The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as the Coordinator, Preparation for Ministry/Exams for Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.
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One of the great questions now before the church concerns how it relates to its changing cultural context, and the types of leaders and forms of leadership needed to bring to reality a new relationship between church and culture. In this post I want to look at one particular aspect of that question—the relationship between leaders and institutional change—and whether we are in some ways "putting the cart before the horse."
I recently finished reading Diana Butler Bass's book, Christianity after Religion (San Francisco: Harper One, 2012). One of the key analytical structures utilized in the book is the study of "Revitialization Movements" by anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace as applied to American Christianity by William McLoughlin (pp. 32-34). This work argues that there are “five stages of change” to each renewal period in our history.
Following McLoughlin, Bass argues that the American church has been in the process of renewal since the 1960s—albeit with significant fits and starts. But the point I want to focus on here is her observation, “Only rare leaders have called for or ventured into the last stage of institutional renewal.” She suggests that the reason for this is “because some sort of consensus is necessary for the hard work of organizational change” (p. 36).
Her comment resonated with some ideas I have been kicking around for some time about the notion of “consensual leadership.” Culturally we have (for the most part) moved toward much more egalitarian social arrangements that are leery of “autocratic” leaders. But at the same time, people wonder about whether persons who can only help to implement those things about which the group has already reached consensus are genuinely “leaders.” Perhaps “leadership” now is primarily a function of those persons who can help the group to reach consensus. Maybe the leader is the one who can help to articulate a singular vision from among many and varied insights.
If something like that is true, and if Bass is correct that “consensus is necessary for … organizational change,” then perhaps our desire for leaders who can reshape our existing institutions or even build new models from the ground up is a classic case of “putting the cart before the horse.” The institution is structured to bring to reality the consensus of the group. Groups don’t reach consensus because they accept new structures, but they also seldom find consensus without leaders who can weave it together from the many strands held individually among those who have affiliated themselves with the group.
Which do you think is “cart” and which is “horse”: leaders who can create new institutions that cause people to relate in new ways, or leaders who can give clarity to a group’s consensus vision that will define what is needed from the institutions that would serve it?