By Margaret J. Marcuson
When I was a teenager I had the opportunity to play in a woodwind quintet for a wedding. It turned out to be a highlight of my musical experience–—my clarinet joining in with the flute, oboe, bassoon, French horn. Each instrument had a key part to play, each different voice forming part of the whole. I had to pay attention to my own part, but also to the blended sound of the group. I found it challenging, and musically and emotionally rich. As psychologist and theorist Murray Bowen noted, humans experience the tension between togetherness and individuality. We want to be part of the group and to be accepted. And we want to be our unique self in the world, different from everyone else. Finding the balance in that tension forms the essence of life’s struggle.
The Emerson String Quartet maintains this balance. The quartet’s four members have been together since 1979. The qualities which the group personifies can help pastoral leaders as they face this same challenge in their own congregations. Accounting for the group’s longevity, Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker explains: “The top three qualities, in my opinion, are the ability of each member to assert himself, the ability to listen to the others, and a sense of humor to keep everything in perspective, given our stressful life-style.”
Similarly, for clergy leaders, essential qualities include knowing who they are and what direction they want to go, and expressing that vision clearly. But that is not enough. As Drucker notes, the ability to listen to others is also critical. Remaining in touch with our followers, and being able and willing to listen to them, constitute the other piece of the leadership challenge. Both sides of the equation are equally important in moving an organization forward over time.
In my own ministry as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gardner, Massachusetts, I felt it was critically important for the church to follow up personally on visitors to worship. Church leaders, with their New England reticence, felt it was “too pushy.” I made the decision to step back from that initiative, and not be too pushy myself. But I kept paying attention to where I wanted to go and where the congregation was, and when I brought up the issue again later, some of the same people who had thought it was “too pushy” volunteered themselves to be visitors of visitors. A number of key people in the life of the church joined because of that ongoing effort.
Eugene Drucker’s third quality, a sense of humor, can add immeasurably to a pastor’s ability to stay balanced on the leadership tightrope. This doesn’t mean ministers must be stand-up comedians, able to pull out a joke on a moment’s notice. Rather, pastoral leaders can benefit by not taking themselves too seriously, by not focusing too much on petty setbacks, by having a lighter attitude even about the huge challenges that can face them.
Drucker goes on, “Each one of us tries to be himself as much as possible, and with certain efforts to coordinate our approach, we hope that the group ‘product’ comes out in a more or less unified way, with enough leeway for each individual to express himself. So you could say that individuality is one of our values.”
Pastoral leaders walk a tightrope: too close to their followers and they are unable to provide direction, and too far away, they move out of range of their followers. It’s easy to fall off the tightrope on the side of togetherness, to be pulled into the way things are in a church, and the easy camaraderie of the group. Leaders can find it just as easy to fall off on the other side, the vision side, where they are so clear about where they want to take their congregation that they lose sight of the importance of being connected with followers and maintaining relationships with them.
Edwin Friedman, author of Generation to Generation, suggested staying in touch with key leaders, calling them in between committee meetings. After hearing Friedman say this, I began keeping track of church leaders and when I had talked to them. Especially when things got a little bumpy, I called, just to say hello, or to talk about Red Sox baseball or their trip to Florida. Building relationships with followers is an emotional process, not necessarily about church-related content.
Clergy need to find that balance between individuality and togetherness for themselves, and also encourage others to do the same. The task of leaders is to be themselves as much as possible. As others do the same, with room for individuals to express themselves, the ministry, too, is more likely to move ahead effectively and creatively. This does not mean that anything goes. Certain expectations are part of the fabric of community life. For instance, the Emerson Quartet does not play four different pieces of music at once. Each member must show up for rehearsals and for concerts as agreed. A significant level of commitment is part of the bottom line for being part of the group.
In the same way, church members must share the faith of the community. They need to have a clear reason for belonging to that particular church, and join in the church’s mission. But within certain parameters, allowing group members as much freedom as possible will lead to more creative and life-giving results.
Conflict is an inevitable part of group life, and the Emerson is no exception. Drucker says, “We have disagreements from time to time, but we know not to push too hard when there is a musical disagreement. We usually have plenty of performances of a given piece, in which we can try each opposing idea. Compromise can sometimes water down a musical idea, but repeated performances result in an unconscious evolution of an interpretation, anyway; sometimes conflicting approaches do work their way to an eventual compromise, even if we don’t set out specifically to compromise.”
In the life of the church, too, flexibility can bring vitality and new possibility. A healthy congregation has a strong sense of identity and purpose, but it will also show a willingness to make room for differing points of view, without anxiety or the felt need for a quick resolution. A sense of mutual respect for each other and varying perspectives goes a long way in congregational life.
Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers in A Different Way speak about “tinkering” as a way of developing solutions, trying out different possibilities to see what works for an organization. Churches can experiment with new ministries and new approaches to see what will work in their own setting, and what fits the gifts of their members.
Eugene Drucker said, “Equality is a principle that has guided us, which means that each person takes responsibility for his own role, for how he will play any solo passages, though we’re all open to suggestions from others. In our group we aim to exercise joint leadership.”
As pastors take responsibility for their own role, for their own “solo passages” as a leader, and encourage others to take the same kind of responsibility, chances are their longevity in ministry and the health of their congregations will increase.
Opportunities at the Center for Lifelong Learning to learn more about conflict and leadership:
Originally published in the Leadership in Ministry Workshops Newsletter. Copyright (c) 2005, Margaret J. Marcuson. Used with permission. Marcuson is the author of Leaders Who Last and Money and Your Ministry and is on the faculty of the Leadership in Ministry Workshops.