Barbara Kellerman, who is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has written several important and influential books that have stimulated a new leadership conversation of which clergy leaders should take note. Her lauded 2012 publication, The End of Leadership, says that “cultural evolution” and “technological revolution” have shifted the balance of power between leaders and followers—making leaders weaker and followers stronger. She asserts that America’s obsession with leadership and the leadership industry have failed to produce overseers who can truly thrive in a global information age.
Kellerman views leadership as a system of three moving parts: the leader, the follower, and the context. Her latest book, Hard Times: Leadership in America, focuses on the last of these. She suggests that context can be thought of as a series of concentric circles that move from immediate concerns to the larger forces that affect everyone. While few leaders ignore context altogether, their interests tend to target immediate concerns and neglect a wider, more expansive perspective. Failure to understand and account for these larger forces that impinge on decision-making often results in frustration and ultimate failure for the leader.
Months ago, Tom Nees, who is the president of Leading to Serve, a coaching and mentoring ministry, and who is also a former ministry director for the Church of the Nazarene, moderated a discussion with clergy leaders from the Mid-Atlantic District. Their conversation focused on Kellerman’s Hard Times as they reflected on its implications for pastoral ministry. The conversation, which took place at the district office in Glen Burnie, Maryland, included the following leaders: Ken Mills, superintendent of the Mid-Atlantic District; Bud Reedy, pastor of Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene, a two-campus church whose primary facility is in York, Pennsylvania; Russ Long, pastor of Bel Air Church of the Nazarene in Bel Air, Maryland; and Kevin Hardy, pastor of Crossroads Church of the Nazarene in Ellicott City, Maryland. An abbreviated and edited* portion of the panel discussion appears below.
My assumption was that if the church’s growth was due to my leadership, then its decline must also be my fault. I must not be giving this church the leadership it needs. This thought process created a crisis in me, and I eventually sought a path toward better leadership models.
Nees: In a prior book, The End of Leadership, Barbara Kellerman defines leadership as being ethical and effective and that across society most leaders are neither. In Hard Times, she’s more specific about the difficulties leaders face. Her point is that leaders in the United States (and even globally) are not paying enough attention to the mega context that affects their immediate context. Your immediate context will vary from time to time and place to place, but the larger context contains forces that affect everyone. What she describes has only emerged in the last decade or so, and has significant implications for those in church leadership. Our discussion will put some of the concepts shared in Hard Times into the context of pastoral ministry and see what issues are raised. Let’s begin with comments on your journey as a leader.
LONG: Years ago, I was in a fog about my context. Kellerman’s The End of Leadership, which talks about the democratization and flattening of leadership, explained how things were changing. Reading Hard Times helped me understand that the complexities I faced as a pastor were not the result of my own inadequacies but of something much larger.
REEDY: I’ve served Stillmeadow Church for twenty-five years. We had tremendous numerical and financial growth in our first fifteen years. Ten years ago, we plateaued and started declining. My assumption was that if the church’s growth was due to my leadership, then its decline must also be my fault. I must not be giving this church the leadership it needs. This thought process created a crisis in me, and I eventually sought a path toward better leadership models.
HARDY: Fourteen years ago, when I came as a young leader to Crossroads, our church was a hundred years old and ingrown. My first year and a half, we lost and gained a hundred people. We focused on lost people; that was the driving force behind everything we did. I kept my eyes on the mission but not the larger context, which I now know is important. The first years were rocky, but our success at reaching new people quickly changed the church’s culture.
Nees: What issues in the mega context have impacted the local church?
LONG: Few things are as evident to me as the shrinking of the middle class, which affects giving trends, attendance, and volunteerism. If people are giving less time, you have to double the volunteers. We’ve had to be creative with that. When my lay leaders discuss these issues, my role is to help them understand how our context has changed. If church giving declines, we think the immediate and proper response is to teach tithing. But the trends suggest that people give to multiple charitable entities, so this is a more complex challenge.
