The Paradox of Emerging Leadership

How do we organize a church without becoming "organized religion"? Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church and pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, wrestles with this paradox in the upcoming Spring issue of Leadership. Here is a preview.

Leadership in the emerging church is a paradox. I am someone who fully sees the need and value of mission statements, organizational charts, and a strategic approach to leading. I read everything John Maxwell, Bill Hybels and Jim Collins write, and they really do fuel my heart and passion for leadership. The irony however, is that most growing up in our emerging culture are fairly critical of anything that looks like "organized religion." So when it comes to developing a leadership culture, there is great suspicion of anything that seems to be "business" oriented or too structured, since that feels like a reinforcement of the exact thing they are critical of.

Where previous generations were more understanding and even related to more of a highly structured leadership culture in a church ? many in the emerging church are drawn to more of a loose, lesser emphasis on strategic goals and a non-hierarchical approach to leadership. Much like what is emphasized in the writings of Henri Nouwen.

I've read Nouwen's book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership a dozen times. Reading that book convicts you to the inner core about motives and the heart of leadership. However, Henri's leadership writings were directly about his experience in shepherding and loving a relatively few people. Leading a church that is growing, launching new worship gatherings, and building multi-level leadership teams needs Henri Nouwen, but also needs John Maxwell.

So I wrestle with this paradox. I find that in our church we live in the tension and try to do both. I dive into my John Maxwell books and focus on building leaders and setting up the organization of developing various leadership structures needed for a healthy Ephesians 4:11-12 equipping type of a church. After a while, I need to run back to Henri for a season. To some degree, these two paradigms seem polarized ? but I think it is possible to still be "organized" without becoming "Organized religion". In the end, it is the Spirit of God who does things through us anyway ? but it is definitely a paradox we live in today with new thoughts and values of what is looked for in emerging church leadership.

MarchJanuary 07, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments


March 24, 2006  11:05pm

Not withstanding matters of faith and the great mysteries of God - are the answers to all our dilhemas found in the Bible, in God's revealed will to us? The letters written by the Church leaders under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and ordered in the Bible by the Holy Spirit reveal much about Church structure and leadership. What is required of both those who are leaders and those who are not? Do we know which of these we each are? Do we struggle with that? God has ordained huge growth to take place in the Church, right across the face of our planet. Somehow there has to be a way of leading the Church that is both scripturally sound and effective, even in this day and age, without us having to 'create' a new church. In other words, ways that are acceptable to Him. How does God want it done right now? Where has the latest correspondence from Him been posted? We must remember to walk by faith - believing God is at work in agreement with His revealed will, believing in the power and presence of God at work in us, for us, and through us. Adhering to the whole counsel of His Word is our only recourse, and the only one for those who follow us into His saving grace. Until He comes ...

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March 20, 2006  12:21pm

Mike Absolutely! I have a great pastor. He is 27 and, although he isn't exactly the best "manager" in the world, he has good people who are. That said, he inspires us all to a deeper devotion to the Lord. He constantly reminds us to press on. Sometimes, (he'd have a fit if he knew I said this) when he preaches, it's like listening to Paul or John. That said, I think he is one of many. I think that many of the "emergent" are scary to the older people in the church. However, like the pastor said this Sunday, regardless of what one may think of this generation, we are not rude enough to say "no" to someone who tells us to go to their house for a meal! Likewise, he encouraged "us" to go to older Christians and ask them about their walks with the Lord. Jesus Christ is -must be- the everything in our lives. While discoursing on the "emergent Church" we need to remember that we ALL NEED CHRIST!

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Mike Reynolds

March 15, 2006  4:09pm

k_vallinga good point. I too consider my self "emerging" however I work at a church that most emerging leaders would call decidedly "modern." I love the emerging leaders that I have met over these past few years. I got involved with them years ago in all the excitement that they were showing for experential types of worship and learning and missional style ministry. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of the labels and stereotypes are causing so much disunity and so many needless semantical arguments. In the last Maxwell book I read (some little dinky book called Leadership 101 or something like that) Maxwell never made it sound like being a good manager was all you need in order to be a great church leader. When I read Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus" it seems like his point about leaders is that we have to intimately love Jesus and have passion for His people and a vision for leading them. I've known several pastors who seem like great managers and CEo's of a church who can lead a congregation and manage a staff but don't seem to live a discipline and have a passion for God's people. And then there are people like me who have a heart for hurting and broken people but relatively poor management skills to organize and lead people to do something about it. (I'm working on it.) Forget Emergent and Modern labels as far as leadership goes. As Christian leaders, our hearts should bleed for people, AND we should have the vision, discipline and organization to inspire, motivate and lead people to change the world around them. Find me a leader like that in any kind of church, traditional hymn-singing, contemporary, modern, emerging, denominational, nondenom or franchise; and I'll follow.

