By Derek Penwell
[Note: This is a followup to an article I did a couple of years ago entitled, Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church Organization.]
Leading from the Front
In my first church out of seminary, after I’d been there a year, a man from the congregation named, Bob, approached me and said, “Derek, you’ve got to provide some leadership.”
I didn’t know what to say. I thought I had been providing leadership. I’d weathered one major conflict. I’d started new programs. I was active in the community. What was he talking about?
The question bothered me. When Bob said, “leadership,” what did he mean?
After all these years, and a lot of thought, I’m pretty sure I know what Bob was looking for. But in order to understand, you need to know a bit about Bob and about the kind of world we inhabited at that time.
Bob had gotten a grant to start an office furniture manufacturing business in the mountains of Appalachia. He made stuff. He had a staff and employees. His job was to figure out what needed to be done, and then get the people who worked for him to do it.
Bob thought that leadership in the church should function the same way. My job was to figure out what needed to be done, and then I was supposed to get people to do it. Simple, really.
Leading from the front. I determine where we’re going to go. I explain why we need to go there, trying to get buy-in from the board. Then I strike out in that direction with the hope that people will follow me.
Leading from the front. It’s a classic model of leadership—perhaps the classic model of leadership in American social, business, and political life.
The intrepid leader, out front, determining the goal and the path that will take us there.
But another model of leadership has begun to emerge as an alternative to the top-down, hierarchical nature of leading from the front. It’s called “leading from behind.”
Leading from Behind
“Leading from behind” has become a popular phrase, especially since the problems in Libya. President Obama’s leadership style since then has famously been referred to as “leading from behind.”
Leading from behind is often understood to be a negative thing, a lack of character and creativity in a leader. Leadership, we’ve been told, comes from visionaries who strike out toward some pre-determined destination, all the while persuading people to follow. The extent to which you can convince people to go where you think they should go is a traditional test of good leadership.
But that understanding of what makes a good leader has changed, because the world we live in has changed. We’ve moved from an industrial economy to a connection economy.
In the industrial economy, built as it was on the manufacture of goods in factories, what we prized wasn’t leadership so much as management. The manager’s primary responsibility revolved around getting the maximum number of people to make the maximum number of widgets. Leadership and management got collapsed into a single project: figure out what needs to be done, and then figure out a way to motivate people to do it.
Easy. In an industrial economy leadership has to concern itself with things like production schedules and the efficiencies of human capital. Do it fast. Do it cheap. Don’t screw it up.
But that kind of task based leadership doesn’t work in what Seth Godin has called, a connection economy. In a connection economy leadership requires an ability to inspire others to create art.
Godin argues that “the challenge today is we can’t make it any faster or cheaper… and most of those jobs have gone overseas.” According to Godin, what we have now is an economy based on making connections.
Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Instagram. Social media exists to connect people. Increasingly, we spend our time and effort responding to micro-markets. There are currently almost two million apps in the Apple App Store. Almost two million different apps, most of which are designed to appeal to a small specialty audience.
It used to be that we responded to a mass market where innovation consisted of making something as cheaply as possible and producible on a grand scale. Mass production was arguably the great innovation of the twentieth century: divide production and labor into constituent parts, then work to produce something by assembling all those parts together in as efficient a manner as possible.
Sitcoms, automobiles, Easy Listening radio, fast food, shoes, blockbuster Hollywood releases, Folger’s coffee, Holiday Inn—make a lot of stuff based on the same model, make it uniform, make it ubiquitous, and make it cheap.
In a connection economy, however, people create for smaller and more specialized markets. Artisanal breads and cheeses. Microbreweries and craft beer. Small batch bourbon. Specialty cable channels. Podcasting. Farmers markets. 3D printing. Blogging and electronic self-publishing. Handmade. Locally sourced. Free trade. Kickstarter.
In a connection economy offering delight and wonder is what counts. Because markets are so fragmented, people can only find out about new things if the people who’ve made them have built a reputation for producing something not only valuable, but also delightful.
Through blogging and social media everyone has a printing press. Through podcasting and vid-casting everyone has a production company. If that’s true, the question becomes: what will you publish, what will you produce? With so much noise, you have to offer something different, unique, captivating in order to be noticed.
A widget doesn’t have to be captivating; it has to be efficiently produced so that it can compete in a marketplace where “cheap” is a virtue. But if 400,000 different widgets are available, yours better be interesting if you expect somebody to pick it out from all the other widgets available on Amazon.
So, leadership in a connection economy isn’t a proxy for management. Management is about the effective allocation of resources to produce something faster and cheaper, about getting people to work harder to produce widgets more efficiently.
Leadership in a connection economy requires leading from behind. It’s about giving people the space and the permission to do remarkable things. It has more to do with providing an atmosphere in which people can do their best work. Management in an industrial economy figures out what the best work is, and then expends extraordinary amounts of energy trying to make sure people do it.
