I recently spoke at a men’s fellowship meeting where my topic was ‘Is there a future for the Uniting Church?’ Much conventional wisdom about leadership has assumed a sole visionary must provide primary leadership for a group. The temptation, likewise, is to think that the answer for our Church or Congregation is a single innovative leader. The right pastoral leader is surely important, but we are long beyond the ability of any single individual to solve today’s challenges.
A single leader still plays an important role in our Church or Congregations, but it is now a role of serving as a spiritual inquirer and discerner who elicits from various sources clues for God’s next faithful step. One person’s wisdom is not sufficient, but neither is the more political process of gathering a group’s preferences and calling it a vision.
A leader can create a context in which many ideas emerge. Some of these efforts will turn out to be well-intentioned failures but, without negative judgment, another try emerges that may be so blessed by God’s Spirit that everyone will know it has promise for the future.
God, indeed, put all the separate parts into the body on purpose, but we can easily forget that truth. We spend inordinate time longing for the leader who will make things, if not right, at least better. Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 12 of the inappropriateness of such thinking.
About a decade ago, Linda Hill and other researchers set out to study innovative organisations from a range of fields and nations. Their goal was to understand the role of the primary leader in creating innovative organisations. They discovered in each organisation studied that their leaders had moved away from the more traditional roles of direction setting and undertaken the new role of creating a culture in which innovation thrives. They call this ’Collective genius’.
Traditional leadership seems to still work when the problems are clear cut and the solutions are, even if difficult, at least known. But these are not usual times for the Church, its Congregations and their leaders.
In Hill’s research, the challenges were not always apparent, and few spoke with assurance about solutions. The research also found that innovative leaders no longer could afford to surround themselves with ‘their’ people who instinctively supported the leader’s ideas. This is where pastoral leaders in particular become anxious. Differences and conflict are inevitable when you seek diversity in the make-up of those involved. But it is out of creative tension that innovation is born.
There must always be a bias for action — usually a great deal of trial and error. Helping everyone become comfortable with acting their way forward rather than planning their way forward is a new role for leaders. This involves a greater willingness to take risks than most churches now possess.
But there is one lesson Hill and her colleagues learned concerning where this new leader must continue the best of traditional leadership. While experiments and risks are required for innovation, all those involved must be clear that they are pursuing a common purpose and shared values. Unless leaders make sure that purpose and values stay true and at the forefront of everything, then the result will more likely be chaos than innovation.
As we enter into the Christmas season, may we join in the creative chaos which God intends when he enters our world. May we also be crystal clear about the vision of God’s mission – to travel with, and save a world in need. Have a blessed Christmas!
The General Secretary, Rev. Dr Andrew Williams