Fuzzy boundaries

Posted Apr 04, 2016 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Dan Hotchkiss

In too many congregations, leaders actually believe that partnership works best when boundaries of authority are fuzzy. Terms like shared leadership have become popular in recent decades, for reasons some of which, that are understandable and sound. Traditional modes of congregational life, where men dominated women, clergy dominated laity, and wealthy people dominated everybody, have fallen out of sync with the egalitarian principles, not only of congregations but also of society at large.

In industry, for instance, top-down styles of management have lost favor (at least in theory) to an emphasis on teams and group decision-making. In a team-oriented company, team members have a voice in shaping their own work. There’s nothing fuzzy about that, especially when, in business, participative management takes place against a background of nearly absolute executive authority. A collaborative approach helps managers make decisions that reflect the insights of a wider circle, including workers, engineers, and customers—without blurring ultimate accountability. When a person who works in such a setting joins a congregation, he or she expects to have a voice there, too.

But the authority of clergy leaders to manage—much less to innovate or make big changes—has in many relatively liberal congregations almost vanished in favor of vague notions of shared leadership. As a result, congregations that once suffered from a lack of lay participation now suffer from a lack of anyone who can decide on a direction, align resources, and take action. In that context, empowering volunteers at every level to participate in making every decision only makes a fuzzy allocation of authority worse.

The result is sometimes painfully ironic. In congregations, one of the best fruits of the egalitarian trend starting in the 1970s and 1980s has been an increased willingness to ordain women. But as women started to accept positions of authority, they sometimes found that the authority had largely vanished from the positions. Old stereotypes about women’s “natural” abilities— their supposed lack of leadership potential, courage, and math skills, for example—reinforced similar stereotypes about the clergy. Lay leaders, who have long been a bit skeptical about the manliness of clergymen, sometimes step in to take paternal care of clergy—male and female—to protect us from our own gentle, nurturing, naïve selves. Like a couple in a 1950s television marriage, clergy and lay leaders in too many congregations collude in limiting their own and one another’s growth by idealizing and exaggerating supposed differences of personality and skill.

Congregations have become more democratic and egalitarian, which is good. In the process, however, many have become too anxiously preoccupied with hearing everyone and too committed to offending no one, which is not good. As a result they never seem to choose a goal, much less empower anyone to stir things up—with serious consequences for their partnerships with clergy.

Boards and clergy leaders need to make a choice. Is the purpose of the congregation to keep people happy, or is it to achieve a larger mission? Only with the mission in the driver’s seat will lay and clergy leaders work together to identify the short- and long-term results the mission calls for and then put the clergy leader in the hot seat, where it is more comfortable to act than not to act. Then, and only then, will clergy and lay leaders, knowing that change always brings about resistance, have each other’s back.

Join us for a PEN Talk, a free webinar with Dan Hotchkiss, on Thursday, April 21, 2016 at 2pm EDT by going to: https://cpx.adobeconnect.com/pentalkapril2016/.

From Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, by Dan Hotchkiss, revised edition. Copyright © 2016 Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dan Hotchkiss serves as a consultant with leaders of a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues and other organizations. As a senior consultant for the Alban Institute for 14 years, and now as an independent consultant, Dan has helped hundreds of congregations in over 30 denominational groups through his coaching, teaching, and writing.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

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