Leadership in Our Time

My “water mug” – the one I will be bringing to the 42nd General Council – comes from last February’s Youth Forum and it declares, “God’s World Needs Young Leaders.” Recently, a friend pushed this further, and said that in this changing reality of church, we may not need buildings, but we sure are going to need good leaders, young and old! And she’s right… wherever I have been in my travels across the church, good leadership is always at the heart of renewal, experiment, and energy. Oh, good leadership isn’t enough to guarantee change – there are too many other dynamics and realities in play. But it is a necessary minimum. Sometimes I worry that United Church “culture” is almost suspicious of “strong leaders.” We worry about the shadow side (arrogance, ego-centric, not listening, etc.) and find it more difficult to celebrate the gifts of a “leader who leads.”


But it can be challenging to know what kind of leadership will be helpful. We are caught in an awkward time, between the “church that is” and the “church that is to be” – and the leadership needs are different. Our theological schools and educational centres are creatively struggling with this, seeking to fulfill our church’s commitment to an educated ministry, while, at the same time, preparing leaders for a new reality. There is a report (and a proposal) coming to General Council that focusses on this: “Faithful, Effective, and Learned Leaders for the Church We Are Becoming: A Competency–Based Approach to Ministerial Education” (see page 609 in the GC42 Workbook). I know that’s a mouthful, but I invite you to take a good look at this attempt to respond to the leadership challenges we are facing.

There was a study done in the Methodist Church (USA) which described three differing “ministry personalities” – those who could “run” a good church; those who were able to work with and revive struggling congregations; and those who were able to start something totally new – perhaps a church plant or some kind of entrepreneurial ministry, something completely different, and not necessarily connected with traditional congregational ministry. When the Methodists looked at themselves, they realized they had lots of folk in the first two categories, but almost none in the third, and therefore they needed to be more intentional and encouraging in their recruitment of new leaders… and maybe needed to change their church culture. I wonder if the United Church is in a similar situation? I have heard from some of our younger leaders that they are experiencing tension – expected to commit to the “old” forms of being and doing church, but chomping at the bit to engage and experiment with the new, and not feeling there is much support to do the latter.

However, some experiments in ministerial leadership are happening. New forms of circuit ministry are being explored, often with a team of ministers being responsible for several congregations. This means that lay ministry plays an expanding and vital role – which in turn means that we must continue to strengthen training and support for lay leadership within the church, including Lay Worship Leaders and Sacramental Elders, but other expressions of this as well.

Bi-vocational ministry is another possibility considered by some – back to Paul’s “tent-making” ministry, where ministry does not necessarily mean full-time employment. (although this can raise as many problems as it addresses; e.g., how to attract new young leaders with no guarantee of a job?

Entrepreneurial ministry emphasizes outside-the-box thinking, where financial support does not necessarily depend on “congregational givings,” but includes a “business plan” to address some of the financial challenges, and partnerships with those who, while not explicitly Christian or “churched”, are nevertheless, like us, invested in working for justice and change. Thus… street-front cafes; yoga chapel; micro-financing, and partnership with social enterprises.

There is also a continuing recognition that ministers need support. Mentoring and coaching have proven to be very helpful. Gatherings of paid accountable ministers, without lay people, are also necessary (educational, retreats, shop-talk coffee gatherings). Ongoing “cohorts,” conversational, learning groups connected through web technology, are gaining traction. Possibly an association of some kind might be helpful. Perhaps the church needs to be intentional about offering United Church options and events for ministers’ continuing education.

I yearn for Pentecostal energy that is not wrapped up in so-called “Pentecostal theology.” I hunger for leaders who are empowered by the Spirit, who are inspired, who catch glimpses of new possibilities, who are able to take risks (and are willing to learn from failures), who are committed to being in the world, sharing good news in action, in the work of peace and justice, and who are able to offer a gospel word when asked, when it’s needed. I know this is a dream shared across the church; and I know it is already happening. I just want more!

Photo: Sergey Yeliseev, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).