Post-Heroic Ministry

Does the church's obsession with muscular leadership mask our true calling to be followers of Christ?

post heroic

illustration by Nicholas Liston-Avnaim

by Amy Laura Hall

While browsing for something to read on a long flight to a speaking engagement a few summers ago, I came across two magazine covers with similarly provocative images. I bought both and quickly tucked them in my carry-on. On the cover of the Economist, the Eiffel Tower drooped to the right under text that read "Can anything perk up Europe?" The Atlantic featured a pink, male icon with a wilted arrow (also drooping to the right) with text announcing "The End of Men–How Women Are Taking Control of Everything." The imagery anything but subtle.

According to at least two purveyors of respectable wisdom, something is ailing Western men. Do some ministry and seminary schemes similarly reflect an effort to "perk up" our churches? Muscular Christianity has taken a variety of forms over the centuries. The current instantiation seems–at the denominational, academic, and accrediting levels–to involve "leadership" programs of one kind or another. Dozens of flyers for "leadership" seminars, forums, workshops, books, workbooks, and courses have crossed my desk over the last few years. The website for the Fund for Theological Education is The Association of Theological Schools has numerous initiatives focused on "leadership." My own United Methodist Church has adopted a recent motto of "Developing Principled Christian Leaders." A quick web search with terms "faith" and "leadership" is revealing. Christians appear to be seeking leading leaders to lead toward leading in leadership so that we can, er…lead.

Why this fad? Why now? One possibility that has stayed stubbornly with me is that this trend is indicative of a sense of loss, particularly a loss of masculine control. Mainline Protestant men, once groomed for importance, seem nostalgic for modes of unquestioned leadership. Women and men in white, mainline churches are apt generally to worry over our loss of influence, and these concerns have been amplified during a recession that has disproportionately laid off men. Meanwhile, the new nondenominational churches down the street appear to prosper. Yet looking back with nostalgia and sideways with envy is not a recipe for good discipleship. I submit that the "leadership" trend within the mainline is reflective of a kind of unhealthy steeple envy.

For a brief period about a decade ago, private, mainline Protestant seminaries began to list to the feminine side. Barbara Wheeler characterized the change in a 2001 Christian Century essay: "Whereas 50 years ago almost all seminarians in North America were white men who had recently graduated from college, today women are a major presence in seminary classrooms, as are (to varying degrees) ethnic and minority groups." And many mainliners worried over the change. Several women involved in mainline denominational gatekeeping and academic accreditation have expressed to me their dismay at the sheer urgency with which men in positions of influence speak about the need to attract more young men into seminary education and ministry. (Not surprisingly–given the current climate–these women asked to remain off-record.) The contrast is striking. I have yet to hear a male colleague or pastoral peer initiate a conversation about how best to attract more women into seminary education or ordained ministry. In many circles, mainline decline is associated with a shift toward a feminized church, and so projects to promote "leadership" seem to view a decrease in women as par for the proposed course. Within my own United Methodist ken, the celebration of a demographic shift toward younger men is obvious each June, as many conferences welcome a younger, more male cohort. Too many clergymen (and, I must add, some ambitious clergywomen) are keen in particular for candidates who best fit a rather narrow mold: extroverted, take-charge, magazine-cover men with smiling wives and well-behaved children.

With our 70-hour work weeks, handheld devices, spiffy suits, and staff members to do the "littler" things, we easily lose track of the daily, sacramental practices that link us up with one another and with our Lord. On-the-ground, foot-washing work isn't heroic in the ways connoted by or current language, but it is worthwhile. And it is blessedly basic to the calling of Christian ministry.

As a feminist, I care about these questions for the sake of the grandmothers who lost sleep and friends in order to hear a call to ordained ministry. I care about this mess for the sake of my beloved sisters in the theological academy and the parish, sisters whose gift of tears or whose soprano voice, for example, are perceived as signs of their lack of gravitas for leadership. I also want to question this rhetoric for the sake of my daughters, who, if they receive a calling to ministry, should be cause for celebration rather than concern about the church's future flaccidity. But I am also genuinely concerned about how a loaded rhetoric of "leadership" is shaping men in the ministry. Unless mainline Christians engage in some radical (at the root) digging into the gendered fears that feed the "leadership" movement, we will admire and promote men who are most obviously successful in worldly terms–with big attendance and/or big steeples and/or big budgets–and then wonder why they don't connect with and attend to the voices of those little people who couldn't keep up. This pattern will be bad for those men whose gifts are writ small, those who serve with more holy subtlety than obvious show. I suspect it is also bad for the big men who make it to the heroic bible

The reason that a focus on "leading" is not ultimately helpful for the men that such initiatives attract is, first of all, because "leadership" connotes a kind of heroism. Even more collaborative, innovative accounts of church ministry appear under testosterone-laden (and vaguely heretical) titles such as Leaders Make the Future. While there are indeed moments when a brave preacher must prophesy to a wayward or wicked congregation, even this work will fail unless the prophet has been listening and attending, tasks that seem to be associated more with needlepoint than with big-league sports. In her iconic cover essay for the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin describes how, "for the first time in human history," the gender-power balance is shifting toward modes of collaboration and labor that favor skills that have been more traditionally attributed to and encouraged amongst women, "and with shocking speed." In the 21st century, even "the perception of the ideal business leader is starting to shift," as the story of "command and control, with one leader holding all the decision-making power, is considered hidebound." The "new model," Rosin explains, is sometimes called "post-heroic." By her account, the time is ripe for unapologetically egalitarian modes of labor. Rather than pursuing schemes fueled by male insecurity, it seems apt for the American mainline to go with our strength–as a strand of Christianity that has beautifully encouraged the gifts of women in congregational ministry.

