Forming Gods People
Mark Lau Branson
Artikel in Congregations, Winter 2003

A few years ago, I asked a group of pastors to list the obligations and roles specified in our legislated denominational materials. As I listed these duties on a screen, the murmuring began. As leader of this retreat, I was supposed to provide a moderate dose of clarity and encouragement for colleagues who had asked for help with burnout, a dearth of collegial relationships, and little agreement on what we as clergy were trying to accomplish. It was obvious that this exercise did not encourage the group. More than three dozen separate items were included, and over 50 verbs. “Supervise…administer…care…report…preach…cooperate…evaluate search…counsel…lead…oversee…prepare…provide…deploy…obtain maintain….” Our documents specified topics for counseling, contexts for ministry, and, of course, denominational duties. The murmuring continued; then the pastors began laughing. They sat right there, in the presence of a judicatory leader who had a supervisory role, and they laughed at the job description.

When we look for resources to guide our modes of leadership, we are provided with a smorgasbord of types and metaphors. Consumer choice reigns, and pastors are tempted to deliver on the images. You might be a type-A CEO who creates and manages a “tall-steeple church” or a “megachurch.” You may prefer being an activist in the Saul Alinsky mold to help us act (or feel) really liberal (or conservative). Your style may be that of a motivational speaker who can intensify our spiritual affections.

Those who promote each image give us reasons that suit our desires for organizational successes, along with no small nod to our internal insecurities and drives. We might seek a pastor who serves as alter ego, as therapist, or as a parent who accepts or scolds or serves as a target for some leftover antiauthoritarian arrows. We may want a shepherd to be an all-sufficient guide, provider, and rescuer. Perhaps a teacher-sage would assure us that we are thoughtful and educated, then leave us to be enlightened adults who make up our own minds. If our priority is preserving a traditional institution and its financial holdings, we need a manager-controller. And even though we will use other terms, we may desire an entertainer whose sermons are at least marginally competitive with sports or concerts or, more likely, the lure of a latte with the Sunday paper.

Leading Where and Why

It is critical that leadership be understood as a secondary question. The prior work concerns ecclesiology, soteriology, and missiology—or what we mean by church, salvation, and mission. Through our leadership, what do we wish to create or move or form or produce? I hear church leaders who hope to lead massive growth, or institutional survival, or civic engagement. But we need to ask: Growth of what? Survival of what? What engagement, and why? Congregational leaders need constantly to ask: What is the church? And: What is the church in this place? In Models of the Church, Avery Dulles—priest, professor, and now cardinal—gave us a useful set of images. Each model could be used to develop appropriate dimensions to our leadership: institutions need managers, heralds articulate a message, servants express compassion and mercy. It is notable that Dulles’s revised edition features a new model, “community of disciples,” which he develops as a synthesizing and inclusive type.

Dulles’s attention to “community” counters rampant individualism as well as cultural definitions of community that include little more than affinity and affection. Dulles draws attention to specific qualities that seldom merit focus in many U.S. churches: relative intimacy, permanence, and proximity.1 These characteristics counter the congregational models that acquiesce to our society’s norms. We tend toward casual relationships (we’ve lost the long evenings of storytelling, and we seldom interfere in each others’ lives). We live commuter lives (work, friends, recreation, school, church). And we relocate frequently (for reasons of career and taste). If our congregations want to realize the traits Dulles notes, we will need to give adequate attention to geography, more significant time together, and committed covenant practices. Only with these emphases can a congregation promote consistency in discipleship and meaningful engagement with a neighborhood. In The Problem of Christianity Josiah Royce emphasized a community’s need for shared memories, cooperative activities (what sociologist Robert Bellah has called “committed practices”), and common hopes.2

Converging social forces have successfully embedded an imagined “good life” in our psyche and social formation—a salvation story that leads to habits of consumerism, careerism, and many levels of sanctioned and unsanctioned violence. Churches and pastors often serve as chaplains to this national project, perhaps offering moderating voices but generally keeping faith and church circumscribed to minimal practices. Akin to other civic players, church leaders find our niche (providing animated or staid worship, a food bank, a religious comment in civic settings). Clergy’s place is dictated by society, church is tagged onto the numerous commitments of all the members, and our relationships and imaginations are centered elsewhere.

What are we leaders to do if we take these descriptors of community seriously? How would one lead such a community if it is to display a thorough and distinctive association with Jesus? What memories need to be owned and repeated as common memories? How do we define “hope?” How might worship and love and ethics and jobs cohere? What cooperative activities are essential? How do we define and encourage proximity and permanence? What countering forces should we expect?

