David Lose: How Do We Define Competent Leadership?


When I talk about making the move from what I describe as "performative leadership" to "formative leadership" (as I did obliquely in last week's Dear Partner letter), I regularly encounter a reaction as understandable as it is predictable.

First, let me say a little more about what I mean by these terms. Performative leadership is essentially leadership that focuses on certain skills or practices that the leader has acquired through training and practice and now uses on behalf of the organization he or she is leading. In congregational ministry, these are often of the skills of preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and so forth. Performative leadership is about, quite literally, performing these practices well for the sake of the community. Formative leadership, by contrast, is focused on training others in developing set of skills that is useful to them and to the larger community. It is, again literally, focused on forming additional leaders.

Easy enough. Except when you apply it to church leadership, because then it sounds like I'm saying that congregational leaders should train others to preach and teach and offer pastoral care and the rest. And I can't mean that, can I?

Actually, that is what I mean. And when people - and particularly pastors (though also folks in the congregation as well) - sense that, they offer a couple of incredibly understandable reactions almost always framed as questions: "Then what was all of our training for?" "But didn't we go (or send our pastors) to seminary precisely so that they would be the experts, the ones who know how to do this stuff right?"

Two explanations that may help address these concerns and delve a bit more deeply, or at least more clearly, into what I mean by this shift from performative to formative leadership. First, I'm not against expertise, I just think we need to deploy our expertise differently. In particular, I think we need to deploy our expertise toward, as the Apostle writes, "equipping the saints for the work of ministry" (Eph. 4:12). That's what our training was for - not simply to become great interpreters of Scripture in the pulpit, but through our preaching to help others interpret Scripture; and not only to make great connections between the biblical story and our life story in our sermons, but through our preaching to help others do that in their daily lives and to be able share those connections with others. That is deploying expertise differently.

Second, formative leadership doesn't rule out, let alone negate, the value of performative tasks. There is a place for pastors to teach and preach and all the rest, so long as the primary goal is that, over time, those in the community will get better at these same skills themselves - if not always preaching, at least interpreting Scripture and connecting it to daily life; if not necessarily making hospital visits, certainly praying with and for others and extending Christian care. (And, just for the record, one of the ways people might get better at this in their daily lives is to be invited actually to preach and make pastor visits from time to time!)

The key difference between performative and formative leadership is, I think, how we define competence. In performative leadership - again focusing on congregational leadership as an example - it's about how good the pastor is at these central skills. In formative leadership, it's about how much better the congregation becomes over time through the pastor's leadership.

For me, a great example of this distinction comes from another profession: coaching. Most coaches played the sport they now coach. But few of us care what kind of individual career they had; we just want to know that when they are on the field or court their team plays better. Teachers are much the same, as are conductors of music groups. In each case, the mark of competence isn't that the leaders can perform some skill or practice, but that their community or organization or team was better because of their efforts and expertise.

When I first started talking about this, there was one other question that I regularly got (this time only from pastors): "So now I'm just a teacher or coach?"

It took me a little while to figure out how to answer this one, but eventually I found this response helpful to me and my conversation partner. "I hear what you're saying. Can you name for me the three most important and influential people in your life?" After a moment's thought, the person would begin to answer, then hesitate, and then smile, as it dawned on him or her that among those three was always a teacher or coach and often both. And, indeed, as I've tried this response with others it's become clear that teachers and coaches and guides and Scout masters and conductors and other "formative leaders" have played incredibly important roles in almost all of our lives.

And that's the kind of leadership I think we need in the church and world right now.

From David's blog, "...In the Meantime"