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March 13, 2006  10:57am

I'm new at this so please forgive me if I sound somewhat foolish or naive, so here goes! I guess I am in-between the emergant church and the "old" one. I just turned 30. Anyway, in my own ministry to "unchurched" young people, I have noticed that they are starving for order. Churched young people usually have order simply because they grew up with it. In my church, there is a very small number of people in the 40-50 range, the bulk of our members are under 40, and the next largest demographic is over 60. So how does this work? Well, first of all, we meet to hear the truth! That means the choruses we sing must be dead-on. Wishy-washy choruses are just not acceptable. We mix them in with the old hymns. Why? Because we know them and they tell the truth! My generation and the one following us, are starving for the truth! That said, it is not easy to "manage" large groups without planning, organizational charts, budgets, etc. Most of us are aware of this, what we are really looking to see is whether the point of belonging to a "church" is to honour God or to honour the institution. If it looks like the honour is going to the institution (or the leader), then we're just not going to stay!

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March 13, 2006  10:12am

Don't forget that the Baptists and Methodists at least began as non-institutionalists. Unfortunately as time progressed the institutionalism crept in and spread everywhere in these movements. I don't have to worry if the ideals I follow will be gone in a brief time. It's not my church. I do have to be concerned about walking faithfully to the Word and obey everything that He commanded. I know the rewards are eternal. You can't take your institution with you.

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Alan Hirsch

March 10, 2006  7:59pm

In attempting an 'apology' for the institutional church by claiming its ancient roots we must not forget that in its most remarkable forms, the church was not insitutional. The Early Christian Movement and the Chinese Underground Church are perfect examples of non-insitutional people movements. And they are more effective by far than anything the institutional church can do. These are our real stories–far more primal than anything found in institutional expressions of church.

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March 10, 2006  3:24pm

As one who has given up on traditional church and sought to live what the Bible clearly calls for, I am not against organization, nor am I against leadership. I am merely against the INSTITUTIONALIZED VERSION of organization and leadership. My institutionalized friends must think that institutionalized organization and leadership is the ONLY kind because they always accuse me of not believing in organization or leadership when I do. I just believe in a kind that is astoundingly different than the IC kind. It's not because it's a current trend or any attachment to "modernity". The problems of "modernity" are not new. They are old perversions Satan has wrapped in different cultural clothing. I suggest that the "paradox" or "tension" that is occurring in institutionalized organization and leadership is because the TRADITIONS of institutionalism are so deeply imbedded in our souls and are wrapped in proof texts that Godly people have taught us, we do not allow ourselves to be Bereans and thoroughly test the institutionalized SYSTEM for Biblical error. We sense the error but cannot fix it, because we are not free to question the SYSTEM. The SYSTEM has many built in SELF PROTECTION routines that cause the kicking out of any suggestion of substantive reform. The only two options are to walk out or be kicked out. The SELF PROTECTION of the system is severe because there is so much money involved, it is so comfortable to the flesh, and there is so much hyper-spirituality ascribed to it. It's a lot like how the Pharisees felt and thought about their SYSTEM when Christ confronted them. It's like how the Catholic church viewed their SYSTEM when Luther, etc. confronted their errors. One nice thing about confronting the system today is that at least you aren't killed in a violent manner for challenging it. The people who run institutionalized church are nice people with good motives. They're just trapped in a corrupt system. Only a few are walking away. More would walk away if the economic system that supports it all were to collapse. We ought to be able to walk away simply on the basis of truth. God's revelation of organism organization instead of hierarchy organization, and mutual relationship driven leadership instead of position/title driven leadership ought to be enough. Part of the race involves throwing off the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles to we can run.

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March 08, 2006  8:31pm

I think its important to remember that "post-modern" is not the categorical equivalent of "anti-modern." When you actually read Emergent thinkers such as Brian McLaren you realize the point is not to abandon all that we have constructed in the modern era, but rather to take what we have learned, filter it through our "postmodernized lens" and see what we come up with. Lastly I would say that while I am pretty thoroughly postmodern in my worldview, I don't think that leadership is passé; far from it. The church has never been an absolute democracy (before or after modernism) and I don't think that will change now. Sometimes I think our aversion to leadership in any recognizable form looks more like an embrace of chaos theory than anything else. And I think we'd all agree that this will not work. So, to sum up my point, I don't personally see the problem. I think we can lead well and lead differently in a postmodern era; but I do not think we need to abandon leadership and call it postmodern. A last thought, I know of a blogger who is well known within the Emerging Church online community. This person is a brilliant thinker and offers insightful comments time and time again. However, I also know, through some experience with this person, that he does not have the gift of leadership. And that's what leadership is- a God-given gift. The person I am speaking of has tried on numerous occasions to form an "Emerging community of faith"; but it has not worked. This is not due to poor theology, or a lack of understanding of our postmodern society- because this person excels at both. The failure comes down to a lack of leadership ability. While I am thoroughly postmodern, I am not afraid to say that leadership matters.

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Dirk Blaylock

March 08, 2006  3:01pm

By the way, Kevin Miller addressed some of these issues a couple of years ago and Chris Seay provided us with a snappy comeback. Only time will tell if the Emergent "conversation" can establish a permanent presence in the life of the church, or if it will go the way of the "I Found It" bumper sticker. The determining factors have much to do with how emergent leaders move forward – and it appears in a pinch that they'll continue to rely on the seeker-sensitive-propositional-truth crowd for direction on how to actually get things done.

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March 07, 2006  2:40pm

Well said. As a postmodern thinker in a boomer body I'm finding that the answer to many questions is not "either or" but "both and." Living in the tensions of life and its many choices can keep us in a healthy space.

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