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The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.

“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.

For quick announcements about changes or developments in the preparation process, dates related to exams or other key events, discussion boards, surveys, etc., you can follow us on Facebook at “Preparing for Presbyterian Ministry.”

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September 14, 2012

Of Carts and Horses

Cartoon of "putting cart before the horse"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.

  1. “Crisis of legitimacy”: people begin to question established beliefs and practices
  2. “Cultural distortion”: people locate the problems not in themselves as individuals but in “institutional malfunction”
  3. “New vision”: understandings about God, humanity, and ways of life more suited to the changed circumstances are formed
  4. “Follow a new path”: the new understandings begin to take shape as new practices for life in family and community
  5. “Institutional transformation”: a critical mass is reached where the practitioners of the “new vision” win over the “undecideds” and established institutions can change

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?

Categories: Ministry Context, Ordination Process

Tags: institutional change, leading change