Church Leadership in the Connection Economy
The church is no different. It has to do its work in the same world as Apple and Google, as farmers markets and ETSY. The culture of the connection economy is the ether in which the church operates. It can’t opt out.
But this is good news. The connection economy allows the church to do things it never could have done before.
The industrial economy rewarded speed, cost-effectiveness, obedience, punctuality, clock-punching.
The connection economy rewards innovation, flexibility, relationship, honesty, trust, wonder. This is precisely the kind of environment in which the work of the unfolding reign of God can flourish.
The church should be happy to leave the industrial economy behind.
Management has always been a difficult thing to pull off in the church. Management requires people to be managed, which is to say, employees who, in order to get a paycheck, offer their labor to be managed as a resource.
But in most cases, the church has very few employees. Ideally, the bulk of its labor should be carried out by people who aren’t getting paid. But people who aren’t getting paid are notoriously difficult to manage. You can’t order volunteers around for very long … or they won’t be around for very long.
As a result, congregations in the industrial economy relied on its paid employees to do the bulk of the labor. Why not? Employees need paychecks, making them perfect candidates to be managed. Unfortunately, however, such a shallow labor pool—one concerned primarily with quantifiable tasks for evaluation by management (e.g., obedience, punctuality, clock-punching, etc.)—means that not much interesting gets done. And whatever does get done, has to be measurable to be deemed worthwhile.
A manager, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, is one of the stock characters in our culture, the expertise of which is an illusory construct that can only be legitimated by referring to its own effectiveness (After Virtue, 26). In other words, how do I prove I’m an effective manager? I supply data that confirms my effectiveness. Numbers. Spreadsheets. Attendance. Budget. Programming.
The problem with these standard measurements of ministry, however, is that they’re blunt instruments. They give a picture of only that which can justify their use as quantifiers. They provide no context, no nuance, no narrative. Not only can they not tell you whether the three hours you spent in the emergency room with parents whose child was in an accident was “effective,” they can’t even tell you why you should care about spending time in an emergency room as opposed to ordering and organizing the office supplies.
The whole idea of competent management is so much a part of the way we’re conditioned to see the world that it’s not surprising that we should find it so prevalently and uncritically adopted by the church. The problem, however, with assuming that the work of the church needs above all to be managed is that it assumes that the work of the church is about manipulating means in order to achieve an end. And if MacIntyre is correct, the ends toward which bureaucratic management strives are self-legitimating appeals to effectiveness. The function of the manager, after all, is “that of controlling behavior and suppressing conflict.”(27)
Put more plainly, the job of the manager is to prove that management is a job indispensable enough to pay somebody to do it.
Leadership from behind also has ends toward which it strives. But those ends are neither exercises in self-legitimation nor hierarchically decided and imposed. Furthermore, those ends aren’t abstractable from their means. Leadership from behind honors the vision of the community, and pursues that vision in ways that align with the community’s values.
Leadership from behind. Church leadership in the connection economy requires not that paid ministers come up with a vision and sell it to the congregation, but that they help foster an environment in which the passions and convictions of the community can emerge.
The minister’s job on this account of leadership is to help people find the resources to do amazing and wonderful things, things that they care about, things that feed their souls and challenge their minds, things that make sense in view of the demands of peace and justice in the unfolding reign of God.
Moreover, the bulk of the labor that gets done isn’t by the paid employees, but by the community. The function of the paid employees is to resource the efforts of the community as its members find a place to pursue that which excites and compels them to live as children of God among all of God’s children.
The minister’s job is perhaps better conceived of as caretaker of an artists’ community. Church leadership in the connection economy consists of helping to cultivate a community of artists (holy people, poets, engineers, social workers, heroes, etc.) whose art centers on honoring and healing and serving and taking care of the world with which God has blessed us.
Means with Integrity
Leading from behind. Church leadership in the connection economy worries less about success in a measurable sense (or at least the measurements that keep the accountants and statisticians happy) than about doing the right thing.
The end always justify the means—only if the end is integrity. Because if what you strive to be is someone who always does the right thing, then always doing the right thing becomes the practical means by which such an end is achieved.
In the connection economy results must always take a backseat to process.
Because process is the only thing you can control. If you start worrying about results, you’re going to fudge on process. A little bit here. A little bit there. And pretty soon you’re wearing a goatee, worrying about parking shuttles, and serving frou-frou coffee in the vestibule.
And really, who needs that?
Regardless of whether we ever realize any benefit from the costly investments of time and resources required by ministry, we do what we do because God wants it done. We take pleasure in the labor, not in its fruits.
It’s a new world. The old methods of leading from the front will have a tough time finding success in a connected world.
The church needs a leader who’s unafraid of failure, unafraid of letting other people have the good ideas, unafraid of letting other people do important work, unafraid of investing time and resources into things that aren’t measurable by the traditional standards of success.
The church needs to kill church management.