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Leadership Potential Left on the Margins

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Mathew Eardley

I sit at a lot of tables. And wear a lot of hats. Don’t you? They keep me busy. And it keeps me isolated. What I mean by “isolated” is that when I’m busy, I find it easier to do things myself, or ask those that are already deeply invested alongside me to do ‘it.’ This is unfortunate, though, because it leaves a lot of potential leadership in the margins.

This truth I live causes me to reflect on two important questions that every leader and leadership body should be asking.

  • Who has been included in leadership?
  • Whose voices, perspectives, and insight are not being heard?

In our current world of nominating committees, diverse representation, and overbooked schedules, it is easy to default to the status quo for what leadership is and who is involved. It is a trap that congregational leadership can easily fall into: that leadership starts and ends with church officers. In reality, leaders are constantly being formed around me – and you – each and every day by example, whether it be in the church, home, classroom, workplace, or anywhere (and everywhere) else. That leadership potential is often lost by neglect. How can we take seriously the task of forming new and broader leadership within our congregations?

I submit to you that one area where there is lost opportunity is “Intergenerational Leadership”. It seems to be an ethereal, confusing, and somewhat overwhelming topic. How to do it? Who’s qualified? Who’s not? What can people do? What should they do? What is the organization’s or community’s needs?

I am fortunate (privileged, even) to have been invited into leadership positions since I was young. It wasn’t always invitational, however. There were times when I had to elbow my way into the room or around the table. Other times, I was rejected for an opportunity I thought I was perfectly suited for me. And this is still the case. Why do I tell you this? I say this because I don’t think I am alone. Engaging many people in leadership, no matter the identifier or demographic, is a challenge for most people, organizations, and communities. In the words to come, I don’t claim to have ‘the answer’ or ‘the way’ but I instead hope to suggest to you where I have felt most invited and how we might choose to think about and engage others in our respect roles, organizations, and communities.

My philosophy to address this is simple; first, understand the needs and opportunities for leadership and engagement and, to follow that with, observation and invitation.

Understand the Needs

Each of our communities have needs to be filled. They are everywhere, from an under-filled committee, open session seat, volunteers in children or youth ministry, etc. You could probably list at least five off the top of your head. Take a mental note of these, know them, think about them, reflect on what would strengthen or add to each of them. Put simply, be aware of the need. Really, it’s that simple.

Observe

Look closely at those around you being attentive to their gifts, skills, and abilities. They may not be perfect or completely refined (who’s are?), but simply inherent and evident. And I don’t mean to say that you only observe those you like or those that seem to fit a stereotype, it means to be aware and attentive of everyone, no matter their age, demographic, or other identifier. Ask yourself, “Who do I see that could do this?” As I have reflected on that question I have become more aware of the dept and breath of the gifts and talents present in our community. As an aside, I think it is important to call these out and celebrate them as often as possible. It is empowering to be affirmed.

Invite

I imagine you know where this is heading. If we are keenly aware of the needs which are present and have made note of the gifts, talents, and abilities we observe in others it becomes easy to begin inviting a diverse and capable group of people to consider engaging in the capacity that fits them best. This could mean inviting them into a particular role or laying a few options on the table. The danger is to type-cast and assume. Too often I hear stories of people only being invited into roles that match their profession. That isn’t fair. Maybe that is where they want to serve, but this is the challenge of the previous two bullets. Are we taking the easy route of only asking “teachers” to teach the VBS or LOGOS bible class? Or are we only inviting the musicians to be on the Worship Arts committee? The invitation can be daunting, but done well and in an invitational way it can be empowering, rewarding, and transformational (ironic, right?).

It sounds so simple but can be challenging. I am not good at this. I continue to wrestle and try to practice this. Living into this philosophy isn’t designed for one person – the pastor – to do alone. It takes the entire community, particularly those in leadership (all leadership, not just committee chairs or seated officers), to do this. Think of the power that comes from a session (let alone an entire congregation) noticing, lifting up, and celebrating a community’s gifts, talents, and abilities. Add to that the personal invitation into leadership and I think something special can happen. I suggest that, when done right, we get away from labels (youth elder, female deacon, etc.) and are flexible and empowering of everyone in the community. I hope you will join me in understanding our respective community’s needs, observing those around you, and extending the invitation to leadership.


Mathew Eardley works at Jitasa, a company in Boise, Idaho that provide accounting services to non-profit agencies. He is a graduate of Whitworth University and a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Boise. Mathew has served on committees at every level of PC(USA) including recently completing service as a member of the Way Forward Commission of the General Assembly.

The CCC: Churches, Communities, and Challenges

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lee Nave, Jr.

By design, churches serve to enhance the communities they reside within.

During some of the most challenging times in recent human history, church leaders have worked within communities as leaders. These challenges, in some cases, were large in scope (civil rights movement), with implications on how certain populations within the community were treated.

Not every church can march on Washington but every church leader can support their community on Main Street. Church leaders are not just leaders of their church community but also the larger community that they reside in.

When I was eight, I had my first job cutting grass with my grandparents for members of our church one summer. My grandparents and I would drive around all day that summer, cutting the lawns for older church members who didn’t have anyone to do it for them for various reasons.

