There is a mantra I hear often from my generation of church leaders. It gets voiced loudly by pastor search committees, nominating committees and church organizations committed to a mission of embodying “God’s new order of the Spirit” (Mark 1:11).
Who will provide the inspiration needed and the hard work necessary to accomplish what we know needs to be done in our congregation or organization? Is there a Moses somewhere?
The people of God, in all times and places, need visionary and inspiring leaders to call them out of bondage, whatever its shape, and lead them forward into new ventures of trust in God’s mission.
These kinds of leaders fill the pages of the Bible with stories of God’s calling – often through dramatic and life-changing experiences – that lead to times of wilderness and times of claiming promised lands.
The list of their names is long: Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Deborah, Samuel, Pricilla and Paul, to name a few. These kinds of leaders seemed to be captured by a sense of divine calling that can seldom be described.
They are “called” from beyond themselves by a word or impression from God that is decisive, moving and infectious in its effect upon other people around them.
We call this a “transcendent” calling. But there are other kinds of calling.
What about Elijah, moved by the “sheer silence” of a voiceless God as he shuddered in fear on a mountaintop?
Or Miriam, with her ability to mobilize the women of Israel in support of her more visible, and less talented brother, Moses?
Or Lydia, who quietly gathered a group of Philippians by the river each Sabbath for prayer and mutual encouragement?
These kinds of leaders live out of a calling that is more subdued and internal to claim the gifts of self. We call this an “immanent” understanding of calling.
Congregations live and thrive on the vocations and sense of calling of their leaders. I have further described these forms of calling, as well as the multiple dimensions of calling to vocational service as clergy, in my book, “The Calling of Congregational Leadership.”
The challenges of congregational leadership, especially of those medium-sized congregations that have functioned with a program approach to ministry, are many and varied. The narrative of most of these congregations is one of decline and often conflict.
The stresses of leading them, both for their pastoral staffs and lay leadership, require a clear sense that we are serving them with a clear and determined sense that God’s mission must be at the heart of our futures. Only those who lead out of a clear sense of calling will manage such challenges.
Leading today’s congregations is a different form of leadership from the organizational models imported from corporate organizations led by a CEO, who sets the agenda for the organization.
We can learn from these approaches, but churches are organic entities. They rely more on what I call the “being” of leaders than their specific leadership skills.
Leading is first and foremost a result of awareness and effective communication of one’s character, relationship with the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ, and love for the people one leads.
All congregational leading begins with “followership.” Leaders who follow the summons of Jesus to “follow me” understand that the primary task of leadership is to encourage all of God’s people to become followers, too.
The fullest form of calling to lead is to call others to follow together the mandates of God’s mission to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4:16).
Larry L. McSwain is a retired professor of leadership at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga. He is currently a congregational consultant/coach with the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C. This article is adapted from his book “The Calling of Congregational Leadership,” which is available from Chalice Press.