Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee is Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and was recently Director of the Faith and Leadership Center at Duke Divinity School where he remains a Fellow in Theology and Leadership.
Jason, what is leadership? What is Christian leadership?
John Maxwell describes is as “influence: nothing more, nothing less.” That’s appealing in one way – we’ve all known people in positions of authority who weren’t really leaders, and people who are genuine leaders without a position of authority. But Ron Heifetz argues one needs something less amoral, so leadership has to be influence for good, otherwise monsters who are influential count as “leaders.”
The second question is more interesting. Christian leadership would have to mean building Christ’s church. Dostoevsky speaks of loving another person as an act of seeing them as God intends them to be. Leading them would be then encouraging them toward that divine intention.
What did you learn leading the leadership center at Duke Divinity School?
What a gift it is for institutional leaders to get to lift their heads out of the weeds of their work to be inspired again, and see anew why they got in in the first place. I remember being in a meeting of Methodist bishops in which their conversation crackled. I asked a colleague why they were so animated. “They never actually talk to each other,” she said. “They just push papers around.” A simple gift to leaders is to talk to them about the big-ticket stuff: God, the world, Christ, the church, and give them space and resources to talk to one another and interesting outsiders about things that matter.
The other is how much more interesting it is to speak of institutional leadership than individual. This is the single most important intellectual move we’re making at Leadership Education, and we hope to change the language in the ecology of the church out there. No one needs more individual geniuses; we desperately need more people practicing the arts of leadership for the sake of the church.
What does the future hold for divinity/seminary education? Many people are talking about alternative models.
The good money bet would be on smaller schools closing and some of the middle sized schools merging. We just have too many schools. It’s very hard to kill an institution – alumni rally to their defense – but with less money coming from denominations and everybody pinched financially it’s hard to see a viable future for, say, two Methodist seminaries in Ohio (to pick on my own people). The interesting new experiments are large congregations starting their own schools and online educational efforts which may soon dwarf residential schools in terms of number of graduates. Whether the latter can produce people practiced in the arts of Christian community is a genuinely open question (of course, whether residential seminaries can do this is open as well, with lots more data to the contrary…).
What do you say to people whose eyes glaze over at the concept of ‘leadership,’ who may feel it’s a mere buzzword from corporate culture?
They’re right of course, it is a buzzword, and it does come from business. But theology rarely, if ever, works with “pure” concepts unsullied by the world. The trick with any concept we may find useful is to fill it with specifically Christological content and then see if it’s helpful. If it’s just a fad and it fades, fine. But our tradition is rich with images of leadership, from Moses mediating with God at Sinai to the prophets speaking a hard word to Jesus choosing and training and forgiving the twelve to Paul trusting others to do ministry in communication but not in company with himself. Of course the primary image for specifically Christian leadership has to be the pastor, speaking to the people on behalf of God and speaking to God on behalf of the people; bringing the people’s gifts to the altar and blessing them to give back to the people.
How would you encourage someone who’s a leader but doesn’t really think in terms of leadership to start thinking about leadership and consciously developing leadership skills?
Some people do something with intuitive brilliance. Not all such people have to become experts in talking about what they do or in training others to do it. But someone has to.
What are the best and worst things leaders can do when first stepping into a position?
The best thing is to listen well, especially to the “weaker members,” as the Rule of St. Benedict puts it. Also to pray, ask for advice from peers in similar situations, build a network of friends that one can keep on speed-dial. The worst things involve panicking, keeping your own press clippings, having a long memory of wrongs, and thinking the institution is there to serve you rather than the reverse.
You and your wife have been in pastoral ministry. What are the most pressing leadership challenges facing clergy, and how does one exercise leadership regarding them?
Remarkably the same through time and place: love the people and preach the gospel. Other stuff comes and goes. Pastors I’ve known vary enormously on how good a friend they are. If they’re good at friendship they tend to thrive in ministry, and if not . . .
Thinking of certain social issues roiling churches and parishes in these days regarding, say, poverty, capital punishment, other life issues, sexuality, and so forth, how should Christian leaders – lay or ordained – handle such controversial issues, especially when there is so little Christian agreement on them and when one’s own views might differ from one’s congregation or constituency?
Not to be afraid to address them, communally, scripturally, through the tradition, with grace for those who disagree. The worst thing is to shrink from speaking a clear word. And to remember we’re pastors, not experts on hot-button stuff, not commentators on cable, not pontificators. The one thing we can’t fail to do is preach Christ and him crucified; whether our people have correct opinions on this or that issue of the day is relatively far less important.
How does leadership relate to consensus? When a leader is driving a major initiative or taking an institution or group in a new direction, is it OK to lose people?
