Lovett H. Weems grew up in Mississippi and was a United Methodist pastor for many years before going into seminary administration. For eighteen years, he served as president of Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. Weems says he spent his first two years at Saint Paul listening to laypeople, night after night and weekend after weekend, talk about what the seminary needed to know about preparing leaders and what leadership meant to them. This journey stimulated a lifelong investment in the study and literature of leadership. He says, “People in our churches don’t want an autocratic style of leadership and won’t put up with that. But they want to know what they can expect from someone who’s in a leadership position.”
Weems is the author of several books, most notably, Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit and Church Leadership: Vision, Team, Culture, and Integrity, and more recently, High Yield: Seven Disciplines of the Fruitful Leader (with Tom Berlin). The revised edition of his classic, Church Leadership, has been described by Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School as “an invaluable guide to leadership in the church.”
After several years as a leader, teacher, and writer concerned with congregational leadership, Weems was asked in 2003 to be the founding director for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Grace and Peace Magazine visited Weems at his office at Wesley Theological Seminary and asked him for his thoughts on leadership in the Wesleyan spirit.
G&P: HOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND LEADERSHIP IN THE WESLEYAN SPIRIT?
WEEMS: There are many things that could be named, but one that stands out is that leadership in the Wesleyan spirit always begins with people. It’s not that doctrine is not important. It is. But the beginning point for Wesley was not so much his doctrine as it was the needs of people. He might preach multiple times in the same day and have a different text and a different sermon each time, depending on whom he was preaching to. So it begins with people: It focuses on serving instead of being served; it follows people when they move; and it always remembers especially the poor. That was an emphasis of Wesley’s. It’s been an emphasis in virtually all of the Wesleyan denominations. Certainly in the Church of the Nazarene it was a major part of the establishment of that church.
G&P: JOHN WESLEY'S LEADERSHIP STYLE SAW HIM CONNECTED TO THE CENTER BUT ALSO TO THE MARGINS. HOW DOES THIS UNDERSTANDING SERVE AS A MODEL FOR WESLEYAN LEADERSHIP TODAY?
WEEMS: Leading from the center as well as from the margins is what church leaders have to do today. It’s certainly not true that the church is at the center of society today in the way that it might once have been. On the other hand, the church is not on the margins either. There are times when the church has access to people of influence and resources and can lead from that center. However, there are other times when it has to lead from the margins, from the edges. It’s not as simple as trying to act as if the church is a kind of established entity that people ought to serve and give deference to. It’s also not the case that the church has no influence at the center of society.
IT BEGINS WITH PEOPLE: IT FOCUSES ON SERVING INSTEAD OF BEING SERVED; IT FOLLOWS PEOPLE WHEN THEY MOVE; AND IT ALWAYS REMEMBERS ESPECIALLY THE POOR.
G&P: YOU HAVE SAID THAT THE BEGINNING POINT OF ALL CHURCH RENEWAL IS THEOLOGY AND TRADITION. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS, AND HOW CAN A STRONG IDENTITY AND COMMON CORE AID RENEWAL?
WEEMS: I’ve noticed two things about all vital congregations. They connect people with God, and they connect to their communities. When things are not going well, leaders sometimes feel a need to do something new and different, even radically departing from their history. Church renewal tends to come not from getting rid of our heritage but rediscovering the heritage—not the forms, necessarily, but the spirit and the power that gave rise to those traditions.
G&P: HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR PASTORS TO SPEND TIME DISCOVERING THE HISTORY, VALUES, AND STORY OF THEIR CONGREGATIONS?
WEEMS: It’s critically important to know the history and culture of a congregation. Sometimes clergy get aggravated with church members because they always want to talk about the “good old days,” and pastors want to focus on the future. However, God didn’t arrive when we arrived. If all we can focus on is the time since we’ve been there, it’s as if we’re saying that those fifty, seventy-five, eighty years before we came didn’t count.
So first, you need to recognize that God has been active a long time and that you are the newest part of that history. Learn the history so you can draw from it. You want to learn it as well as or better than anybody else. That way, if they want to talk about the 1950s, then you can talk to them about the 1930s. You’ll be able to draw from that history for present needs. The last thing you want to say is, Now that I’m here, we’re going to become something you’ve never been before. You want to be in a position of saying, You know what our forefathers and foremothers dreamed of and prayed about when this church was established? We’re going to be more of that.
Get to know that history. Then you can draw from it to show how the DNA is the same but that it gets manifested in different ways at different times.
G&P: YOU HAVE SAID THAT THE LONGER A CHURCH EXISTS, THE LESS KNOWLEDGEABLE AND LESS CONNECTED IT IS TO ITS COMMUNITY. WHAT CAN CLERGY LEADERS DO TO KEEP THEIR CHURCHES KNOWLEDGEABLE AND CONNECTED TO THEIR COMMUNITIES?
