Leaders have to know who they are. . . . When everything else crumbles and when you are in situations of disillusionment, when plans haven’t worked out, when colleagues have disappointed you, there’ll come those times when you say, “Why am I doing this?” At that point, what is needed is a deep and abiding sense of God’s call.
As Wesley Granberg-Michaelson notes above, a sense of call is vital for ongoing ministry. In his own life, that’s meant serving as a research assistant for U.S. Senator Mark Hadfield, as managing editor for Sojourners magazine, co-founding a non-profit, working for the World Council of Churches as director of church and society, serving as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and writing several books, including Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change and Unexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity.
For the full interview, please see the article first published in Faith and Leadership, which is the online magazine of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. Below is an excerpt that focuses on calling, commitment, and the challenge of ministry in changing times, re-printed with permission.
Q: What’s your advice for Christian leaders?
The first thing is to be clear about an abiding sense that they are following the way in which God has called them. Because often they’ll have nothing else to fall back on.
When everything else crumbles and when you are in situations of disillusionment, when plans haven’t worked out, when colleagues have disappointed you, there’ll come those times when you say, “Why am I doing this?”
At that point, what is needed is a deep and abiding sense of God’s call.
Leaders have to know who they are. They have to take the time to examine themselves and become really well acquainted with their gifts, with their possibilities, with their vulnerabilities, with their weaknesses, with their temperament.
Because all those things will come into play in the task of carrying out one’s position in leadership. And if you’re not self-aware, you’re going to get tripped up in ways that are unnecessary and that are likely to maybe get you into trouble.
Good leadership needs those who have a sense of distance and detachment from the organization that they serve. And that may sound almost ironic, but in fact …
Q: Yes, people usually talk about the leader’s passion, and the commitment, the vision — not detachment.
And I think leaders play an indispensable role in that, and they do so in a variety of ways.
But at the same time, you can’t ask the questions that an organization most needs to hear if you don’t have that ability to step back and remove your own ego, remove your own personal investment, and look with honest and ruthless clarity at the life of the organization.
Organizations share a kind of emotional life, and that emotional life can be healthy or it can be dysfunctional.
The role of a leader is to help tend the emotional health of an organization, and that’s done when the leader is what others have called a deeply self-differentiated person, who doesn’t become part of the kind of system of emotional dominoes where feelings and anxieties are just bouncing off one another.
Q: When you were in positions of leadership, what practices did you have to maintain that?
Every leader has to determine how they’re going to try to take care of their own soul.
Organizations don’t do this for you. Maybe they should, but typically they don’t. Organizations just keep asking, asking, asking until you will finally burn yourself out if you do everything they ask, and then they’ll hold you responsible for burning yourself out.
I find times of retreat in relationships of spiritual direction to be really helpful.
So when I started as general secretary, I told our General Synod Council, “I want to take one retreat day a month, and I want to be held accountable to this. You want to hold me accountable to all these measurables, all these things that we’ve got to produce. That’s fine. But I also want to be held accountable for how I deal with the things of my life that I think are going to be necessary to sustain all these.”
I learned early on through my time at Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., where I really was formed in so many important ways, the importance of having a spiritual director, having someone who would help guide me.
A more extroverted person may find accountability through gathering with groups and through any number or variety of practices. But you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do something.
The organization won’t do it for you. And despite the best intentions of those in a church organization, they will be happy to just watch you burn yourself out.
Q: Do you think that it is a unique calling to be a denominational official?
Absolutely, I do.
I mean, this is not a job. And I mean, who would ever want it if it was a job?
These are terrible. I mean, you talk about tension — you can’t make everyone happy. People are always blaming you for something that you’re not responsible for. You’re trying to deal with a wide diversity of opinions of people who can’t get along with one another, and you don’t have enough money to do everything that people are asking you to do.
I mean, why in the world would you do this?
Q: You do make it sound fun.
You only do this because you’re called to do it, and you believe that these structures, despite their imperfections, are the expressions that allow us to live life together as a body of Christ in ways that we are connected and we are accountable, and that we will be able to do more together than we could do separately.
And that, in my view, is an essential need in the life of the church today.
There’s no image of the church in the New Testament that isn’t that of a connected church, a church where a body belongs to one another. I mean, why in the world was Paul traveling around and writing all these letters? It was because we weren’t all out there as independent churches that had nothing to do with one another. We were in this together.
And that calling is all the more important today. We’ve got to find those ways in which we’ll be the church together. A denominational structure is simply a structure that tries to express that.
It can do so poorly, or, if we learn how to work with them, it can do so well and make a difference. But to be called to it is a real ministry.
Q: What would you say to folks who are starting their careers and looking at these systems?
The most important thing is that anyone embarking on ministry has to go on the inward journey that allows them to really discern and discover where will they be making their unique and intended contribution.
I would certainly hope that among those options, working in larger denominational systems would be one of them.
Some are doing better than others. There are some real places of vitality. Racial, ethnic minority communities are growing and are vital. There are 4,000 new church starts a year in the United States. Pentecostal churches are growing. You find denominations like the Evangelical Covenant Church that are growing and are multiracial.
You can find lots of examples that are good, and then you can find examples of structures that are struggling. But they’re not going to disappear. They need those who can lead, because if they’re going to be any good, it will be because of gifted leadership.
Q: Are there any particular pitfalls you would advise against for young Christian leaders?
In many denominational structures and other Christian organizations today, it’s very easy to feel that there’s so much to do and, you know, I’ve got to work 70 hours a week in order to keep this thing afloat. Well, in the long run, that’s not going to work.
I remember when I first started on the Hill, I was working like that, and I was burning the midnight oil, and we were trying to stop the war, and we were trying to do things that we felt were pretty important.
But it’s when I got in the Church of the Saviour that I learned the balance between the inward and the outward life and learned that I needed to be clear about the capacities I had to sustain myself for the long term. I had to nurture those; I had to take care of those.
I would encourage young people going into such organizations to prepare yourself for the long term. Figure out how you can do this for 20 years. Figure out how you could make that kind of commitment — and that’s very countercultural for the younger generation.
Your peers are changing jobs every three or four years, and maybe you will too, but you’ll do your job better if you’re trying to do it for 20 years. So that would be my main word — try to think about how you would do this in a way that would last.
Thank you for reading. If you’re concerned about the good, the bad, and the ugly of church employment and how we can all do better, please share this article and consider signing up for my free updates. Comments welcome. I’m praying and working for positive change, and hope you’ll join me.