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Discipleship ponders leadership in the church

The Rev. Gil Rendle, senior consultant with the Alban Institute, talks about the challenges of leadership in the church today. UMNS photos by Linda Green.
The Rev. Gil Rendle, senior consultant with the Alban Institute, talks about the challenges of leadership in the church today. UMNS photos by Linda Green.

By Linda Green*
March 22, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Bishop D. Max Whitfield, Melinda Miles (center) and Delia Estrada review proposed General Conference legislation.
Bishop D. Max Whitfield, Melinda Miles (center) and Delia Estrada review proposed General Conference legislation.

What is the definition of leadership in The United Methodist Church?

The governing members of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship gained insight into that question during their March 14-17 meeting with the help of the Rev. Gil Rendle, a senior consultant with the Alban Institute, a nondenominational organization focused on strengthening local congregations.

Across the denomination, agency executives are seeking to build a system of leadership development to give clergy and laity the knowledge and skills necessary for ministry in the 21st century. Similar conversations are taking place across the U.S. religious landscape that center on pinpointing when old practices no longer work.

"What does it mean to be called a leader in a time when we don’t know which way to lead?" Rendle asked.

"We are not sure what the new practices are," he added.

Rendle said congregations often are committed to old values and old ways in a world demanding something new. The United Methodist Church, he said, has faced a 40-year membership decline and for "25 years we have been practicing our demise by watching it so closely."

It is not a problem to be solved but "something that we are going to have to live into," he said.

The example of Moses

A guide for leadership, according to Rendle, can be found in God’s calling to Moses in Exodus 3 and how he was deemed worthy to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness by paying attention.

"If there is a challenge for leadership today, I would argue that it is the challenge of … learning how to pay attention to the simple things – not to the confusion in this world around us," he said.

Management asks if they are doing things right. Leadership asks if they are doing the right things.
-The Rev. Gil Rendle

To effectively help lead the Board of Discipleship through the wilderness of change, leaders must not get lost in daily details, while also finding time to "listen to the complaining of the people without being distracted."

The United Methodist Church, he said, has shifted from being an established church to a "disestablished" church in the public place. Its long-held identity has been taken away and its members no longer know who they are or what they are to do.

"It is easier to answer the question of ‘who were we?’ than ‘who are we?’" he said, "and our congregations are very much the same. They can answer the question of who they used to be."

Leading vs. problem-solving

Rendle said people have been trained to be problem-solvers instead of leaders and the church is using outdated tools and skills to address the issues. Today’s church leaders want to know "what the problem is so that we can fix it" instead of facing the "conditions" of our time.

Conditions, he said, are not acted upon; they are learned about. "We have to stop moving so quickly to action and start looking to learning," said Rendle, adding that "problem-solving often does not move us ahead. It takes us back to where we were before we had a problem."

In organizational structure, two voices exist – leadership and management – and every organization needs both voices working at the same time. Leadership is the voice that helps to reach out, change and move ahead. Management is the voice that helps an organization remain steady and calm. "The dilemma is that those two voices are trying to answer two different questions," Rendle said.

Management asks if they are doing things right to ensure organizational satisfaction. The hardest church to lead is a satisfied church, he said, because members do not want to take risks or to move beyond their current scope or circumstance.

Leadership, however, asks if they are doing the right things and it can be "an amazingly disruptive practice." The question of who God is calling the church to be "causes a church to stop in place and think again" and ponder if they are on the right path, have the right mission or are serving the people they are called to serve.

"We are in a time in which we have been asked for leadership, but we will be rewarded for management," he said. "The test is to see if we are paying attention."

Other business

In other actions, the board:

  • Heard of a study under way by the worship section of the agency to discover the adequacy of cultural ritual resources with multiple constituencies and develop and test new ritual resources for those congregations that do not fit the "traditional" modes of United Methodist worship. These resources will not replace official United Methodist Church ritual resources;
  • Considered legislation for the 2008 General Conference, including a resolution from the Native American Comprehensive Plan requesting moving from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries to the Board of Discipleship and approval of and referral to the Council of Bishops legislation related to guaranteed clergy appointments about the need for a more efficient process for moving elders who do not consistently maintain standards of excellence into renewal or other work;
  • Viewed a new DVD about Accountable Discipleship

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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