Leadership 101 ??

Sink or Swim

Leadership is like swimming. Its complicated. One must learn to regulate breathing, master a multitude of strokes, adjust style and pace to any given body of water (community pool or English Channel), build stamina, reduce drag, and so on. But first consider these two images.

·         An Olympic swimmer dives into the pool with perfect form, breaks the surface with the smallest of ripples in the water, emerges to shake the water from his or her eyes, and confidently and smoothly strokes to the other side of the pool ahead of the competition.

·         A two-year old belly flops into the water with a wail that is part excitement and part terror. He or she immediately starts to sink to the bottom, flails arms and legs wildly, and will certainly drown if not for the fact that he or she is reaching out desperately to take the hands of someone who already knows how to swim.

The first image is the way leadership developed in the old days of Christendom. The second image is the way leadership develops in post-Christendom. 

There was a time when clergy were trained to swim. They took lessons that started in the shallow end of the pool and over time learned the techniques that would take them into the deep end. They began with seminary field work and learned to dog paddle in small “easy” churches, while learning the advanced strokes that would earn them a D. Min. or perhaps an MBA and take them into the deep end with larger “challenging” churches. All the while they learned to breathe denominational polity and kept a wary eye on the competition in other swimming lanes vying for the best and most prestigious staff positions. 

As we fell into the rhythm of weekly worship and the Christian year, we learned when to breathe (usually on Mondays); when to stroke (usually Tuesday through Thursday); and when to sprint (usually on Friday and Saturday). We were confident that while our strokes for preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and service might not be perfect, we were sufficiently skilled to swim in whatever congregational swimming pool we found ourselves. The biggest frustration was that we were increasingly called out of the pool to attend meetings in the locker room. 

Of course, we continued to take swimming lessons, but over the years as Christendom died and swimming pools leaked, our lessons had less to do with skills and more to do with gasping for breath and building stamina, so we could continue swimming without getting a terminal cramp. Meetings in the locker room became increasingly fractious. 

This was a sign that both church and culture were changing. The lessons we took all assumed that we would be swimming in parish swimming pools with clear, still water that allowed the leader to see the bottom and (with the right goggles or theological assumptions) see where they were going while under water. Today the calm swimming pools have become a single turgid sea. That sea is not clear, either. It is muddy, murky, and often polluted. We have no idea what reeds lie beneath to tangle our feet, or what creatures lurk in the depths to sting, harm, or eat us. Moreover, the other swimmers are no longer staying in their lanes and playing by the rules, but they are getting in our way, and unintentionally (or deliberately!) criticizing, kicking, and grabbing.

The point of this long metaphor is that today there is no “Leadership 101”, and the careful, incremental, leadership development plans we devised are not particularly relevant in this world. There is no shallow end. There is only the deep end. There is no swimming pool. There is only a turgid sea. There are no swimming lanes. There are only cultural currents and tides. 

God throws us into the depths like a two-year old child, and, like a two-year old child, we fall into the water with a cry of excitement and terror. We enter ministry with an ugly, painful belly flop, and not a beautiful, controlled dive. So do not aspire to be an Olympic swimmer or even a “professional” religious leader. Today we can only hope that we don’t drown immediately.

The most earnest and sincere prayer spoken by clergy person today is that of a person drowning. “Save me! Save me!” That prayer will be answered, but not in the way you think. We like to assume that God will personally pluck us from the water, set us in a lifeboat, and provide compass directions to solid land. But God doesn’t operate that way. Many a good Christian (and Christian leader) has prayed earnestly and sincerely, and nevertheless drowned. 

Remember the two-year old flailing in the water … and reaching out for the hand of a veteran swimmer. The single, most important act of leadership, that comes before all other acts of leadership, is to get help. God works through other leaders. Find a mentor. Connect with a colleague. Make a friend. Build a relationship with someone who is already in the water and has managed not to drown.

Of course, this is not easy. The two-year old may be young, but even he or she knows not to jump in the water until he or she has a friend to catch. That requires a humility that, alas, many would-be clergy do not have. The old Christendom model of leadership training tends to make us arrogant. We say: I don’t need any help! I’m a professional! We think we know what we are doing, where we are going, possess the theological goggles to see through murky waters, and have all the skills to swim the English Channel. 

The apex of arrogance is one two-year old child telling all the other two-year old children what to do. The last thing you want to do as a two-year old child is to jump into the water reaching for the hands of another two-year old child. This friend who will catch you needs to be someone with practical experience and spiritual credibility … and not just a seminary degree and an ecclesiastical office. He or she may even be uneducated or blue collar; lay or unchurched; 100 years old or 18 years old. The point is that when you belly flop into ministry, you need to be confident that there is someone to catch you.

It may seem paradoxical, but I am not saying that a plan for leadership development is unimportant for ministry, only that it is not particularly relevant for the practice of ministry. I believe it was Eisenhower who said, somewhere, that plans are everything before battle is joined, but once the shooting begins plans are worthless. A good general knows that it is a capital mistake to assume that the plan of battle will actually work during the battle. The same is true for clergy leadership. It is a mistake for a clergy leader to assume that what he or she learns in seminary will actually work in ministry. It may be valuable. It may teach you how to think, or provide reference points for reflection, or tips for problem solving … but it will not save you from drowning. Only a friend can do that. 

To be fair, I suspect that the leadership development models we assumed to be effective in the past iare more myth than reality. If we were to skip over the late 19th and 20th centuries and ask our forefathers and foremothers about ministry leadership, they, too, would probably laugh at the notion that there is a universal, planned and gradual process for leadership development. They would also scoff at the notion that clergy are, or should be, “professionals” like doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. Just think about Christian leaders who brought faith and hope to the American and Australian frontiers, or even contemporary missionaries in other cultures or urban diversity. Ministry is one big belly flop into the deep end of culture, where the water is muddy and moving, and the critters can be strange and even dangerous. 

I suspect that 20th century academic and denominational institutions like to imagine that leadership development can be standardized and incremental, so that curriculums can guarantee success, and programs can become “best practices” for every context, and leaders can be deployed like widgets in the factory. Modern clergy would like to think that there is a leadership 101, 201, 301, and so on. It would be so much easier if we could start by testing the water with our toes, master the dog paddle, and then move slowly into the deep end of life. But God’s call is never like that (and really has never been like that). 

God does not call out a leader as an adult, to enter a training regimen, and do perfect swan dives into the parish swimming pool. God calls out a leader as a two-year old, to do belly flops into the sea of life. And the only thing that will save us from drowning is a friend.

Thomas BandyComment