This ad will not display on your printed page.

Leadership Journal

The following article is located at:

Cowpokes and Farmers

Cowpokes and Farmers

One innovates, one cultivates. Is there room on the range for both in church?

I (Danny) spent the first twenty years of my career in the music business as a performing and recording artist, musician and producer outside of the church—an exciting but brutal place. For the past 10 years I have had the privilege of working at a church in the Detroit area. It is a beautiful place to help build the kingdom of God here on earth. But at times, I can't help but see similarities between the music business and ministry.

Recently I watched an interview with Brian Eno, a very respected and successful music producer, who has worked with U2, Coldplay, and Paul Simon. In the interview, Eno says, "I often think artists divide [like in]the musical Oklahoma—the farmer and the cowboy."

Eno identifies the "cowboy" (or cowgirl, of course) as an artist who loves to ride off into the sunset looking for new territories. His life is driven by exploration and discovery. Cowboys thrive on finding new land and exploring. Without a new quest they are never fully satisfied. To use a musical analogy, cowboys are the experimentalists, the performance artists, the Cirque de Soleil-esque creators, like Beck, Prince, or Miles Davis. They don't let anything hinder them, the possibilities are always wide open, there's always a new horizon to be conquered. But their downfall is that they're always pursuing the new.

The "farmer" is one who flourishes closer to home, cultivating the land. They get their energy by working the soil of the established land and seeing new growth emerge year after year. They are not unadventurous though—working within existing territory is invigorating for them. Tom Petty is an artist that plays within a form that's been around forever, but he keeps finding nuances within that form that excite him, new and different angles on the same thing. The farmers' power comes from their willingness to create something new within a familiar space.

Innovators and cultivators

While history buffs will be quick to point out that real-life cowboys were pretty grounded too (riding into the sunset isn't typically a good agricultural business plan), you get the point of the metaphor. And I think that Eno's two creative categories for musicians are equally valid for church leaders. We tend to desire innovation and the new, or cultivation and the familiar. When I look at my current ministry—a local church with multiple campuses and many strong leaders, I see these same two personalities—cowboys and farmers—emerge.

There's some tension though. Farmers want to cultivate and take care of the people God has entrusted to them. They feel the responsibility to lead and pastor the ground God has given them. They dream, pray, and ask God to give them unique and new ways to care for this land. So, it's easy for the farmer to see cowboys as irresponsible when they talk about riding over the horizon. They feel like cowboys should stay home more and help with the "chores." Isn't it reckless for them to be dreaming about something else when there's plenty of work to keep the existing system functioning?

The cowboy on the other hand is bored silly doing the same things over and over to the same plot of land. They often resent the farmer for playing it safe. At times it can be interpreted as though the cowboy thinks the farmers work is "beneath them" and there are bigger things over the horizon. So walls arise between the groups, resulting in battle of roles, priorities, and territorial protection.

Which one are you? Are you the cowboy or the farmer? Do you like to live in the land of discovery? Or do you like to stay close to home and develop what's in front of you?

Gifts and talents

I think that Christ spoke clearly about this in the parable of the talents. The holders of the talents had different capacity, but the same calling—to responsibly steward their gifts to both proclaim the kingdom.

We're all given talents, some more than others. At no point though, are we to covet another's talents or compare ours to theirs. Everyone is designed to be something useful to the body of Christ. We are created and called to work together.

In Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul notes,

"So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."

Paul clearly identifies different voices and styles of leadership. Could it be that the "apostle," "evangelist," and "prophet" are more cowboy? Are "shepherd" and "teacher" more farmer? Both groups are valuable and both are required for the body to create, lead, and discover what God is doing in and around a community.

In my youthful immaturity, I saw the farmers I left behind as people who lacked bold faith and the capacity for innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Depending on your background and context, you may notice some styles are more valued in certain circles than others. When I (Steve) decided I wanted to plant a church at the ripe age of twenty-five, I was firmly planted in the cowboy culture. The cowboys and cowgirls I met along the way wanted to reach people groups we thought nobody else was reaching, in places we felt nobody else was going, with methods nobody else had tried.

