The Power of Trusting Our Colleagues
Of the various subjects I’m asked to teach or present on at various gatherings and conferences, the one that is most frequently requested is about the massive amount of cultural change we have experienced in recent decades and the implications of that for our lives in the Church. Given the significant decline in so many of our congregations and overall attendance in worship, I can understand why folks, myself included, are working hard to better understand the nature of the culture in which we live so that we may respond faithfully to the challenges and opportunities it presents.
At some point in these gatherings, I always say two things. The first thing I say is that no matter how careful or accurate we may be in our analysis, I nevertheless do not believe that any one of us knows exactly what preaching, or worship, or leadership, or congregational life and practices more generally should be in the future. And I mean that. We just don’t know. We have a lot of great traditions and practices and while I’m no big advocate of change for change’s sake, I do think we need to examine a lot of our assumptions about the ways things should be done and put a lot of our practices on the table for more critical review of their adequacy to the challenges we face today. But none of us knows the way forward. We may have hunches, ideas, and suspicions, but none of knows for sure.
I say this in order to invite a new level of freedom and creativity. Because the only way forward when the world has changed this much is to innovate, and nothing curbs creativity more than thinking there’s already an answer out there and all of our attempts to think creatively will be judged against that standard. And so this current moment of ignorance is actually an invitation to experiment, to play, to let some things go, to retain others and perhaps look at them in a new way, and to take some risks. It is, in short, an invitation to color outside the lines.
The second thing I say is that while I believe that none of us as individuals has the answer, all the answers can be found by sharing the experiences of those gathered with me at that moment and those whom they represent. Do you know what I mean? That at whatever conference or event I may be leading, God has blessed that group with sufficient creativity, experience, and faithfulness to figure out a way forward together. Which doesn’t mean that there won’t be bumps along the way, or that we won’t make mistakes, or even fail in some of our experiments and attempts. You cannot experiment and not experience failure. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that in the collection of people with whom we find ourselves there is sufficient experience and intelligence to find a faithful path forward.
While I say that, however, I don’t always live into the reality I’ve confessed. That is, I still do most of the teaching, most of the presenting, most of the offering of ideas and suggestions. That’s not, I think, because I don’t believe what I say or because I don’t trust the group with whom I’m gathered. Rather, I think it’s that I succumb to the expectations of the group and that we all have bought into, in one form or another, the cultural acceptance of the expert-model of leadership.
In short, that model runs like this: Leaders are the experts. It’s their job to figure out what we need to do, communicate that to the group, inspire us to action and provide us with resources and incentives to move forward. So when, for instance, it comes to conferences, the presenter is the expert. He or she is therefore the one who is active, doing most of the work, while the audience – in the fullest sense of that work – receives the wisdom of the expert, takes notes quietly, nods their heads in appreciation, and perhaps asks questions in the Q&A (and it’s usually “A” for answers).
From time to time, though – and last night was one of those times as I gathered with leaders from the South Dakota Synod – I remember my own beliefs, take hold of the courage of my convictions and buck conventional wisdom, and put the responsibility for thinking creatively back on the audience. And so after a few moments of traditional Q&R (I try to shift from “Answers” to “Responses” to remind folks that while I have some hunches I don’t have the answers), I asked them to share their experience. What had they seen? What had they tried? What had worked? What hadn’t? And what were they going to try next? And the moment I did that, the conversation took off – in part because it suddenly was a real conversation. And what followed was fantastic – creative, interesting ideas, mutual conversation and encouragement, and empowerment for those who were willing to risk themselves as they discovered they knew more than they thought and had a lot to offer the group.
This seems to me a better way forward than relying on experts. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for expertise or more traditional teaching. But the role expertise and teaching plays in this more group-centered model of leadership changes. Expertise does not lead to formulating answers but is deployed to prepare the group to discover their own solutions. And teaching is used to offer enough essential background information to prepare participants to take hold of what they’ve been offered in light of their own experience and take responsibility for moving the group forward. The leader knows a lot, but one of the key things she or he knows is that the group knows even more, and so while content expertise is valued, expertise in facilitating conversation, in creating safe space, and in drawing out from the group their gifts and insights is key. (Interestingly, the root of our word “educate” is the Latin educare, “to draw or lead out.”)
I need to do this more. We all need to do this more. Because when we trust our colleagues, when we trust the participants gathered at a conference, and when we trust our students in the classes we teach, we pool the wealth of our experience and gifts, empower any number of leaders, offer a far more sustainable model of leadership, and get better answers to the challenges we face and problems we’re trying to solve.