“I Don’t Know How To Lead People”

Last week a friend said to me, “I don’t know how to lead people.” He’s a pastor– been one for 10 years.

Last month an Elder scribbled a note during a meeting of our Christian Education and Leadership Commission and slid it to me: “We’re not training any leaders!”

Yesterday I read this on the blog of ECO, the new Presbyterian denomination full of disgruntled former PC(USA) churches and leaders: “Churches rise and fall with their visions, and the vision usually hangs on the passion of the leadership teams.”

The question of leadership won’t leave me alone. On good days I almost relish the un-heirarchical structure of elected Ruling and Teaching Elders and the checks Presbyterian polity places on the lone leader’s freedom. But on bad days I despair that I’m not really leading and that mainline Protestantism as a whole is decaying from the inside out for a lack of leadership.

I know what I reject. I reject the ideal of the leader who casts a vision for her church, who produces with a select team a vision statement in which the bullet points all begin with the same letter, who pronounces a slogan and then single-mindedly rallies the faithful to follow it. To me, “Vision Casting” just feels . . . yucky.

There are other ideas about leadership out there that tickle me. Peter Block’s thing about leaders crafting and curating space for transformative conversations is compelling.  Missional Leadership trusts that “The future of the people of God is among the people of God,” and that feels right. The Adaptive Leadership school’s focus on technical vs. adaptive challenges and the need for leaders to know the difference is hard to argue with. Edwin Friedman’s insistence on self-differentiation as a primary leadership trait rings very, very true. And, of course, the community organizer style of leadership promoted by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is concrete and full of powerful potential.

But what is this? A buffet?

I hear my friend’s confession about not knowing how to lead people, and I wonder if our training hasn’t in some sense failed us. On the whole, I don’t see a lot of enthusiastic leadership development in the mainline. Evangelicalism seems much more clear about what its leaders are supposed to do: cast a vision for ministry and rally followers. Frankly, evangelicalism also seems more effective at producing leaders who do that very thing. But that feels to me like a very bland version of leadership. I don’t like it. I want something else.

Is there a style of leadership for the NEXT iteration of mainline protestantism? Or are mainline leaders left to pick from the Amazon “Leadership” section? Is the IAF the best thing going for training leaders in mainline churches?

What’s the model of leadership for the mainline for, say, the next two decades?



NEXT, Galvanize, and Institutional Change

Reading this article about alternative tech education a day after John Vest lamented NEXT Church’s apparent unwillingness to “rethink theology and ecclesiology in the rapidly changing contexts of ministry in 21st century postmodern, post-Christendom North America” is making some synapses fire.

First, John’s objection: three years into its existence, NEXT seems no more willing to grab hold of the institutional levers of the PC(USA) than it did at its inception. Leaders in the organization continue to recite a “we don’t know” mantra when asked hard questions about what they want to build. What it is contributing–and this is undeniably valuable–is “a platform for innovative and creative leaders to share ideas and best practices” (just hours after John’s post went up, NEXT’s blog published a post by D.C. pastor Jeff Kreibehl celebrating that very thing).

My first thought was to wonder why such a platform can’t be considered a tool for the rethinking John is eager to see. I wonder how else that “hard work” gets done? Position papers? Overtures to GA?

Now come to the Time article about start-up tech schools. Here’s the money quote from Jim Deters, who started Galvanize in Denver:

“In most cases, people are wasting their money on traditional education. The future of employment is small businesses that will be forced to figure things out for themselves.”

This sounds a lot like the “they-didn’t-teach-me-this-in-seminary” you hear from pastors of all stripes. Deters threw a ton of his own capital into a new school–one that teaches techies how to figure things out for themselves (my “traditional” theology professors would have said they were doing the same thing: “thinking theologically” they called it).

Let me land this plane. The platform that NEXT is constructing has lots and lots of space for men and women in theological training; the national gatherings have scholarshipped seminary students every year, and seminary presidents are prominent participants and speakers at these gatherings. John’s desire to see a more assertive direction from NEXT mixed with Roya Wolverson’s description of these new schools makes me wonder if NEXT couldn’t galvanize this kind of thing for Presbyterians.

What if:

  • NEXT grew its partnerships with Presbyterian seminaries to develop courses that help students practice the kind of relational and innovative “figuring it out” today’s context requires?
  • NEXT cultivated communities of students on seminary campuses to lead within the organization?
  • NEXT held one of its regional or national gatherings on a seminary campus?
  • NEXT inserted itself into the emergence of new seminaries, like the one sprouting in my neck of the woods, to offer courses and seminars and other events?