WEEMS: It is counter-intuitive that the longer a church is in a community, the less knowledgeable about that community it tends to be. In the early days of a church, it is very connected to its community. Almost all of its effort is outward. If that’s not the case, it will die. Then there comes a time when there’s critical mass. They have a building. They have a pastor. The focus starts going inward.
I’ve asked this question all over the country: If there are two churches in a community, one is 150 years old and one just started having worship services six months ago, which of those two will be closest to the pulse of the community? People always say the new church. It doesn’t make sense since the other one’s had a 150year head start, but it’s absolutely true. Today there is often a gap between those who are attending church regularly and those who make up the wider population around the church. Many churches find that engagement with their public schools is becoming a way not just to connect to a community that’s changed over the years but also to help the children and teachers.
Another thing is to get into the community and listen. A phrase someone has used recently is, “Your community is your congregation.” That’s a good way of thinking about it. That’s very similar to the early U.S. context where the parish was thought of as the community as a whole. In fact, that may be what John Wesley had in mind when he said, “I look upon the world as my parish”—where you have an obligation, a responsibility, to the entire community. There’s no way for us to say our church is stronger and more vital if our schools and communities are weaker.
G&P: YOU'VE ENCOURAGED METHODIST CHURCHES TO FOCUS ON REACHING MORE PEOPLE, YOUNGER PEOPLE, AND MORE DIVERSE PEOPLE. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM CLERGY LEADERS REGARDING THIS EFFORT, AND HOW CAN IT BE ACCOMPLISHED EFFECTIVELY?
WEEMS: There is no future for any church or denomination in the United States that cannot reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people. What I see churches discovering is that at first they may be inclined toward one or two of those three categories. However, they’re finding that they will either reach all three, or they will reach none. If you reach younger people, they will be diverse because of the diversity of the under-twenty population today. If you reach more people, they will be younger because it’s virtually impossible to recruit people older than those in the church today—there’s such a high average age. So they all go together. What studies have shown is, if churches can change, they can grow. That’s the difficult part—one survey found that laity want their churches to reach younger people, but in that same survey, they indicated they were not willing to change their worship or budgets for that to happen.
THERE IS NO FUTURE FOR ANY CHURCH OR DENOMINATION IN THE UNITED STATES THAT CANNOT REACH MORE PEOPLE, YOUNGER PEOPLE, AND MORE DIVERSE PEOPLE.
G&P: OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS PASTORS ARE FACING UNPRECEDENTED CHALLENGES IN THE AREA OF IRREGULAR CHURCH ATTENDANCE, LOWER GIVING PATTERNS, AND A CHALLENGE OF MINISTRY TO YOUNGER, POSTMODERN FAMILIES. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM CLERGY LEADERS ABOUT HOW TO FACE THESE CHALLENGES?
WEEMS: The world has really changed for churches. As late as the 1990s, worship attendance in the United States was very strong. That continued into 2001. In fact, in many denominations there was a little bit of an uptick in 2001 because of 9/11— for five Sundays, record crowds attended church. However, after those five Sundays, attendance went down. And it has not stopped turning down since. It’s what I call a worship recession. What I’ve found to be the most consistent factor that makes sense to me is that the definition of regular worship attendance has changed. In the past, a regular attender came three or four times a month. Today, it might be once or twice a month. That puts some particular challenges on churches. One is financial, particularly if people are giving primarily when they attend. Yet it also has relational challenges. You no longer can depend on having everyone present.
Every age cohort seems to think it’s different from the generation before but that the generation after them will be “just like us.” That’s just not the case. Churches will always have conflict around generational issues, but if they do, then they should celebrate because that means they are still alive. It’s like having teenagers. If you have teenagers, there’s going to be some tension. You can get rid of the tension by getting rid of the teenagers, I guess, but that’s not a very good solution!
If you’ve got multiple generations, you’re going to have some tension. Today, leadership is calling for not just technical fixes to things—maybe we should sing one less song or add this instrument—but rather more adaptive challenges that require not just fine-tuning what we’ve always done but really listening to lots of different people and looking for unmet needs and things that resonate with them and making real changes.
I ask churches to think about the living edges and dying edges in their churches. The living edges are those things that, even if they aren’t announced, still happen. They’re the kind of things that people are talking about days and days after they’ve happened. The dying edges are the things you have to promote over and over and still it’s hard to make them come off every year.
If you look at those two baskets and ask, What are the characteristics of these living edges? What are the characteristics of the dying edges? What clues does that give us about things that are working today and things that aren’t working today? Part of that listening can be what I call reverse mentoring. If you have people who are far more represented in the population as a whole than in your church, it would be good for those with the power to influence things to listen to them—just listen— not debate, not argue, but ask open-ended questions; that’s reverse mentoring.
G&P: MANY LONG-TIME NAZARENE CHURCHES ARE BURDENED WITH MAINTAINING THEIR CHURCH PROPERTIES TO THE POINT THAT MAINTENANCE GETS IN THE WAY OF MISSION. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM OTHER CHURCHES AND CLERGY LEADERS THAT CAN ADDRESS THIS CHALLENGE?
