Learning to Read and Leadership as Art
Early in my ministry two things became apparent: 1) Good preachers, in the United Methodist tradition at least, read and read widely. 2) Leadership, in a parish, community outreach ministry and beyond is at least as much ART as it is SCIENCE.
Let me leap to the end of this posting to share a book recently discovered by the Rev. Dr. Larry James. House Rules is a collection of insights shaped from James’ experience working as pastor, social service director, consultant and teacher. As I read House Rules it became clear that James shared an awareness that leadership is art along with science. This book is accessible to a wide range of readers and chocked full of everyday, memorable wisdom. It is about learning to read culture as well as reading books. Both skills make for effective leaders.
Now, a few words about preaching and leadership.
Good Preaching: I am told that the great Methodist preacher and bishop, Gerald Kennedy, read a book a day and was up early every morning making notes on his reading the day before. I tried it — couldn’t keep up the pace. Especially after I was over 50. Still I try to read widely and often. Several of the books Kennedy published were simply a collection of these notes. And, a look at any of his sermons, one finds illustrations ranging from engineering to horticulture. It is the gift of reading and reading broadly.
The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, was pastor at Riverside Church in New York City and professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary. Forbes has the ability to make stories from scripture come alive. He also displays his wide study across disciplines. I remember teasing him a few years back about how, often early in a sermon, he often said, “well some may say, while others might say…” when referring to a Biblical text. I noted that what he was doing was letting those in the audience with a theological education know that he had already done his homework on what Bultmann, Townes, Barth, Trible, Moltmann, Tillich or Thurman had written. Here is a plug for Dr. Forbes’ recent “For All Americans: Juneteenth Meditation.” It is a recent poem from this remarkable preacher. (See “Juneteenth Meditation” by Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. https://youtu.be/Aafi3a9-eS8 via @YouTube).
Sadly, reading and study seem to have gone out of style for many preachers — even those who serve as church leaders. A pastor friend told of a visit with his bishop who asked how it was with his ministry. My friend responded he had been reading economists and had made trips to visit several of these academics. The response from the bishop? “Why would any pastor want to spend time doing that?” The narrow range of interest showed in that bishop’s preaching. You see, he read, but not widely. Too many “church leaders” have narrowed study appetites to a few “how to fix ailing congregations” resources. Sad, really, all this focus on the “how to?” rather than the “why?” of ministry.
It has been my privilege to know great preachers who not only read widely but wrote prolifically as well. Two that come to mind are Barbara Brown Taylor and Walter Wangerin, Jr. Reading through one of Barbara’s sermon collections is a classroom for all who aspire to prepare compelling and contemporary messages. Listening to her preach was like witnessing a combination of poetry, ballet and well-reasoned insights from ancient texts. Read one of her autobiographical reflections and you are challenged to make an honest admission that her struggles capture many of your own struggles and touch widely on deep human experience.
As to Walter Wangerin, another who I consider one of the top preachers of my generation, one again finds there is poetry and memorable narrative. His perhaps three dozen books hold their own wisdom — as he shares his challenges and human insight as well. He is genius, inspiration and compulsion rolled into poetry and prose. I recall attending an Advent concert with Walt a few years back. Occasionally I would see him scribbling on the program for the evening, almost in rhythm with the music. By concert’s end, there were the bones (and in some cases more) of a half dozen poems. Ah, the gifted-ness of folks like Barbara and Walt — great preachers and writers. We are blessed by their ministry of preaching and writing.
Leadership as Art: Now days, often sitting in the pew rather than speaking from a pulpit, it is clear in listening, which preachers read and which ones rely on, uhh well…, something else. It is my hope to encourage wider reading by those of us sitting in the pew and those who are, for now, occupying the pulpit. So, in the weeks ahead, I will be sharing some books that have made their way to my desk.
Let me return to Larry James’ book House Rules. Recently I had the privilege of visiting with the Rev. Dr. Larry James. Larry is the Emeritus Director of CitySquare in Dallas. He is a preacher who offers written resources as well. Along with House Rules, James wrote “The Wealth of the Poor” in which he shares lessons from his life and work. House Rules is a fine, accessible, often counter-intuitive, approach to leadership.
Counter-intuitive – that’s a notion I find important as related to pathways forward in the midst of the challenges of ministry today. Another concept rich with possibility is Positive Deviance; an alternate way of understanding used in health care and economics but as yet not widely valued by religious leaders. The church in North America is now passing beyond the days of Christendom. Folks like Harvey Cox and Douglas John Hall have been marking this change for years. Others, like Phyllis Tickle, Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren speak of a post modern church. Meanwhile, there are those who sell outdated remedies and cures to fix congregations and denominations fixated on itself.
I see hope as North American Christianity discovers again the meaning of being church in a counter-cultural way, from the Outside-In. It is time to move beyond the Land of the Well-Intentioned Fixers. More on this in future.