Sunday, January 20, 2013

Adaptive Leadership and the Gospel

I have followed with at least some interest the United Methodist Church's quadrennial training event, held this past weekend in Nashville. Every four years, lay and clergy leadership comes together to talk about the next four years, to reconnect, to hear from church leaders about where we are going and how we can do better.

That's all great.

This year, the buzzwords are "adaptive leadership." How to take up the "adaptive challenge" and be an "adaptive leader" who follows the "adaptive God." (Okay, I made that last one up).

I don't have much to say about the event itself, because while it went on, I spent the weekend holding my three-week-old child. But I do want to say some things about the way in which the church--particularly the United Methodist Church--sees itself, because these are critical times and we need to analyze the ways in which we do church.

I also do not have much to say about the adaptive challenge itself, as I question a bit how important it is for us to be focused so much on the particular institution. Focus, after all, is not a plural word. That said, of course I recognize that the institution of the UMC needs to change. I've written to that effect for some time now.

My radar always goes up when those we deem to be "leaders" are presented with different language and streams of information than everyone else. I am not saying there is no need for leadership, nor that the millions of members of the UMC need to hear details about board and agency restructuring (though it might help connect them to the work of the general church). I am just always interested to see who the leaders are, how they are talked to, who talks to them.
I do not mean to be down on the institution's efforts to reform itself, and I am not down on leadership. I think deeply about leadership and have what amounts to a minor in leadership studies.  But while leadership is vital, it is a tool for gospel living, not the end all be all of Christian experience. As Leonard sweet so memorably says, perhaps our ultimate calling is to be followers.

Let me put it this way: where did the idea of adaptive leadership come from? Do you think it is more likely that we got this idea, these strategies, from Jesus? Or Jack Welch?

It is not leadership I am down on. It is the syncretic melding of the Gospel with coursework from Business 101. In business, after all, the most important thing is the business. The business provides jobs, it makes a product, it earns money. If it is not in the interest of the business, it is not done.

The focus of the business is the business. The focus of the Church is God.

We can talk about our adaptive challenge all day long, but let us be clear about the subject of our talk. Jesus did not come sharing leadership principles. I dare say that if you follow Jesus's leadership principles--effective though they are--you aren't doing to stave off death. You are going to invite death. It is true, as Buechner says, that the promise of the Resurrection is that the worst thing is never the last thing, but you can't get past the worst thing. You just can't.

I love being a United Methodist. I honestly believe that ours is the best system around. But the system does not exist for its own ends. The system exists in order that we may make disciples for the transformation of the world. The genius of the United Methodist Way, until quite recently, has been that its focus is not on itself (no central power structure, no "head bishop," thank goodness) but on God and community. We have achieved great things, made great strides. It is only when we focus on ourselves--thinking we have the answers and that we must survive at all costs--that we lose focus on our mission and, ultimately, our Savior.

So rather than "adaptive leadership," my motto for the coming years is this:

Be faithful. Be more faithful. Be even more faithful.

If you hear echos of "adaptation" in that refrain, you wouldn't be too far off. You might even hear echos of leadership. But the focus is not on the institution. The focus is on God.

If I know one thing, it is that God rewards faithfulness. Perhaps faithfulness is not rewarded in a way that would show up on a business's quarterly earnings report, but it is the treasures in Heaven we're after anyhow. And I have no doubt that faithfulness, as it is understood by the wide swath of ideologies and theologies present in the United Methodist Church, is deep and wide. But that's the genius, isn't it? Our different understandings of what it means to be faithful propel us forward in a way that covers multiple bases. We grow, in more than one sense.

The good news is that we already know the end of the story. God has promised that the Church will never die. Never. So why are we so preoccupied with death? The only explanation I can come up with is that we are staring at our own navels instead of significantly higher.

Instead, let us do our best to be faithful. Let us stay in relationship with one another, hammer things out the best we know how, and go on to perfection. This, after all, is the United Methodist Way.

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