I loved being with the Brethren in Christ at the recent, brief conference in Ontario, CA. We are full of creativity, wisdom and energy for mission! Stories from the congregations in the United States and Canada, as well as stories from around the world from Brethren in Christ World Missions and the Mennonite Central Committee were inspiring!
I am always inspired to go home and do the best I can to serve Jesus after the conference. That alone is worth the airfare. This time I also learned a lot about leading in two ways: 1) I got to meet many new, young leaders who are hungry to do well and to do well as the BIC. They are inventive and eager. Good traits. 2) The other way I learned about leading came from being led by my General Church Leaders and Board. They were having an instructive time of it, trying to navigate their way through the mess we are in as a denomination. I will have plenty more to think and say about the actual issues at hand. For now, I have a list of things I need to reaffirm for myself, and for others who are listening, about leading the church (or your cell, family, workgroup, community garden, etc.).
Respect people. — We are all members of one body and we all count. Leaders need to act like that. No, I take that back. Leaders need to believe that we are all members of one body and we all count and then act on that from their heart. The BIC, and most local church bodies, like Circle of Hope, have mutual respect built into their structures. We shouldn’t give that fact a high five and then do what we want. For instance, the BIC General Conference is made up of pastors and delegates. The people at the meeting were most of the best players on the bi-national team. A leader should assume that experienced players can run plays with even slight facilitation. We need to demonstrate respect, not just talk about it.
Share the process. — Like Ronald Reagan getting away with secret, illegal arms deals, it is easy to think that what is done in secret will not eventually be shouted from the rooftops. But what some people think is better kept under wraps is crucial to building the body — the process is also elemental to the goal. Bad means can come to worse ends. During our conference we found out that the Canadian regional conference of our bi-national church had effectively “seceded from the union” long ago and we were asked to affirm that. They even changed their structure and nomenclature long before they were not part of the whole. Interesting process: the no-contest, no-communication divorce.
Offer a complete proposal; don’t just say “trust us.” – Obviously, detailed proposals cannot be engineered in a group of 500 (or five, in the case of some of our cell groups!). That’s why a proposal is detailed-out and dialogued-over long before it gets to the final decision-making. We got a proposal for major restructuring that had so many holes in it that I wonder if we can get through the next two years alive. We approved it because “they worked hard on it” and we “want to trust them.” But we have lots of structures that are designed for dialogue and for building consensus. The leaders should be masters at using them. We should have a good idea of how the Spirit is moving in the church before we test our discernment at a group meeting.
Get along for Jesus’ sake. – We still don’t know, for sure why the BIC leadership fell apart last year and why the top leaders are being sent packing. The word from the lectern was, “We messed up.” They wouldn’t really define what “messing up” means, which has been characteristic of the whole “mess up.” At one point, our Moderator spent fifteen minutes trying to waive the bylaws so two leaders could be considered in an election. The two leaders stood up and declined to be considered. That was just one instance of apparent infighting, or at least scant communication. Poor relating happens; in leaders it is even costlier.
Never isolate people by how you talk about them. — In the BIC, the leadership regularly talks about “new” people and “Spanish speaking people” as if they were not fully BIC yet. It reminds me of moving to Waynesboro PA and being told by my neighbor that I would never be a part of the town because I wasn’t born there. I’ve got a feeling that I am still “new” to the BIC, twenty-eight years after arriving! I have spent nearly twenty of those years trying to get the leaders to accept the people from South Florida and elsewhere who are not-of-the-BIC-cradle as bonafide members of the denomination. They are still singled out like they don’t yet belong at every conference. They still aren’t “us.” Back to a previous point — it appears that being a delegate makes little difference anymore in the practical BIC process; it appears from what is often said that being a Spanish-first delegate makes even less difference.
Never ignore things that might cause conflict. — I never heard so much gratitude for being “Anabaptist” at a BIC General Conference as I heard last week! It was as if people did not get the memo that certain elements of the denomination have been fighting the oldest parts of our distinctives for a long time, so we keep them as distinctives but downplay them in practice. I think our Anabaptist stream makes us ever-more perfect for meeting the challenges of post-Christian America. Thus, we should act like we are MCC, since we are MCC (get them to change their name!). And we should practice our theology of peacemaking even if we have to dialogue with veterans.
Learning lessons is not a passive aggressive way of saying, “I want to criticize the leaders in a clever way.” I hope my criticisms are straightforward enough. I imagine most of the GC Leaders already agree with most of what I have said, anyway. I really do want to learn. I think leading is hard. Barack, Mitt and the Congress are regularly horrible, but ever-present examples of what leading is like these days — disrespecful, secretive, singular. I want to do better. I want us, as the BIC, to do better. In the next decade, as all those new leaders get their full footing in the new era that is forming, we need to help one another represent Jesus well.