Confessions of an Anxious Leader or Chasing the Leadership Dragon (part 1 of 8)

The church chatter I hear mostly these days is about leadership. The church needs leaders to orchestrate congregational turnarounds. The church needs leaders to make disciples. The church needs leaders to navigate the waters of rapid change.

A variety of forces have rushed to fill this proclaimed void in leadership. The D.Min. degree has proliferated throughout seminaries. Workshops on church leadership are frequently offered. Pastor’s bookshelves now have a small section on leadership indistinguishable from that of middle managers everywhere.

All of the books, all of the articles, all of the guest speakers, even all the tips about how a sermon can be more like a TED talk make me think of Ed Friedman. Friedman warned us against an anxiety-driven and insatiable appetite towards data and technique. In his book, Failure of Nerve, Friedman thought that we have more data now than ever, and yet as a society we’re more anxious than ever. The amount of data will only increase exponentially. “What I am driving at is this:” says Friedman. “As long as leaders—parents, healers, managers—base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever.” (p. 96) Friedman’s premise explains why I used to feel inadequate every time I walked into a good bookstore. I could never read all I needed to be competent.

I have certainly indulged in this craze. I’m familiar with Harvard Business Review. I’ve been away on continuing education trips designed to buff me into shape the way the Emerald City of Oz provided makeovers for the Yellow Brick Road travelers. I know my Myers-Briggs Type, my DISC profile, my enneagram number, my Herrmann Brain Dominance tendencies, my Kraybill Conflict Style, and which character from “Breaking Bad” I’m most like. The accumulated effect of all this data on my effectiveness as a pastor has been modest. The books and programs were all excellent. They just all run into the same roadblock, deeply grooved emotional patterns within me.

How then does one increase confidence and functioning without new data? By growing up, by rocking out of grooved emotional patterns the way one rocks a car out of snow. Increased maturity will do more to address the need for leadership than any degree or workshop. What great leaders of centuries past had, that we still seek, is maturity. Most 8th graders already know more data now than any world leader or beatified Christian who lived before the 1800’s; yet, with our exponentially increasing knowledge base, we still believe what is most lacking in the church is leadership. What if what we lack isn’t technique or new data about leadership, but a direction towards maturity?

Bowen family systems theory has provided me some helpful ideas about how to define maturity and work towards it. The field hasn’t magically transformed me into a worldwide leadership sensation, but I am certain that I’m a better leader and that the congregations I’ve served have been healthier because of this approach. Even when I deserve my poor reviews on ecclesiastical Yelp, I’m a far sight better than I would have been without systems thinking.

What systems theory has taught me is that we grow and mature as we shift focus or emphasis in several categories of life. Some of these categories apply to individuals, some apply to congregations, some apply to both. Over the next several blog posts I will list seven of these shifts or directions.

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