Approaching 20 years in pastoral ministry, I have a shelf full of books on leadership. Many of them I have read. Glossy, thick brochures promoting leadership conferences stocked with best-selling authors, mega-church pastors and even Bono (appearing electronically) stream across my desk. Some of them I have attended.
But Margaret Marcuson’s “Leaders Who Last” goes beyond the latest theories, strategies and programs that many popular resources promote. She does not offer a quick fix or even guarantee success for clergy running on empty on ministry treadmills. But her solid, hard-won, sometimes playful teaching can refresh a weary pastor just by reading. Then she offers practical questions and steps to lead one along the road to healthy, thriving leadership.
Here is wisdom for those seeking to “lead from a deep place of personal centeredness” in order to “find new energy and vitality, little by little.” The goal is sustainable, even joyful, ministry.
I knew I was in good hands when I saw systems theorist Edwin Friedman and teacher and activist Parker Palmer cited. They have often been wise and true guides for me through the stormy waters of church life and life in general. Marcuson weaves their insights together with scripture, personal experience, wisdom of the likes of Lao Tzu, Joan Chittister and Thomas Merton, along with the story of Shackleton’s aborted Antarctic exploration and even a football analogy. Examples of real-life church situations salt the text. Marcuson writes as one who has been there with eyes, mind and heart open.
If there is one theme that pervades the book it is this: improving leadership is hard work and it takes time. She says “the process is never an easy one and it is never over.” She advises that change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. “Everything takes five years.” A leader needs “endless reserves of patience.” This is gradual work, lifetime work. It involves taking responsibility, understanding one’s own family story, knowing the church’s story, understanding money, staying connected and prayer – highlights of my favorite chapters in the book.
Instead of measuring success by budget, attendance and passion, Marcuson firmly reframes it as achieving calm instead of panic, clear thinking, learning, delight and a truly mature self.
The most important task of leadership, once the leader has a clear sense of church and self, is to continue the work of defining oneself and one’s goals. Marcuson draws from Jesus’ example to show how an able leader focuses more on his or her own message and mission than on who or how many follow.
Letting go of outcomes “is a profoundly spiritual action” because it recognizes human limitations and ultimately acknowledges that we are not God. This is not a common or popular teaching in popular culture. It is, however, true to the fundamentals of Christian faith and the best principles of sustainable, fruitful leadership. It also happens to humble, free and empower self and others. Marcuson makes the case.
The author writes with grace, clarity, wisdom and humility. Following her teaching, one might accomplish the kind of leadership exemplified by the Rev. Gordon Cosby, still a vital leader of the Church of the Savior that he founded in the 1940s. Now well into his 90s, a church member said of him, “He is never empty.”