Of course, it all sounds pretty arrogant in hindsight—God was already at work among all those people groups. But we felt a fierce rush in saddling up with a small, brave band of compadres to take on the world.

In my youthful immaturity, I saw the farmers I left behind as people who lacked bold faith and the capacity for innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of these leaders were and are some of the best mentors and relational leaders I know. They had nothing to prove in their ministry style and exercised great discipline and focus with a clear goal and a steady hand. As hip as innovation is as a ministry quality and as alluring as it is for cowboys, it's not the most valuable tool at a leader's disposal.

Cowboys and farmers

We need both cowboys and farmers to create healthy ministries. It's critical to support and respect each other without comparing our talents or gifts. This requires intense self-examination and brutally honest conversations about who we are and what we are designed to be.

Consider Gerald Tellis and Peter Golder's study cited in Jim Collin's work Great By Choice:

Tellis and Golder systematically examined the relationship between attaining long-term market leadership and being the innovative pioneer in 66 wide-ranging markets, from chewing gum to the Internet. They found that only 9 percent of pioneers end up as the final winners in the market. … It seems that pioneering innovation is good for society, but statistically lethal for the pioneer!

Cowboys, who are pioneers, need farmers to survive—and vice versa. It's a symbiotic relationship. It doesn't mean we'll always like or appreciate each other, but we can't be successful without the other.

Danny and I are learning this together as part of the teaching team at our church. There are about 10-12 teachers who cycle through our preaching rotation through 16 weekly services at five different campuses. To help share the load, we have various "lead teachers" who run point on developing the sermon content for any given weekend service. The lead teacher's role is to interface with our creative arts team to design the service and create a pilot version of the message for the other teachers to use as a template, or baseline, for their teaching.

The benefit is, as an individual teacher, I don't have to start from scratch for every sermon I do. The challenge comes in connecting across styles. Sometimes, when a cowboy is our lead teacher, the concepts are broad and abstract. It can be hard for farmers to push them into an existing frame with which they have success. Conversely, when a farmer acts as lead teacher, the cowboys can get restless; they don't feel like we're breaking new ground. It's not always the most efficient way to do things, but the more we identify and embrace our respective styles, the more we see that we truly are better together.

Whether easy or tough though, the process demands self-awareness. It means being comfortable in our skin. It requires knowing who we are, and who we're not.

The freedom to function

I (Danny) remember growing up playing music and having big dreams of being the best drummer in the world. I worked hard, and thought for sure my career was on the right path when, upon graduating high school, I joined a band that got signed to a major label and started touring, recording, and having success. I worked hard for years.

Then one spring, a famous drummer came to my hometown to do a clinic. I was excited to see him perform. I watched closely to see how he managed to play so powerfully and effortlessly. At this point of my career I was having some success and playing very well but wanted to get to the next level of excellence. I remember watching this drummer start to play and over the course of the clinic slowly realizing that I was never going to be able to accomplish the astounding level of playing this drummer was displaying. I walked out of the auditorium and broke down in tears. In a moment, I understood the dream I'd had for all these years was the wrong dream for me.

The farmer reminds us of the beauty that's already here, but the cowboy shows us beauty in places we hadn't thought to look.

Of course, the two categories aren't mutually exclusive. Most of us are a healthy mix of the two. Over time, I've discovered that I'm a farmer … with cowboy tendencies. One of my mentors helped me understand the distinction between an "intrapreneur" and an entrepreneur. Rather than blazing new trails, I like to work within a context. I like to work within a framework, but I'm open to where it will go. Cowboys will jump without the net. As a farmer, however, I like to know where I'm going to land.

As a result of my journey of self-discovery, I now have the freedom to celebrate others and cheer them on without feeling like they're a threat. I believe our team works best when we are celebrating the farmer-leader and their consistent care, creativity, and vision for the territory God has given them. We also thrive when we acknowledge the cowboy leader who rides off into the unknown. But we only reach our true potential when diverse leaders are celebrating each other and cheering each other on.

We all have farmer and cowboy elements in us: we all want to see growth and change in our community. In that process, the farmer reminds us of the beauty that's already here, but the cowboy shows us beauty in places we hadn't thought to look.

Steve Norman and Danny Cox serve at Kensington Church, in Troy, Michigan.