Thursday, May 10, 2007

Leadership Vacuum

I found a recent new story from the United Methodist News Service to be both amusing and troubling. The story refers to a recent meeting of the Council of Bishops in which the episcopal leaders debated a possible piece of legislation concerning the issue of homosexuality.

Our Book of Discipline defines our position, saying that the Church "...does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider(s) this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

According to the UMNS article:

"A council subcommittee had recommended replacing that proscription with language that the church does not condone sexual relationships between people of heterosexual or homosexual orientation 'outside the bonds of a faithful, loving and committed relationship between two persons; marriage, where legally possible.'"
Now, the homosexuality is not a major issue for me. I have taken homosexuals into Church membership, and would consider doing so again. I have friends who are practicing homosexuals. I also believe, however, that all sides need to respect and practice Church teaching, and I have been disappointed when parties seek loopholes in an effort to, in my view, be disingenuous. The Bishops have the right, I suppose, to suggest any change in policy they see fit to suggest, providing that they, too, abide by canon law, regardless of their personal feelings. If they cannot do that in good conscience, then there is no shame in resignation.

What bothers me about the entire affair isn't that the Bishops talked about the issue, nor that they considered a proposal to change the position of the Church. What bothers me is that the issue was tabled. Not defeated, amended, or passed...tabled.

Retired Bishop Jack Tuell said that the Council of Bishops is, "...somewhat immobilized these days on some of these issues that are really facing our church...", making public his hope that, "...we will find the ways more intentionally to be about the business of giving leadership in this area."

The article says of Bishop Tuell, "While acknowledging that he did not have suggestions on the 'right way to give leadership', Tuell said he believes 'that almost any thoughtful plan of leadership would be superior to prudent silence.'"

Amen, Brother!

Why was the proposal tabled?

"Oklahoma Bishop Robert Hayes, who is secretary of the administrative committee, said advancing the recommendation on homosexuality would have 'proven to be divisive and counterproductive to the unity that currently exists in the Council of Bishops and to the church today.'"

Unity is a wonderful thing, and it is worth pursuing. I believe, for example, that it is every pastor's obligation to seek and to nurture ecumenical cooperation in their respective ministry setting, and also feel that failure to do so is completely irresponsible and unfaithful. Unity is important, and leading it is crucial.

But leadership sometimes requires risking disunity. There's nothing wrong with upsetting soomeone to do what you feel is the right thing. If the Bishops feel that the Church needs to accept homosexual behavior as a viable Christian practice, they should say so. Yes, this might lead to real problems (and likely schism), but if they feel strongly enough, say it.

The Church has suffered from a lack of episcopal leadership on this issue (and other issues as well). The Council of Bishops has seemed more intent on preserving their own unity than in leading the Church, one way or the other. They have seemed afraid of leadership; not what we want to see in our episcopal leaders! The Church and her mission deserve better.

Several years ago, for example, when the Iraq War began, the Bishops were silent. Two years later, when much of the public had turned against the war, many our Bishops released a statement saying, essentially, "Oops; we should have spoken up two years ago...we don't think this war is a good idea." That, to me, was cowardice, not leadership, and it was too little, too late.

I have considered the possibility of leadership by silence. But at some point, I believe, that needs to transform into words and/or actions.

Leadership is a risk-taking venture. Sometimes, it means fighting for unity. In times of uncertainty, to lead means to risk anger, disunity, and failure. I pray that our Bishops decide at some point to lead, rather than to remain silent.


Brett Probert said...

Keith, amen. This is true locally and globally. I feel like our Conference is really spiraling right now and all we seem to do is talk about leadership. It is time to exercise leadership.

Eric Park said...

Thanks for the good post, man.

I agree wholeheartedly with the post and the content of your challenge.

What has become clear to me, however, is how maddening it must be to attempt to provide episcopal leadership in the current United Methodist climate. We don't equip our bishops with the kind of episcopal administrative authority with which the Roman Catholic bishops are entrusted. We demand bold episcopal leadership while generating about 101 different ideas about what bold episcopal leadership really means (Liberal? Conservative? Moderate? Administrative? Innovative? Traditional? Cutting Edge? All of the above?!). We charge bishops to lead, and then we give to them annual conferences that don't really want to be led.

None of this, of course, is in opposition to your post. I am simply making the point that a demand for episcopal courage, while absolutely on target, is not without complications and complexities. I suppose that is the case because people tend to define "courage" based upon their own preferences and proclivities. One person's "episcopal courage," in other words, is another person's "episcopal apostasy."

