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Leadership in the Wesleyan tradition

In their new book, “Grace to Lead,” Kenneth L. Carder and Laceye C. Warner draw upon the early Methodist movement in Great Britain to distill instructive and formative marks of leadership for the church in the world today.

December 7, 2010

By Kenneth L. Carder and Laceye C. Warner

Editor's note: Laceye Warner will be a featured lecturer during Renewing the Church, Duke Divinity School's 2013 Convocation & Pastors' School, Oct. 14-15. Register online.

In “Grace to Lead: Practicing Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition,”  authors Kenneth L. Carder and Laceye C. Warner examine the telos, or goal, of Christian discipleship and leadership; the significance of divine grace for understanding and practicing leadership in the Wesleyan tradition; the central place of Christian practices for leadership formation in the early Methodist movement; and the challenges and opportunities of leadership in the contemporary context.

This excerpt from the book examines the comprehensive vision of God’s holistic salvation that is required of leadership to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Qualities and skills needed to address challenges and opportunities

The challenges and opportunities confronting leaders in the twenty-first century call for leaders, both individual and corporate, with particular qualities and skills. The challenges of competing worldviews, the disestablishment of the church, pluralism, diversity, and polarization, as well as individualism and loss of community, have few parallels in history from which we can learn. However, the contemporary context highlights particular qualities and skills inspired by the Wesleyan tradition for Christian leaders to maximize participation in God’s mission of salvation.

Foundation repair and reinforcement is a necessary task of leaders in the twenty-first century. Effective leadership amid competing and conflicting worldviews requires a deep grounding in Scripture and the Christian tradition. Church leaders must address immediately and comprehensively the erosion of basic knowledge of Scripture and the doctrines and traditions of the Christian faith by those within the church. Otherwise, the competing worldviews will render our witness ineffectual and the church’s participation in God’s mission tepid. Without a solid theological foundation, efforts to revitalize and renew declining membership will be short-lived programmatic structures built on sand rather than the solid rock of the gospel.

We have a precedent in the early Methodist movement. John and Charles Wesley and their coworkers laid a foundation for the subsequent growth of the Methodists. Despite staggering numbers of listeners in open-air preaching, the early Methodist movement showed a relatively slow growth through an intense process of Christian formation in small-group gatherings resulting in changed lives. Priority was given to recovering “primitive Christianity” through teaching, preaching, writing, and practices that formed individuals and groups in accordance with holiness of heart and life. John Wesley’s extensive written and oral sermons, as well as tracts, letters, and treatises, were directed toward laying a foundation in Scripture and tradition upon which the societies, classes, bands, evangelistic strategies, and mission engagement were built.

Charles Wesley’s poems and hymns became a repository of theological interpretation, Christian formation, and evangelical and missional motivation, as well as vehicles of worship. They laid a foundation from which we benefit and upon which we continue to build.

Ron Heifetz distinguishes between two leadership challenges: technical and adaptive. A technical challenge is a problem for which there is an immediate and known solution. For example, a blocked artery can be treated with medication, a stent, or bypass surgery. An adaptive challenge is one for which no known solution currently exists and that requires a cultural shift. Thus, while a blocked artery calls for a technical response, heart health requires a lifestyle change. In the context of church leadership, membership decline can be treated as a technical challenge: one can deal with it by developing and implementing a marketing plan for recruitment. However, if renewal of the congregation through transformed lives is the challenge, then a cultural shift is necessary that will include education and formation over an extended period of time.

John Wesley approached the early Methodist renewal movement as an adaptive challenge, which required laying a foundation and a lifetime of practices. Contemporary heirs of the early Methodists confront the need for a cultural shift in the church’s life. Leaders, therefore, must address the immediate technical challenges with an eye on the long-range cultural shift necessary. Foundation repair requires patience and perseverance and a willingness to get one’s hands dirty and work without recognition and immediate visible results.

A comprehensive vision of God’s holistic salvation is required of leadership that meets the challenges of the twenty-first century. Christian leadership has always lived with the tension between the already and not yet dimensions of God’s salvation and reign. Eschatology is an essential component of Christian leadership aimed to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. We celebrate the kingdom of God already present, and we anticipate its completion. It is the vision of a new creation brought to fulfillment that forms the vision of the Christian leader. The new creation encompasses the entire created order and forces us beyond provincialism, exclusivity, and homogeneity.

At the heart of Wesleyan theology is universal grace available to all and working prior to our own efforts. Therefore, Methodist leaders can move beyond boundaries of ethnicity, cultures, nations, systems, religions, and fields of knowledge with confidence that God is present to create, heal, reconcile, and transform. Collaboration and partnerships across traditional boundaries become possible for those who affirm God’s universal power and presence. In the pluralistic and diverse world of the twenty-first century, such partnerships and collaboration characterize Christian leaders anchored in a vision of God’s salvation made possible through grace.

The shaping of evangelistic communities of grace is required of Christian leaders in the contemporary world. While the need for individuals who provide direction for institutions remains, more attention to the formation of the corporate leadership of the church and its institutions is needed. Shaping congregations that influence neighborhoods and cities requires special skill in institutional development and community organization. Creating and fostering caring communities of witness, justice, generosity, compassion, peace, and hope is necessary if the church is to be a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s present and coming reign in both the seats of power and on the margins.

Relationships can be means of evangelism to facilitate the Christian discipleship of individuals as they are initiated into the body of Christ. Forming small groups in which people are held in love and held accountable for growing in grace is an essential practice for making disciples for the transformation of the world. Additionally, communities of faith can nurture relationships across boundaries of difference including race, ethnicity, language, gender, class, education, and ability. Nurturing such communities of grace requires careful attention to group dynamics and planning and leading worship that is truly liturgical -- “the work of the people” in the church and the world.

Reconciliation and conflict resolution skills are necessary for leadership in the contemporary world. God’s holistic salvation includes the reconciliation of all things and the removal of barriers within the human family. As a sign and instrument of God’s reconciliation, the church -- local congregations, judicatories, and institutions -- must confront conflicts, differences, and divisions with grace. The breaking down of homogeneity and the practice of radical hospitality require such intentional initiatives as multicultural education and sensitivity training; intentional experiences and friendship with people who are different from ourselves, particularly those on the margins; and engagement in global mission.

Leaders in the midst of diversity and polarization see conflict as an opportunity for reconciliation and growth in love of God and neighbor. Such a stance toward conflict requires a nondefensiveness born of self-awareness rooted in grace, a vision of community formed by reconciliation in Christ, and learned skills in facilitating communication in the midst of anger and frustration. The church is strategically positioned to counter destructive polarizations of violence, alienation, and retribution with a community of forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and transformation. Meeting this challenge requires individual and corporate leadership formed and sustained by God’s presence and power at work in community.

From “Grace to Lead: Practicing Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition,” by Kenneth L. Carder and Laceye C. Warner. Copyright © 2010 by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church (Nashville, Tenn.). Used by permission.