When Leaders Are the Problem – 7/31/2021
27 July 2021 |
When a well-intentioned endeavor or promising new initiative fails, the question naturally arises, “What went wrong?” The answer too often implicates leaders as being responsible for the graveyard of promising initiatives or once-thriving efforts. It is expected of leaders that they contribute constructively to the success of an endeavor or the achieving of a ministry goal. We expect leaders to facilitate the accomplishment of initiatives, remove bureaucratic obstacles, and solve problems that impede progress. This, however, isn’t always the case.
- When those responsible to run things substitute authority for leadership, imagining that their preferences, perspectives, and personal biases constitute leadership wisdom, they are likely to be an obstacle to progress.
- When leaders lose sight of the goal of their leadership, they squander promising opportunities.
- When leaders differentiate themselves from those they lead by giving in to the “us-vs-them” impulse, they demoralize those doing the work.
- When the “win-lose” mentality nudges leaders to be over-assertive with their own preferences and solutions, people feel devalued and marginalized.
- When leaders think of themselves as better or smarter than those they lead, they stop listening to the wisdom that’s available to them.
How leaders lead either stifles creative initiatives and inhibits people, or empowers people and inspires creativity. Scholarly and popular books on leadership continue to find a wide and hungry audience. Universities offer courses and even have whole departments to study, teach, and encourage leadership. Over the years, a variety of theories and models of leadership have been proposed. Many of them predict the failure of top-down, hierarchical styles of leadership as we increasingly move into life as one interconnected web of relationships and information. In this environment, some qualities and practices will set church leaders apart from those who continue to rely on positional power or their official status.
Discerning leaders have the ability to recognize what’s working well and what isn’t, especially when the particular initiative is one that was conceived and developed by others, perhaps in a congregation or school.
A pastoral family I know moved into an urban community somewhat untouched by the Adventist church’s ministry. Starting with hardly anything, they built a contextualized ministry that served the community. Their worship gatherings primarily attracted foot traffic and those who used public transportation. They became a resource for both spiritual ministry and for the physical needs of many who attended. Their ministry did not resemble ministry in most Adventist churches, but it was incarnational to a particular audience.
As conference administrations changed, the pastor was informed that support for his ministry was being withdrawn. “We are going in a different direction,” was how the change was communicated. The administrators did not recognize that the church’s ministry was meeting needs and serving people.
We have for too long operated under the paradigm that all wisdom resides in denominational offices. It is a paradigm that ignores giftedness, expertise, professionalism, and creativity of those in our congregations and frontline ministries. Effective leaders create environments in which such people feel inspired to be creative and innovative.
The biggest opportunities and challenges facing the church today cannot be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise from some distant denominational office. In a culture of diminished control, the solutions to our collective challenges must come from many places, particularly from those in the frontlines of service. God has not chosen denominational leaders for the biggest visions! An essential role that denominational administrators can play is in cultivating a safe place for ministry innovators: where creativity and risk-taking are not only anticipated but rewarded, where failure is not vilified or disparaged. Risk and failure are both elements of processes that generate break-through solutions and practices.
Dr. Raj Attiken is an adjunct professor of religion at Kettering College, the Adventist higher education institution in Dayton, Ohio, and former president of the Ohio Conference.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor for Adventist Today.
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