Nees: One of the takeaways of Kellerman’s book is her discussion on stagnant wages and the shrinking middle class. If your church is comprised of middle class people, you’re engaged with a cohort that’s somewhat depressed in American society. The whole middle class is under stress, which I assume affects many Nazarene churches.
Another striking thing from her book is that only 20 percent of Americans live in what we call a nuclear family. So if your congregation is built around the notion of a nuclear family as the immediate context, you’ve got a tough job because 80 percent of the population does not fit our notions of a traditional family. What other forces do you see at work?
REEDY: There is an absence of civility. We find it difficult to have civil conversations, and social media has contributed significantly to this problem. Stephen L. Carter, in his book Civility, says that civility is one of the core values that must exist for democracy to work. And we are seeing a decline in civility. We’ve let the outer cultural climate affect our churches, keeping us from talking about important issues that affect us all.
Another thing is that pastors tend not to discuss larger-context issues. We focus on the inner workings of the church and how our leadership is going there. It is difficult to get pastors to talk about exterior forces. We often feel powerless to do anything about external forces, so we concentrate instead on what’s in front of us.
Nees: It’s helpful to know there’s a larger context beyond the local church affecting things for good or for ill. When things aren’t going well, pastors must look at larger forces and not move too quickly toward self-incrimination. At the same time, it’s good to be aware that, when things are going well, we can take too much credit and think our leadership is the key. Rather than be at the center of everything, the leader is a partner with followers, and good leadership works together with followers to accomplish what the church deems important to its mission.
Kellerman’s book has a checklist of twenty-four items that affect our larger context. What items on this checklist stand out as things that create difficulty for the pastor?
MILLS: Her discussion on culture is important for understanding attitudes about traditional religion and generational differences, such as millennials and their distrust of and lack of confidence in leadership, as well as attitudes on sexuality. These complexities require a different type of leader.
LONG: These issues have caused me to be more intentional in my vocabulary and how we present ourselves to the broader culture. I’ve noticed that the younger generation has a high need for authenticity. You can be real and honest without sounding judgmental. You can communicate on their level and take into account their views of culture, which has caused me to adjust my leadership style.
REEDY: As George Barna points out in his book Revolution, a growing number of people identify themselves as Christ followers but have little interest identifying with a local church. Much of this has to do with broader factors: the privatization of religion and religious experience, and the isolation we see in our society. Many people who attend worship services are not as likely to be regular attenders as they used to be, and these patterns affect local giving and volunteerism, making leadership more difficult in a local setting.
Nees: Kellerman says that social media makes leadership especially difficult. A person or group can stir up something negative online and influence people. What have you found to be challenges with social media, and how do we use it to an advantage?
HARDY: I’ve seen Christians turn people away from Christianity on social media. People say things, even small statements, that can be taken out of context and appear negative or judgmental. I advise people not to debate or get into arguments on social media. It’s not a forum to resolve issues. Too many people read from their own viewpoint, and things can easily spiral out of control.
REEDY: Kevin, we’re Facebook friends, and we’ve both made that mistake, right?
HARDY: Yes, we have.
REEDY: I once posted about a social issue and had 250 comments ranging across the spectrum. Things got contentious. I finally said, “Can we just end this conversation and move on?” It was a lesson learned.
LONG: In this environment, you never know who is reading or listening. One thing that concerns me about social media is that it’s instantaneous. Once you press that button, you can’t always anticipate what will happen; you lose control. If you don’t think before you push that button, it can bite you.
HARDY: We used to print a bulletin to communicate to our congregation. Today, we use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and the web. Our church has its own app. We’re constantly trying to communicate, and some people still say, “I didn’t know that was going on.” Technology makes me accessible and makes it harder to get away. People want your attention immediately. If I fail to return an email within a day or two, some feel ignored. I constantly get texts and Facebook messages. If I don’t respond, it’s easy to become irrelevant. People communicate on multiple platforms, and it’s hard to be an expert at communication in all these various contexts, but we have to do it well if we’re going to participate in ministry in this world.
