Painkillers in One Hand, Dynamite in the Other: The Isolation of Pastoral Leadership Right Now

For about the 20th time over the past 6 weeks, it happened again this morning. I got on the phone with an extraordinarily gifted, sharp, experienced, faithful pastor who recently began to gently nudge his congregation on some culturally controversial issues (you know what they are – take your pick), only to watch everything immediately blow up. Secret meetings, nasty emails, plans to oust him from leadership, and beyond. Now, the next several months are filled with shifting the culture of the congregation toward deeper trust, renewed discipleship, and unity around Jesus (which, much to the dismay of many in our congregations, is not the same as pursuing a comfortable stasis). Despite the difficult road ahead, this pastor doesn’t regret how he’s led. It’s been the right, faithful course of action, and the risk of not nudging was just too great, “the risk of the congregation’s slow, painful, and inevitable death,” as he puts it.  Like so many other clergy I talk with, this pastor is just not willing to offer an indefinite prescription of cultural, emotional, spiritual, and political “painkillers” on the way to a long, slow, faithless demise (Of course there is real individual and collective pain from the last year to attend to, and I’m inspired by the caring and creative ways so many clergy are doing so).

Simply put, for many ministry leaders there seems to be no breathing room between offering perpetual congregational pain management and offering lit dynamite with a short fuse.

I frequently riff on Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky’s notion of “the productive zone of disequilibrium” (which you can read about here).  Basically, it’s the idea that in order to enact and navigate truly adaptive change, our organizational systems require some level of disruption. This topic has come up almost daily the past couple of months, not only because the pandemic and other crises have provided that disruption, but also because right now that disequilibrium zone seems so very small in our congregations, with so little room for error. Our country’s collective anxiety, frustration, and even anger is unusually high, meaning that the slightest poke will send people over the edge. “Where is that productive zone?” is a vital but delicate question.

It’s isolating. Isolating, not just because clergy are tasked with this often lonely leadership role, with no easy answers, but also because a pastor’s sense of call and identity feels increasingly at odds with that of their congregation, their regional governing body, their denomination, or whatever the institutional context may be. I’m reminded of the faithful but often thankless role of the prophets of the bible, who are frequently on this sort of “edge of inside” tightrope. For many of us, this is new but necessary territory.

To all you ministry leaders in this “painkillers vs dynamite,” edge-of-inside position, I want to reiterate on behalf of our team that we see you. You can do this. There is a way forward. Don’t go it alone. Let us help you connect with others – in our network and beyond – who are right where you are right now in all this complexity.

And let’s find a faithful third way between offering dynamite or painkillers.

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