In order to increase our outreach, we worked our pastor to outline members of the congregation who may need assistance. Our pastor would give my grandparents a list with contact information of those in need. This list began to expand to include community members that were not a part of the church community.

This grassroots kind of community service, though small in scope, can play a massive role in how churches engage the community they serve. Using resources from church members, such in this case landscaping, can assist the lives of one of the churches’ most vulnerable communities.

1. Know your limitations/capacity/community as a church leader.

Churches, however, can’t be in charge of solving every issue that impacts the community. There is only so much a church can do considering their limited capacity (funding, time, volunteers, etc). And a second point is that churches can’t create a platform or action plan without community input.

A common disadvantage of international development is that organizations enter communities without assessing community wants and needs before starting a program. Therefore, churches have to assess directly from the community to discover what needs are and work with the community to create an action plan.

2. Capture the voices of community members.

Now, as a professional in the nonprofit space 20 years later, one of the most valuable methods of collecting community input I’ve seen and done myself is through focus groups. These small group conversations can be tailored around specific topics or just general community outreach.

Focus groups could be conducted in spaces that church members feel most comfortable in. However, there also needs to be spaces for those not as comfortable with church environments to still participate in such discussions. Recreation centers and other spaces could serve for those audiences. Especially when dealing with young people who may not feel as comfortable using their voice in this particular space.

3. Put actions into… well… action!

The action plan itself would be based off of the feedback gathered. For the focus groups to be successful and useful, they need to go beyond just the harms and problems within the community but also contain recommendations and actions a church could take.

For example, if forty community members need assistance with landscaping, there needs to be a plan on how those services will be rendered. It could involve asking a local landscaping company for discounted rates or a few motivated teenagers could be asked to deliver services like I did with my grandparents 20 years ago.

One of the most troubling results of having community discussions such as focus groups, is when participants feel like nothing has come from it. As much as possible, try to inform participants of all actions taken as well as engage them in the process.

As you continue to grow as a church leader, remember that the voices of the people you break bread with should all be valued and understood fully. Your work isn’t just to lead the church but to be a community organizer who harnesses the voices of community, to defeat all challenges.


Lee Nave Jr. is the Community Engagement Coordinator at Citizens for Juvenile Justice. He has over a decade of experience working with communities all over the country in the nonprofit space. He currently resides in Boston, MA.

Communities of Interpretation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Robert Williamson Jr.

When it comes to officer training, I imagine reading the Bible is pretty far down the list of tasks most of us consider urgent. There are issues that seem more pressing, like understanding our polity, or evangelism and church growth, or balancing the budget. Besides, we often think of pastors as the only “legitimate” interpreters of the Bible, leaving church officers and members to tend to other, more practical matters.

Yet the stories of the Bible are foundational to everything else we do. The Bible teaches us the language of the faith. It shows us how to be the people of God, living in the world and yet refusing to be conformed to it. It exposes false narratives that would keep us enthralled to Pharaoh. It declares the good news of resurrection life made possible in Jesus Christ, who came to let the oppressed go free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, the Bible reminds us who — and whose — we are.

As such, immersion in the Bible is imperative for the life of faith. Without it, we cannot know what it means to be the church. We cannot understand the greater purpose that animates our polity, our budgets, our worship life, and our participation in God’s mission. We — all of us — need to become interpreters of the Bible.

All of Us Together

Our church structures can communicate that interpreting scripture is a task reserved for pastors and scholars. Too often, we hear the Bible read and proclaimed from the pulpit for 20 minutes on Sunday and scarcely think about it the rest of the week. But, properly understood, biblical interpretation is the work of the whole community, permeating our life together. We all have something to contribute and something to learn. While pastors and scholars have specialized knowledge that can illuminate the Bible in certain ways, each of us has our own experiences, insights, and questions that can enrich our common reading of the Bible in other ways. We read better when we read together.

In my work with Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a 1001 New Worshipping Community whose members are mostly homeless, we engage together in Bible studies that invite that insights and experience of every reader in the room. We spend about 45 minutes to an hour reading the week’s lectionary passage. We read slowly, paying attention to the details of the text, asking whatever questions occur to us, and finding the places where the text connects to our own experience. We open it up and walk around inside it just to see what we might see.

For instance, one afternoon we studied the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac as told in Mark 5:1-20. As a biblical scholar, I wanted to focus on the political implications of the demons calling themselves “Legion,” a term for a Roman military cohort. My Mercy friends, by contrast, related personally to the demon-possessed man. They understood what it was like to be inhabited by demons, though theirs had names like “Addiction,” “Depression,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” They understood what it felt like to be cast out of society and left to wander among the tombs.

Reading the story together helped us all to understand it—and each other—more deeply. I came to know more about what it’s like to struggle with demons. I even came to identify some of the demons that animate me in destructive ways — demons with names like Comfort, Success, and Prestige. In turn, my Mercy friends thought more about how their demons may themselves be manifestations of the political and economic structures of our time.

