“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen
I’ve never read a Bill Hybels book or attended the Global Leadership Summit.
These days that sounds like a badge of honor. But before it was a virtue, and for the longest time, I felt out of the loop with all my friends in ministry who were deeply informed by the Christian leadership industry of which Hybels and the GLS were central.
Part of my disconnect with that whole world had to do with my sense that it was drawing on my own worst impulses. When I did read any books by Christian leadership gurus, or listen to talks by them, I couldn’t get past the fact that they were asking me to be me only better.
You see, I’m already wired to be a performer. I’m already driven to achieve, to win, to succeed, to influence. You might have thought that being told to achieve more, perform more, influence more, would have been music to my ears.
But even I knew that just trying to be me only better wasn’t going to get me closer to being like Jesus.
I knew my heart needed some serious renovation if I was to be an authentic leader.
So I turned elsewhere to find models of ministry, becoming more shaped by Henri Nouwen, Walter Brueggemann, and Parker Palmer, none of whom would ever get a speaking invitation to the Global Leadership Summit.
Now that the wheels are falling off the influence of Willow Creek Church, and the GLS struggles to find its place in a post-Hybels world, I wonder if we can all now finally be free of vision statements and strategic plans and KPIs and all the other paraphernalia from 1980s corporate leadership theory.
But what does that leave us with? After two generations of professional leadership theory, what’s a pastor to do? Maybe turning back to the Bible might help (insert sarcastic tone here).
You see, while the church has been obsessed with leadership, the subject as we understand it hardly ever comes up in the Scriptures. As New Testament scholar, David Starling writes,
“When you go looking in the Bible, you realise pretty quickly that leadership can hardly be found there at all. The Bible certainly contains a host of concrete instances of individuals, tasks, offices, and images that you might want to connect in some way with the category of leaders and leadership: mothers, fathers, shepherds, sages, prophets, judges, priests, kings, messiahs, apostles, pastors, elders, overseers … the instances are everywhere. But the abstraction, the umbrella term leadership, hardly rates a mention.”
When you look at the metaphors Paul seems to prefer – mother and father, steward and herald – you see they speak of relationship, intimacy, care, faithfulness, duty, and responsibility.
All four of those images speak the twin emphases of ministry: God’s Word and God’s people.
This got me thinking about my own pastor. Her name is Christine Redwood. Our church is her first appointment as lead pastor. How does she navigate this new ministry terrain?
Firstly, Christine is an exceptional preacher. Her sermons are cleverly constructed and beautifully written. And she memorizes them and delivers them in a style that verges on the dramatic. They’re an unusual combination of self-conscious performance and transparency and authenticity.
Learning techniques and skills (like preaching) might make you a decent mechanical leader pulling the levers of a mechanical organization. But what I yearn to hear each Sunday is what Henri Nouwen described in the quote I began with ― a pastor transparently making her own search for God available to us, inspiring us to pursue God ourselves, and showing us how.
The obvious amount of work that Christine puts into her preaching speaks of her love for her congregation. But her practised style never hides the genuineness of her own search for God.
Secondly, Christine is also a scholar, currently undertaking a PhD in theology. And you can tell. Her well researched, insightful sermons, presented in her quite unique and winsome manner, have been a real joy for my wife and me recently.
Thirdly, Christine is a prayerful pastor. Each week she asks members of the congregation for points to inform her prayers and recently it was my turn. After I’d fired off a few bullet points of things I’m currently dealing with, she replied with a sensitively written prayer she’d prayed on my behalf.
But our church isn’t immune to the pervasive nature of contemporary Christian leadership theory. Recently, it was proposed that we create a new church vision statement. I begged Christine not to give into the temptation to comply with that.
And I’m begging every pastor to find a better way.
Be our father.
Be our mother.
Herald the Word of God.
Steward the riches of the gospel among us.
Love us. Eat with us. Listen to our stories.
And print this quote by Henri Nouwen and stick it on your refrigerator or the noticeboard in your office. And do what he says:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”