Characteristics of Leadership Needed for United Methodism’s Future
By Cynthia D. Weems and Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
The coming decades will present all churches with challenges beyond their current leadership capabilities. This may be especially the case for well-established traditions such as The United Methodist Church that thrived in more stable eras. Leadership skills from the past may not fit the disruptive challenges of an utterly changed social, cultural and demographic landscape. We offer these five competencies needed by church leaders of the future.
1. THE ABILITY TO SUSTAIN AND DISRUPT AT THE SAME TIME
It has been said that one must be able to build the new while at the same time sustaining what already exists as the base for what is to come. In congregations, what this looks like is the ability to care for a set of traditions, practices, properties and commitments that have long held a community together and provided a faithful Christian witness while at the same time creating the conversations, plans, programs and dreams that live into a new reality of Christian community that will reach new generations. These two things can and should be done in harmony. Wisdom and resources often come from those with longevity. Innovation and creativity often come from those closest to what is next. Having people with innovative and entrepreneurial instincts on a leadership team is vital. Also including those with experience and investment in the community over time is critical. Together these two commitments—to the past and to the future—are a way to fruitfulness.
There is no need to pit these two directions against each other. People more at home with past ways may be more open to new things if they occur alongside more traditional activities. You may be seeking permission more than agreement with the innovation to be tried. You probably don’t have enough time or leadership capital to make every innovation apply to the entire church. The more likely scenario is to create an open space where new people can be reached through different endeavors. In this two-pronged leadership role, the leader is paying close attention to feedback from the most loyal of longtime church members even while giving equal attention to signals coming from the culture and demographics of the neighborhood. The leader’s energy will need to go in both directions, though expressed differently in many cases. The occasional "ah-ha!" that resonates with old and new alike will truly be a cause for rejoicing.
An entrepreneurial spirit is something closely aligned with many religious movements in their times of revival and growth. That certainly was the case in the growth in the Methodist movement in the United States. In these movements, a sense of connection to the culture and priorities of the day was key. Through these connections, religious leaders took seriously the day-to-day struggles and hopes of real people and sought to meet them. In this way, the movement came alongside people to share a spiritual response to the reality of their daily lives. In our context today, we have very different generations and cultural experiences in and around our churches that call for both dedication and adeptness by religious leaders.
2. THE PATIENCE TO LEARN BEFORE DOING
A common error among organizations in decline is the tendency to act quickly, as if acting quickly will shore up the noticeable leaks in participation, engagement, funding and property. When we act quickly, we tend to resort to what we know. Often, it is precisely these activities that are misguided for a new audience and a new time.
The methods used to lead sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation are quite different, even if they need to be exercised by the same persons. Sustaining innovation works effectively for things that are going well. Here a church’s normal ways of planning can work. You celebrate how the ministry is doing, identify ways it can be improved in the coming year, make assignments and timelines, implement the changes and it is quite likely that this successful ministry will be even more fruitful at the end of next year.
The problem comes when we try to use our typical procedures for things we are not doing well. For example, even if the church has not had a viable youth ministry in twenty years, the church will use the same planning process it uses for a successful ministry. It comes up with plans for youth ministry, makes assignments, sets timelines, implements and hopes something good happens. It won’t. Here people are taking something they have demonstrated for twenty years that they don’t know how to do and act as if they do.
When dealing with things that are not currently going well or not currently happening at all, then we need to approach these challenges not with a list of things to do. It is time to learn, to ask questions and to assess the situation. Ronald Heifetz in his insightful writing on leadership is quick to point out that leaders spend too little time in diagnosis before treatment. Diagnosis is a process of learning, research and asking questions. Through this process, information about both context and people can be evaluated to more wisely move toward action. In the church, asking questions can help participants to be a part of the diagnosis.
In these situations, the first question is not “what should we do?” but “what do we need to learn?”. It counters the natural tendency to act first and with our current knowledge and experience. It focuses, rather, on what is yet to be learned and emphasizes the reality that we are living in changing times. If we already knew enough, we would not be in our current dilemma. Therefore, seeking information and experience gives greater depth to decision making and goal setting.
3. THE WILLINGNESS TO EXPERIMENT AND LEARN FROM FAILURES
It is much easier for people to “live their way into a new way of thinking” than to “think their way into a new way of living.” Yet church leaders almost invariably ask people to think their way into something new. Instead of asking people to do something new or to change a certain practice, consider suggesting that “we try something for a while.” Instead of simply making a change and hoping no one complains, consider telling people “we are trying this for a time,” and invite their feedback.
A key element to leadership in a church that knows that its old ways no longer are adequate is experimentation. This is not how congregations normally operate. Change typically comes after countless meetings, debates and votes. Then we take the action and hope for the best. Another approach is to experiment with immediate and frequent evaluation so that success and failure are assessed.
