My young friend Paul is not simply an optimist. He is a well educated, extremely bright optimist who is convinced that with the right structure, the right motivation and a little help from the Holy Spirit, the people who are elected and appointed to lead our diocese will transform the way things are done to fully accommodate the promises of a new and “missional” Church no longer turned in on itself but outward into a world hungry for the gospel. Toward that end our large rural diocese of few congregations met recently in convention to make some significant changes to the way in which it is structured.
Being a curmudgeon and realist, I have my doubts. What is missing from the equation is a recognition of the pivotal role of personality in driving organizational change that will result in a new ethos. Clergy, who are overwhelmed with the affairs of their own congregations, and lay leaders for whom the Church is just one of many obligations, are for the most part, supportive of the diocese as long as it doesn’t do anything to mess up their already messed up lives. They’re willing to go along with any new idea promising a new and revitalized Church as long as being new and revitalized doesn’t actually change things too much.
Newton explained that inertia is a very powerful force. Organizational inertia may be the most powerful of all. It takes a powerful personality in leadership to bend an organizational ethos in a new direction, a direction that can outlast generations of personality changes. Professional sports teams know this very well as they seek out the right combination of head coach and general manager who can and will create a sustainable “winning ethos.” A few nights ago I listened to a half time panel of experts list the successful coaches who all came from the tutelage of one person. That’s the power of personality in organizational leadership.
That does not make organizational structure unimportant, nor does it take anything away from a transformational vision of the future. It simply means that organizing for transformation requires bold and competent personalities in leadership. Not to leave the power of the Holy Spirit aside, scripture is pretty clear on the Spirit’s use of human agency to provide the leadership needed. Some take a long time to establish a new way of being God’s people. Consider Moses and his forty year long basic training camp. Some show great promise but can’t deliver. Consider Zerubbabel. Even God thought he could do it, but he couldn’t. On the other hand, Ezra and Nehemiah set into motion the ethos that would guide Israel right up to and through the time of Jesus. Personality in leadership counts. For better or worse, we are still dealing with the fallout from St. Paul’s mercurial leadership personality.
In a more contemporary, secular setting, W. Edwards Deming refused to work with any corporation in which the CEO would not become the first, most ardent and most disciplined follower of Deming’s methods. Why? Because without the strong presence of a committed personality as leader, the best one could hope for is another puff of smoke, flavor of the month, buzzword burdened, time consuming distraction from real work.
Episcopalians have decided they want to become missional. OK, I think that’s a great idea. Whatever missional means, it has not ever been a central focus of our denominational ethos. We have supported many missionaries over the years and are justifiably proud of the relief and development work to which we have bent in every part of the world, sometimes bringing the gospel along with us. But being a missional people has not been our identity.
Do I know a people whose central ethos is missional? As a matter of fact I do. I work closely with members of our local Seventh Day Adventist community through participation on a committee at our local Adventist hospital and friendships with faculty at the near by Adventist university. A missional ethos is deeply embedded in the very soul of Adventism. It has matured a lot from the days when Adventist leaders convinced their followers that unless they got out there to spread the gospel, all those heathen would burn in hell, especially Catholics. Whatever its genesis, it is today grounded in continuing the work of Christ through healing the sick and educating the youth. It’s a strong missional ethos that has survived many generations of leadership, some of it pretty goofy. Moreover, Adventist congregations are just as complicated and dysfunctional as those of any other denomination. That does not seem to affect the power of their missional ethos.
I don’t want to be an Adventist. I want to be an Episcopalian rooted in our Anglican tradition. I think we have the leadership personality to become a missional diocese, and maybe even a missional denomination. I’m not one of those leadership personalities, but if I was, I would take a hard look at the Adventists to learn how they have been able to maintain a missional ethos over such a long time. I’d be especially interested in learning how a fairly small and not terribly wealthy denomination has managed to found so many hospitals, schools and colleges. Then I’d look at the Packers to learn how a publicly owned team has been able to sustain its ethos of winning, even over years of losing seasons. In both cases I imagine that the myths of personalities past and the realities of personalities present in leadership roles will be pivotal.
If I see our enthusiastic, optimistic leaders doing that, I may become less of a curmudgeon, at least on this issue.