REEDY: We had a crisis in our church when a group tried to leverage social media to go after one of our staff members. Their efforts were ineffective, and the situation corrected itself. While social media will always have a dark side, the positive merits outweigh the potential negatives. When the worship service begins at my church, it’s amazing how many people I connect with because we’re Facebook friends. I ask how relatives are doing, or if they found their missing dog. Social media provides immense possibilities for relational connections—not only for me but for the whole congregation. In addition, the prayer life of our church is more effective because of social media. We pray for each other literally around the world. It has helped me stay much more meaningfully connected with a larger number of people in our church, and in a large congregation, that’s a real blessing.
HARDY: Twitter is a great way to find and follow trends going on locally, nationally, and globally. If churches disregard what’s happening in the broader context—the large and important issues we talk about and experience during the week—we quickly become irrelevant. We must not allow ourselves to be insulated from the greater context. If our prayer times don’t include significant issues, like the racial tension in Ferguson, or other critical issues in our nation or across our globe, we have nothing that connects us beyond ourselves, so the church becomes irrelevant, and people check out.
Nees: Let’s move on to discuss how your leadership has changed as a result of the mega context. What is different about the way you do things now as opposed to ten years ago?
MILLS: As a district superintendent, I spend more time in communication with congregations, boards, and leadership teams than I used to. Years ago, I could suggest to a church board whom to consider as a pastoral candidate, and my suggestion would be given fair consideration. Now, there is a need to spend more time talking to these various groups about the church: who they are, what they are about, their community makeup, and who can take them where they want to go. This isn’t a bad thing, but the communication is deeper and more timeconsuming than it used to be. Pastoral transitions take longer because you have to satisfy the church board and sometimes the rest of the congregation, which compounds expectations. Churches tend to want a new pastor right away, but it takes longer to build consensus, so things get stretched out.
Nees: Does this change reflect a distrust of leadership, the idea that people don’t defer as they have in the past?
MILLS: Yes. I’ve also discovered that trust issues can exist between church boards and congregations. The congregation can say about its board, “They do not represent us; they do not speak for us.” Additionally, fewer people these days want to serve on a church board; it can be very demanding. People are sometimes confronted before and after board meetings by the demands of others. So a superintendent may have to work beyond a small group of leaders and disseminate information and build consensus from a wider perspective.
Nees: This kind of environment can be dispiriting to pastors. Some have coped by exiting the ministry. For those who stay, it means finding ways to adapt to your context and culture. How have you done this, and how has your leadership changed?
LONG: Even though retirement is not far off, I feel a greater sense of urgency about lost people than at any other point in my ministry. Despite my challenges, I question whether I have the right to step away from that. I’m also a persistent person who likes a challenge. Despite times when I’ve had my own confusion and lack of clarity, I want to persevere and help others.
Regarding church boards, I find it helpful to focus on defining present realities. People can talk about opinions and put out hypotheses, but what is true? What is real? There’s a lot of data that can help leaders define reality. From there, you can ask what can be done and move to strategic planning. When you see a way forward, energy levels rise, and the darkness lifts.
REEDY: I’ve always been a reader, but I find myself needing to read more now than ever before in my ministry. I can’t imagine with the changing nature of ministry how we could do this without listening to others’ minds and hearts. So I read as much as I can. About four years ago, I sensed in my own spirit the need to make significant leadership changes in my church. I began with a little book by Leonard Sweet called Summoned to Lead. Sweet made a statement that there was a time when experience was the most important arrow in your quiver, but that’s now changed to discernment. It’s discerning what God is doing in the world and putting yourself in a place where you can effectively lead in that new reality. That was a paradigm shift for me.
Nees: How has that insight changed your leadership?
