Most contemporary accounts of leadership imply that the leader is the one who asks questions, moves toward answers, and clarifies where we are and what we are doing. However, Lewis Parks and Bruce Birch note that the Christian leader may be the one who helps us live with mystery, to follow the Dream, to find meaning and direction, even when our final destination is left up to God:
By most contemporary accounts the leader should ask the sort of questions that clear up the fog and reveal a clear path forward to a specific destination. What traits do I need to be successful? Where are the models of excellence? What information must I process? What corporate culture must I penetrate? Where are the landmines? How accurate is our feedback system? What nostalgia is holding us back? What vision will propel us forward? What may we extrapolate from the present to prepare for our future?
According to the books of Samuel leadership is not about clearing up a fog or, to use a preferable word, a mystery. Leadership is about learning to accept that mystery and to live well within it. In the fecund language of William Cowper’s 1774 hymn on providence, leadership means being absorbed by the questions arising from one overriding fact: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Are the ominous clouds on the horizon actually “big with mercy,” and will those clouds “break in blessings” on our heads? Can I stop projecting the fears of “feeble sense” on the Lord long enough to glimpse the “smiling face” that lies “behind a frowning providence”? Am I strong enough to break rank from those who “scan his work in vain” because of their unbelief? Will I allow God the courtesy of interpreting what God is up to because I hope that one day God “will make it plain”?
Leaders are normally consumed by action. By one well-known contemporary account the daily activities of a chief executive are characterized by “brevity, variety, and discontinuity.” Barely half of their activities engage them for as long as nine minutes. They may average 583 activities in an eight hour day, mostly collecting, processing, and transmitting soft information; negotiating potential or actual conflict; and attending the rituals and ceremonies of the organization.Only 10 percent of these activities will last as long as an hour.
Yet every leader carries some ultimate interpretation of who they are and what they do. It is a portable inner vision of self in the world. It is the stash of the pieces of their lives and the weaving together of those pieces into a narrative that gives perspective to the relentless daily practice. For some church leaders the interpretation of self in the world is still beneath the surface of speech. All they know for sure is how much they are not like the persons being described in some of the most popular literature of leadership and management. They hunger for an interpretation that has more to do with mystery and drama than those glib profiles of success.
For most leaders the interpretation of self in the world is a positive exercise of the imagination, even if only carried out at the edge of consciousness. It has the character of what one prominent writer on leadership calls “the Dream,” a vague sense of self in the world that generates energy and a sense of life as adventure. The Dream is “more formal than a pure fantasy, yet less articulated than a fully thought-out plan.” For the church leader this might mean viewing herself or himself in such a character as a rescuer, defender, mover and shaker, midwife, wizard, gardener, or coach.
For church leaders the Dream must be placed within a narrative of providence, the fabric of God’s larger purposes and movements. The Dream is more than a self-referenced project of determination and action. The Dream is a gift of experience and reflection that arises out of the drama of leading the people of God. It is God who gives to church leadership its integrity, and God’s actions in real time that give to church leadership its weight. To be a church leader is to theologize; to lead well is to theologize incessantly. The books of Samuel have modeled the practice throughout. What power behind the stars responds to social chaos by sending a leader? Who ultimately calls leaders and coaxes them toward their futures? Who finally judges leaders when they err and holds them to account when they repent? From whom do leaders receive their visions for a just society and their inspirations for compassion? How shall leaders manage their hungers and order their loves? [Here] we raise the God question once again, this time as the ultimate factor in the practice of church leadership.
— Excerpts from Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly: A Biblical Model of Church Leadership, by Lewis A. Parks and Bruce C. Birch, Abingdon Press, 2004, pp. 149-151.
Blessings upon all you pastors as you attempt to help God’s people to live the dream.
William H. Willimon
One thought on “The Dream of Pastoral Leadership”
My daughter-in-law referred to your writing in her blog, and I have found my way here and will be making it a part of my regular reading. Thanks for the encouragement your writings give this pastor!