Having just been through a year of major political transition in the United States, one is used to hearing the language of dreams and aspirations as well as blaming the predecessor for all the ills of the present and future. It is political routine to position oneself for a role, whether elective or other, by demonizing the previous person’s record and overpromising one’s own agenda. It’s an ethical nightmare upon reflection, and a very poor model for other cultural patterns and institutions.
Here the church has also been found wanting, especially so among Baptists and other evangelicals. We have observed extraordinary behaviors like academic administrators rewriting histories of institutions to highlight their own meager accomplishments, or pastors who collect and disseminate disparaging details about their predecessors or use their pulpits to claim direct revelations or divine authorization for ethically questionable “new” directions. Fundamentalists, moderates and liberals alike have succumbed to the lure of personal opportunity.
This model of moving through leadership transition produces some unintended results. It may foster a good deal of ill will among those who are part of the former pattern or group. That can fester into recalcitrance, disaffection, disloyalty and even schism.
It can also set up new leadership for a fall. Not being able to live up to “over-speak” is easily pointed out by the former staff or adherents. Those folk will constantly remind their successors that they have not kept their promises. It may work well for a two-party political system, but it is lousy churchmanship.
Who has not witnessed among us the tactic of overpromising based upon perceived shortcomings of predecessors, or self-profiles drawn against the failures and foibles of a downed leader? In fact, laying aside the Law of Love, Christian leaders often relish capitalizing on the demise of others to create a place for themselves in ministry. The reality is that no leader is ever without fault, and no situation is without some merit in God’s providence.
Given a proper believer’s church theology, no transition tactics should be allowed to obliterate those who previously labored with gospel integrity. Some correction of how Christians in the congregational tradition manage transition is in order.
Christian leaders, especially pastors, act out of a deep sense of personal call and gifting. There is within us an urgency to do the will of God as we understand it. This brings about a vision for a better way, a chance to apply our gifts and a rally to action. As a mentor of mine put it many years ago, one who is called cannot sit still, he or she is unsatisfied with the status quo. There is an urgency that brings us to life.
It’s what the Apostle Paul was driving at when he said, “an obligation is laid upon me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). That kind of sensitivity makes preachers who they are: bold, prophetic, transformative. Among Baptists and evangelicals, the calling and gifts of a preacher are at the heart of vocation, no matter what specific ministry we are engaged in.
In the urgency of transition between leaders, those who are on the departing side of a transition may have been denied the opportunity to accomplish their goals, or sadly, they may simply have fallen short on the ways and means to succeed. This places them at a professional and emotional disadvantage. Or the outgoing leader may have accrued a formidable reputation (“big shoes to step into”).
A newcomer’s enthusiasm to usher in a bold new era may diminish or even totally disregard those who have gone before. In fact, those in the new regime may engage in the rhetoric of personal destruction in getting to the future. Baptists, operating on a local church principle and an emphasis upon the individual, can be especially prone to this malady.
Often, clever and manipulative leaders offset the possibility of initial shortcomings by continuing to set the context in a former leader’s performance. They delay as long as possible taking responsibility for their own actions. The logic becomes a matter of writing recent memory “largely” and negatively, so that through bold assertions and flashy decisions, a new era appears to come to pass. Extraordinary claims can accompany relatively small achievements (the “spin” factor) that mask the actual circumstances.
Unhealthy polarizing of colleagues or constituency can occur as a new leader demands unflinching loyalty. At risk are aspiring deans or presidents within educational institutions, denominational servants on the road to an executive position, and those pastors who attempt to carefully plan their ministry careers by skipping across a series of stepping-stone pastorates to arrive at “First Church.” At what price, in gospel terms, does leadership prominence come?
Instead of imitating the cutthroat tactics of prevailing political machines, Christian leaders need to model something better. We in the congregational tradition need to demonstrate how one can move from one role or place in ministry to another, with vision and vigor, and gratitude and value for those who precede us. We need to spend the requisite time in places of work or ministry to bring about authentic change.
We need to value people and place a priority upon long-term spiritual vocation and not personal summum bonum. We need to be grateful for the price some have paid in making difficult and often unpopular decisions. Most of all, unlike politicians, we need to recognize ministry is not about creating our own legacies.
After all, aren’t these the underlying principles that Paul urged upon the Corinthians when he said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”?
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.