Jasmine Smothers, a United Methodist pastor in Georgia, describes how a congregation she served used trial periods when trying new things. Her church used 30-60-90- or 100-day trial periods to evaluate the impact of a new idea or ministry. She says it allowed for multiple and dissenting voices to be heard and provided a space in which new people and seasoned leaders engaged. Ideas that previously would have been voted down or created a fight were given an opportunity, with many of them becoming successful ministries.
Molly Phinney Baskette, while pastor of a church in Massachusetts, reported that one way they gave the Holy Spirit a chance to inform their ministry was to try a new idea for six weeks, six months, or a year, depending on what made the most sense for the ministry. After the trial period, everyone knows there will be an evaluation, necessary changes will be made, or they will stop the effort. “Just the simple act of articulating that every change, ultimately, is temporary,” she says, “does a lot to lower anxiety and grant permission.”
Sometimes a short-term trial can be a nonthreatening way to try something before committing to it long term. Trying two worship services during Advent or Lent, for example, should add energy and give clues as to how such a worship pattern might work all the time. If a different worship time seems attractive, trying it for a distinct season should tell a great deal about the pros and cons of the new time. You need to be prepared for any experiment not to work, at least not at the present time and in your context. Not every idea, even yours, always works. But another advantage of “trial periods” is that they provide a simple way to move back from such missteps.
4. A COMFORT AND ADEPTNESS WITH INCREASING DIVERSITY
The most dominant demographic trend shaping the United States today is its growing diversity. The United States already looks radically different from twenty years ago but is not nearly as diverse as it will be twenty years from now. Virtually all United Methodist churches established their identifies and ministries in a different context.
Leadership in the church’s future will want to embrace the growing diversity of the U.S. population. United Methodist churches have largely represented two cultural traditions, Anglo and African American. There are, of course, many examples of churches throughout the denomination that represent many ethnic groups that have found a home in the U.S.—Korean, Caribbean Islander and Haitian, to name a few. Yet the denominational leadership functions with a relatively homogeneous cultural narrative. Living into a much more vibrant and complex cultural narrative will be essential. In many communities, cultural identity is much more important than native language. A group of people might prefer an English worship service but with the music, liturgy, food and “feel” of their Latinx roots. If we continue to think of ethnic groups as primarily representing native languages, we are not respecting the second and third generations of immigrants who are largely unrepresented in the church.
These challenges are met in healthy ways when pastoral and lay leaders are adept at multicultural and multilingual ministry. This means leaders must be called up from a growing number of diverse leaders in our communities. Younger people are learning multiple languages and are navigating multicultural situations at school, work, in universities and in social contexts. Our churches must do the same. Yet churches in ethnic communities are often mono-lingual and have difficulty maintaining the involvement of younger generations. Second- and third-generation immigrants must be able to find a home in churches that can navigate the multicultural and multilingual realities of their communities.
5. A SOLID AND APPROPRIATE EDUCATIONAL PREPARATION FOR LEADERSHIP
In a time of increased education, the last thing the church needs is to retreat from The United Methodist tradition of an educated ministry. However, the changing landscape means that no one route to pastoral leadership nor one educational formula will work for all. Everyone who assumes professional leadership in the church needs the best education possible given the nature of their ministry. There will still need to be a continuing stream of persons who have moved through a Master of Divinity curriculum. That curriculum will need to adjust as it always has done to meet the needs of the contemporary church. However, the church will need to continue to enlist persons for professional ministry for which the M.Div. may not be feasible or necessary. In addition to the Course of Study Program for local pastors, there will need to be even more nimble and relatively inexpensive ways to train Indigenous, bi-vocational clergy to meet many of the needs of immigrant populations as well as people living on the expanding frontier of the United States where populations are in decline. Perhaps as many as 50,000 students are enrolled in Bible institutes today that provide training for pastors serving Spanish-speaking congregations. It is from some of these initiatives that the United Methodist Church may need to learn and, at the same time, rediscover some of the “just in time learning” practiced in the early years of the movement among the predecessor traditions of The United Methodist Church in the United States.
This new training may come in many ways for a variety of ministries and settings. Ministry is not uniform. There is not one context. Therefore, the training offered must fit the skills needed for a particular kind of ministry. What is clear is the need for an individual’s call to be affirmed by the church and coupled with education and training that nourishes, challenges and gives greater fullness to the call. In this way, leaders are developed to fulfill a divine call within temporal organizations. It is spiritual training and practical training.
We hope these five competencies will contribute to the emerging conversation about the new shape of religious leadership needed for the uncharted terrain that lies ahead.
Cynthia D. Weems serves in the Florida Conference as district superintendent of the South East District, which includes Miami.
Lovett H. Weems, Jr. is distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and senior consultant of the seminary’s Lewis Center for Church Leadership.