A nervous embrace…Cultivating Leadership and Authority


James M. Lapp, jmlapp@comcast.net
Interim Associate Pastor, Blooming Glen Mennonite Church

jim_lap.jpgDuring the past ten years, more than a dozen congregations in Franconia Conference have experienced a significant crisis in their life together. In nearly all cases, the themes of leadership and authority were important challenges that needed to be addressed in order for the body to be restored to health. In general, the role of the pastor, the organizational structures of the congregation, and patterns of decision-making needed to be revisited and clarified.

What is happening that leadership and authority so often appear as front-burner agenda for the church? Too frequently I hear the issue reduced to a simple polarity between overbearing authoritarian leaders on one end of the spectrum and glorified congregationalism on the other end. The “congregationalists” carry a mission to protect the church from rampant takeover by power hungry leaders insensitive to the voice of the members. Now to be sure this polarity suffers from caricature. Some issues of substance surely lie beneath the surface of this fear of leadership. But really, how many pastors and lay leaders do you know that covertly seek to selfishly gather power for themselves and dominate the people they serve?

For my generation the collective memory of “bishops” provides grist for this fear of authoritarianism. In many cases it finds theological and Biblical foundation in teaching
and writing that purports to be Anabaptist in its promotion of the gifts of all members for ministry and consensual decision-making. While I find it commendable to speak of “every member as a minister” (and I have done my share to promote this perspective), the net effect has been to denigrate leadership in favor of a Mennonite version of democratic
group process. Borrowing from our Lutheran sisters and brothers, the “priesthood of all believers” provides a “bumper sticker” slogan for safe-guarding the church from the domination of leaders.

However, most of the folks using this slogan seem unaware that prior to his death in 1994, Marlin Miller (former president of Assocaited Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN), debunked such thinking and stated there is nothing in Anabaptist writing or in New Testament teaching on gifts that calls designated leadership into question. This is all the more amazing given the current generations in the church for whom bishops are almost as extinct as dinosaurs and for whom the above polarity carries little energy. For these young people, leadership and authority are treated almost innocuously. In fact, after enduring laissez-faire leadership by permissive parents, they welcome direction for their lives. So we are left with multiple generations at different places on this topic, and the boomers somewhere in the middle of a very confusing context where they are expected to provide primary leadership for the next decade or two.

I won’t presume to offer a resolution for this “adaptive” challenge. However, I will propose some focal points for conversation around healthy leadership and authority.

• Freedom from fear and control – In some way we need to let go of fear of leadership excesses, forgive the bishops for their misbehavior, and trust current leaders without second guessing their motives or intentions.

• Embrace the priority of equipping – Can we acknowledge
that affirming the gifts of every member of the church in no way reduces the importance of leadership, but refocuses the role of leaders toward guiding the church in fulfilling God’s vision and equipping members for their personal and corporate mission?

• New approaches to corporate discernment – Discernment s hard work. I fear that what too frequently passes as discernment is simply a convoluted and prolonged time of discussion that empowers a few strident voices and holds a church in stalemate from moving ahead in its mission. What will it take for us to truly learn to listen to the Spirit of God and to one another in addressing ethical and practical concerns?

• Balance of inner and outer journeys – Many congregations get caught up in the concerns of members at the neglect of the church’s engagement with the broader society and world. A primary task of pastors and lay leaders is to maintain a healthy balance between the inward and outward challenges. More than likely it means leaders need to attend to some issues on behalf of the church and discern the agenda that truly needs the engagement of the whole body. Congregations need to be delivered from the myth that extensive discussion equates with action.

• Authority in “office” and “being” – In Mennonite leadership polity, authority consists of three related but separate realties: task, office, and being. (See A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership.) Ironically enough the challenges of leaders with regard to authority very often relate more to “office” and “being” than to competent function. You might recall that people marveled at the authority with which Jesus taught. What does it take to lead with authority out of the integrity of our being as Christian leaders?

• Structures that empower – Too often church structures impede rather than empower others for ministry, and seek to maintain a careful balance of power among various leadership bodies (similar to the government). Can we discover and implement structures that authorize leaders to lead with freedom and to empower the church to meet its mission and goals?

• Grace – For some reason God choose to entrust the treasure to earthen vessels (II Corinthians 4:7). Leaders, like all members, are bound to make mistakes. Can there be enough grace for leaders to lead and members to follow, knowing it is more important that we learn from our mistakes than that we be perfect? I have the impression the bishops of years past repented for their excesses (at least I heard my father confess his regrets about the severity of their behavior). In the context of confession and forgiveness, grace can release leaders to function with authority and effectiveness.

Congregations will continue to experience crises from time to time. The challenges of leadership and authority will not go away any time soon. But as we explore fresh approaches to leadership and authority with prayer and with intentionality, predict fewer crises, less pain, renewed growth, and more fulfilled leaders. What do you think? I am aware the above perspectives tend to assume an Anglo Mennonite audience and that people of color struggle less with some of these issues. Their perspectives are needed in this important conversation. I am eager to hear your questions and responses on this topic.

Photo by kreg Ulery