Essential leadership skills, now and always - A #TrusteeTuesday reflection

By Susan Townsley

“When I went to divinity school, I didn’t think I’d need to be a video production expert.”   I’ve heard this comment many times since COVID-19 made in-person worship no longer possible.  
The present moment inspires many of us to ask what leadership skills, knowledge, and attitudes are needed going forward.  While on one hand many things have changed, I’d argue that the essential leadership skills needed today are exactly the same leadership skills that have always been needed.  
It is tempting for clergy to equip themselves with new tools ready to address the latest congregational need:  When churches became more complex, clergy needed more administrative skills; when families became more complicated, clergy needed more counseling skills; when demographics shifted, clergy needed more social media skills; now, during the pandemic, we need more video skills.  While some may seek to master the latest skillsets, there is a broader view of leadership in the everchanging world that enables the organization (think the Body of Christ) to be faithful and responsive.  In this view, clergy are invited to root leadership in their deepest knowledge of the living Jesus.   
Preaching as a way of being, not just a pulpit skill.  Clergy need to be able to communicate the compelling story of the gospel in multiple ways—in small groups and large, in oratory forms and in conversational forms, with images and storytelling and silence, by reframing the organization’s stories and by surfacing the gospel stories as they emerge in the lives of those we serve.  What technology is used to disseminate this integrated and lively preaching is always evolving – from the loud voice in a stone building, to the advanced sound system; from the drop-down screen to the Tweet.  It is folly to think clergy will be experts in the technology, but others can be employed to help us.  What is essentially ours, and deserves the slow brew of the MDiv or equivalent education, is the theological wisdom to hear God’s word and then to share it using relatable narrative and declarations.  Preaching then moves, like Jesus, outside the temple and beyond to the homes and intersections of everyday life.  
Leadership as a function not a role.  Clergy (most particularly in small ‘c’ congregational churches) are not isolated and absolutely empowered leaders.  We are rather those who attend to the congregational processes which create the leadership function in broad terms.  Of course, clergy sometimes have compelling visions to share.  Still, without community ownership, role-driven top-down vision is sterile at best and coercive at worst.  The leader’s function is to help others become partners in the leadership conversation even while we frame and focus that leadership conversation.  Effective leadership engenders more leadership.  It is a conversation and a discernment process as well as a vision-casting and enlisting process. At best, it is a shared-responsibility. Leadership invites, as Jesus did, movement from the lakeshore to the work of becoming believers, bearers, and broadcasters of the good news.
Cultivating the Body of Christ for movement toward the future.  Churches have been burdened far too often with holding dead traditions and stale patterns while the members of those very same churches are free to keep up with the times.  For example, the number of people who listen to classical music on the radio with any regularity in no way resembles our expectations of classical music and hymns in worship.  Another example, members expect the church to keep to its Sunday worship routine even when they are off skiing, brunching, and gardening.  Clergy need to encourage the Body of Christ to move into the future.  Jesus of scripture is always introducing elements of change into people’s lives – renewed health, new ways of interpreting scripture, new ways of honoring the heart of God’s wishes.  Leadership must separate the key essentials of lively traditions from the forms of traditionalism that keep the church 15 years behind the times.  The Body of Christ then moves, like Jesus, from grounding scripture towards God’s ultimate ends for our future.  
Making Justice a common goal.  Justice makes us all uncomfortable, as we too often imagine it as a sum zero game whereby some people will get something at the expense of others.  Clergy have a role in demonstrating the dehumanizing effects of injustice on all of us.  Yes, justice-making will cause some discomfort.  Still, justice-making engages us in the noble work of honoring our obligations to ourselves as ones capable of compassion, equity, and love to others who are created in God’s image and to the beloved community that is the endpoint of God’s reign.   Justice claims us, like Jesus, to be fully ourselves and fully for the other.  
Imagination, play, and hope as gifts of the gospel.  The days of dour are gone, and they were never that fun.  We need to cultivate a sense of the adventure of faith, the imagination that can dance alongside the Holy, the playful that enables us to discover the drama of the gospel in our lives.  To be sure, there are times when weeping, morning, and even gnashing of teeth are in order.  But we worship a God of joyful mornings. Imagination leads us, like Jesus, to the parables of party which prefigure the heavenly banquet.  
In this way, leadership may break the need to accommodate each skill dujour and, instead, draw the community together to do the essential work while sorting the means to deliver it with a combination of volunteer skills, church, and leadership-equipping.
For an explanation of this weekly series, see the announcement on our news feed.
To learn more about our trustees, visit the Trustee page on this site, where you will also find a full bio for Susan Townsley.