Giving Structure to a Vision

In an urban United Methodist church, a few families wanted to re-envision how our lives embodied our faith. We were several years into Bible study, social analysis, covenant groups, mission attempts, and continuing growth as a multicultural congregation. Some biblical passages had lured us—Jeremiah called for immigrant Hebrews (actually interned war prisoners) to envision several generations of life and service in Babylon (Jer. 29). Isaiah’s imaginative poetry celebrated a visible urban community that attracted the commendation and participation of others (Isa. 58). Luke’s accounts in Acts and Paul’s priorities in his letters gave us a sustained look at the Holy Spirit’s generative and corrective work of establishing identifiable covenanted communities.

These studies, and our analysis of urban forces, plus hours of prayer and stories, had led us to consider creating a co-housing3 community. Biblical images gave us the meanings we needed; continuing hours of conversation and labor built our relationships; planning and budgeting and delegating inched us forward to carry out this corporate project. Themes of community, ecology, and neighbors gave structure to our vision. We built and remodeled nine units, for various family sizes, with organic gardens, solar power, frequent meals with each other and with guests, and commitments to the neighborhood. Our church practices of plural leadership were evident in the shared work of envisioning, laboring, and caring about relationships.

This project illustrates how leadership needs to function in a congregation. Interpretive leadership creates and provides resources for a community of interpreters who pay attention to God, texts, context, and congregation. Relational leadership creates and nourishes all of the human connections in various groups, partnerships, friendships, and families. Implemental leadership develops strategies and structures so that a congregation embodies gospel reconciliation and justice in a local context and in the larger world. In effect, these three spheres are structures in the congregations—structures that give meanings (interpretive), human connections (relational), and organizational practices (implemental). It is crucial that a congregation’s primary leaders nurture capacities and skills in all three spheres, and that they are attentive to cohesive and coherent practices in the context of constant change.

Interpretive Leadership

Interpretive leadership creates a learning community. A community of interpreters uses the available literary, social, and spiritual skills to give attention to “texts” while listening to and observing God’s initiatives. The texts of Scripture and tradition require more attention than a Sunday sermon; those who are being formed into a covenant community will give considerable time and energy to study. The scriptural metanarrative4 and the individual writers and their narratives require significant attention. What do we mean by “covenant” or “gospel” or “faithful”? What does it mean to be a “church”? How did our faith ancestors worship? What kind of faith communities did they form? How were they to relate to neighbors? What mission is God’s mission?

Further, the congregation’s life, its history, and its makeup need attention. Various venues can be formed for the telling of spiritual autobiographies. I have also seen the benefits of telling cultural autobiographies and money autobiographies. The congregation as a whole also has a story. The official narratives give too much attention to clergy and buildings; we need to uncover stories of faith, of mission, of spiritual strength, and of woundedness. In the Japanese-American Presbyterian church where my family has become active, we have created numerous conversations with “appreciative inquiry” interviews. This approach surfaces the strongest and most life-giving stories and characteistics of an organization. The congregation is gaining the capacity to see a more hopeful future that is generated by the best of its past. Members are becoming aware of the abundant resources for congregational re-envisioning and reinvigoration.

Leaders also equip the church to interpret the surrounding neighborhoods. The economic, social, and political stories of the city and its neighborhoods will give perspectives on the congregation’s place and prospects. Interpretive leaders motivate storytelling and research, make connections between congregants and neighborhoods, and build capacities for discernment. The assumption here is that theological and spiritual connections link the worshiping community with the surrounding people and powers.

Even when churches begin with organizational activities that are well connected to gospel meanings, organizational activities and structures are often passed on without those connections. Our children inherit ceremonies, programs, structures, and policies that have lost their substance. The foundational graces in Scripture, the tradition’s power and movement, are not readily available. “Meaninglessness” is not just a subjective critique of restless youth.

Interpretive leadership provides the resources, the inspiration, the perceptions that form a people who own the biblical and historical narratives, renarrate their own personal and corporate stories, and become aware of the numerous forces that shape their context. All of these “texts” are brought to study, prayer, discernment, and envisioning as the congregation narrates and enacts its own local theology. Spirituality, then, is defined as attentiveness to and participation in the initiatives of the Holy Spirit. Church leaders create a whole congregation of interpreters as they guide and offer resources for these activities. This interpretive leadership is done with vital and deep connections to relational and implemental activities.

Relational Leadership

Numerous tip-offs announce that ours is a relational work. Covenant and salvation are essentially relational ways of being—with God, with a faith community, and with neighbor. We are to be reconciled agents of reconciliation. If meanings are to be continually discerned by the interpretive community, and if those meanings are to be made tangible and visible, the whole process will be made possible by the congregation’s numerous relational connections—its groups and networks.

