Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Leadership, Pastoral Theology

Leadership When the Maps Are Wrong

There are few challenges like taking an existing institution and bringing needed change. A transformative leader often faces strong headwinds. Plans get sabotaged. I learned this early on in my first church. In my youthful idealism, fresh out of my doctoral program at Dallas, I was ready to change the world. I soon discovered it took everything just to change the format of the worship folder. In the candidating, people applauded my stirring vision. In the early years, the same people resisted my plans for implementation.  

It was an inglorious experience at first. I was disillusioned. I realized it would be hard going. I was learning that ministry, as Peterson puts it, consists of “modest, daily, assigned work – routines similar to mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. If we expected to ride a glistening stallion in parades and return to the barn where a lackey grooms our stead, we will be severely disappointed.” 

As I work with existing—as well as future pastors–I know that many of them face, and will face, the same resistance. The same muck. This can wear leaders down (a significant reason nearly 1500 pastors leave the ministry every month). If they are to endure, something has to happen. Tod Bolsinger addresses this so well in his book, Canoeing the Mountains. He points to Lewis and Clark, who, after fifteen months of going upstream, assumed the current would take them to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, they faced the Rocky Mountains. Like so many leaders, their driving assumptions were upended. 

What’s a leader to do in this uncharted territory? You can turn back and admit this is not what you signed up for. You can stubbornly proceed with your preconceived notions intact, canoeing though there is no river. Or you can adapt and reframe. This enables leaders to see possibilities where others see dead ends. Lewis and Clark realized that if they were to press on, they would need to change—from river rats to mountain climbers. Learn as you go, but keep going.  

This is, as Bolsinger puts it, the leadership moment of the church today. Leadership, as he defines it, is “energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.” Will today’s leaders live up to these words? If so, it begins with the transformation of the leader. 

For all of the changes I wanted to bring to my first—and successive churches—I began to realize that it was me who first needed to change. I needed to slow down and reflect upon the transforming work God was doing in me. Some of my plans would have to fail so that I could learn. I would need to earn the trust of those I lead (as well as trust the people I lead), and this would take weeks, months, and in many cases, years. This is critical. Without trust, there is no travel.  

I would need to wrestle with some core questions—what things must not change? What things are no longer essential and need to be discarded? What needs to be adapted to these changing times? How do I handle the tension of living between those impatient for change and those who hate and resist it? 

I would also need to come to terms with this truth—that transformative leaders who intend to bring change must expect disruption. Sabotage is natural. It is normal. Early on, I was too naïve to realize this. I did not understand that organizations are, by nature, committed to securing the status quo. They are wired to maintain equilibrium. I could have used Bolsinger’s wisdom—

-start with conviction

-stay calm

-stay connected

-stay the course

-expect interference

-don’t take it personally

-in every decision, ask—does it further our mission? Mission trumps everything.  

As I look around, the same rules apply to just about every leadership context. As I am finding in education, the maps have changed. For many of us, it is time to adapt, reorient, reframe. Otherwise, it will be an even longer, more painful journey, one that will never find the ocean.


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