These are just a few ideas sprouting in the slowly fading afterglow of NEXT 2013. Of all the things NEXT is offering to today’s church, an infusion of practical and entrepreneurial learning into Presbyterian education may be the most valuable.

NEXT 2013: Invitation and Creation

Photo credit: Chad Andrew Herring

In my last post I briefly reviewed two thematic threads that ran through the NEXT Church gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this week, namely worship and failure.  Since then, Maryann McKibben Dana has very helpfully posted a blog roundup of the event.

This post will share two other prominent ideas at the gathering: invitation and creation.


The great strength of NEXT gatherings is that they invite participants to experience the things they’re talking about. There’s lots of talk about new practices for worship–as we worship–, and we’re invited to practice new things (like improv) before anyone says a thing about the importance of invitation.

Which they do. Patrick Daymond gave a great talk about one-to-one conversations in the church as a vehicle not only for building relationships but also for inviting God’s people to take specific actions. He decried a culture of mass email invitations and insisted that people must re-learn the art of the face-to-face personal invitation.


I was coming out of my seat during Patrick’s talk, because my church is pushing all our chips to the center of the table on this. It’s part of a “listening campaign” made up of one-on-one meetings between church members. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and its philosophy of relational community organizing is the backdrop for all of this. IAF language has been part of NEXT from the beginning.


Dr. Paul Roberts (see tweet above) gave the first talk of the event and enjoined the church to fulfill its vocation of creation. This wasn’t a simple repetition of  the harmless plea for “creativity,” though. It was a plea to create: to make stuff, try new things, even if those things don’t seem particularly “creative.” He drew upon the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) to say that refusing to create draws God’s judgment. 

Given this, we created. Again led by the inqonquerable Theresa Cho, we made stoles for ourselves. Armed with Sharpies and a cloud of words, we penned our callings and then shared them with a stranger who placed it on us with the benediction, “Your calling is to . . . ” I posted mine to Twitter:



This calling to create is a gift from the first Creator. I, for one, am happy to be chasing down this calling with this company of folk. Thanks to Jessica Tate and all the event organizers for seriously inspiring, useful, transformative stuff. See you in Minneapolis!

NEXT 2013: Worship and Failure

2013-03-05 14.30.18The NEXT Church gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week. After a 2011 inaugural gathering in Indianapolis and a Dallas follow up in 2012, many people were eager to see in Charlotte what a more organized (and much bigger) NEXT Church would feel like.

I’ve been to all of these gatherings now. I wrote about the first one here and here and here. Posts about Dallas can be read here and here. It should be obvious that I’m a fan of this movement and its emphasis on sharing life-giving practices to move the PC(USA) into the future. NEXT is built to create, not complain. I love that.

Here’s what NEXT 2013 suggested in next:

  • Worship
  • Failure
  • Invitation
  • Creation


Ashley Goff from the Church of The Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., described liturgy as “Improv,” a force for creating spontaneity, unscripted moments, and newness. We watched video clips from her church where worshipers were led on a walking meditation around the Lord’s Table and then constructed, en masse, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.

Casey Wait Fitzgerald became Mary, Jesus’ mother, as she showed the gathering what Biblical storytelling can do to a worship service.

And the gathering worshiped. NEXT gatherings are worship services. In fact, a person who could only come to the structured worship times at a NEXT gathering would get as clear a glimpse into what’s “next” as a person who attended every workshop. The incomparable Theresa Cho and a team of musicians, preachers, and liturgists curated four distinct liturgical events that embodied the most enduring formations of Presbyterian worship heritage as well as the most exciting emerging practices.

[A caveat: one of the preachers actually raised some hackles. Good, good, good, I say. My hackles were raised, and I was made to think, listen, protest, and then catch my breath. That’s what worship should make you do.]


NEXT wants to speak to the undeniable failure of Presbyterianism to thrive as an institution since, say, the 1960’s. “Why don’t Presbyterians build hospitals anymore?” was the question that practically gavelled the 2011 event to order.

But for all of its clear-eyed analysis of the demographics and statistics and . . . sins that have hobbled the denomination, the organizers of NEXT are offering something useful and constructive to the church: encouragement to fail. What’s more, NEXT wants to show in these gatherings what failure can do to re-birth the church.