REEDY: It shifted my understanding of my role. For years, my position at Stillmeadow was referred to as “senior pastor,” but now it is “lead pastor.” I’ve eliminated that executive language, and our pastoral staff has adopted a polycentric leadership style. In other words, we are all pastors; we are all colleagues, and they don’t work for me as the lead pastor of the church. We work for one another, and we work together as a team. This was a huge shift for us.
Nees: That’s one of the definitions Kellerman comes up with when describing leadership. There’s a movement, particularly with millennials, that shies away from hierarchical definitions of leading to shared leadership. Many millennials don’t want to lead if that means being a solitary person in charge. A leadership team, or shared leadership, is more appealing. An autocratic leader will often get pushback.
REEDY: Let me add that this insight created an awareness that I had been indoctrinated into a certain style of leadership—one that had worked very well. In his book Creating a Missional Culture, J. R. Woodward says the age in which we live tends to shape our leadership style. He identifies three different ages: print, broadcast, and digital. Many of us who have been in ministry a while were shaped by the broadcast age. The digital age is a fairly recent development, which Woodward says began in 2010.
The broadcast age shaped my leadership style. Leaders who typify this style see their first responsibility as being motivators. They are purposedriven leaders, and they work to harness the potential of the organization around its mission, which was big for me. They are appointment- and task-oriented; their relationships often become a functional way to complete certain objectives. The qualities needed for this type of leader are the abilities to be persuasive, think on one’s feet, and utilize big events to mobilize people and grab the community’s attention. Such leaders are innovative, with strong interpersonal skills. They gravitate toward novelty as a way to stand out and raise the organization’s profile.
Woodward says that leadership must transition with the advent of each age. He says the digital age shifts away from the motivational leader to the “impartational” leader, which is a collaborative, grassroots-oriented, roving type of leadership.
This type of leader disperses authority and maintains cohesion through relationships and collaboration—the image of a gardener expresses this way of relating. Their relationships are often unscripted, personal, and familial. Rather than the boardroom, work takes place in living rooms or on the streets, and is more relational, interactive, and mentor-based. This style requires the ability and skills to be approachable, agile, a networker, and an advocate. There is a lot more emphasis on collective achievement, less stress on big events, and more stress on storytelling.
I’ve learned how to inculcate this style from our younger leaders who do this more naturally, but this perspective has had a tremendous influence on my leadership effectiveness.
People won’t associate with a church, regardless of its belief system, if they are not first attracted to the quality of the community. This quality results from the way we love and relate to one another. If the community is filled with warmth, kindness, service, and care for each other, these observable actions validate the beliefs of that fellowship.
Nees: Whether you realize it, your immediate context is being influenced by this digital age, so the question for leaders is how to adapt and retool in light of changing times.
HARDY: Thinking digitally is the biggest thing we do differently. Everything we do has to have a digital component. We’re an image-conscious culture, so everything has to have an image. Everything has to be created and communicated in multiple ways and through multiple platforms. Oral and written communication are not enough. Videos have to be made, and stories have to be told if what you’re doing is going to have significance. These were skills I didn’t learn in college, and ministry preparation didn’t equip me. I’ve had to make these adjustments on the job, and I’m constantly struggling to figure things out. If you’re not adaptive, you fall behind.
REEDY: Even if I can’t become an expert, it is important to be intentional about finding someone else to fulfill that role. My youth pastor constantly thinks digitally. It’s a natural impulse, and he comes up with suggestions that would never even cross my mind.
Nees: Congregations are faith communities, places where people talk and are close to one another. How do you encourage community in a context where people live between their virtual communities and their real communities? As a pastor, what is your role in this?
HARDY: Churches have tended to emphasize believing before belonging—that you have to accept the community’s faith affirmations before you are allowed into the fellowship. We have reversed this to allow people to belong before they are ready to believe. When people walk into a church, it is important that they sense that they belong even before they come to Christ or affirm the faith. If you have that kind of affirming and loving community, you have jumped steps ahead with them spiritually. People won’t associate with a church, regardless of its belief system, if they are not first attracted to the quality of the community. This quality results from the way we love and relate to one another. If the community is filled with warmth, kindness, service, and care for each other, these observable actions validate the beliefs of that fellowship.