More than that, reading the Bible together helped us imagine what it means to be the church together. Like the Gerasenes, we have too often been taught to marginalize, shackle, and abandon those who struggle with their demons. Yet Jesus immediately set the man free, despite the protests of those in the community who were more concerned for their financial well-being than for the man’s restoration to wholeness. Like Jesus, we decided, the church should show compassion for the marginalized, even if it means being banished by those invested in the status quo.

But my Mercy friends saw something else in the passage that I had missed. They recognized that Jesus refused the newly-healed man’s request to follow him, instead sending him off to proclaim the good news among his own people. They suggested that those who have “been down through it” and have come out the other side have a special mission. As the healed man could proclaim the Gospel in a region where Jesus could not go, so too could my homeless friends witness to the good news in places and among people who would not listen to someone like me.

Becoming Communities of Interpretation

I tell this story simply to say this: reading the Bible with each other can change us for the better. It can help us see the world differently. It can help us to understand ourselves differently. It can shape us more fully into the people of God, bearing witness to resurrection life in a world too often shrouded by the shadow of death.

As church leaders — whether pastors, scholars, ruling elders, or deacons — we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to be immersed in the world of scripture on a regular basis. We need to find ways of reading the Bible together, letting the words of Scripture shape our sense of ourselves and our conception of what it means to be the church. As communities of faith, we need to live in the stories of the Bible, and we need the stories of the Bible to live in us.


Robert Williamson Jr. is associate professor of religious studies at Hendrix College and founding pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a multi-denominational worshiping community welcoming all people, especially those who live on the streets. His latest book is The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today (Fortress Press, 2018).

Is This the Best We Can Do?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Hooker

When I was young in ministry, the session of First Presbyterian of Kingsport, TN where I was associate pastor would debate some important matter until it appeared everything had been said that needed saying. Then, just before the moderator called for the vote, from the back of the room, Ernie Blackard would raise his hand, and when recognized, ask, “Mr. Moderator, I’d just like to be sure: Is this the best we can do for Christ and his Church?” There was, as I recall, never any answer to that question but silence. But there was always a silence, during which we all asked ourselves whether the vote we were about to cast served any purpose other than the advancement of our own interest or agenda. Ernie is long dead now, but his question echoes in my head every time I prepare to cast a vote.

The Book of Order names the order of ministry to which ruling elders are called, “the Ministry of Discernment and Governance” (G-2.03). I think the polity gets that just about right. The first and primary function of the ruling elder is that of discernment. The word comes about as straight and un-Anglicized from the Latin discernere as it is possible to do: “to separate, set apart, divide, distinguish, perceive.” The polity is even clear what, precisely, ruling elders are to discern: they are “not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ” (F-3.0204). The will of Christ. Not the shrewdest business decision. Not the action that comports with my pre-established preferences. Not the decision that places me on the right side of political favor. We are called to discern — to separate out all that stuff — until all that is left is the one that reflects the will of Christ.

It’s only after discernment that one gets to governance, the business of leading and guiding the people and institutions entrusted to the session’s care. Governance is always secondary and subsequent to discernment, because it depends on discernment. Even the title given to the order reflects this: ruling elder. The mission of the ruling elder is as old as Scottish Presbyterian polity. The Second Book of Discipline (1620) is clear that the task of the ruling elder is to measure the faithfulness of the congregation “according to the rule of the Evangel” — that is, according to the will of Christ as revealed in Scripture. This, by the way, is where the term “ruling” in ruling elder comes from.

I refuse to pull punches here. This means that every ruling elder must be a scholar of Scripture. It also means that it is the task of every teaching elder is to facilitate the session’s scholarship. The best sessions and pastors I know are the ones who take that responsibility seriously and spend time at session meetings in study, conversation, and prayer around the relationship between Scripture and the business at hand. Sessions that fail to do so, or that are convinced that they simply don’t have time to do so, are failing in their duty. That indictment, I fear, would convict more than a few of our sessions, including most of the ones I led when I served as pastor and moderator. Shame on me. Shame on us all.

When the members of the Form of Government Task Force (of which I was one) were making presentations to presbyteries in advance of the vote on the then-proposed Foundations and Form, we were fond of saying that the role of the ruling elder was a spiritual function, not to be confused with being a member of the board of directors of a small non-profit corporation. The best preparation for being a ruling elder is not an MBA (although many fine elders have one) but a sense of the mystery of God, not a head for figures so much as a heart for the flock. Ruling elders are shepherds before they are CEOs.

It will be argued that the church, as an institution, has certain needs in common with most businesses, and that some business sense is needful as the church makes its way in the world. Probably. It will be argued that the church’s financial ship will run aground on the rocks of receivership if there aren’t a few people who can read a balance sheet. Conceded. But let it never be said that those voices are the last voices to be heard in debates about the wellbeing of the people of God. Grant rather that the last voice is that of Ernie Blackard, wondering whether this is the best we can do for Christ and his Church. And let there be, in the silence that follows, a moment of discernment.


Paul Hooker is Associate Dean for Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  A teaching elder, Paul has served in parish ministry, as a presbytery executive and stated clerk, and has extensive experience in writing and interpreting the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He blogs original poetry at http://www.shapeandsubstance.com.