The Number-One "Vision Problem"

I believe in the importance of vision and leadership. Still, I've grown almost allergic to the statements that seem to be so common about having and casting a vision. It's why I love this quote by John Ortberg in Ready, Steady, Grow, a book by Ray Evans. Ortberg says:

Vision is fundamental to the health of your church, but it’s probably not the kind of vision you’re thinking about.

Someone gets gripped by a vision that will not let them go. But it is not a vision of what they’re going to do. It is not a vision of a preferred future. It is not a vision of human activity. It is a vision of what already is. It is a vision of God, and how good he is, and how wonderful it is to be alive and a friend of such a Being.

Out of such a vision flow desires to do good things for such a God. Sometimes these activities may lead to results... And then other people may gather, and some decide they’d like to be involved...[But] people begin to pay more attention to what they are doing than to the reality of God.

At this point the mission replaces the vision as the dominant feature in people’s consciousness... people are living under the tyranny of Producing Impressive Results.

The number-one ‘vision problem’ with churches today is not (as is widely held) leaders who ‘lack a vision’. The real problem is when our primary focus shifts from who God is (a vision alone that can lead to ‘the peace of Christ reigning in our hearts’) to what we are doing.

Great quote. The number one problem with vision in our churches is that we lack a vision of God. Until we have that, almost nothing else matters.

The First Priority of Leadership

What’s the first priority of leadership? Character. It matters more than leadership techniques, skills, or even results. The results that matter, after all, flow from character.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of three different books: The Deep Change Field Guide by Robert Quinn, Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer,  and Redefining Leadership by Joe Stowell.

To my surprise, Palmer has a lot to say about leadership in Let Your Life Speak. Because pastors are (among other things) leaders, and “a leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there,” character is crucial. Palmer writes:

A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.

Leaders, he writes, have a tendency to “project more shadow than light.” Positive thinking doesn't change this, and it also ignores some dangers:

By failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!…If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

Parker outlines five issues that we tend to face, including insecurity about identity and worth, a tendency to view everything as a battle, functional atheism (“It all depends on me”), fear of chaos, and denial of death. I think I've seen all five in leaders, including myself.

What is a good leader? Parker writes:

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us into a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.

It’s no accident that Scripture puts such high value on the character of a leader. It’s the difference between what Joe Stowell calls “character-driven leadership” and “outcome-driven leadership.” We need more focus on character. Character, Stowell writes, is the defining priority of leadership. His book, along with Let Your Life Speak and The Deep Change Field Guide, are striking similar notes.

We will inevitably project who we are. All the leadership techniques in the world will not change this. Apart from a character that is shaped by the gospel, we will project shadows. The first priority of a leader must be character: to be remade by the gospel, to experience the deepest change, to be the chief repenter, the most enamored with the gospel, and the most real about life.

Character is the first priority of leadership.

Pastors and Deep Change

According to Robert Quinn, self-change is crucial to leadership. The organization — for instance, the church — will not change unless the leader (the pastors) experience deep change. Leadership is not so much a set of skills as much as about choosing deep change rather than slow death.

There are so many gospel implications I could make from this one key insight. We tend to overemphasize leadership skills and underemphasize what happens when pastors experience deep change.

One way to foster deep change? Fire yourself every Friday. Quinn quotes Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon. “Reinvent yourself first before you reinvent your company,” Jung said in an interview a few years back. While I wouldn’t express it exactly this way, I think she still has a point. Pastors: why reinvent a new church when you are in need of being reinvented by the gospel? Start there. She continues:

Fire yourself on a Friday night and come in on Monday morning as if a search firm put you there as a turn-around leader. Can you be objective and make the bold change? If you can't, then you haven't reinvented yourself. If you can, then you can have a decade of tenure that is like having different jobs.

Just two thoughts:

  • Before a church can be changed, I must be changed. Too often I focus on the work that I want to see God do out there rather than realizing he wants to do a work in me first. It's about being the chief repenter, the one most enamored with the gospel that never gets old.
  • I never want to coast as a pastor. May we never lose the freshness of the gospel and the immense privilege and responsibility of serving God through his church. Deep change — possible through the gospel — is always preferable to slow death, even if it means firing ourselves every Friday.

Leadership and Management

I'm finding John Kotter's book What Leaders Really Do to be very helpful. Kotter tackles a number of important topics: the one implied by the title, as well as the differences between leadership and management, and why transformation efforts fail.

Leadership is a murky topic, especially in the church. Some overemphasize leadership. Others dismiss it completely. I always find it ironic that the anti-leadership movement often seems to be to be very well led. Irony abounds.

Here are some notes I took from a section of the book that I found particularly helpful:

  • Leadership is not about charisma or exotic personality traits, nor does it belong to a select few.
  • Most organizations are over-managed and under-led.
  • Leadership and management are complementary. Both are needed. Contrary to popular opinion, you can manage and lead at the same time.
  • Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership is about coping with change.
  • Management is more deductive, and designed to produce orderly results. Leadership is more inductive, and creates visions and strategies, not plans.
  • Visions and strategies don't need to be brilliantly innovative. The best are not.

Leadership isn't everything, nor is it nothing. I find books like this one helpful as I continue to wrestle with the nature of leadership, particularly within the church.

Imagine There's No Leader

On the anniversary of John Lennon's death, on the day that Celine Dion appeared on CNN to sing Imagine (yikes!), Bill Kinnon came out with a provocative post More Disciples, Fewer Leaders Please. The whole post is worth reading.

Bill quotes Chris Wright. This is a brilliant quote and it deserves a lot of attention and thought:

I wouldn't start out with training leaders, I'd start out with making disciples.

I don't know what I can say to this except "Amen." It's brilliant and I think it's exactly right.

Bill also quotes Scot McKnight, who says:

...leadership too often places the pastor or some person in the front and having others be guided (and following) that person, and that, I dare say, distorts the entire gospel. Jesus was willing to say that his followers didn’t have a rabbi of their own, didn’t have a human father in a position of ultimate authority, and they didn’t have an instructor who was their teacher. They had one rabbi and one instructor, and his name was Jesus, and he was Messiah. They had one father, and he was Creator of all. They were to see themselves as brothers, not leaders. That’s straight from the lips of Jesus.

Again, a lot of truth here. And yet...

There's no doubt we're a little too fascinated with leadership. Leadership is important, as I'm about to argue, but it's not everything. I think Bill and the others are right to argue that we need a greater focus on discipleship than we do on leadership in our churches.

But one of the commenters gets it right:

I think sound leadership is crucial and always present in healthy churches. It’s sometimes hard to notice leadership until you find yourself somewhere where it’s very bad, or where there is none. I’ve seen churches that are dominated by a charismatic leader who holds the key to everything in the church. But I’ve also seen churches so eager to “democratize” all their practices, that no one is willing to make a decision or take responsibility for it.

I think much of our modern-day distaste for the word “authority” colors our perception of the role of leadership in the church. But I think the Bible explicitly and implicitly acknowledges how crucial leadership is.

All through Scripture we see leaders. One of the primary themes is that of shepherd, which is a rich leadership metaphor we need to take seriously. The question is not whether or not we need leaders. The question is what type of leader we need.

I'm all for reacting against leadership fads. But let's not imagine that there are no leaders. Let's instead begin to explore what a biblical leader is to do - and most of all to be.