Genesis II: Re-Vision and Renew

The Kind of Leaders We Need

July 2, 2021

By: The Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers, Staff Officer for Church Planting
July 2, 2021

The Episcopal Church has a missional leadership crisis.  Steady decline, swift culture changes and a global pandemic are making it apparent that we are failing to seek out – and in many cases are actively weeding out – the sort of leaders who could help us navigate this uncertain, post-institutional, post-pandemic age. 

In my current role with the Presiding Bishop’s office, I have the privilege of meeting many creative, resilient lay and ordained leaders who are motivated to share Good News and community with people who aren’t yet part of the church, and who have been historically underrepresented in our tradition.  We need far more of these leaders.   

I’ve heard several Bishops and Canons say something to the effect of, the leaders who got us to this moment are not the same kind of leaders who will carry us into the future.  So what kind of leaders are needed in this moment?  These are my personal reflections:        

We need leaders who aren’t in love with The Episcopal Church.  

Episcopalians are taught that our tradition is beautiful (I agree).  Often we’re also taught that our tradition is superior (more problematic).  For example, how regularly do you hear the following?

“I just love  ________ (fill in the blank… our liturgy, music, that we’re such an inclusive church, that you don’t have to check your brain at the door, etc.)

Over the six years I served on my Diocesan Commission on Ministry, I became increasingly aware that one of the things we expected to hear from the Aspirants was how in love they were with the Episcopal Church.  We evaluated their fit for ordained ministry based on how well they would fit into the system, rather than their capacity to lead a community into the next incarnation of its life of faith.    

But missional leadership requires a degree of dissatisfaction.  Missional leaders must be able to see who isn’t being reached, and what aspects of the tradition aren’t working for their context.  They are just as curious, if not more so, about where the Holy Spirit is showing up outside their community as how she appears inside of it.  We need leaders who are committed to, but not in love with, our denomination.  

We need leaders who love God’s people more than they love the church.  

This may seem obvious, but it needs to be said.

One of the downfalls of New Episcopal Communities (church plants) can be when a point leader, or members of their team, think their mission is to create a replica of whatever church community they came from.  The problem is, it can feel awfully contrived to try to recreate a white, suburban broad-church worship experience inside the school cafeteria of an urban neighborhood, or vice versa.  Missional leaders must know that their task isn’t to give people a specific experience – rather, they are co-creating that experience, often in the moment, with the people God has given them in that time and place.  

We need leaders who know what it’s like to be on the margin and who have developed that experience into strong relational and intercultural skills. 

Most are familiar with Henri Nouwan’s phrase “the wounded healer.”  In this moment, we also need marginalized includers.  In other words, who are the people who know what it’s like to be an outsider, and can relate to others who have felt on the outskirts of society or of the church?  There are certain leaders whose very lives have prepared them for this work – third culture kids, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, military kids, and those who grew up outside of sexuality and gender norms – to name merely a few.  These leaders have been practicing cross cultural translation their whole lives.  

When invited to do cross-cultural ministry in the Church, they have the capacity to nurture people in faith who have been historically underrepresented in our denomination, people who have lost interest in organized religious communities – and, by doing so, help us all grow in our communal reflection of the Kingdom.    

We need leaders who have the courage to take risks – not just to talk about taking risks.    

Missional leadership isn’t a profession; it’s a full bodied and soul-ed leap.  It can’t be preached, it must be led by example.  One of my friends is an Episcopal priest whose first task as a congregation’s new rector was to help them sell their beloved (but much too expensive) sanctuary and find a new place to worship.  When I asked one of their vestry members what had enabled them to make that leap, he said, “We trusted that, if we went off the edge of the cliff, our priest would come with us.”  

Every single day, missional leaders face the risk of personal failure, personal financial crisis, and letting down their community.  Risk-taking capacity is developed when the leader’s primary motivation is missional, rather than professional.  

We need leaders who are people-gatherers.

Note, there’s a difference between people gatherers and people attractors.  Attractive, charismatic leaders have the ability to draw people in by their personality, appearance and presence.  Others may do this by offering attractive programs, etc.  What we need more of are gatherers – leaders both equipped with gifts and vocationally called to gather people into community with others.  These leaders are hosts, rather than keynoters or entertainers.  

The missional church thinks more in terms of invitation and hospitality than publicly and marketing.  We need more leaders who lead through these themes, and practice them in their own lives.  

We need leaders who thrive in uncomfortable spaces.

Many Episcopalians consider church to be the one safe, quiet, meditative place they’re invited into during the week.  When the world outside is unpredictable and chaotic, church offers ritual and transcendence.  This is good… AND we need more leaders who are energized by the challenges of uncertainty, frequent disruption and dis-harmony.  

A missional community isn’t “in the groove.”  There are no prior established patterns of behavior, no unspoken covenants about how to be together in community, and no expectations for how church is “supposed” to be.  A mission field is even more this way.  We already have leaders with the ability to tame uncomfortable spaces -what we need more of are leaders with the prophetic eyesight to glimpse and interpret the holy in those spaces while in their chaordic state.

We’ve got to stop waiting for the leaders to come to us, and start seeking them out.

The leaders the Church needs today will typically not show up unsolicited outside a rector’s office hoping to discuss ordination.  The Episcopal Church has a recognizable “leadership persona” after all:

  • relatively well manicured, educated and spoken
  • professionally or liturgically dressed
  • calm people who appear wise and pastoral
  • People “on the inside” who enjoy and are involved in existing ministries of their parish

None of these are negative qualities at all!  It’s just that folks who know they don’t match the stereotypical description won’t always offer themselves for leadership.  They also won’t necessarily be tapped for leadership or, as is frequently the case, they’ll be weeded out of potential leadership roles because they don’t match the persona – unless we begin to actively seek out people with the gifts and characteristics the church needs.