There are lots of things I know how to do. There are even more things about which I have no clue. I can drive a car, preach a sermon (sort of….), wire an electrical outlet, make homemade ice cream, and more. I have no idea how to write software, fly a plane, or perform an appendectomy. And I’m very sure I can’t predict the future!
Like many of us, however, there are times I forget my limitations and plunge into territory for which I have no reliable map. Given my reluctance to admit ignorance, I get into this territory too easily. It shows up when I tackle a home improvement project that’s over my head.
I have little illusion, however, about my capacity for knowing the future. I’ve got hunches and guesses and suppositions, but when push comes to shove, the shape of the future remains opaque.
This isn’t much of a problem vis-a-vis automobiles. Nobody — not even me — cares whether I can predict the styles and features of cars to come. I’ll take whatever comes. But the future of the church is a different matter. In some measure it seems to me that if I’m to be a leader I ought to know the future. If I’m to rally the troops, certainly I ought to have some sense of where we’re to go, right?
Maybe….or maybe not. Too often, I think, we encumber ourselves with ideas and presumptions that are unnecessarily or even destructively burdensome. We are part of a church tradition that struggles with the mere concept of leadership. We are children of a history that is profoundly wary of authority run amuck. And we SHOULD be. Unaccountable authority has caused untold human trouble. But sometimes we conflate our wariness of unaccountable authority with a more generalized suspicion of leadership, and in so doing throw a valuable baby out with dirty bathwater. I’d suggest we think more carefully about this matter.
To put it bluntly – leadership (at least GOOD leadership) does not consist in possessing absolute certainty and in requiring unquestioning fealty. Good leaders don’t dictate, they don’t manipulate, they don’t pretend they know things they really don’t. Good leaders don’t know all the answers. Good leaders don’t announce “the plan” — but they might insist that we NEED a plan. Good leaders aren’t much into fiat — but they do raise questions — often questions most would rather evade.
If leading isn’t really about coercing folk to go places of the leader’s design — what might it be? I once had a mentor who suggested that leaders have two responsibilities — to speak reality and to say thank you. I’d add another — leaders insist that we face our challenges — though I suppose that’s a subset of speaking reality.
This past Sunday I gave a talk at the Eastern Association under the title “The Future Shape of Conference Ministry.” It wasn’t a title I chose, but that’s alright. If nothing else, it forced me to acknowledge that I don’t know the future shape of conference ministry.
But acknowledging limited prescience does not equal total agnosticism. I do know some general things about the future. For example, I can read balance sheets and financial statements. I can read spreadsheets of statistics. I read that stable of writers who think about the future all the time. Whether I like it or not, the present shape of church — of organized religion — is passing away. Faith, spirituality, belief — these things are not passing away, but the containers which have held them for generations are extraordinarily stressed and are almost certainly going to die and be reborn in the next decade or two. It’s the specifics of the rebirth about which I have little idea.
Here’s another thing I’m pretty sure of – the essence of church shouldn’t be our institutional structures. If we’re mainly about committees and boards, about rules of order and agendas, about financial reports and statistics — that is, about governance — then perhaps it’s time to say goodbye. These things all have their places, but not at the center. The heart of faith must certainly be more about worship and mission than about governance and decision-making.
Next month the Iowa Conference will gather in Grinnell to celebrate our 50th anniversary as the Iowa part of the UCC. Thanks be to God! We’ll have a parade and worship together and spend time in service and learning. We’ll also do some business — we’ll adopt a budget and elect officers and consider bylaw changes that were introduced last year — proposals to modestly simplify and streamline our ways of governance. We may or may not like or agree with the proposed changes, but hopefully we will all agree that whether we adopt them or not, they are not the essence of being church — they are merely means to an end. These are means to the end of helping us as churches and as CHURCH to faithfully bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways relevant and winsome in a changing context. I hope you’ll be present to join the party and participate in the decision-making.
I look forward to seeing you in Grinnell next month. In the meantime, be a leader in your place according to the call God has placed on you. Lead with humility and grace, but DO lead. You don’t need to have all the answers (in fact, it’s better if you acknowledge that you DON’T), but you do need to invite the community forward.
God bless you!
Rich Pleva, Iowa Conference Minister