All of which is to say that I am grateful for your words of challenge while at the same time remaining cognizant of the dysfunctional dynamics of our denomination that make episcopal leadership a difficult prospect. We desperately need bold and courageous bishops. But just as desperately we need bold and courageous churches, districts, and conferences that are willing to lead and be led in meaningful ways.

It all makes me wonder (prayerfully) who Western Pennsylvania will identify as it episcopal candidates over the next couple of decades. What will our conference's role be in the future of our denomination and its leadership?

Randy Roda said...

Keith...once again you have driven the point home. Maybe instead of trying to dismantle the Discipline in our structures and through our episcopal leadership, we should work at upholding the Discipline.

I believe in The Book Of Discipline. In many ways it can be a means of grace. It brings accountability, theology and praxis together and makes them uniquely Methodist. Good leadership can only emerge out of faithfulness to that which has been handed down to us.

While it is true that any dynamic organization is always in a state of evolution and rediscovery, we must not forget what is foundational for us. Somethings should never change!

Matt said...

One problem is this...We live in with a managerial episcopacy in a world that's just beginning to understand the difference between leadership and management. many of you were taught leadership in seminary? How many of you were allowed to learn to better utilize the spiritual gift of leadership that was entrusted to you in the same way you learned to preach or teach? Probably very few...I'm learning to do Inductive Bible Study, but I'm learning very little in leadership.

So, our pastors aren't trained as leaders, instead being trained as managers. Leaders bring about change and work in crisis, managers support the status quo. With the lack of episcopal leadership on this issue of homosexuality, we don't have unity...we have a confused understanding that looks like unity but presents nothing of the sort. So, we demand leadership and don't know what to do with it when we get it. We ask the impossible and complain when they fail.

I don't think that Bishops need more authority...I think that they're losing authority slowly as they don't show leadership, but as we take away authority, we limit leadership. One of the things that impresses me about our Bishop is his willingness to be a servant leader, as evidenced by his heart that takes his cabinent to Pittsburgh and Louisiana to clean up after disaster strikes.

So, when will we learn to lead? How will learn to use power in a context where service is required? How can we gain authority when little is given? What does trust have to do with all of this? What does Christian Leadership look like in a managerial society?

Now, back to the project I'm working on for Christian Leadership Development...A project that mixes Gardner's 9 Leadership Tasks with Christian Leadership paradigms. I'll figure out a way to post it later and get your thoughts, but for now it's due in 9 hours and I still several points to complete...

Side note #2...It's looking like I'll be spending an extra year here to complete a degree in Christian Leadership...Not because I want to, but because I need to if I want to lead well and (I think) the church needs myself and others to lead well. Is it worth the extra cost (financially and otherwise)? If I can use it to benefit the Kingdom...Absolutely! As you can see...I'm pretty passionate about this!

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Matt...I agree with you, and commend you for seeking that "extra" leadership training. It needs to be included in more seminary curriciula, no question.

Eric...I also agree with you that modern epicopal leadership is complex, and we don't always give them the formal authority to accomplish things.

But...the other day I saw the movie "The Queen" (fascinating, extremely well-acted film). The British queen has very little formal authority; she's largely a figurehead who represents the great traditions of the British people, a visible anchor to their past and a sign of continuity and hope for their future.

Yet when Diana died, the queen was criticized, essentially, for her, if I may steal words from Bishop Tuell, "prudent silence". It was a time to step up...a time for leadership. She was under enormous pressure, personally and politically, and the proper course wasn't clear. Eventually, at the urging of Tony Blair, she stepped up and did what needed to be done; she led the people in their mourning.

Our bishops are not unlike the queen. Other than the power of appointment (which is HUGELY powerful), they have very little formal authority; they are largely figureheads who represent the great traditions of the Church, a visible anchor to our past and a sign of continuity and hope for our future.

They can still lead. If they lead where the people don't want to go or where the Spirit forbids, so be it. But I wish they'd do something.

They could be "The Queen", who led strongly after failing to do so.

Right now, they remind me of a piece from "1776"..."New York abstains, courteously." DO SOMETHING!

Eric Park said...


I agree.

By the way, I saw THE QUEEN on a long airplane trip recently. I thought it was a great film and that Helen Mirren did indeed deserve the Oscar.

