Thursday, May 6, 2010

Congregational Bromides: "We need to have a leader/member/someone who represents the (fill in the blank) group."

Congregations regularly fill leadership positions to serve the church. Boards, councils, sessions, vestries, call/search committees frequently call upon a variety of leaders to serve. What are the criteria for selection into these leadership groups?

I receive puzzled looks when I ask this question. In most cases, people who serve congregational leadership groups are not serving tenured or lifetime appointment, as in a college or university, the House of Lords, or the Supreme Court. Therefore the congregation regularly discerns who will serve in leadership positions.  They end up falling in a desperate trap because they don't have enough people to fill positions, and they rush to hopefully find a diverse group of folks to serve in a leadership role.

I find congregations have set up some default criteria for setting up their leadership groups.

1. Represent different as many different ministry areas, demographic groups, theological perspectives, worship style perspectives as possible.
2. Enlist as many people to serve with the leadership group as people are willing.

That's it.

Over the past few years I learned that some congregations are basing leadership ranks based on agreed marks of discipleship. The most common I've seen in ELCA congregations include:
  • Prayer
  • Worship
  • Bible Reading
  • Service to God and To Others
  • Giving - Time, Talent, and Treasure
  • Encouraging Others to Grow
I appreciate (and tend to encourage) the expectations for leaders in this fashion, though the creation of expectations as the list above for leaders challenges entrenched leadership structures, and the defensiveness can be abnormally high. I observe that ELCA Lutherans tend to think that expectations are not congruent with grace. Serving in a leadership position is not a matter of salvation, it's a matter of call. Call takes discernment--and discernment is not a merely what feels right, polling the congregation, or sticking a wet finger in the air to feel which direction the wind blows. I had to meet expectations in order to be ordained. It's not a God-given right that anyone who might want to be an ordained pastor gets to be one because we wouldn't be practicing grace if the wider church did not allow that person to become a pastor. I'm not calling upon pastor-style rigor for all leaders in the church, but that congregations intentionally determine their criteria for leadership.

Back to the congregational bromide. I think representation of particular demographic groups and ministry areas for leadership is overrated. I did not say unnecessary, but that it tends to be the only stated (albeit loosely) criterion. Though this single standard could work (why not cast lots instead), I think the odds are low that a group based merely on representation will work. Without criteria and expectations for a leadership roster, it's more likely to have a group with members entrenched in their own perspective and "getting what's coming to them (or what they deserve)" rather than following through on the tasks of leadership. Representing what is important to you or your constituents as the only criterion for leadership moves toward divisiveness, cutoff and resentment over compromises.

Representation in congregation is important, but is overrated.

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