I teach at an institution proud of its ability to recruit from the demographic that many "leadership" initiatives are set up to attract. Duke Divinity School promises an adventure requiring feats of courage, led by some of the leading men of Christendom. About five years ago, we shifted explicitly to use words like "coaching," "excellence," and "leadership," words that work on a visceral level for many students eager to make their mark for the kingdom. As one beloved Church of Christ graduate from Texas put it, many of our students came to "receive their marching orders from [Stanley] Hauerwas." But anyone who has seen mainline church work up close and personal knows that such language is misleading. The heroism connoted by "leading" language is a form of false advertising, and I think Hauerwas himself knows this. The most salient virtue required for church ministry is the uncelebrated yet uncommon virtue called patience. Many pastors, 10 years out, will tell you that the blessed, holy work of ministry is repetitive and slow, and not even remotely like the big-screen adventures mass-marketed to this generation. Here I am reminded of a great episode of Dr. Who, involving a giant lizard-chicken monster lurking inside a French cathedral. The young and dashing Dr. Who has a contraption with which to fell the beast, but he is nearly undone by the utter lack of excitement involved in watching for the monster. Accustomed to time travel back and forth across the universe, Dr. Who exclaims in frustration: "Is this how time usually passes? So slowly, and in the right order?" Yep. The work of collaborative team-building in parish life is all intertwined with awkward home visits, pedestrian sermons, and the "Royal Waste of Time" (Marva Dawn's felicity) that is the repetition of the liturgy, day after day, year after year. This is the holy adventure to which mainliners are calling our young. We ought to do so unapologetically.

Second, "leading" projects are apt to sell the wrong message about Christianity. A few years ago, I attended a daylong conference on L'Arche, the network of communities centered on life with adults living with disabilities. Participants came from many L'Arche communities, both "core-members" and "assistants," along with pastors and interested laity. There was also a group of potential donors to the academic institution hosting the event, donors from an organization quite keen on influencing key leaders in the Christian mainline. They stood out. Dressed in expensive business attire, their demeanor throughout the day was more that of observer than of participant. Then it came time for the foot-washing service. I had on stockings, so I ducked out to take them off. As I tried discretely to exit, I noticed that the donors were also leaving the chapel. But they did not return. When it came time to practice the one act that Jesus so clearly commanded of all his disciples, the leading men left the scene. Please note, these are the men with big money. These are the "cosmopolitan evangelicals" (D. Michael Lindsey's term from Faith in the Halls of Power), around whom many men in my academic and ecclesial ken are trying to prove themselves for the sake of more funding.

This anecdote stands in for a larger trend. The big-attendance, successful, out-in-front leadership model is not conducive to the holy flourishing of even those pastors or theological scholars who appear to "win" by the rules of the supposedly big-deal donor guys. With our 70-hour work weeks, handheld devices, spiffy suits, and staff members to do the "littler" things, we easily lose track of the daily, sacramental practices that link us up with one another and with our Lord. On-the-ground, foot-washing work isn't heroic in the ways connoted by or current language, but it is worthwhile. And it is blessedly basic to the calling of Christian ministry.

The answers to the anxieties over "leadership" in this present age may entail some unwelcome self-examination, institutional courage, and more than a modicum of whimsy. Rather than try to exemplify the virile words that roll down the opening of the Colbert Report–GRAVITAS, RELEVANCE, AUTHORITY, STRONG, BOLD–I suggest mainline Christians continue to dig into Scripture and our respectively salty traditions of "otherwise." Relying on faith, we may resist a spirit of embattlement, trusting that the Holy Spirit, in her nimble mischief, is still making a way. After all, funding gained through the "L" word is often put to good use by women and men called to the apparently unproductive work of mainline ministry. But the "leadership" fashion is passé. Maybe mainline Protestants should truly go "retro" and return to the radical image of "follower."

Amy Laura Hall is associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. She served on the Bioethics Task Force of the United Methodist Church and has spoken to academic and ecclesial groups across the US and Europe. Hall is the author of Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction (Eerdmans, 2007).


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

You May Also Want to Read

Comment policy: ESA represents a wide variety of understandings and practices surrounding our shared Christian faith. The purpose of the ESA blog is to facilitate loving conversation; please know that individual authors do not speak for ESA as a whole. Even if you don\'t see yourself or your experience reflected in something you read here, we invite you to experience it anyway, and see if God can meet you there. What can take away from considering this point of view? What might you add? The comments section below is where you can share the answers to those questions, if you feel so moved. Please express your thoughts in ways that are constructive, purposeful, and respectful. Give those you disagree with the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are neither idiots nor evil. Name-calling, sweeping condemnations, and any other comments that suggest you have forgotten that we are all children of God will be deleted. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.