25 Aug, 2023 For a united Church – a problem inherent to the solution
For a united Church – a problem inherent to the solution
Subtitle: Leaders we cannot see
This is a reflection on a significant matter that rarely recognised.
Were God to raise leaders to serve his Church nationally, they’d likely never find a platform from which to speak or lead because we have no concept of their role in our thinking. Other key stakeholders – like denominational leaders, would never think to consider them, or recognise them, therefore giving no platform and lending no credibility to them. The starting issue here is a lack of communication lines. However, behind that there is a lack of a perspective that I believe is Biblical and needed – this being that God can raise up people up for national roles separate to the structures we have created, within which and through which we serve.
As someone working and networking full time in the unity space I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect upon this. The key changes needed are, I suggest, in our thinking. Everything else flows from there. What follows paints a picture.
Denominational leaders are little bit like the ‘tribal’ leaders in Israel. Someone called by God to leading the united Church – who isn’t a denominational leader, is unlikely in our current way of thinking to ever get a seat at the table with these tribal leaders – irrespective of their FUNCTION. Exceptions are rare and brief.
Imagine someone really was called to national Church work by God – serving clear vision for the united body. It is likely they’d need to do good work – with success – and somehow all without being a threat or considered a rogue – for 20 or more years before they’d have the credibility needed to be invited to become a coworker sitting with our nation’s denominational and other ‘leaders or note’ – if that would ever happen at all.
(As a caveat, I note that there are other church hierarchies amongst us. Leaders of note do exist separate to denominational leaders. These are godly people who end up with ‘position’. Hopefully they fulfil a good function – which should be the point of ‘position’. However, as in the concept of ‘mission drift’, the two often separate.)
Regarding national (united) Church leadership work – imagine if 1 out of 10,000 or less in our churches were capable of and called to innovate in something nationally in God’s Church. This number is probably about right – considering various spheres of need and leadership that are possible. Though it might be 1 in 20,000 or 1 in 30,000. How many of them might have the faith and leadership ability needed to pioneer and succeed in national Church ministry without the support of existing leadership structures? What I’m suggesting is that we’re losing most of the ‘1 out of 10,000’ leaders because what they would be expected to achieve before they’d even begin to be recognised and empowered is insurmountable.
For a comparison, consider you were to try to lead the congregation you are a church member of in a given direction without the support of that local church’s pastor and team. You don’t get use of the pulpit or Sunday announcements – or the church’s facebook page, to the bulletin, or the weekly email to the members. The leaders rarely endorse you or help. You also have to somehow lead without being a threat to the current leaders and therefore perceived as a rogue. How would you even begin something like that?
This is what I perceive to be required of some who might be called to fulfil an innovation or (servant) leadership function in the national Church. We have no paradigm from which to consider the plausibility of their work.
To build the analogy – if a denominational leader is a like a tribal leader, a national pioneer leader is maybe akin to a Judge – as in the Book of Judges. The challenge here is in our ‘unity culture’ and perspectives; it’s in our paradigm of thinking as churches, which could inhibit our recognition of potential stakeholders.
The challenge isn’t new. The likes of Gideon, Ehud, Jephtheh, Deborah and Sampson all struggled for recognition. Gideon alone was ‘respectable’ – even if initially unrecognisable (being from ‘the lowest clan of the lowest tribe’). All were raised by God to innovate in a context where there were already leaders within the various tribes – and also no national leaders by God’s design! God was their King – just as Jesus is ours. The paradigm is the same!
As I wrote about and expanded upon in ‘In One Spirit’, I believe God’s plan for the NT Church is like that of the Book of Judges. This is ‘attempt #2’ – but with the Holy Spirit, and an increased revelation of God’s wider plan (Jesus) now in the picture. National leaders aren’t therefore appointed by us. They are raised by God – and recognised by us. We might then – on occasion, give a position to someone we recognise to be fulfilling a function. (The ‘position’ and ‘function’ then rightly go together.) The danger – and I suggest cyclical error – is that we do this, then creating a sustained position – which in the next generation or era we seek to fill. We therefore try to appoint Gideon’s sons as rulers over us (as happened in the Book of Judges). But the starting hurdle is one of even the most basic recognition…
“Thanks for your vision Gideon. Yes, the Midianites are a problem. If you prove yourself for a few decades first please – maybe then we’ll listen – but we probably won’t ever listen if we’re honest, only unless you become a tribal leader. So, could you devote yourself to the tribal leaders training programme instead please?”
Consider that, to be capable of leading something nationally without the support and participation of tribal leaders, a leader would need considerable leadership maturity before starting – and audacious. (Note again the illustration above of leading a congregation in a direction without the active support of its pastor or leadership team). To lead without being labelled a ‘lone ranger’ or rogue is, by itself, a seeming impossibility, knowing human nature. (You’d have to have very-well-practiced social intuition and people skills – and for a wide diversity of environments!) Such a person would likely have 20 to 30 years of ministry and life experience behind them before starting – therefore only then giving their 20 years to national work, from which they are then recognised. After those 20 years they are then invited to a token meeting here and there to share perspectives – because they are no respected. Having been suspected as a rogue earlier on they’ve now proven themself, and have earned their ‘respectability’ – and are being rewarded. They are therefore invited to the table just as they are about to retire.
In truth, many would never start in their calling – while I would like to think that most walk away (with discouragement I suspect) to an easier church or Church ministry role in a denominational or similar parachurch of some kind.
I therefore fear (and suggest) that many of our best Church leaders have in-fact stepped back to serve in various denominational and similar roles – thereby limiting the grace God put on them to one partisan sector of the Church. I suggest this is already the case, and that it is a big shame – when considering the potential fruit of their leadership in God’s Church – as contrasted to applying their gifting in one partisan sector of it.
It’s a systemic problem, rooted in the way we think. Were God to raise up a Sampson or Ehud – what are the chances they’d get a seat in the tribal leaders gathering to help – let alone lead?!
Until we see and accept that this is a problem we won’t have eyes to discern an Ehud, Jeptheh – or Sampson – let alone a Deborah – or even the easiest of them all to recognise, Gideon.
So – is there any actual hope here?
I suggest, ‘yes!’ When Jesus prayed for a united Church (John 17) the implication was that a functionally united Church was possible!
God can make a way. However, with a dozen years of specific work in the national unity space behind me thus far, I personally can’t yet see how to even get this conversations started.
DAVE MANN. Dave is a networker and creative communicator with a vision to see an understanding of the Christian faith continuing and also being valued in the public square in Aotearoa-New Zealand. He has innovated numerous conversational resources for churches, and has coordinated various national nationwide multimedia Easter efforts purposed to open up conversations between church and non-church people about the Christian faith and its significance to our nation’s history and values. Dave is the Producer of the ‘Chronicles of Paki’ illustrated NZ history series created for educational purposes, and the author of various other books and booklets including “Because we care”, “That Leaders might last” and “The Elephant in the Room”. Married to Heather, they have four boys and reside in Tauranga, New Zealand.