“If you’re not failing, then you’re not learning. And if you’re not learning, then you’re not progressing in the work,” said Frank Yamata, President of McCormick Theological Seminary, on a panel exploring Shared Leadership.

The Administrative Commission has come to embody failure as much as anything in the contemporary church, and yet Bill Golderer and Aisha Brooks Lytle told the compelling story of how they have embraced and empowered an AC to do amazing work through Broad Street Ministries. Aisha took it a step further, recommending that pastors–for the sake of growth and accountability–ought to consider forming their own personal AC’s.

I’m on board. I wonder if Aisha would be on mine.

The next NEXT post will share the Invitation and Creation insights I gleaned from the gathering.


Prototypes and Process Modalities: NEXT 2012, part 2

My previous post lifted up the idea of a prototype advocated in Dallas by Jud Hendrix, an idea that has quickly set up camp at the forefront of my brain and is coloring everything I’m thinking about (see Jud’s presentation here)

The other major contribution that NEXT 2012 made for me was an exploration of process modalities, led by the likes of Theresa Cho and Yehiel Curry.

Theresa described an Urban Ministry Convocation that she and some of her colleagues orchestrated with 22 urban churches in a seven mile by seven mile stretch of downtown San Francisco. The gathering required getting commitments from leaders in all of the churches to come to something that wasn’t required to do they weren’t quite sure what with people they didn’t know and organized by an entity they didn’t trust. 19 of the 22 churches sent leaders. The process of recruiting participants was itself nuanced and creative.

Since it was a new thing they were doing, Theresa and her  colleagues decided early in the planning that they would need a new kind of process, a process that they would have to create themselves. What they ended up with was something that invited participants to listen to one another and share their own story, something that allowed them to sit quietly as well as move around and interact, something that gave voice to the past while also sharing the struggle of the present and prayerfully prodding people toward God’s future.

That process isn’t, I’m sure, in any book. Parts of it are, but surely not the same book. The people behind the Urban Ministry Convocation in San Francisco had to decide what they thought the gathering needed to accomplish, then they got creative about crafting a process–their own process, not somebody else’s–to make that happen. Read more of Theresa’s thoughts on it here.

The 600-or-so NEXT participants didn’t just hear people talk about process modalities, though. We were were led through one that most of us had never experienced before: Open Space. I won’t labor to explain it here, but kudos to NEXT’s organizers for allowing the time and potential confusion of such an experiment.

Finally, Yehiel Curry described an alternative process for ordination developed by the ELCA called Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM). Curry is the pastor of Shekinah Chapel in Riverdale, IL., but he didn’t start at that church as its pastor. Rather, he became involved as a church member and ministry volunteer and was invited by the ELCA to pursue ordination and become the church’s pastor. He was ordained as a result of the TEEM process and installed as the pastor in 2009, and he’s currently finishing his seminary degree (view Curry’s presentation about TEEM here).

What struck me about this was how much more responsive to a congregation’s needs it seems to be. Rather than forcing a congregation to select someone from completely outside of their system to lead them, the TEEM process allows the church to select from within the non-ordained leadership of the church candidates who may be equipped, ordained, and installed as pastor. It’s a contextual solution to a contextual problem.

For almost two years now I’ve been using Moving Beyond Icebreakers as a tool for structuring interactive gatherings. I’m using it with youth groups, presbytery teams, and retreats. Only after being in Dallas this week do I now realize what I’ve been doing with it: experimenting with process modalities.

I feel smarter already.

Prototypes and Process Modalities: NEXT 2012, part 1

Mihee asked for it, so here it is: my quick-and-dirty blog post about the NEXT Church conference in Dallas. Part the first.

Terrific, outstanding, inspiring, exhausting: so much goes into a gathering for 600 people that nobody notices, and each one of those participants puts more into their time than they realize. I’ll be discovering the impact of it for weeks to come.

An event review, though, is less interesting to read than a reflection on the event’s ideas. And the architects of NEXT don’t want, I’m sure, people talking about the plumbing of these gatherings as much as they do the people and the conversations inside of them. Some people can’t get past the plumbing: what was the racial-ethnic composition?; was the music gender-neutral?; what was the age breakdown?; was there an organ?

Plumbing is critical. But the only time you talk about plumbing is when it’s faulty. Some find fault with NEXT’s plumbing, likely for good reason, and yet I don’t wish to repeat the mistake of conference blogs past by jumping into the fray of that fault-finding, either to defend or confirm.

