Recently I was talking with a pastor friend of mine about how difficult it is to exercise missional leadership in the church in North America today. His people are going through a lot of changes. Their small town has become much more multi-ethnic. The church membership has become older and smaller. He, as their pastor, is not as warm and fuzzy as their previous pastor. A former member left the church some money in her will. It turned out to be $1 million! But, the money had to be used to construct a new church building. So, they embarked on a building campaign, raised some more money, took out a loan, and now the building is almost ready to move into. And guess what? Now, all kinds of criticism are surfacing about the pastor and his leadership. Some of these issues have been raised before, and they have been addressed, but now they are back with a vengeance. Some are even calling for his resignation. What is going on here?
Our context in North America is similar to the Israelites in the Exodus story. We have people who don't understand why we can't go back to Egypt. Why can't we do church the way we did it before, when everything worked so well? We have some people who are excited about entering a new land, but many are hesitant, even resistant. So, some are longing for the past, some want to forge ahead into the future, and some are caught in the middle not sure what to do. What happens to a church that feels stuck? They begin to attack Moses, Aaron, Miriam, the pastors/staff, and the elders. This is part of what my friend is experiencing. It is the normal reaction of scared, anxious people.
This causes a lot of frustrations for pastors. As good Americans, we want to be successful. We want to show forward progress. We want to see increases in buildings, budgets, and bodies. If the people don't want to move forward as quickly as we do, we complain about them, criticize them, and "throw them under the bus" for lacking faith and not following our vision. Isn't there a better way?
The question is uncomfortable. The question is what does leadership look like in the wilderness? If God is calling some of us to be like Moses, and provide leadership while a whole generation dies off in the desert, what does that look like? It doesn't sound very appealing to me! I would rather be Joshua than Moses. I would rather lead the people to a new place, than help a generation get 400 years of Egypt out of their system. This does not sound particularly rewarding to me. And yet, it is essential to the missional transformation of God's people.
In this context, what is success? How do we know if we've done a good job? What do our people need? In this scenario, people need someone to give them language for their grief and loss and hurt that they feel for the past that is no more. We need to help people understand the pain that comes from losing something precious, and not ramrod our personal goals over people who need help processing their pain. We don't have to de-value the past to get people to embrace the future. In face, just the opposite is true. The more we belittle the past, the more people will resist our attempts to move forward. People need lots of tender, loving care, while we are quietly and patiently planting seeds.
Church leaders need to communicate that we want to carry the best of the past with us into the future. People don't need to get their way, they need to get their way heard. If leaders will intently listen to their people, really hear their fears and anxieties, and respond in ways that let them know they love them and understand them, most people will not demand their own way. They will follow their leaders, knowing that they have been heard.
This kind of missional leadership is slow. It is not fast. Missional leaders are not one minute managers. We are lifetime managers. We don't lead people with a fast food drive thru rush mentality. We lead with calendars, seasons, and years. Missional leaders know that any real, significant change can't happen quickly. It needs time to ferment. It simmers slowly. People are not square pegs that we can force into round holes. They are fellow travellers on the journey. Sometimes they are obstinate, for sure. And sometimes they are as unreasonable as their leaders. But God knows, that the dramatic shift in the North American church will not happen overnight. It will happen in a generation. Wilderness leadership is not just about waiting for a generation to die off. It's about raising up a new generation, that learns from the old generation, and then figures out how to get out of the desert.
At first glance, wilderness leadership doesn't sound very easy. But truth be told, I don't want to give my life to what is easy, or fast, or superficial. I want to give my life to what is signficant, life-changing, and eternally important. The wilderness does not offer itself to quick fixes. It's a place to slowly clear the cobwebs out of our heads and see life from a new perspective. The wilderness may not be comfortable. But, it can be the most rewarding place to live.