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Along the Journey  |  

Leadership Myths: Part 2

There are many persistent myths about leadership. Pastors and lay leaders alike are subject to many mixed messages about what leadership is and what it entails. Some lay leaders tend to import their ideas about leadership from the secular workplace.

Undoubtedly, many are influential leaders in their corporate settings, and their motives are sincere. Laypersons and pastors who apply these myths about leadership in the congregational setting often get some things done, but ultimately, they may accomplish the task by doing more harm than good.

Here is part two of seven persistent myths about leadership. Click HERE for part one.

5. Leadership Is About Being Innovative and Creative

The craving for novelty in leadership styles leads to the myth that an effective leader needs to be constantly innovative and creative and whose main task is to usher in the “new” while doing away with the old. Creativity and innovation have their place in the leadership function, but novelty tends to be overrated in some contexts, and innovation certainly is not an absolute requisite for leadership effectiveness.

Being called an “innovative leader” is flattering, but it’s a quick way to burn out the members and staff in most congregations. Congregational leaders who see themselves as innovative or entrepreneurial tend to be good “idea” persons, but not very good in the details and follow-through necessary to make those ideas feasible. This leaves staff and church members perpetually second-guessing what the leader really wants, along with the frustrating and unglamorous work of dealing with the nuts and bolts and the grunt work of implementing ever-changing programs and projects.

Too often, innovative efforts never lead to actualized projects since the leader is constantly moving on to the next project or “big idea.” Further, congregations that value the rich, formative traditions of faith tend not to value the perpetual pursuit of “the new” for its own sake.

Indeed, there is great danger for a congregation too willing to uproot themselves from the grounding influence of traditions. The long history of the Church and its traditions offer wisdom and correctives to movements and practices that are attractive only because of their novelty, regardless of their appropriateness.

6. Leadership Is About Competence

As Stevens and Collins remind us, it is possible to be competent in ministry yet relatively ineffective. Clergy have one of the most challenging careers anyone can hope to take on. And despite theologies of grace and calling to servanthood, congregations often expect unrealistic performance levels from clergy.

The expectation to perform and to provide “results” can become a point of personal and congregational anxiety. Poorly managed, this anxiety can result, ultimately, in clergy burnout, terminations, and congregational frustration. It does not help that American congregations exist, and often share, in a culture whose values reflect corporate “bottom line” attitudes and performance expectations of leaders. As a result, clergy often take on those performance expectations.

I have identified among leaders in secular and religious contexts what I’ve come to call “The Myth of Competence.” This myth is fed by the hidden life dynamic of chronic Systemic Anxiety and leads to the belief that personal self-worth, relevance, and meaning reside in the external definitions and assurances of being competent in everything one does. It manifests itself in the symptomology of perfectionism and can result in burnout and depression. Pastors and congregations who buy into the myth of corporate professionalism as a touchstone for effectiveness in ministry may settle for an efficiently run organization at the expense of a relevant one.

7. There Is One Biblical Model of Leadership

Perhaps the most pervasive myth about leadership in the congregational context is that there is one biblical leadership model. The Bible is not silent on the issue of leadership, however. The earliest book on leadership may be the book of Proverbs; it may be the first “how to succeed in business” or “how to be a good leader” manual.

A review of scripture, however, reveals that while there are passages that deal with leadership, there is no singular model to be found. The closest that we have in the New Testament to a model of congregational leadership is Jesus’ contrast of the use of power in the secular, political world and its use in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:25). Jesus, who claimed no status as a model of leadership for himself, referred to himself as a shepherd and demonstrated the stance of one who was sent to serve, not to be served by others. He defers to the Father who sent him even in terms of his authority.

Only the most mature leaders can fully live in the spirit of servant leadership that Jesus calls for. Some take servant leadership as a model, but it is more accurate to consider it a value or virtue.

To make servant leadership a “model” or “style” that one adopts is to be tempted to use it as a veneer one puts on to “act” as a spiritual leader in the congregational setting. But when the dynamics of the hidden lives of congregations go into full swing, like Systemic Anxiety, that veneer of pseudo-self quickly melts away, and leaders get reactive and willful. And, in doing so, they fail to live up to the leadership functions the congregation depends on them to provide.

Effective congregational leadership emerges from having the right relationship with the faith community and leading out of one’s genuine self.

Adapted from The Hidden Lives of Congregations, by Israel Galindo.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

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