Instead, I want to share the two most prominent ideas that I came away with. These ideas weren’t the subjects of workshops or sermons, but I heard them popping up in almost every conversation, and now I can’t shake them: prototypes and process modalities. The rest of this post will focus on prototypes; process modalities will get its own post later.

Jud Hendrix described the work of the Ecclesia Project in mid-Kentucky as a search for prototypes of Christian community. “A prototype,” he suggested, “isn’t a program (I’m paraphrasing here). It’s a runway on which the future can land.” Further, a prototype is an instrument of learning.

So his project supports six prototypical expressions of Christian community in mid-Kentucky, not a one of which would be recognizable as a traditional church. And the question they’re asking of each those communities’ leaders is not “are you growing?” but “what are you learning?”

Another prototype I heard about is an intentional Christian community of young adults supported by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The community is made up of local Americorps volunteers, and the seminary’s role is simply to provide some spiritual and pastoral guidance to their life together, which is enabled through the use of seminary housing. It’s new and different, and the seminary is learning valuable things about ways in which different parts of the church can connect to the best yearnings of young adults.

What are some other prototypes of ministry out there? What are they learning? How can Presbyterians be emboldened to create new ones and share what they’re learning with the wider church?

Stay tuned for part 2 of my NEXT review (teaser: it’s heavy on Yehiel Curry and Theresa Cho).


The Pea in Landon’s Mattress: Like-Mindedness and Sleepless Nights

Landon Whitsitt has posted a thoughtful and carefully considered response to my last post. He’s been irked since the NEXT Church Indy event, and my post pushed the right buttons to bring that irk . . . age clearly into focus. You’re welcome, Landon.

You should read the post, you should read Landon’s book Open Source Church when it comes out this spring, and you should read his Open Source Gospel ebook now. Landon is an innovative thinker who is widely read and who leaves fewer stones unturned than most when it comes to proposing a way forward for 21st century mainline protestant Christianity.

Also, we’re tight. He and his wife sang in my wedding. I baptized one of his kids. You get the idea. Speak uncharitably of him and I’ll hurt you.

What Landon takes issue with is my lack of alarm at the like-mindedness that characterizes both the NEXT Church conversation and the Fellowship of Presbyterian Pastors one.  Much of the criticism aimed at that latter group centered on its lack of gender, ethnic, and vocational diversity (they’re mostly white male pastors of big churches).

Yet the NEXT gathering betrayed much of the same bias (far less so, though, in the area of gender), and that has caused many hopeful progressives to throw up their hands in despair. Landon is among them.

He writes:

Regardless of a group’s defining characteristics, when group members are similar, they tend to become cohesive – or “like-minded” – fairly quickly. The more similarities, the faster the cohesion is achieved.  This cohesiveness is deceptive. We interpret it as a good thing because it seemingly allows us to get our work done more effectively and efficiently. But the actual effect of this cohesion is that it promotes reliance upon the group to such a degree that members become insulated from outside opinions.

Insulation from outside opinions is a serious threat, and Landon is right to worry about it. But I don’t agree that cohesion in a like-minded group has to lead to this effect. Both the Fellowship and NEXT groups have thrown their doors wide and invited everyone in. How people are greeted when they accept the invitation–that will be the test of insularity. It’s not a foregone conclusion.

More to the point, I don’t think any association of individuals who are trying to change an institution can get very far with an unlimited plurality of opinion. It just won’t work. I’m no slave to the mantra of efficiency, but conversations like NEXT and the Fellowship PC(USA) are after some kind of concrete change. That requires a modicum of like-mindedness.

Both James Davison Hunter and Steven Johnson were mentioned at the NEXT gathering, and both have written about the importance of “networks” in innovation and cultural change.

Hunter says this:

the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the more “dense” the network—that is, the more active and interactive the network—the more influential it could be. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.

Johnson says this by way of explaining the rapid rate of innovation that took place as people transitioned from nomadic hunter/gatherer societies to life in cities:

In the dense networks of the first cities, good ideas have a natural propensity to get into circulation. They spill over, and in that spilling they are preserved for future generations.

Both Davidson and Johnson used the descriptor “density,” which I think is far more helpful than like-mindedness.  The latter is a marker of the former. From a Christian theological point of view, we could substitute “community” or “kinship” for density and bring the issue more clearly into focus: how do dense networks that begin with like-minded thinkers expand to become effective communities characterized by diversity?