Within the congregation, families and friendship need leadership so that gospel meanings can be embedded and healthy relationships can be nurtured. In groups that discern, plan, and work, relational dynamics make the difference between dysfunction and banality on one hand, and lives that exhibit sanctification and justice on the other. Leaders need to be attentive to their own emotional intelligence5 and foster that characteristic in the church. Temporary organizational movements may be based only on message and programs, but our faith calls for love.

Church leaders can renarrate and contextualize classical practices. Hospitality—a gracious offering of self and space and time—is essential for the congregation’s ongoing life and for its extension to neighbors. Generosity of resources and attitudes creates dynamics that counter our society. Covenanting, paralleling the Wesleyan practices of holding “faith friends” accountable, gives opportunity for God’s many gifts and graces. Belonging, often undermined by denominational norms and societal transience, is one of the most needed countercultural practices for congregational viability. Other activities like pastoral counseling and spiritual direction can be redeemed from their more individualistic forms and turned toward an attentiveness that encompasses consequences and resources for congregation and mission.

Leaders give attention and guidance and resources to this knitting together of lives. But this community formation is neither generic friendliness nor purposed on playing a prescribed role in strengthening American society. Leaders are moving from their biblically sanctified imaginations to form and equip a particular polis—a community whose character is thoroughly and visibly shaped by the gospel. This forming of corporate character, of vision and values and habits, takes place as the shaping powers of the society are displaced by truth as it was made visible in the Jewish carpenter’s actions and teachings, and as made tangible by the Holy Spirit among us. We, as congregational leaders and participants, are redeemed from societal lies and cultural bondage as we talk and cajole and pray and forgive and cry and laugh our way to being a “city set on a hill.” As we do this, we nurture a relational trust that undergirds faithful corporate life and witness.

This relational work creates the synapses, the tendons, the arteries of the body. And if leaders are forming a polis as they generate and orchestrate resources, then individualistic forms are converted. While our faith is profoundly personal, it is not private. Catechesis, or the initiation and instruction of those who are moving toward linking their lives with the church, is not individual discipleship but the work of making a community. Outreach is not just helping the businessperson be more ethical or the neighbor more evangelistic (although those behaviors are important). The corporate focus of New Testament metaphorical language—the word “church” or ekklesia, which was used to refer to gatherings for civic governance, and primary New Testament metaphors like body, city, and kingdom—emphasizes the corporate nature of our faith lives. These images have lost their distinctiveness for those of us formed by the Enlightenment, consumer choice, and the pursuit of personal careers. Relational leaders provide imagination and space for participants to be shaped as an alternative community.

Consistency is required in our interpretive leadership. Relational work, whether in pastoral counseling or in casual conversations, must not work against what the Holy Spirit is teaching the congregation in Scripture. Congregational participants (including leaders), as practicing sinners, often seek the approval of others concerning jobs, houses, expenditures, time commitments, and numerous other practices. Too often these activities come from our anxieties and fears. Our resistance to the work of Scripture and Spirit is often displayed in the common ecclesial practice of what theologian and educator Paulo Freire calls “gregariousness.” We give priority to avoiding tension. We never, never, never want to be even remotely associated with something called a “judgment.” So Bible studies offer numerous options (like a deli counter), and sermons carry the weight of editorials (maybe). Once again, being people formed as consumers, we make choice our centering characteristic. Our relational leadership must, through words and affection and touch and time and mentoring and weeping, weave something characterized by the shalom of justice and truth and repentance and hope that allows us to take communion and not be struck dead. That ought to be a primary goal of leaders.

Implemental Leadership

The Eucharist and other institutional practices give structural form to our meanings and relationships. Paul believed that parishioners were risking their lives and health by participating in this instituted meal when practices of truth and love were lacking. How is worship to be practiced in coherence with our meanings? In what ways does worship center our relationships and mission? Our congregations have little understanding about worship as a dangerous practice. Interpretive work needs to be a constant as we give attention to implementation.

Implemental leadership includes much of what has traditionally been considered management or administration. It is important that we form structures, develop strategies, delegate tasks, obtain and disburse resources, provide oversight, evaluate processes and results, and coach numerous other leaders. Further, leaders shape and reshape these activities amid continuous internal and external changes. These structures serve all aspects of congregational life and witness. While some things can be accomplished with total spontaneity, much of our common life requires organizational attentiveness and skills. Leaders do not have the luxury of just uttering an idea or meeting for coffee—we need to connect meanings and relationships with concrete forms and practices.

