Confluence for Congregational Leadership — or a River Runs Through It

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A slightly shorter version of this article was written first for The Christian Courier as an assignment from the CRCNA's Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program.

In “Leadership: A Working Definition,” the Christian Reformed Church’s Leadership Development Team calls its fourth leadership principle “confluence” (pp. 16-17). One of the Bible’s most evocative biblical images is the river running through God’s city in Revelation 22's new heavens and earth, providing life and “healing for the nations.” A healthy river is complex and lovely, bearing water, food, trade and commerce in churning currents to settlements and people downstream, finally emptying into a distant sea—only to start a new cycle all over again with ocean evaporation, wind carrying moisture and clouds dropping rain or snow on distant plains or mountain ranges.

Though necessary for life, rivers can also threaten it; only recall Hurricane Katrina bursting levees in New Orleans, turning the Mississippi River into a boiling, poison-reeking death swamp. Both ideas of the river metaphor are useful as we explore “confluence.”

One can never step into the same river twice, because new water moves and currents keep shifting. Thus confluence is an unrepeatable, “coming together of leader, congregation, time, place, ministry, opportunity and resources that is a gift of God’s Spirit to enable a leader and congregation to move forward together in realizing God’s purposes” (“Leadership,” p.16). Though neither search committee nor pastor can manipulate such convergence, we can train our minds and hearts to recognize factors likely to combine and flourish without getting lost in soul- and energy-wasting eddies.

Confluence Developing Upstream
In the always stimulating Seventh Day Adventist magazine Ministry, Stanley E. Patterson notes the indispensable need for the “fruit of the Spirit [from Galatians 5] . . . for all who participate in the leadership process.... Loving behaviour, as demonstrated through the fruit of the Spirit, is not an option for the spiritual leader. It is an expectation [sic]” (“Pastoral Ministry: Management or Spiritual Leadership,” July-August, 2005, p. 10). Clearly, Patterson recognizes what the CRC Leadership Team and earlier articles here also emphasized: Leadership does not exist in a vacuum, but is relational and must be built on sound character of both pastor and congregational leaders—staff, volunteers, governance bodies.

Duane Kelderman illustrates that principle poignantly: “[A certain] pastor and his wife have been effective leaders because they have never asked the congregation to do something they themselves haven’t done. A pastor who adopts two Down’s Syndrome children, opens his home to strangers, weeps with the weak . . . has the credibility to call the congregation to dream dreams and see visions beyond the status quo” (Calvin Theological Seminary Forum, Fall, 2003, p.7). Thus, no search committee should even consider as candidate for pastor one who has not given public or private testimony of Christ-likeness in personal and professional life.

Again, the exemplary character of leadership is a necessary condition prior to the hope of a flourishing confluence of pastor and congregation. Confluence begins to develop in potential pastor and congregation far upstream of the actual time and place where they swirl together.

Patience to See Confluence Develop
Canal Street CRC is a large and growing city congregation born 30 years ago from a first-generation immigrant mother. Large at birth and blessed with capable, compassionate and often courageous pastors, Canal Street enjoyed several overlapping pastorates for almost all that time. Although neighbouring churches suffered some of the CRCNA’s most bruising schismatic battles during the 1990s, Canal Street, with sober, long-suffering leadership from both pastors and congregational governance bodies, managed to steer clear of the vicious rocks and cataracts of schism. Crippling quarrels and resulting distrust were not allowed to take root in the congregation through rigorous preaching, reflection and plain hard work on personal and spiritual relationships among members.

Some years after Canal Street bypassed those dangerous rapids, the congregation found itself without a pastor for the first time in its history. Wisely, the church used the opportunity to refresh an almost ten-year old ministry plan. As happens in basically healthy organizations, that process did not require a complete remodeling, but rather honest checking and inspection to insure that Canal Street was ready to keep sailing on God’s river. An ad hoc committee from council and congregation reviewed the goals and results of individual ministries, re-worked staff job descriptions and tabled a report and strategy for future direction and staffing.