The church is charged to model Kingdom-of-God type community. To me, that means people at cultural margins are heard equally with those in “tall steeples.” It means that racial and gender diversity are not optional. And, for Presbyterians, it means that pastors’ voices are not privileged over the voices of Ruling Elders.

Both the NEXT and the Fellowship efforts have serious holes with respect to that charge, as has been amply pointed out by Landon and many others, and as those efforts’ organizers are well aware. But I don’t see those holes as crippling, at least not with respect to the NEXT gathering, for two reasons (I’ll save my reasons for limiting these qualifications to NEXT for a later post):

First, networks aren’t about themselves but the people in them. The people behind the NEXT conversation are people both Landon and I trust. I trust them to have their eye on the need for a diverse community of voices as they host conversations about contentious subjects. This first one, admittedly, got away from them, and you can’t expect people in progressive circles to let something like that go. They haven’t.

Second, it’s a beginning. One of the organizers tweeted in response to Landon’s post that the planners of NEXT saw the Indianapolis event as a “beta” test and not a “full release.” This was not the launch of a strategic program but of a conversation with undetermined outcomes.

The pea in Landon’s mattress is a divinely-inspired caution against self-righteous retreat into safe enclaves of shared opinion. I hope that pea gets into all of our mattresses. But I also hope we can reach in there, take the pea out, look at it carefully, and decide if it’s really worth losing sleep over.

For me–right now–it’s not. But that could change.

More NEXT Church Summary: In Defense of White Male Pastors

That much of the speaking that was done in Indianapolis on Monday and Tuesday was done by white male pastors did not go unnoticed by the event’s participants. Their observation is accurate. Out of three sermons, two were given by that demographic; two of the three “testimonies” offered after the worship liturgies were also delivered by white male pastors.

In addition to the speaking that went on in the sanctuary, many of the leaders of small groups were also, you guessed it, non-female, non-ruling elder, non-non-white people.

So in the event’s final hours, when event-goers were invited to share their thoughts about the goings on, this got pointed out. And pointed out. And pointed out some more.

The qualification has been given by John Vest that, though this characteristic was something of a flaw at NEXT Church, the gathering was clearly a beginning to an important conversation, and a very good one at that. If the next NEXT event looks the same, then the movement may have a serious systemic limitation.

In addition, I want to point out two things, one by way of explanation and the other by way of  correction. First the explanation. The NEXT Church gathering was conceived of  and organized by a group of progressive pastors, many of whom serve tall-steeple churches. It’s a largely white male group. That at its first denomination-wide gathering the leadership gave most of the prime speaking time to itself makes organizational sense. They were framing the conversation, and since it’s a conversation they started and then invited everyone else into, they were the first to speak.

Second, it shows a bad understanding of what the NEXT conversation is aiming at to criticize the makeup of the small group leadership. A personal anecdote will illustrate my point.

One of the leaders (a white, female pastor) had her plane diverted to Louisville on Sunday night due to weather and so was not able to lead her Monday morning small group. She texted me and asked me to fill in as facilitator. I replied, “Sure, but would you rather ask an expert on the topic?”

Her answer was simple: “The facilitators aren’t meant to be experts, only listeners and recorders.”

So at least one of the white male pastor small group leaders was there by accident.

But all the others were put there for a reason: to let other people talk. I attended a Monday afternoon small group in which the white male pastor facilitator hardly said three sentences in the allotted hour, all of which were for the sake of clarification and invitation. The most frequent voices in that group came from a female seminary graduate looking for a call, a female deacon, and a female pastor (all white).

NEXT is trying to provide a platform for lots of different voices within the PC (U.S.A.). I for one am assuming the best about its intentions, intentions which were on display during its inaugural conference, especially in the role played by its small group leaders.

NEXT Church Summary

I spent the last two days inIndianapolis with a bunch of Presbyterians mulling the NEXT Church. We worshiped together and had lots of structured conversation around things like social media and young adult ministry. Of course, the reason you go to these events has less to do with actual program content than it does the people who will be there and the offering of a platform to interact with and learn from those people.

NEXT Church was full of great people. Every significant conversation is.

And while there was the expected observation that lots of people who should be in the conversation were not (ruling elders and non-white Presbyterians, namely), NEXT was a beginning. It was a good beginning, because it brought together good people–thoughtful, creative, innovative, passionate people.

Check out the event’s website for lots of video and to connect to the ongoing conversation.