In the story above about United Methodists, some members decided to embody meanings and relationships in a co-housing community. Previously the church had taken other steps based on the formation generated in study and worship. Studies in Scripture and tradition, and honest discussion about their own lives, led many members to join covenant discipleship groups that brought accountability and encouragement to specified practices (like daily Scripture reading and prayer, weekly worship and corporate Bible study, regular mission activities, and tithing). At another time the meanings of discipleship and membership were put into practice in a nine-month “exploring membership” process that allowed new members to join with greater clarity and commitment. Whenever community members are hearing the Holy Spirit’s call in their lives, leaders must give attention to specific practices.

Corporate governance, missional activities integrated seamlessly with nurture and worship, facility maintenance, small-group structures, networks with other organizations, and catechesis all require careful formation and sustenance, which means implementation. A sermon well preached or relationships well cultivated or even a vision well formed can prove fruitless, lost in habitual organizational behaviors, if these three areas of leadership are not vitally connected. As leaders move among these areas of work, it is this phase of developing systems and practices that is often the center of risk, the point of courage and wonder. Seminaries offer little training, and clergy guilds tend to downplay administration as a necessary but less valuable function than preaching or counseling. But I believe it is when leadership teams, in partnership with all participants, make imaginative and costly forays into obedience that we learn what our corporate vocation is.

Praxis and Cohesion

For many years I enjoyed a collegial working friendship with the pastor of a nearby African American Presbyterian church. When we were teaching a seminary course, he once noted that his congregation was prone to act too quickly: “Our style is ready, fire, aim!” He noted that, lacking adequate attention to interpretive work, the congregation had numerous short-lived projects, and tended to wear people out. His words helped me see our church’s style, which I characterized as “ready, aim, aim, aim, ready, aim, aim, fire.” We Methodists talked a lot, interpreted everything repeatedly, but moved too slowly toward committing ourselves. Some members of a congregation will specialize as teachers, activists, or nurturers; but people who are responsible for larger oversight must embody all three leadership capacities. When we lead by keeping meanings, relationships, and structures well integrated, we create a greater possibility for generative, self-correcting praxis. In Aristotle’s framework, if some set of activities is to be described as “praxis,” then its ends are embedded in the current activities. This concept is behind the thought of Paulo Freire, who emphasized that action and reflection are interactive. By leading in this holistic and cohesive manner, we form and generate sustenance for the congregation in its vocation as a sign and agent of God’s initiatives.

Once when I was leading congregational studies on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, we were often troubled. Repeated attempts to understand these teachings about blessings, grace, and behaviors left us adrift and confused, yet lured. We studied the sermon in relationship to the whole of the Gospel of Matthew. We approached it in parallel with the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Still, we were largely alien to the text. We read Bonhoeffer. We read Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. Over several years, as our relational lives deepened and our involvement in mission increased, we kept coming back. Then one evening we began seeing the text in a very different way. That evening, the question was transformed from “What does this mean?” to “What kind of people do we need to be for this to make sense?” This is a different approach to hermeneutics, one that recognizes that not only do we interpret Scripture: it interprets us. That shift led to an overwhelming experience of convictions and longings about our lives—our marriages and families, our jobs and money, our politics and civic lives. God was forming us in the longer praxis of congregational life and mission. Note again the synergism, or creative interplay of relational, interpretive, and implemental leadership.

Are there deep congregational wounds or simmering volatility? Healing and redemption will require overlapping work on interpretation, relationships, and administration. Is it time for transformational change? Rerooting a congregation in classic narratives and practices, and forming new groups for study, caregiving, and mission will require the same multifaceted leadership. Does the congregation need to be lured away from complacency and complicity with consumer capitalism, careerism, and the role of chaplain to U.S. globalism? We have the grand hope of an alternative narrative, to be embodied in the relational and organizational practices of worshiping, learning, missional congregations. Leadership teams need to be formed and supported so that they thrive as participants and agents in God’s redemptive reign.

1. Dulles cites sociologist Charles H. Cooley concerning these traits; see Charles Cooley, Social Organizations (New York: Schocken Books, 1909/1967).
2. See Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918/1968).
3. Co-housing, developed mainly in northern Europe, seeks to promote a more cooperative approach to housing that provides both private dwellings and common spaces and functions. For further information, log onto www.cohousing.org.
4. Metanarratives are large, overarching stories that provide meaning that smaller narratives do not have access to. While postmodernism looks askance at metanarratives and emphasizes smaller, local narratives, Christians can value those local stories while holding that the larger Genesis-to-Revelation narrative, and the Jesus story itself, are metanarratives in that they give meanings to the world beyond the texts’ local specifics.
5. Emotional intelligence, or “EQ,” is used in parallel with the more familiar intelligence quotient, or IQ. See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995).