Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Leadership: Lessons Learned

I am starting a series of blogs on lessons on leadership that I learned from others.  As you can imagine, with 42 years of active ministry, I had a chance to learn from a number of great teachers, mentors, and peers.  I do hope you will respond and possible even share stories of your own. 

My second year at Berkeley Divinity School, the seminary called the Rev. Michael Allen to be our Dean.  It was a very tumultuous time for both or society and for our School.  Michael led the school through the process of merging with Yale and becoming The Berkeley Center at Yale Divinity School, making Episcopalians the largest denomination at YDS.  He was an unusual choice for Dean because he did not come from an academic background.  He had been Rector of St. Mark’s in the Bowery in New York.  It was a cutting edge activist congregation with a very diverse membership and a strong commitment to serving the needy of that area.

Dean Allen had been a reporter who responded to a call to consider ordination by Bishop James Pike after he had interviewed the controversial Bishop.  He attended the EDS and ordained in the Diocese of New York.  I do not think it fair to call Dean Allen a Progressive, he was much too radical than that.  He was either liked or hated by both the faculty and students who were very polarized about the future of the Seminary and his leadership style.  I liked him and he was very helpful to me in a number of ways.  Later in life, we drifted apart over a number of issues, but I always remained grateful for what I learned from him.

Michael believed passionately that faith and courage were inseparable!  He taught this and modeled in in a number of ways.  He would point out that being a leader of the Church demanded courage.  Often for him this meant courage to speak out against injustice and courage to speak up for those who had no voice.  This brings me to his main message and the key lesson that I learned. 

Faith demands courage on our part.  If our faith is not demanding this from us, then it really isn’t faith.  I learned from him that where I was called to be most faithful as a Priest and Christian was the area where courage was being demanded of me.

“What is faith when everything is going well?” he would ask.  Whether this mean standing up to someone in power (say a Bishop, and I’ve needed that at times!) or facing up to cancer, or facing up to people who disrespect your, or those who even hate you for your beliefs, or standing up to members of a congregation that speak ill of you, all need courage. 

I have often shared this with parishioners and friends when they faced difficulties.  It always had a way of strengthening them.  Instead of seeing the “faith” as something they had to hang on to no matter how they felt, they could see faith for what it was, a call to be courageous, a good soldier of the cross, no matter the circumstances. 

Not a surprise that two of Dean Allen’s favorite hymns were “They Caste Their Nets in Galilee” and “Am I a soldier of the Cross.”

This leads me to two important aspects of this truth.  First, I was working with a congregation where the Vestry and Rector were in conflict and they had brought Peter Steinke, a great teacher and consultant, to work with them.  The Rector had definitely pushed the leaders beyond their comfort zone and they had decided that the best way to deal with this was to force him to resign.  Eventually, he did.  He just couldn’t take their criticism and hostility and who could blame him.  Steinke came in to debrief the Vestry in the aftermath and carried out his listener and consultant role well. After the meeting, I asked him what he really thought of all this.  In summary, this is how he described situation.  

The Rector was like a lot of clergy I have worked with over the years.  He saw what needed to be done and he took action to make it happen.  When he got resistance and sabotage, he was at first naively surprised thinking he could just charm his way through it all.  When this failed, he became angry and discouraged.  He was leading change beyond his capacity to deal with anger, criticism, and pushback.  They read that from him and pushed even harder. He failed to count the possible cost of the changes, rally allies to his side, and have the courage to persevere.  In the end, they just wore him out and then they bought him out.    

Faithful leadership takes courage.  Dean Allen understood this.

Second, What is the greatest obstacle that many clergy (and yes I include myself in this at times) face in leading; the desire to have people love us, and the inability to accept that often when you do the right thing, many will NOT!

I would have followed Dean Allen into any battle.  Ironically, I would also say this about Bishop Ben Benitez.  I didn’t always agree with either of them, but I would have followed them to the gates of hell.