Yet, despite much serious planning by some committees and council, Canal Street still was run occasionally by a traditional buddy network rather than on deliberate, task-oriented, God-trusting commitments and procedures. One outside observer described its default mode of leadership as a “benevolent dictatorship.” In such a scenario, closet leadership would exercise power patronizingly over council and pastor when touchy issues surfaced, such as capital expenditures, new staff hiring or relationship with local Christian schools. Ironically, just that kind of leadership had steered Canal Street past rocks of schism a decade earlier. In later contexts, though, such powerful closet leaders did not always practice healthy relationship disciplines among themselves; thus unspoken, unresolved trust issues spurted up at awkward, sensitive times, occasioning mistrust and reluctance among members.

Such dangerous side currents are all too familiar and potentially damaging in many congregations. Yet they must not be allowed to continue in a church like weird, but harmless old Uncle Fred who lives benignly in an extended family. The best way to start learning how to run such hazardous currents is for courageous, official leadership to name them and then embrace and use the trust and authority given them by the congregation to steer a different course. To its credit, Canal Street’s search committee did not gloss over such issues, but was ready to discuss them in conversations with pastoral candidates.

Learning Future Confluence by Hindsight
So, using tools of analysis and planning adopted officially by the congregation and council, the committee met more than 100 times over a three-year period. Twice frustrated after interviews and visits resulted in declines by pastor candidates, the committee returned to a candidate it had followed earlier. Before, that candidate could not consider moving, but with changing currents where he was working, relocation became feasible.

Eventual confluence was not easily discernible; both candidate and search committee had to work through serious questions about compatibility and competence. That pastor, who accepted the call, was leading a church half the size of Canal Street and had never worked with a sizeable staff. Furthermore, in two churches the pastor and congregation had flowed fruitfully together for nearly a decade, then hit stubborn crosscurrents and eddies that resulted in amicable, but perhaps premature crew changes.

Many pastors and congregations want to bail out after—or worse, during—a trip down the first rapids, dodging problems with the claim, “It’s time for fresh leadership.” Such desperate substitutions disguise a fear to see a normal problem as an opportunity to learn needed lessons for growth and maturity. As a result, churches and pastors learn instead to develop bad habits early and repeat the same mistakes with greater disaster in the future. Possible confluence turns to a whirlpool. Developing church growth research says that a congregation and pastor need perhaps 20 years of patient commitment to run serious whitewater together, getting soaked, perhaps even dumping, then learning to mix and match strokes to negotiate the rocks and swifts better as bigger, more threatening challenges develop further downstream–all the while developing crucial trusting relationships.

So where are Canal Street and pastor now? Somewhere downstream after a long, exciting push-off, having run some rapids of staff changes and development well, pulling a growing number of lone and sinking swimmers into the boat, bumping painfully, but constructively into some of the rocks of bad habits—and so far successfully dislodging them. Many of the crew—members, pastor, council—have begun trustingly and openly to discuss disagreements about courses to follow downstream by scouting ahead, anticipating dangers, looking for safe, fast water–praying a lot before shooting rapids, celebrating more when swimmers are rescued and hanging on to Jesus tighter than ever before.

Soon it will be time for a renewed visioning process also—just for a tune-up, maybe to prepare for the inevitable rocks and rapids when some members do more than bail the boat, but bail out themselves for superficially more attractive waters. They’ll see, I guess….

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Canal street and its pastor sound a wee bit like our church; a church that I found every excuse under the sun not to attend-until said pastor accepted the call. He was humble and real. Still is, just a heck of a lot busier. He may ruffle feathers-but as I said, he is REAL. Not some holier-than-thou hypocrite, but a down to earth, common sense man that understands that God is working through him to bring our church to where it needs to be; not a man that takes credit for his aptly times sermons that speak to our souls (and at times hit us between the eyes and make us squirm-now that is a great gift from our Father). Not an easy task with a huge congregation...who can make everybody happy and still keep an iota of sanity? There will be many that whine and complain and bail for more 'upbeat' or 'accepting' rivers/venues...but how long can smoke and mirrors sustain the soul? They will be back. We have all been the prodigal son to one degree or another. I for one am grateful for the humanness of our pastor.