Leadership after the Funeral of the Church
By George Hermanson
A word of warning to the church: be aware that things are changing.
We are in a time of asking hard questions of what it means to be a congregation. It does not stop there, for individual Christians are asking what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? We are trying to navigate these questions in a time of unrest.
Most American adults now say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values (56%). This reflects the continued growth in the share of the population that has no religious affiliation. The demise is continuing among young people who see Christianity as irrelevant to issues of climate change, inclusion and justice. This decrease is also happening in white evangelical circles.
In response, many churches seek out those who will help them, as if there is a technique that provides a simple solution, a magic bullet for what ails us.
Using the image of funeral suggests beginning to let go of some of the ties that bind us. Funerals celebrate memory. They invite us to move on.
We need imagination to create our life together, one that is worthy of us. We know that faith calls us to world care. It is not always easy to discern what is worthy of us, or how to make reality better.
The future is radically open even as we go about the job of creating it. We live in open, not closed, systems. So, we must say goodbye to the way the church was in order to open a space to what must imaginatively emerge. One image comes from ice hockey: skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is. Great hockey players see the ice as open space. This requires an understanding of leadership that affirms open space, or living without plans.
The image that grounds leadership is open space. The role of the leader is to keep the space open. It is not to determine the outcome, but to hold open whatever space the group is in, letting the group determine what they want to achieve by sharing their hopes and dreams there in that collective space. Open space is a communal task.
First, a topic or issue is named. Then group members are invited to offer responses. Each names a way forward. Participants are invited to enlist in those ideas that capture them. The job of the leader is to send those groups off and hold the space open for their responses. The leader is comfortable with the letting go. Leadership is thus shared and the direction is determined by the feedback from the groups.
Premise of Leadership
A basic feature of open space is that we live in a relational world, context, or group. Identity as individuals and groups emerge through mimesis. In the context of religious reality, the leader is grounded by commitment to the following theological ideas: It is based on imitating a loving God, and affirming that God is relational and uncontrolling love. It begins with the reality that this world does not have a straight path, that God has not decided the future, and that we live in randomness and chance. It is committed to developing leadership that will guide us without guarantees. By beginning without a safety net, we can have confidence in our actions, and agency.
The type of leadership is clear: persons who are open to the prompting of the Spirit of God—who always transgresses boundaries—find creative ways to bear witness to uncontrolling love. It is the sacral act of being present, to hold the space open. It is an understanding of the Spirit as located in many religious and secular forms. It is to have a pluralistic understanding of the Spirit.
The distant God of conventional religions is gone, having given way to a more intimate sense of the sacred in the world. The shift has many causes, but one I like is what my wife Suzanne said: “May 25, 1977, was the cultural shift, the coming of the Star Wars.” This shift, from a vertical understanding of God to a God found on the horizons of nature and human community, is at the heart of a spiritual revolution. Using the idea of the uncontrolling love of God gives us a way of leadership and living that the community can mimic—setting one’s face toward the future, being spiritually alive, and taking our faith seriously.
This type of leadership is to be comfortable with Christianity as no longer privileged: it’s one among many options. Pluralism is now the defining metaphor. And pluralism seeks common cause among all religious traditions.
Open-space leadership is being present and listening. Such leadership creates space for listening that affirms the world and for letting go of former constructions of faith.
Leadership is holding space open so we can rage and find compassion. Sometimes the only way to express compassion in the face of dangerous times is to practice truth telling by declaring our faith in our capital for solidarity to commit to building a different world. “Compassion is relentless effort, compassion is humility, compassion is listening as practice—listening as a deepening that enriches one’s empathy“.” (Conrad Tao in his album American Rage.)
Listening is crucially important to the creation of jazz. It is full of a listening that creates music that moves the body and the soul. In jazz, space is held open so the musicians can listen to one another and move to the creation of a new piece, even if you can hear the traces of the old.
Every jazz group illustrates that at the base of all creative acts, a new reality was created through intentional listening. We could say the same of God, and generalize this to how all things become. Becoming a piece of music is more than notes added to notes; it is creating some new intensity and harmony out of what has been given, and now made new by the players.
One vivid experience of this for me was a group whose leader is a bass player who provided a grounding of free jazz that is sonically rich, relaxed and almost cinematic; her whole body was involved. Both feet stomping, embracing the bass, kinetically visual, the group lifted us, and transported us in new reaches of the music. This process invited other group members to build on what she offered and push the music into new realms. It was clear that in order to be able to this, the players watched and listened to one another, looking for clues in the music and in their eyes and bodies. Listening and space allowed them to improvise.
There is a call-and-response pattern built into our relational world and the world becomes through it. This means that what we do and how we respond determines what the world will become.
Jay McDaniel suggests uncontrolling Love Supreme (God) as a listener. This is the importance of listening in leadership. God is a listening God. Before God speaks, God has had to receive. Even God must begin with listening. After all, God cannot respond to the cries of the world, or share in its joys, unless God first hears those cries and feels those joys. In the beginning, even for God, there had to be a listening. This is true of all of life. This is the meaning of open space leadership.
In British Columbia (as elsewhere) outdoor recreation is an enjoyed experience. In Squamish there was tension with the indigenous community about the use of a mountain area for hikers and mountain bikes.
To deal with the issue of use, a gathering was called with those involved. In an open space context, new understandings emerged. By holding a space open for Chief Planes, listening and considering the story of the T’Sou-ke people, an opportunity was created for the community to rethink its relationship with the land, recognizing it as one that requires ongoing care and renewal. An insight was to recognize that we must work with First Nations.
Following the event, people bustled about the conference hall preparing to go riding. One person asked, “Are we riding Broom Hill?”
“No,” came the response. “It’s Sacred Mountain. We’re riding on T’Sou-ke land. Show some respect.”
“We recognize that we live on the lands of the Squamish Nation. We unequivocally support the Squamish Nation’s right to self-determinacy on its lands, and we are grateful to share in the spirit and beauty of this place.”
The community has a long way to go to realize fully the vision of reconciliation. This was only the beginning. Chief Planes’ people will take the time they needed to decide what was best for Sacred Mountain and the T’Sou-ke Nation.
Leadership, after the funeral of the church—noticing where God is in the world—requires discernment. Leadership is keeping the space open and practicing discernment by being open to the presence of the Spirit of God sliding in, unexpectedly.
George Hermanson is a retired United Church of Canada clergy living in Nanaimo, BC. He studied anthropology at the University British Columbia, studied theology at Chicago Theology Seminary, and earned his doctorate at Claremont School of Theology. He has been a parish minister, campus minister, Director of a retreat and education centre, and Director of Madawaska institute for Religion and Culture.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.