missional leadership

What difference does being missional make for organizational leadership? (There’s actually a whole stream of literature on this question, with more stuff still coming out regularly.)

It’s not an easy question — in that, transforming an organization or institution requires change. And make no mistake: the church is an organization (as well as a body or family); just like a seminary is a higher education institution, as well as a ministry training ground. And change does not happen spontaneously, nor does it come naturally to people — and it is people who make up organizations.

Change requires vision. But there are real liabilities to a single “visionary leader” seeing him-or-herself as the change agent. You may have seen instances yourself in which a leader has flashed and fizzled in either burnout or throw-out. I have seen this happen to a couple of our own graduates even. The literature on the subject warns against this, too.

Change requires vision, yet organizations need maintenance — and this in itself is not an evil. Efficiency, proficiency, and quality are good qualities, and are constant concerns. These qualities need accountability and assessment to be regularly ongoing — or initiated. Yet these can be the very instruments that stifle innovation, risk-taking, or . . . change.

The Missional Church in Perspective (by Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile; published by Baker Academic, 2011) does a nice job framing the trends and theological points in the “Missional conversation.” The writers acknowledge that it can be easier to start a new organization than renew an already-existing one; yet, they rightly point out, the most crucial work for the church right now is in the latter — (church) renewal. And, from a cost perspective, it is far better to transform an already-existing work than to try to raise up support, and network, and facilities, and infrastructure for a whole new enterprise.

The style of leadership to missional church renewal must be different, they insist, nonetheless. Here’s a quote that resonated with me and I’ve been percolating on it ever since:

One of the key insights about missional change recognized in that [missional renewal] literature is the importance of a ‘diffusion of innovations’ approach to change, rather than a ‘gap’ approach. In classic modernist planning, organizations tend to proceed by identifying what is lacking in their life against the backdrop of an aspirational future. Then they try to get members of the organization to close this ‘gap’ through various strategic methods or incentives. In churches, the gap approach often leads to poor outcomes.

First, the process of identifying the deficiencies within a church’s life has the effect of blaming and shaming the congregation. Second, the aspirational future is typically developed and articulated by a small set of leaders, not by the congregation’s membership more widely, and thus isn’t grounded deeply in the grass roots. Finally, it is very difficult to move church members across such a gap without the kind of coercive methods that can be employed by non-voluntary organizations such as businesses. Many such strategic-planning approaches end up failing to engage the membership in the kind of deep culture change necessary for missional transformation.

The diffusion of innovations approach, in contrast, draws on decades of worldwide research on how changes actually spread through human communities. Diffusion research recognizes that change typically spreads through social networks by a process of trial and experimentation. Key influencers within those social networks are integral to the spread of change and innovation. . . . The Key to lasting change is extensive participation by as many people as possible, where they are able over time to try out the new way of being church without risk of shame for failing.

Excellent . . . in how this sounds. Shame and blame bad — got it. Allow leadership to spread among a whole group of initiative-quality people. Sounds good; but I’ve also seen mixed results in trying this, too. Diffusing innovation makes leadership, well, diffuse — vision can thereby be diluted. Activity can increase without real coordination (leading to inefficiency and exhaustion, with few results to show for it). Creativity may increase, but so may distraction, or cross purposes, even outright resistance.

I’ll stop there. It’s your turn. Help me out here. What insights, cautions, questions, or perspectives might you offer here? Any points of success or failure that you’ve seen, encountered, or experienced that might add a dimension in our engagement of these complex questions and issues — especially for anyone trying to play a leadership role in transitioning a church or other organization in a missional direction?

About the Author

Todd Mangum

Dr. R. Todd Mangum

Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical. He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention. Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and co-author (with Dr. Paul Pettit of the Howard Hendricks Leadership Center in Dallas, TX) of the just-released book, Blessed are the Balanced: Following Jesus into the Academy (Kregel), and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.


0 # Daniel McCurdy 2014-02-14 09:09
Todd, At least thinking about this in theory the key to a strong diffuse leadership model would be found in a strong community. I'd be interested in hearing what you and others think, but I think if you want to work on church renewal you have to work with the community as a whole. I've been thinking about this a lot in terms of my own church and how a missional perspective would really be helpful. One of the tools that counseling has given me as an idea of how to sit down with a person or a group, find out what they want to accomplish, what they are willing to put into that goal and then figure out how we are going to get there. I think a process like this with the body as a whole is going to be essential for the diffuse method of leadership to work out because it is going to rely on people buying into and supporting the vision together. Going along with this there needs to be considerable mindfulness to the tendency to turn the diffused leadership into more individual leaders who just have less to do than if there was one individual leader. This seems to be incredibly difficult to accomplish in American churches. What do you think?
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0 # R. Todd Mangum 2014-02-14 13:57
Daniel -- I think what you say is both: 1) spot on; and 2) easier said and conceived than done. But 2) is not a rebuttal at all; just at acknowledgment of, yes, this is how great the challenge is. We need strong communities; and leaders that can help cultivate and foster and "channel" strong communities -- not individual "saviors" or visionaries, and not leaders who are merely fellow passengers on the train. The crease between these two is sometimes narrow.

One other observation: much in leadership literature (especially emergent and missional leadership literature) says, "don't be afraid of chaos"; "chaos is your friend" (when you're looking for change. Period. Full stop. (Because there's real profundity and truth here.)

On the other hand, I recall that Freud (oh, trained counselor! :-)), once said "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Likewise: sometimes chaos is just chaos -- not a "helpful stage in the transition." Lord, give us wisdom to know the difference!
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0 # Dave Ramage 2014-02-15 22:48
Good stuff here! Change often begins with disruption in the system (Meg Wheatley). Unlike other organizations however, we have the Holy Spirit. If we can stimulate diffusion in listening and yielding our "collective innovation" will be simultaneously broad and laser focused.
Takes faith in leadership to follow that kind of spirit prompting...Acts 20:22 (NIV)  “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.
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0 # R. Todd Mangum 2014-02-16 07:12
Acts 20:22 -- what a great correlation here. (Reminds me of the passage Dave Dunbar took us to time and again when we were making the missional turn at Biblical -- Hebrews 11:8: "By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going." Thanks, Dave. Both Dave's! :-)
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0 # Jude 2015-08-07 23:47
Thanks for finally talking about >What is Missional Leadership?
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