Your words remind me of something that I have come to believe over the years: In leadership, influence is far more important than authority.

Our bishops have a unique opportunity to lead from a place of powerful influence.

That said, there are times when I would like our bishops to have a bit more authority in the area of ecclesiastical re-direction and realignment (i.e., the clout to determine when chuches need to close or realign with other churches). Much of our conference's vision, energy, and stewardship are devoted to maintaining dysfunctional ecclesiastical patterns that a a more comprehensive episcopal authority might be able to address.

But, quite frankly, unlike the Roman Catholic tradition, there is a strong strain of congregationalism in our denominational DNA that would make such an episcol authority anathema.

Eric Park said...

Uh...excuse me.

Let me try that last phrase again.

"...EPISCOPAL authority anathema."

Forgive me. I've been all goofed on skunk weed since the Truman administration.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Eric, I agree with you in principle, though the prospect of giving some of our bishops authority to close churches frightens me.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Incidentally, Eric, regarding your ponderings about our future episcopal nominees, my prayer is that you are one. Sooner rather than later.

Barb said...

Keith, you are wise, and you challenge me to think that the Methodist way in these instances, are not the only way. Is there a "Tony Blair" in the Methodist Conference? Wouldnt that make these points to ponder and ponder and ponder forever, come to a point where "Tony Blair" says, "Enough already, lead the people in a direction, and stop pussy footing around the subject."

If he doesnt say it, I me, I will!!!

Anonymous said...

Keith, as always I appreciate your well thought analysis. I think we live in a world of "American Idol judge" wannabes as has been revealed by the sad letters sent to the laity (at least Simon verbally signs his critiques each week). I hope our church begins to work together even if that means some of the radicals on both sides may have to find a new home. I get bored and angry with these ongoing battles over two or three issues. I hope some of us in the next generation can lay aside our egos and work together to spread the message of Jesus Christ and serve the poor... I look forward to hopefully doing this with some of you this year at AC to show the other folks there are some new folks who are ready to roll up our sleeves and actually put the words into action (not just sit back and critique). Have a great weekend and keep up the good writing! Grace and Peace, John

Randy Roda said...

I knew there was a reason I really like John Shaver. Since I am out of the game, I feel good knowing there are some persons of integrity in our midst. As for the American Idol mindset, I think John is right on cue. It is easy to critique and hard to forge a new way.

As an evangelical, not necessarily a conservative one, I hate being defined by the issues of homosexuality and abortion. There is so much more that I believe I am about. Why are so many in the church trying to alienate and isolate on this one issue. The fact that the College of Bishops is spending time working on and then tabling discussions about sexuality, means that they are making something else into the main thing.

Keith --you are right. It's time for the rubber to hit the road. By the way, it was great talking to you today.

Brett Probert said...

I think that the greatest leadership vacuum right now may be the Dyson, with cyclonic action.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

You're so odd.

Unknown said...

In reading this, I have a question, but no answer. I am not in your shoes as a UMC pastor so please take the following as an outsider's question with no judgement intended.

Is the problem you are facing that you have a lack of good leaders, or is it that good leaders are in a flawed system that produces mediocrity?

In other words, is it the leaders who need replaced or the system in which they serve? Or both?

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Perhaps both. Our system is not designed to necessarily raise up the best leaders, although, by God's grace, that does sometimes happen. Too often, we elect bishops for political reasons..."Now we need another woman"..."Now we need someone Hispanic"...etc. While you can get some good leaders using that strategy, it won't be the most fruitful approach.

So, the system is flawed, and we don't always raise up the best.

Having said that, I believe that the Spirit does still work...sometimes through the Church, sometimes in spite of the Church. It's just that sometimes our best leaders aren't necessarily our bishops.

Does that make sense? Is that fair?

Unknown said...

that makes sense in how leaders get elected. I also appreciate your perspective on how the Holy Spirit works in all situations.

Let me ask this follow-up then. Given what you say, even if you had the best leaders at the helm, would the system allow them to be great leaders or would the system hinder them from being great leaders?

In other words, does the system enhance or delute good leadership?

Keith H. McIlwain said...

I believe a great leader could do well in our system. There have been some great leaders throught UM history...the Wesley boys, Asbury, laypeople such as John Mott, etc. Our current bishop in western PA has the potential to become one of them, I believe.

Unknown said...

Well then I pray the best for your upcoming elections!

Oh, and thanks for taking the time to help me understand things back home in WPA.