WEEMS: Churches that have been around for a number of years often have tremendous deferred-maintenance needs. Many are in buildings that were built for a large congregation and now the congregation is much smaller. We must ask ourselves, Why do we have property? Why do we have buildings? What ministry needs do they serve? Do we have the right property that we need to do ministry? If we do, what condition are those buildings in?
Finding ways to keep buildings focused on ministry is the key. If you think about your property and facilities as assets that are a part of the commonwealth of the congregation to be used for one purpose alone—to fulfill its mission—then it’s easier not to let the buildings become the focus.
Here’s an illustration. A congregation had been in a debate for a year over repainting the sanctuary. There were two groups with opposite views on what the sanctuary should look like. After that year of debate, one person came up with the right question: “For whom are we painting the sanctuary?” That opened up a missional way to think about the property. Our mission helps us get clear on what facilities we need and how to make decisions about their use.
G&P: HOW IMPORTANT IS CLEAR AND REGULAR COMMUNICATION FOR PASTORAL EFFECTIVENESS?
WEEMS: I like to say that the pastor should see him or herself as the chief communication officer. This doesn’t mean that the pastor is the only one doing communication, but you’ve got to see your role as telling the story, lifting the vision, and seeking coherence in what’s being said. Preaching is one part, but there are so many other ways to tell the story of what God is doing and where God is calling the congregation to go. So, if making announcements seems like a chore, instead see it as a way of connecting to what God is doing. Writing a message for the newsletter is an opportunity to write another stanza of the church’s story.
G&P: YOU'VE EMPHASIZED THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MENTORING, ESPECIALLY FOR YOUNGER CLERGY. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED IN THIS EFFORT, AND HOW CAN EFFECTIVE MENTORING BE DONE WITHIN A DENOMINATIONAL SETTING?
WEEMS: We’ve done research with people who were ordained in the United Methodist Church over a fiveyear period. We looked with them at various things done in the early years to help them develop effectiveness in ministry, such as continuing education, covenant groups, supervision, and mentoring. We found that mentoring by far was seen as the most effective means of helping these new clergypersons grow in their effectiveness. If a denomination wants to put effort where it can be most helpful, mentoring is a good place to start.
Not everyone is capable of being a good mentor, but there are best practices that people can learn. If the people being mentored have some feedback in terms of the type of mentor they have, that’s important. We’ve also learned from pastors of large churches that if they could have had a mentor—someone who had been through the experience of going from a smaller to a larger church—that would have been a great help to them.
G&P: HOW IMPORTANT IS LIFELONG EDUCATION FOR THE CLERGY LEADER?
WEEMS: Many clergy leaders today have been well prepared for their ministries. However, the rate of change is such that no one feels adequately prepared once they are on their own. John Wesley encouraged pastors to read and read, to make opportunities to be together to learn from others. Anything that can help increase your knowledge and expertise will help you grow in ministry.
There are three things that people need to grow as leaders. One is challenge. One is support. One is feedback. You always want to find ways to get those things together and continue to grow. Great leaders don’t start out as great leaders. The difference often is that the really great leaders learn from their experience and from others—they become the leaders they are.
G&P: TALK ABOUT THE LEWIS CENTER FOR CHURCH LEADERSHIP. WHAT IS IT? WHAT DOES IT DO? HOW CAN PASTORS BE INVOLVED?
WEEMS: The Lewis Center for Church Leadership was established in 2003 by Wesley Theological Seminary to be a resource for the church anchored in the seminary, serving as, for instance, executive development programs do in business schools where you’re trying to help practitioners—in our case, clergy and congregational lay leadership. Our focus is on helping congregations and their leaders increase their capacity for leadership so that there’s an increase in service, vitality, and growth in those churches.
We try to have an applied research component to everything we do, and our model of change we call “actionable strategic insights.” It’s those few things we can discover through research about how people who want to make a difference can do these things and have a reasonable expectation that they can be more fruitful in their ministry.
For example, someone may have a heart for starting a new church, but they haven’t spent a lifetime studying that. Or someone is asked to be a clergy mentor for a young pastor. They know they’re a reasonably effective pastor, but they’ve never studied the literature of mentoring. If they can get some basic practices that will make them a better mentor, they will use those. The same is true for when someone begins in a new church. There are a host of things like that.
The Lewis Center’s most popular resource is a free online newsletter called “Leading Ideas.” We invite clergy and laity alike to go to the center’s website at churchleadership. com and subscribe to “Leading Ideas.” While there, you can see other resources we have. We have free downloads in the Fifty Ways series: Fifty Ways to Strengthen Your Ministry with Children, Fifty Ways to Strengthen Your Financial Stewardship Ministry, things of that nature.
This article has an accompanying video here.
LOVETT H. WEEMS JR. serves as professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and director for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington, DC.