A friend and I were recently discussing leadership skills and how to build a successful team. He’s an athlete. I’m an actor. We both know the occasional need to put on a game face to make a deal or to get the job done.
Too often, however, we put strategies for success ahead of real relationship. Our strategies may be well-intentioned, but we all know culture—in this case, a culture of deep and trusting relationships—eats strategy for lunch.
At some point or another we find ourselves on a team that we didn’t choose. We’re there because we’re paid to be there or because our pastor, coach or teacher assessed our skills and put us there. We’re all too aware of what sometimes happens on these types of teams. Inadvertently, some on the team are more invested than others. Some withhold information out of disinterest or fear.
These teams may be able to compete, and they may even be able to win on game day, but a team rooted in strategy instead of relationship will never change the world.
A New Kind of Leadership
The late author and theologian Henri Nouwen once called for a new kind of leadership. His call, I believe, very much applies to teams.
“The [Christian] leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.”
Nouwen’s words are especially true in a culture that has very little use for traditional lines of authority, one where the rules are written as the game is played. We need to look no further than the results of the recent US presidential election for evidence of this phenomenon.
The same is true in ministry. I officiated a wedding recently, and I put a great deal of care into the planning and into the words that I used. I have a degree from an accredited institution of theological education and years of experience at knowing what to say at such occasions. At the end of the rehearsal I was reminded that in case I got sick or got a flat tire, the wedding coordinator was licensed to perform the same function despite her lack of preparation or theological acumen. How encouraging.
This brings us back to teams.
A Team of Collective Irrelevance
Although we want people on our teams who can perform all the necessary functions of ministry, and while we also desire them to have the right training and experience (or at least the right attitude and aptitude), to change the world, we need team members who are unafraid to offer to God, to each other and to the world their own vulnerability rooted in the reality of a collective irrelevance.
The first question of our team members is not what the others can do for them, or even how the team can be successful. Instead, our current cultural moment needs teams rooted in collective irrelevance. Such teams will be best prepared to lead because their leadership will be rooted in vulnerability, mutuality and trust, and their members will enter into solidarity with one another and with the anguish in the world, shining the light of Jesus there.
In his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory, practical theology professor Tod Bosinger writes that real cultural change can only happen through deep relationship. That is how Jesus wants to be with us. He desires a deep and reciprocal relationship. And he wants us to live this way with others. The key here is life with others. Not meetings with others. Not planning with others. It’s trusting that doing life together will allow the plans, meetings and strategies to emerge.
A Significant Smallness
Jesus didn’t call us to live in this sort of deep relationship with everyone. He gave his life for the world, but he only had twelve people on his team. Three of those were closer to him than the others, and one of those three was closer to Jesus than the other two.
Christ’s way is instructive. Being irrelevant and going deep with just a few people can change the world for many. To move into unchartered territory, my hope for leaders today is that teams built upon vulnerability and mutuality would help the world see that it has been changed.
Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.