Sure. The leader, above all, is there to make decisions others can’t make. But she or he would be a fool not to discern the Spirit’s intention in the church at the moment (a very hard task!). Having so discerned, I don’t think we have to wait for unanimity, although some churches do – it’s a sign of the Spirit’s movement, for example, among some Mennonites. Then it is indeed OK to lose people, but it is like severing a limb.
Must a leader always have some big project, some major initiative going, or is it OK simply to make the trains run on time?
One leadership consultant said to me that parishioners are like children, if they don’t have anywhere to go, if they’re just standing there on the corner, they’ll start fighting. I’m not sure that’s true – it’s certainly patronizing! And I worry about starting initiatives just because one thinks it’s obligatory. Eugene Peterson speaks wisely of the first work of the pastor being to pray and preside and preach Scripture and attend to the place.
Language is always rhetorical, of course, but so many people nowadays use language to obfuscate, to hide, to dissemble, to spin. How should leaders speak when speaking publicly?
Stanley Hauerwas’s one request of any leader: “Don’t lie to me. You may not know the answer, but say so. Don’t lie.” It’s not a bad place to start on any moral question. Nicholas Lash says truthful speech is the first casualty of original sin. Adam eats, and pretty soon we have words like “collateral damage.” Leaders should not be asked to say everything they know – they’re charged also to guard what people have told them in confidence, as any good priest knows. But that doesn’t justify the way leaders both churchly and civic feel they can twist the truth.
The Church is a mixed body, and people are mixed persons. How should leaders handle scandal in their organizations, their churches, their families, their own lives?
PR people are often better at this than church people, scandalously enough. They say to say everything you know when you know it, don’t try to spin or hide, be as cooperative with internal and external authorities as you can, and you not only will be perceived as turning the corner back toward truth – you actually will be doing so.
What do Christian leaders need to do to prepare for and meet the challenges of the relatively new, post-Constantinian, secular age in which we now find ourselves? How might one exercise countercultural leadership in a post-Christian culture?
Well, one key source of learning is conversation and friendship with Christian leaders in the majority world. In Africa or Asia or Latin America it’s often illuminating to learn that Christians are called to be “servant-leaders,” to lead in a way that doesn’t enrich themselves or their families but that rather makes us less for the sake of our people or organization, in imitation of Christ’s kenosis [see Philippians 2:5-11 – ed.]. Here in the US the “servant-leader” language sounds sort of dusty and dated, there it’s a revelation. Of course our speaking into their reality will require their speaking into ours, and they often say we’re not nearly biblical enough, morally serious enough, generous enough.
Back on our turf, we still have these undead zombie-like stories from the 60s that say Christians need to be more “open to the world,” leave our specific religious language, be hip like the culture, and so on. But part of the shift in the world is that people don’t know the gospel, the stories of Scripture, even the basic teachings of the church. So far from needing to tone down our specificity, leaders in the future will have to teach these things from scratch to basically pagan people. This will be made harder by the long legacy of the religious right in this country using religious language to pummel opponents and gain votes. But we’re back where Lesslie Newbigin said we were already in the 80s: in a mission field, not a fresh one, but one that thinks it’s heard the gospel and rejected it. The truth is, as G.K. Chesterton noted, it’s never actually tried the gospel at all.
Preachers are leaders. How do you evaluate the state of preaching today? What can be done at various levels to improve it? What would you recommend to a preacher who feels he or she is struggling, or doing relatively will but who would like to improve?
Hard to generalize. Will Willimon, in his introduction to a series of sermons preached over almost a century at Duke Chapel, was surprised to find the more recent sermons the more biblically attentive, Christologically focused, and rhetorically successful entries. I take from Greg Jones that leaders of all kinds need to read very, very widely: theology, fiction, homiletics, social science, the newspaper, tons of history. A voracious appetite for words, for stories truly told, is surely part of the battle.
What books on leadership would you recommend? Any you would avoid?
Hugh Heclo’s book on institutions, On Thinking Institutionally, is quite good and accessible. In his books Better and Complications Atul Gawande writes in convincing ways about the skills required for being a good physician – lots of them include things like communicating well, reacting on one’s feet when one doesn’t have full knowledge, admitting wrong after the fact (all easy parallels). Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule is probably still unsurpassed in pastoral leadership literature. In general we Americans tend to speak of leadership as though it were a solo art. It never is. Reading good biographies of leaders (both failed and successful) is a way of seeing that no one births themselves. We always come from vibrant institutions and in turn give ourselves back to other vibrant institutions.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our leaders?
Thanks for the chance to talk about things that are desperately important!