This ethic, this way of relating, has to go beyond the virtual and characterize our faceto-face relations. The virtual is always just an enhancement; it’s not the essential thing. I don’t think we can replace spending time sharing with each other, whether that’s in corporate worship or serving together in small groups. That is what creates community.
As a pastor, I miss visiting people in their homes—especially the living room—which is where you go to see the family’s context. You understood their life by seeing their pictures, their food, their furnishings, and their way of relating to each other. There are people in my church whose homes I have never visited. I used to feel guilty about that, but people aren’t as comfortable inviting a minister into their homes anymore; their availability has changed.
LONG: Kevin, I remember when your congregation lost a significant person, a boy who died of cancer. Your pastoral concern was so apparent by what you placed on Facebook, which touched people who would not have been reached on Sunday morning.
HARDY: This was significant. Using everyday things like Facebook and Twitter allowed people a window into somebody else’s suffering, somebody else’s hurt, and it created an opportunity for cohesion and for the church to come together.
REEDY: At Stillmeadow, our main core value is to connect, but not all connections are created equal. Ken, our district superintendent, asked us to report meaningful missional connections. One year we reported a hundred thousand missional connections. We want our people to make meaningful, missional and relational connections with people, but with a purpose. We want to move them into relational intimacy with one another and with God, and into the center of the church’s life.
Nees: In our last few minutes, I’d like to forecast what you think the next several years will bring. What kinds of changes do you see coming, and what will leaders need to consider?
MILLS: I think our mega context will continue to get more complex, diverse, and difficult, but I’m convinced that’s why we’re here. This is a time that God has called us to minister, and I don’t want to miss it.
HARDY: This time brings immense opportunities for the church. Our diverse, fast-paced, and high-tech world is driving some people to hopelessness and an inability to find meaning and purpose in life. Christ is still the hope of the world, and the church still has important work to do. We are going to have to change and adapt and work to understand our broader context. This will require us to try new things.
LONG: I’ve been challenged by the context of the early church. Those were dark days. Government was oppressive, and Christians were martyred, but the church found a way to speak into difficult times. I feel optimistic, but certain things concern me. In this economy, it’s going to be tough for small churches to have a full-time pastor who receives benefits. Having male and female clergy who can understand and navigate the culture is critical. We need to continue to train pastors about our theology and develop biblical and pastoral expertise.
Nees: Learning the language and thought forms of the culture in order to connect is the new missional challenge.
LONG: Some people, whether economically or otherwise, are waiting for things to return to the way they were. If you listen to the experts, we have to understand the very real need to be a different kind of church and different kinds of leaders than what we were. Things are never returning to the way they were.
Nees: Russ, a phrase I’ve heard you repeat is “the new normal,” so continuing to define the new normal is our challenge.
REEDY: This discussion, and others like it, is a critique of the North American church. Have we become too materialistic? Have we developed an edifice complex that believes that effective ministry can’t result unless we raise a ton of money and construct buildings? I’m convinced the Holy Spirit will show us we can minister effectively without buildings and with lay leadership, as they have in China. We must also take a hard look at clergy preparation as we consider future challenges.
As sociologist and author Rodney Stark notes, the early church grew exponentially from the margins of society without money, buildings, or professional clergy. This reality is a tremendous critique, both to the church of Jesus Christ in North America and to my own leadership in days past. It may be a blessing in disguise as we move forward. I want to lean on the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit for missional effectiveness.
Nees: As we face these challenging days, may our calling be—as John Wesley put it—“to serve this present age.”
This article is part of a series accompanying videos here.
*Editor’s Note: Transcripts of conversations can be especially difficult to edit, especially for smooth readability. This transcript was adapted and edited, and in places, condensed or reworked for brevity and clarity, while trying to ensure that the spirit of what was said remained.