A Perspective

Leadership as Alignment

This I have in common with you who are clergy leaders of congregations: we have bet our vocational lives on a Reality we cannot see or measure or control. When I step back, I find this risk astounding. At some point, and many times since, you too were drawn into and felt embraced by gracious Mystery, most clear and compelling to us in Jesus. With the coins of your time—50, 60, 70 hours a week, possibly 50, 60, 70 years of your life—you wager, along with a congregation, that Spirit (God) exists as a merciful, shalom-making source and force in the world.

Leadership, then, becomes both discerning this God movement and aligning our lives with this transformative work.

My seeing is severely limited by a privileged position as white, male, heterosexual, and upper middle class. With the help of other discerners, this clarity has surfaced. In my life span I have glimpsed a pattern of partnership emerging from the chaos of conflicting worldviews—couples seeking shared power, collaborating teams in the work place, non-violent strategies, training in conflict resolution, councils for truth and reconciliation, growing awareness of interdependence between human and non-human beings, experiments with democracy, and new ways of conceptualizing our partnering with God as co-creators. I have noted the longing for, and some realization of, just relationships across divides of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, class and age.


Courtesy of Alliance of Baptists

From this movement, I draw four convictions about leadership of the church in our day. I offer them as my perspective, informed hunches, attempts at provocation, not as final directives.

First, leaders of peace (shalom) are working the growing edge of history. I follow others[i] in noting “a great turning” from the principle of domination, coercive power-over to the principle of partnership, relational, collaborative power-with. While this alternative,”turning” has been embodied here and there in human history, it remains a minority movement. Yet it just may be building momentum in our day. The yearning is fierce.

By observation, this “turning” is occurring in the midst of much unraveling; by faith, I believe it is of God. I see this movement on two fronts, external and internal. We partner with God both in the external work of dismantling structural violence while offering embodiments of partnerships; and we partner with God in the internal work of dismantling ways we violate our own God-given worth and potential. This divine movement of personal and social transformation is the very force to which the church gives witness.

Second, leadership in our day is particularly arduous. Leaders work within highly anxious environments, charged with blaming the other, herding into camps, reacting, and pushing for quick-fixes. Effective leadership calls for opposite behaviors. It addresses this toxicity by valuing reasoned responses, not reactivity; urging responsibility, not blaming; collaborating, not herding into camps; and seeking long-term solutions, not quick-fixes.[ii] Required within leaders are extraordinary courage, stamina, self-awareness, and inner resources.

Third, leadership rises within an intentional community of colleagues providing mutual support, collaboration and accountability. Bold leaders can appear to be alone when viewed through individualistic lens. In reality, their effectiveness always emerges from circles of companions in common cause. “Lone leader” is an oxymoron.

Fourth, the church, through its clergy and laity, is well positioned to nourish and channel this yearning for shalom. I acknowledge the audacity of such a statement. Many friends over my lifetime have left the institutional church, and for reasons I understand. Perhaps because of the church’s frequent complicity with violence against the “other,” including the earth, it has forfeited its rightful position of constructive leadership. Yet, with all its sin and weaknesses, the church, I believe, has a unique, critical role to fulfill.

The church, with little power to confront directly, takes a more subversive role by exposing the hubris of dominating power. It can unmask the presumptions in voices that promise more than they can deliver. It dares to unmask the assumptions beneath the stories that largely shape us and our culture—such as, reality is only what you can touch, taste, smell, hear and see;  …  or, violence can save us;  … or, economic growth brings prosperity for all; … or, possessing and consuming brings abundant life; … or, human progress requires competitive struggle from which only the fittest survive.

Positively, the church gifts the world with an alternative framing story.

  • A relational view of reality, one in which we are called to be in loving relationship with God and the “other” as ourselves.
  • Jesus, as one through whom the Spirit of divine love courses, who went about healing brokenness, exposing abusive power, loving enemies, dismantling social barriers, transforming suffering into compassion, being the life of God that still companions us.
  • A founding vision of one world, one creation, one humanity—an outlook that shines with particular relevance today.
  • With one’s deepest identity as God’s beloved, this inner security makes efforts at self-justification unnecessary.
  • Participation in the grand drama of God’s movement in history, a narrative that grants place, perspective, and power.
  • And congregations, in the face of rampant individualism, carry within their body a declaration of interdependence.

Amid the current rush toward absolutes to quell our anxiety, the church declares that faith thrives within awe and adventure, that knowing confesses not knowing, that love, not dogma, casts our fear.

These resources are for you whose hearts leap with mine at the gifts given to the church to be given to the world. They are for leaders committed to and aligned with this sacred arc toward Shalom, the “great turning.”

[i] These “others” include Walter Wink, Dorothee Soelle, David Korten, Riane Eisler, Daniel Snyder, Marcus Borg, Brian D. McLaren, Dominic Crossan, Richard Hester, and Joanna Macy who named this movement, “The Great Turning.”

[ii] Edwin H. Friedman describes poignantly the challenge and cost of leading in the face of chronically anxious resistance. See Failure of Nerve.

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