One of the tests of a leader is how she responds to a challenging situation or a crisis. Without going into a large amount of detail, I think it’s safe to say that what is currently happening in the Presbyterian Church USA qualifies as a challenging situation (at least) or (at worst) a crisis. Ministers and churches across the country are being forced to have difficult conversations about our relationship to the denomination of which we are a part.
This sort of difficult situation provides a unique opportunity for growth both in the life of the individual Christian and in our life together as a congregation. It is also a particularly critical juncture for ministers since it provides a really strategic opportunity to teach on doctrine and the deepest values of the church.
Of course, one of the particular challenges of wise leadership is waiting upon God in the midst of a pressure situation so as to be able move forward with integrity. This is quite difficult when and if you find yourself in a situation where there is not consensus. In a situation like that, a good leader will discern whether she needs to move forward and if she does, will take point in guiding the church.
In our current denominational troubles, I have identified at least three common responses from clergy regardless of their theological identity as tradition/conservative or progressive/liberal:
- The “let’s keep our focus local” response.
- The “ignore it and it’ll go away” response.
- The “for better or worse, let’s engage it” response.
“Let’s keep our focus local” – This sounds like wisdom, but it can be the product of an unhealthy sense of congregational identity and priority. As presbyterians our connection to other churches and ministers through presbyteries and other church courts isn’t incidental. Scripture witnesses that we are part of a single church sharing in the mission of expressing the Gospel through our worship and work. It can be easy for ministers to think that their church is the center of the universe, but in reality we have a vowed duty to protect the peace, unity, and purity of the church. We cannot set that aside for the seeming nobility of a local work. By failing to lead in the context of the conflict at hand, you are actually weakening your congregation by failing to disciple church members in important issues that they face as followers of Christ in 2011.
“Ignore it and it will go away” – This is inexcusable. If it goes away it will go away in the same way that “marriage issues” go away for a husband and wife who decide the fighting is just too much and decide to simply coexist in shared space because the other thing that’s too much is the trouble of a divorce. This type of lack of leadership kills the heart of a pastor and kills the heart of a congregation because it creates a void where there should be biblically-shaped conviction.
“For better or worse, let’s engage it” – The road of sustained engagement is difficult and long. It often involves misunderstanding and requires an amazing amount of discipline and wisdom, two things that are in seeming short supply today. I say “for better or for worse” because there are no guarantees about how conflicts will shake out. A pastor may lead her congregation only to find that they feel called one way and she feels called the other. There may be significant disagreement in the congregation that exerts a terrible toll on the minister. There may also be a renewed sense of shared mission, a longing to see God’s leadership in the midst of difficulty, a deepening sense of prayer and dependence upon God.
There’s no guarantee that doing the right thing will produce a happy, prosperous life. There is. however, a promise that God will honor the faithfulness of his servants.