiting their own assistants, and it’s been running strong these many years since (without me!). The right person at the right time can make a lasting difference.
Force– How aggressive should a leader be? When should they push? When should they pull? When should they drag? Some have a touch that’s too light so change happens on the 20-year track (if at all). Others are too heavy handed and put their foot through the wall often hurting themselves and others in the process. Since this has to do with Newton’s Second Law, we’ll pick that theme up next.