What's Tony Thinking

Where Are the Prophets?


To those readers who are not into church leadership this post might sound like “inside baseball.” Stick with me, though, and you may find this of interest/ value. Hope so.

Last week I was in Atlanta to speak at an event for clergy of the Atlanta Diocese of the Episcopal Church. There Bishop Rob Wright has been working hard on themes of “adaptive leadership,” drawing on the work of Ron Heifetz (Kennedy School of Government).

I too have found Heifetz’s work very helpful. I often utilize his distinction between “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges.” The former rely for solution on outside experts. “Call the plumber.” Adaptive challenges require the people with the problem to do the work. “Gee, you mean I have to change? Learn? Grow?”

Living in the midst of a technical culture, we opt to frame most everything as a technical problem. “Hey, doc, just give me a pill.” Versus, “Hey, patient, change your life — your diet, stress, thinking and exercise.”

That’s a quick and dirty on the seminal Heifetz distinction. It’s important in all areas of life and applicable to all human organizations. We’ve come to think quick fixes with some expert or technique doing the work is the norm. We avoid those challenges that call for longer term engagement and deeper work. But not everything — in fact most of the really important things — can be addressed with a quick fix or an easy answer. There is no pill that the declining or dysfunctional congregation can take. And getting a different pastor isn’t a magic solution either. (There’s a joke among church consultants that what congregations want us to do is, “Fix Everything, but Change Nothing.”)

Back to the Atlanta Diocese, where the Bishop has been pushing “Adaptive Leadership.” And getting some push-back. Some of the push-back has been, “Adaptive leadership is business language, corporate culture-talk.”

So I suggest changing out “Adaptive Leadership” for “Prophetic Leadership.” What did the prophets do? Mostly, they pointed out the gaps between what God’s people said and what they actually did. Which is a dangerous line of work. Dangerous but necessary.

For a long time, mainline religious leaders have thought of prophets as mainly being about social justice and political powers. Prophet Nathan calling King David to account. Martin Luther King challenging America to live up to it’s ideals. Jim Wallis faulting U.S. spending priorities.

The problem with thinking that this societal focus is what “prophetic ministry” is all about is we overlook the responsibility of leaders/ clergy to be prophetic in and to the community of faith, i.e. the church. By the way, Jesus mostly directed his prophetic challenge exactly there — to his community of faith, Judaism. He really wasn’t focused on getting the Romans to be nicer tyrants.

So — cutting to the chase — we need a lot more parish pastors to be prophets, not to the wider culture or political leaders, but to their own congregation, to the churches. And that doesn’t mean saying, “Hey, you guys are racists.” It means challenging the church to be more faithful and fruitful.

Prophetic leadership means asking the questions that are basic yet neglected. “Why are we here?” “What’s our purpose?” “What are we trying to do?” “Who are we serving, and who are we called to serve?” Prophetic leadership means noticing the gaps, the gaps between what we say and what we do.

In these days of mainline shrinkage many churches have become clubs. (And the church building a clubhouse.) In the church qua club, the main purpose becomes the comfort and satisfaction of the members. This may be jolly, but it is not the church of Jesus Christ. The church, bottom line, is about changing lives. Prophetic leaders remind the church that it is not a club for the benefit of the members.

Prophetic leadership is only possible when a minister has also done her pastoral and priestly work. If I haven’t sat at your kitchen table to listen or by your hospital bed to pray during the week, I have no business standing in the pulpit with a word of challenge.

Bottom line, too many clergy get the pastor/ priest part — serving felt needs, providing religious goods and services, keeping things going (most of which is important and necessary) — but it is not leavened with prophetic leadership. This includes asking good questions, challenging assumptions, asking “why do we do things this way?” “Tell me again, why our church is sponsoring a golf tournament?”

Why has prophetic ministry in and to the congregation gone missing? My hunch — too many clergy think their job description is to be “Rev. Nice,” to be the most loving, patient, caring person in the known world. But this job is more complicated, interesting and dangerous than that. It’s a both/ and. Loving people and challenging them. Or as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” (footnote: we are all both, the afflicted and the comfortable.)

Not long ago, I did a session with Seattle Parks of “diversity training.” One of the guideline/ ground rules was, “Expect to be uncomfortable.”  I kind of think that people in the church today have come to expect not only that they will be comfortable, but should be comfortable. Moreover, that it is the job of the clergy to make sure that they are comfortable. Well, where in the world did we ever get that idea?

Not from Jesus.

The church and the churches need leaders who are prophetic not just about how America falls short and protects vested interests, but about how a particular congregation has gaps between professed values and actual behavior, gaps between who we are and who God has called us to be, with the possibility of being more and different.

To quote the hymn, “God of the Prophets, send us prophets now.”



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