“I alone can fix it”
-Former President Donald Trump, Republican National Convention, July 2016.
“Today … we must cultivate the science of human relationships — the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world at peace.’”
-President Joe Biden (quoting FDR), Campaign Rally, Warm Springs, GA, October 2020.
In my last reflection, I cast a vision for re-imaging the parish (a region or area serving as the mission field of a church, priest, or pastor). In the next couple reflections, I want to explore what remixing leadership for a new generation of circuit riders looks like. Specifically, I’ll dive into shared, relational, decentralized, and self-organized forms of leadership. Ill begin here with shared.
Re-thinking leadership is so imperative for the new missional frontier, I have dedicated an entire section to it in my latest book, Deep and Wild: Remissioning the Church from the Outside In. In a season described as hitting the Covid wall. More leaders are exhausted, burned out, and quitting the ministry than ever before. Much of this comes down to our concept and practice of leadership.
Early Circuit Riders
My wife and I often jest that we are the co-pastors of a 15-point charge! We serve two inherited, traditional congregations, and alongside those we oversee over a dozen fresh expressions of church.
Obviously, a traditional, hierarchal mode of leadership would never work in this scenario. If we take a page from the early circuit riders, we could perhaps learn some principles that can be contextualized for a new missional frontier.
Those early circuit riders had to be young, in good health, and single (the rigors of traveling ministry was too difficult for families). Methodist circuit riders were not required to have a formal education, and often had no ecclesiastical credentials. Circuit riders often moved to a new circuit every year. Being moved to a new area gave the preachers an opportunity to reuse and perfect their sermons. This meant the people of the fledgling congregations took responsibility for the ministry. It also safeguarded the congregations from forming a dependency relationship with their assigned minister and falling into a state of learned helplessness.
Circuit riders, traveling great distances across the frontier and overseeing multiple communities, had to employ a leadership strategy that was shared, relational, decentralized, and self-organized. Their approach has implications for the network society today.
Two Distinct Leadership Styles
Perhaps a fitting way to describe shared leadership is to contrast it with its counterpart, positional leadership. Let me illustrate the contrast with two Biblical examples: Abimelech and Tola.
In contrast to Abimelech’s three-year reign of terror that preceded him (to which is devoted an entire chapter in Judges 9), the Bible devotes merely two short verses to the twenty-three-year reign of Tola.
After Abimelech, Tola son of Puah son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, who lived at Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim, rose to deliver Israel. He judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died, and was buried at Shamir (Judges 10:1–2).
Abimelech was a complete disaster of a leader. Narcissistic, self-serving, and brutal in his pursuit of and consolidation of power. Tola “rose to deliver Israel” and humbly, quietly, and wisely ruled for over two decades. Tola didn’t make a lot of headlines. The Bible records no controversy. We can see quite the contrast between these two leaders.
Positional/hierarchal individualistic approach (Abimelech)
Shared/adaptive collectivistic approach (Tola)
Rabbi Malbim highlights the distinction between the two in this way, “Abimelech sought to lord it over the Israelites as his subjects, whereas Tola sought to help them and take care of their needs.”
Some find a modern illustration of this contrast between the leadership styles of Donald Trump, “I alone can fix it” and Joe Biden, “…we must cultivate the science of human relationships — the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world at peace.”
My purpose here is not to get political, but to show the contrasting approach to leadership. Modern circuit riders must employ the latter variety.
Positional leaders are often more focused on authority, executing responsibilities, problem/solution thinking, and safeguarding the position from the organizational politics and challenges. They generally operate on the organization through their positional power.
The modern church borrowed heavily from the leadership assumptions of the corporate world—we have bought fully into the “rugged individual” model. The pastor as CEO, a mid-level corporate manager, who develops vision statements, leads board meetings, determines strategic goals, communicates the big ideas from the pulpit, raises funds, all while providing personalized professional chaplaincy care for the aging flock.
Trinity as a Model
The Trinity is a model for shared leadership. Who is the leader in the triune God? The dynamic relational nature of the Father, Son, and Spirit, contrasts starkly with the static hierarchies we so often see embedded in the church. In the triune God, we see a dynamic, relational, movemental dance of leadership. The Trinity is not a hierarchy, with one person in authority over the other persons, but an interactive, non-linear, relational community.
At Pentecost the “power” Jesus promised (Acts 1:8), was poured out in a shared, adaptive, and collectivistic way. The power was distributed throughout the entire community. All of the disciples were empowered and gifted as a community of equals, with a clear missional focus (Acts 2:4). The “power” was shared, relational, decentralized, and self-organized. This enabled the disciples to spread the love of Jesus from “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This shared leadership flattens the dominating hierarchal mode of denominations. Leadership is shared among the community in a trinitarian way, with each person making room for the other, each taking the lead of the divine dance at different times. This minimizes the potential for harm and abuse, so often associated with hierarchal systems.
A Case Study
It could be argued that the group that most embodies the shared leadership mode in the world today is 12 Step Recovery fellowships. The “Second Tradition” of these communities captures the essence of shared leadership, “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as experienced in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” Since its founding in 1935, and with hundreds of thousands of groups across the world, recovery fellowships have never had a single abuse of power scandal. Perhaps the shared leadership embodied in this community is closer to Jesus’ original design for the church?
While there is obviously still a place and need for positional leadership, it is a highly ineffective default mode in a networked, shared, adaptive, and collectivistic digital age. The most thriving leaders, lead from relationships. In the next post I’ll explore relational leadership. Stay tuned!