Leadership in the Unravelling and Refounding

 Today questions about leadership, of how we lead, in the unravelling now upending many of our assumptions across the West are tough to address. The question of leadership among God’s people is a work in progress without definitive answers. But the trajectories, for me, become clearer.

Twenty years ago I contributed a chapter to the groundbreaking book Missional Church – A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America . Chapter 7 addressed the question of missional leadership. I presented a set of diagrams in that turned a triangle on its side to show a movement with the leader at the point, leading the movement. It proposed that leadership was less and less focused on the so-called “pastoral” roles of care within the community; it was being at the front edge of the triangle in the front of missional engagement. The diagrams sought to express this sense of church as movement and leadership at the leading edge of the movement. Many picked up on this imagination; some still use the diagrams to describe “missional” leadership. I came to see it as a deeply flawed imagination embedded in notions of leaders as those in charge, setting direction and taking God’s people forward. I no longer believe this notion of leadership can help us grasp the ways the Spirit is calling us to be God’s people in the unravelling that is occurring.

Following Missional Church I wrote Missional Leader, a book that framed a different understanding of leadership. It moved away from notions of leader as director, vison-shaper and decider laying out a picture of leadership that grew out of my own disorientations about what it meant to lead in the economy of God’s people. This book engaged chaos theory and what it means to lead in non-linear, non-predictable, liminal spaces where there is no possibility of creating strategies for preferable futures. I framed language of leadership practice using images and roles such as gardener, midwife and abbot. I still find these images compelling and work with many leaders in how to develop the practices that shape this kind of leadership.

After these books I wrote several others (Introducing Missional Church and Missional Map-Making) that continued my own journey in wrestling with questions of leadership, the church and its unravelling. I was doing extensive consulting with denominational and congregational leaders in many parts of the world as well as teaching in numerous seminaries about the practice of missional leadership. In this writing, consulting and teaching I saw a pattern, a disturbing default, in leader’s assumptions and questions about missional leadership. There’s a deeply embedded flaw at the heart of the missional conversation in North America. Missional, from its inception, was an ecclesiocentric dialogue, a conversation framed around the being, essence, nature of the church. In practice, the church was the subject and object of the missional conversations no matter what type or how much the language of God’s kingdom or missio dei was used. Recognizing my own complicity in this default was disorienting. An ecclesiocentric focus wasn’t what Lesslie Newbigin intended nor will it ever form a missional engagement with the profound unravelling underway across the West.

I sought to understand the reasons for this ecclesiocentric default and its implications for leadership. I did this in several ways: First, I came to believe that the missional conversation was so compromised that it was now a buzz word for one more church-centered program or initiative. Second, I wrote a brief, tract-like book setting out the problem with missional language and suggesting some ways forward. Joining God was not a fully developed proposal but a way of naming the default and testing ways forward. Third, given I was not using missional language I wrestled with how to talk about the missiological challenge confronting the churches in an unravelling modernity. In this wrestling it became clear that the critical issue before the church is not its renewal, or new methods of church planting or innovative ways of fixing what exists, but the critical need of recovering a center in the Agency of God among us in our everyday lives. Instead of “missional” I described a question: How do we go on a journey together to discern what God is doing ahead of us in our neighborhoods and communities in order to join with God in those places? Out of that question came a new question about leadership: How do leaders participate in the formations of communities of God’s people in a local area who, together, of discerning what God is doing in their neighborhoods in order to join with God in those places?

 These questions have become central to the ways I mentor leaders. They are framed around the centrality of God’s Agency in everyday life and reframe our understanding of leadership. This is now shaping my writing and in two forthcoming books: Practices for the Refounding of God’s People (May 2018) and A Theology of Leadership (2019) co-written with my colleague Mark Lau Branson addresses the question of what leadership means when we begin the Biblical conviction with the Biblical conviction that God is the primary active Agent in the world? Within this frame we argue that a theological understanding for leadership is about standing, being and leading in the space between. We are excited about what is taking shape.

I am energized by the mentoring I’m doing with leaders across North America. They are men and women in congregations, plants and denominational systems who get that one more go at trying to fix the church is not in the cards. They know that the unravelling undoing so much of our society’s assumptions is also unravelling the churches they serve. They don’t want to “fix” anymore. They sense of vocational call, a conviction that God’s Spirit is fermenting and bubbling something that can’t be put in the boxes of strategic plans or schools of innovation. What energizes me now, as I write, are the conversations and learning communities that are emerging among these people of God. If you are beguiled by these directions join the conversation.