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Man thinking on a train journey.

The Journey of Thought (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Conversations with bold, young leaders are often difficult for me, mostly because I remember those early days out of seminary when I still knew everything. I had been drawn through a very complex set of ideas on a three year journey to enlightenment, and I was ready to unleash myself upon the world.

The reason those conversations can be difficult is that those conversations remind me of my own shortsightedness.

I wasn’t prepared to take folks on that same journey for themselves. I expected them to simply agree with me, despite the fact that my journey and their journey had been entirely different. Young leadership often finds this to be a problem. Sadly, I had been in ministry for better than a decade before I figured all this out.

Rev. Ben Gosden recently posted a fantastic article on self awareness for young clergy. In the wake of our General Conference in Tampa, Florida, this is a timely message. Ben has recognized the need for learning from our forebears rather than repeating the petulant, whining complaint, “Why don’t WE get to lead?” that resonated through many of the tweets on the #GC2012 Twitter feed. Far too many young leaders were questioning the abilities and motives of General Conference delegates and leaders simply because they were “old, white, straight men.”

Gosden joins the conversation with a well-placed rejoinder, “As much as I might think I’m ready for anything, I must remember that growth and readiness come as fruits of time, practice, and patience in ministry.” But he doesn’t go on to place himself under the yoke of everyone older than he. Without abandoning his responsibility to lead, he has wisely asked for guidance and advice from seasoned veterans of ministry so that he might lead now.

He’s not rolling over. He’s not buckling under. He’s asking for information that is the result of experience, and he’s expressing a willingness to trust those offering it to do so in good faith.

His implied reasoning is that, despite the many benefits and blessings of a very talented generation, one thing young clergy are missing (as were we all) is experience.  Thus, Gosden’s wisest statement of the article is this: “I have a lot I need to learn and mentoring (or shall I say discipling) is the greatest gift a seasoned pastor can give a newbie like me.

I consider Ben a deep thinker already. And the only advice (for this particular situation) that I could muster, I’m sure Ben has already thought of. But I think this post is warranted, if it helps anyone at all, including me, to think more intentionally about how we communicate as leaders and followers in the United Methodist Church. Comments posted below will probably benefit us all.

So here’s the thing: We are a denomination of thinkers, despite evidence to the contrary. Our problem isn’t a lack of thinking, it is that we don’t share our thinking — just the results. Moreover, deep thinking leaders are usually short process thinkers. That means that they typically see the path from Point A to Point B very quickly — sometimes, while the most of the crowd is still exploring Point A and completely unaware of Point B.

On the heels of Gosden’s wise words to ‘know thyself, and thy limits,’ I would simply add this: Know your colleagues’ and congregation’s capacity to absorb your points of view, particularly if you  have been granted an insight that is light years from the status quo.

And the folowing lessons are the result of years of mistakes and missteps, and speak directly to the desired result of bringing people along on your journey of thought and discovery.

1. Be willing to repeat yourself. I remember that I often made the leadership mistake of thinking, “I’ve already said that!” But after several years of banging my head into that particular wall, I’ve realized two things: 1) Not everyone ‘gets it’ the first time. 2) The crowd is constantly changing; very rarely do the same people show up at the same time. Sooner or later, someone is going to miss something. And even if you don’t think someone deserves a special hearing, the message you’ve been given by God certainly deserves it. The best practitioner of this is Rev. Adam Hamilton. I’ve heard the story of the development of his church’s vision each of the many times I’ve heard him speak. And he is unapologetic for that repetition.

2. Understand the investment in Point A. If you are asking people to prefer your vision over the one they currently hold, you should be very aware of the loss they will suffer when they leave their paradigm, no matter how trivial you find it, to embrace the one you offer. Leaders must be willing to honor and value the very ideas that they are asking their people to abandon (in total or in part).

“The Church as Museum” may be wrong, but it is often wrong for very good reasons. In the absence of a better way forward, we tend to make camp. Even Peter wanted to build booths to remain on the Mountaintop with Jesus after the Transfiguration. It was obviously “good for them to be there.” But within a sentence or two, we find that they were moving on. I’ve often wondered what Jesus said to get things moving again. But Luke adds, parenthetically perhaps, that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. Sometimes, that is true of us today. And that brings us to our next point.

3. Make the Case clearly and succinctly. After you’ve fully appreciated the best parts of what is being lost or left behind, you can begin to make the case for why Point B is now better than Point A. This is especially difficult if you were the leader who got them to Point A to begin with. But no matter who led them there, when you want people to leave their long-held positions, you’d better have a clear reason for moving to Point B.

And your people deserve more than the all-too-standard answers of post-modernity. These just will not cut it:

  • Don’t be on the wrong side of History…
  • If you only knew the pain this was causing people you’ve never heard of…
  • All the cool people/Mega Churches/Everyone else is doing it.
  • You are reading the Bible wrong.
  • I know everything there is to know about this. Trust me.
  • All those pastors before me were wrong.
  • You’d understand this if you weren’t over 40.

Naturally, we’d never say these things. But we manage to repackage these words into neat little leadership bundles — with which we proceed to bludgeon our congregations and our colleagues to death.

I cringe to think how often variants of these phrases came out of my mouth.

4. Share your process, not your results. I’ve underestimated congregations more often than I care to admit. And, most frequently, I’ve failed to trust the people to follow the process for themselves. Instead, I’ve thrown goals at them without rationale. Operating on sheer enthusiasm, I’ve actually managed to get them where I asked them to go. But the result has often been the question, “Now, why did we do all that?” More common, I would imagine, was a simpler response: “Not interested.”

People are smarter than we credit them. And if we continue to ask good questions, and provide food for thought, our minds can be instructed, broadened, and refashioned after the mind of Christ. This requires patience. And that’s another commodity, like experience, that often runs short in young leaders of any stripe.

 

While each of these points address the particular setting of a congregation, there is correlation to all human relationships. At General Conference, we failed to agree on a process of thinking, a method of believing, and a structure of operating in rapid succession  over the course of time together.

One last thought on all this comes to mind. Over the years, I’ve struggled with a question: Do we need better leadership or better followership? When we take turns leading and following one another through the difficult ideas and issues of our time, the issue ceases to be leadership OR followership. When we relate our ideas to one another, listening carefully and speaking clearly, that’s not leadership.

That’s communication — and the Church needs a fresh dose.

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Author: Joey Reed

Joey is married to his best friend. Together, they have two children and live in Jackson, Tennessee. Joey serves Grace United Methodist Church, the Jackson District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.