Top-Down Leadership Isn’t Everything

September 3, 2011

Those following the progress of the Fellowship of Presbyterians stand on tippy-toes awaiting something about to happen. People were waiting for the Minneapolis meeting to unfold. People are waiting to see how a theological statement comes together and a polity maze is navigated. Now people are waiting for the Orlando meeting in January. Some, not all, Presbyterians feel themselves to be “on hold.” Perhaps they are waiting for the next Session meeting at their church, or a pastoral letter from their teaching elder. Maybe it’s just Labor Day Weekend, the end of summer . . . in any case, some are getting antsy for “the leadership” of the Fellowship to do something that will finally address the angst and anxiety of evangelicals in the PCUSA.

Right now, “the leadership of the Fellowship” resides with eight people, the seven tall-steeple pastors and original writers of “the letter” last Spring (affectionately known as the Seven Dwarfs) and Paul Detterman, executive director of Presbyterians For Renewal hired to organize the Minneapolis meeting (and, I’ve been told, will do the same for the Orlando meeting in January). Around this core group, fourteen other individuals have been enlisted as an advisory team, to bring various diverse perspectives to the conversation.

I have observed that evangelical Presbyterians have a love-hate relationship with leaders of that movement. In an earlier post, I wrote that getting evangelicals to follow a leader is harder than herding cats. On the other hand, an overblown image of what constitutes a leader may be one factor in the resistance some have to following.

If you were to poll recent Pastor Nominating Committees, you would probably discover an unspoken profile of “leader” as one who casts vision for the congregation, who possesses a charismatic personality and several spiritual gifts, who carries the weight and wisdom of an authority figure, who will function as a permission-giver, and (at least for his or her first year) be the center of a center-bound set at the church. Walking on water helps, too.

Some are even expecting the Seven Dwarfs to exemplify this top-down profile. I suggest that this is a misplaced confidence, not because the Seven Dwarfs are anything less than godly and gifted men, but because the spotlight of leadership defined this way is trained too narrowly. It becomes a most necessary task, as we reflect on the Minneapolis meeting and prepare for a “constitutional convention” in January, to shed light on the broader stage and identify the possibilities for leadership development in this burgeoning movement.

Any conversation about Christian leadership must be prefaced by important reminders. Jesus Christ is Lord of all and head of the Church. By definition, then, every single Christian “leader” is first a “follower” of Jesus Christ. One biblical example would be Moses—ah, a man with a checkered past, resistant spirit, and slow speech—what an encouragement! His authority and his power to lead were predicated on God’s call on his life, his intimate relationship with God, obedience to God’s commands, and reliance upon God’s power.

The true dynamics of top-down leadership involve this same dynamic: leading by following Jesus Christ, aware of the derivative nature of one’s authority (so well stated in the seventh Historic Principle of Church Order—G-1.0307). In a practical way, as an expression of that service to Jesus Christ, leaders serve as catalytic idea-generators (or referees of the ideas generated in the Body) and the one who keeps an overall perspective (“from the balcony”—Heifitz and Linsky).  In this sense, Christian leaders are prophets, representing to the Body God’s perspective on our condition and situation. But leadership is validated only when others can follow it “as unto the Lord.” Namely, the members of the Body can see the connection between what a leader promotes and the revealed will of God. Leaders have been successful when members of the Body own the vision and discover in themselves the calling, the power, and the ability to live into it.

With this view carries implications for everybody who is not a top-down leader—that’s pretty much all of us besides the Seven Dwarfs.  Primarily, these implications involve a change in attitude from

1) waiting on the leadership to come up with a plan to waiting on God

2) passivity to activity (even proactivity). Proactive saints “do their homework” so they can recognize a good idea when they see one.

3) skepticism in the form of  “convince me” to openness in the form of “equip me.”

4) reluctant straggler to pace-setter—I am thinking here of the very important role a pace-setter plays in the race of a championship bicyclist. The pace-setter has to be every bit as athletic as the team leader.

Next week: an elaboration on these attitude changes.

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5 Responses to “Top-Down Leadership Isn’t Everything”

  1. Houston Hodges Says:

    The “leadership” evangelical/conservative Presbyterians have learned from, and model after, has been top-down, exclusive decision-making among the chosen few who resemble them = the status quo in the PCUSA, against which there is legitimate opposition. Now let’s see if the new “other sort” of body can empower leaders who don’t adopt that same style against which they’re railing!

  2. Mary Fields Says:

    Heigh Ho. Heigh Ho.


  3. Does next week mean tomorrow?

  4. Thomas L. Fultz, Teaching Elder Says:

    Rev, Naegeli: once again I find your words conveying positive, encouraging, and challenging thoughts pointing toward faithful discipleship under the Lordship of Jesus. Waiting on God while doing our homework, helping all in our congregation to seek God’s call for them and the congregation – this are active steps as we move forward to new ways of organizing for mission as Presbyterian-flavored Christians in such a time as now. Please continue in your role of speaking God’s truth to provide the perspective of our situation and condition we need to discover our calling and to live boldly in the power of the resurrection.

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