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Thinking Out Loud

Don't Shoot! I'm On Your Side

by Michael Jinkins | Jun 06, 2017

Don't Shoot"Just remember, if you get out too far ahead of your people, they'll mistake you for the enemy and shoot you."

I recall getting this advice, but I don't remember who told me. Whoever it was gave me a great gift because they showed me a dynamic of leadership that is true no matter who is involved. The most sophisticated organization is not immune to this dynamic; the smallest congregation is subject to it as well.

The pace of change as much as the direction has led to many failures of leadership. Of course, this doesn't take into account the fact that some organizations are simply more change-adverse than others. Academic institutions, for example.

When Don Shriver became president of Union Seminary in New York City, he asked Ellis Nelson (then dean) to fill him in on how a seminary works. Ellis told him that however socially or politically liberal any academic institution may be, its faculty is inevitably conservative when it comes to institutional change. It is easy for an energetic president to leave the faculty further and further behind until - you guessed it - they mistake you for the enemy and shoot you.

The same is true for principals of schools, directors of certain nonprofits (especially those with staffs and very engaged volunteer groups), and pastors.

I often encouraged senior seminarians not to make any significant changes when they were called to their first congregations (and, incidentally, ANY change to worship is by definition a significant change) for the period of one year. Not only should they not make any significant changes, the governing board and the congregation should know about this pledge when the new pastor comes in.

The first goal of the new pastor is to get to know her people. She should become the historian of the congregation, even if only unofficially. Her love for the congregation should become a matter of conversation throughout the community. After that reputation is well-established, she has the freedom to begin thinking with the congregation about what needs to be accomplished and changed.

Many a beginning pastor has been burned at the stake as a heretic for doing something as seemingly innocuous as moving the pulpit Bible, changing the order of the service, or making the congregation sing unfamiliar hymns. And, while many beginning pastors have claimed they were rejected because they were fearless prophets for social justice, most of the time they actually failed because they did not communicate a deep respect for the people and their distinctive ways of being faithful in that particular place.

Every good rule has its exceptions. And as true as it may be that most new leaders fail by failing to connect adequately before making changes, sometimes change is the very thing needed to convince the people that their new leader understands their situation.

This is especially true in cases where an organization or a congregation has languished and drifted without direction or fallen behind because of unimaginative, unenergetic or chronically conflicted leadership (or all three). In these cases, the first order of business for a new leader may be to bring together the leadership of the group (official and otherwise) and to begin to chart a new course right away.

Even here a delicate dance is necessary. The leader cannot afford to send the message: "I would like you better if you were different." Rather, the leader must communicate in actions and words: "I love this organization. It has amazing strengths and capacities, and I'm here to work with you in helping you to flourish. Let's imagine our future together."

In these cases, the leader is not so much the historian of the organization or congregation as the facilitator of adaptive change. But once the organization or congregation starts moving again, the pace of change will become just as important in these cases as in the more conventional situations.

The old saw just never gets dull. People must know deep in their hearts that the leader is on their side. Otherwise about the only advice I can give a new leader is, "Dive for cover!"

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