The word “leadership,” I must confess, gives me a toothache. That’s probably because I live in the U.S., where rhetoric about “leadership” is hard to separate from neoliberalism. That word is almost as abused as “leadership” itself, so I suppose I’d better offer a definition: “Neoliberalism” means “applying the ideas of laissez-faire economics to every possible area of life, including things traditionally not considered part of the market.” Say your boss fires you because sales are down: that’s just plain old-fashioned nineteenth-century economic liberalism. But let’s further say that, having been fired, you come home to tell your family the bad news. Before you can get the first word out of your mouth, your kid bursts in the door, crying. His favourite teacher is being let go, because his school did badly on a standardized test, and so the state government has redistributed money to “higher-performing” schools. That’s neoliberalism.
In the U.S., you hear most about “leadership” from business writers and schools, and they generally use the term in a way that just stinks of this philosophy. We must all be “leaders,” CEOs of Me, Incorporated, judicious managers of ourselves, mostly because neoliberal economic policies have eroded job security and unstrung the social safety net, so we’re all on our own. In an economy predicated on chaos, and on the expropriation of public wealth by the private sector, talk of “leadership” reassures us we still have a chance.
Church leaders aren’t CEOs
Some of the writing aimed at cultivating Christian “leadership” falls into these intellectual traps; some doesn’t. The best – Max De Pree in particular comes across as a wise and kindly fellow – has the same problem as the best secular corporate-leadership writing (say, Umair Haque): it offers a picture of “leadership” so complex and nuanced that the reader eventually starts questioning the need for books specifically on this topic. If being a good leader is no more or less complex than being a good human, why not just read the same stuff any thoughtful Christian reads: the Bible, theology, history, literature, philosophy, social and physical science, etc? All of these, properly attended to, will inform your sense of what the world is like and make you more able to respond well to a variety of situations. And all of them will be about as easy to “apply” in an immediate way to pressing leadership concerns as are the luminously sane but fairly general pronouncements of a Max De Pree.
Meanwhile, at its (frequent) worst, Christian leadership writing both argues for, and unknowingly illustrates the pitfalls of, the metaphor of the church as a business. (I read one listicle, for example, devoted to strategies for “relaunching your church’s brand.”) This metaphor fails in many ways, but here’s an obvious one: businesses fire people. In a church, you confront people, you provoke them, you challenge, annoy, and alienate them, but you don’t fire them. (Even poor Judas wasn’t fired. He quit.) Church isn’t about building your dream team or chasing your favourite demographic. If elderly Mrs. VanderSma complains loudly about the music or the colour of the drapes, you bring her a coffee and ask about her cat; you don’t tell her, “Well, Mrs. VanderSma, this organization isn’t for everyone.” You take whatever human material God sends.
A better metaphor for the church comes from Paul, who tells us that the church is Christ’s body. Like much of the best Christian language, this image is both endless in its implications and concrete to the point of grotesquerie (which of us is Christ’s toenail? His cheek sinus? I could make this so much worse), just as the incarnation is both conceptually beautiful and metaphysically humiliating. (Our God wore a diaper. Think about that.) This metaphor also challenges me. As a writer, I habitually imagine myself as a remote and independent figure – rather like the “leader” of the neoliberal corporation, in fact. (The hero CEO is a rugged individualist who fearlessly disrupts established hierarchies. The “serious” writer is the same thing but poor.) In contrast, a poet friend of mine once said that he wanted his first book to have, instead of the traditional author’s dust-jacket picture, a collage of pictures of the people who have made him who he is – friends, relatives, enemies – with him somewhere off to the side, one limb in the body.
In that spirit, I hereby turn this article over to the body. I asked my clergy friends what books, besides the Bible, help them do their jobs. Their answers were conspicuously awesome.
A few good words
College chaplain and CC Review Editor Brian Bork recommends St. John Climacus’s The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas’s Living Gently in a Violent World and Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus.
Writer Allison Backous Troy suggests St. Benedict’s Rule, while academic Dave Sytsma suggests St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony. Both these texts heavily influenced the development of monasticism, a movement that did more for actual church growth than Willow Creek ever dreamed.
Writer and pastor Meg Jenista recommends Yes, And, a book about improv comedy; she uses it in meetings with her church council. (Oh, to be a fly on that wall!) She also recommended Roberta Gilbert’s writings on Bowen System Theory, a theory of family dynamics that, argues Meg, also applies to the way congregations work.
Russell Rathbun, pastor at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, recommended Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s classic chronicle of American indie rock between the years 1981 and 1991. House of Mercy cofounder Mark Stenberg elaborates: “Go straight to the Fugazi chapter. It’s not about Christian leadership. It’s all about doing what you are so crazy about that you cannot not do it.” (I’d add that the aspiring church leader could also do worse than reading Mark’s and Russell’s own books, and those of their House of Mercy colleague Debbie Blue.) And speaking of music, John R. Williamson, a superb indie singer-songwriter (I once described him as “what would happen if Thomas Merton fronted Yo La Tengo”), recommends The Empowered Leader by poet Calvin Miller.
For all their differences, these books – on music, psychology, comedy, monasticism – remind us what the neoliberal corporate “leader” can’t afford to remember: nobody does this alone.
Unlike the business model, churches welcome everyone.
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