James Howell: "We don't know what to do . . . "

. . . but our eyes are upon You." Leadership literature can deflate. 2 Chronicles' prayer turns this uncertainty toward God.

Lately my exposure to fantastic leadership has reached some saturation point, and I find myself either bored, or demoralized.  In a weak moment I agreed to teach a seminary course on leadership, so I’m trying to wade through the literature (actually, the word “literature” is a bit of an overstatement), and it all looks so magical, so do-able, so rippling with potential.  Just apply the hedgehog concept, Drucker’s principles, Heifetz’s questions to the life of the church and everything will sizzle!

Then I was at a conference in Utah with the pastors of the 100 largest Methodist churches, and I was awestruck by the talent, the achievements of these Wunderkind who lead so boldly, and successfully.  Four members in a storefront become 15,000 a few years later, hospitals are built in the Sudan, multiple campuses are springing up:  with a sigh, and a hint of envy, I can only say Wow!

And yet, when I read, and listen, my mind wanders, and I’m even tempted to unpack a scathing theological critique.  But mostly I feel small, hesitant, not as competent as these wizards of leadership, who seem always to know precisely what to do, and how to get it done, and well.  They understand the subtle political complexities, the dramatic unfolding of gargantuan strategic plans, and I mutter a little prayer, like “Thank God somebody knows how to do all this kind of aggressive, kingdom-building leading” – because I sure don’t.

I mean, I lead, I do all right.  But I never, ever feel cocksure, and I make a lot of mistakes.  I do not have all (or very many of) the answers. 

Recently, I stumbled across an obscure Bible passage that brought me some comfort.  Jehoshaphat is about to lead Israel into some battle; and in the most unleaderlike way conceivable, he declares in prayer, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You” (2 Chronicles 20:12).

Without suggesting that the denizens of leadership are anything but God’s coolest gift to Christendom, I do wonder if, for the rest of us, we needn’t feel so small or ineffective, but can simply say this utterly biblical thing:  “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” 

I wonder if there is such a thing as “postmodern leadership,” although I have a hunch Christian leadership has quite often been wobbly and uncertain, tentative and mistake-prone.  Karl Barth was thinking of theological talk when he said, “We ought to speak of God.  We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God.  We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory” -- but can’t it also be the case that we ought to lead the Body; we are human, however, so we cannot, and in our obligation to lead, and our inability to lead, we give God the glory?

After all, it is the messy horde that is the Church we are trying to lead, not a regiment of holy, obedient, doggedly faithful saints.  And it is the well-nigh impossible realization of the kingdom of God that is our objective -- and it is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who leads and is our objective.  Anybody who has all the answers and can speak with crystalline clarity about such mysteries is clueless -- so if we close our eyes, grimace, try to find the words but wind up stammering, might we be speaking of the true, living God?  And if we thus lead with the chagrin of somebody who frankly can’t figure out what to do next with the hopelessly confused rabble before us, might we perhaps actually be leading the Body as faithfully as possible?

I’m going to keep studying, and I will try to mimic the super-pastors I truly admire.  But for now, I’m going to get over my sense of inadequacy, and simply own it; and when I’m trying to lead people who want me to have all the answers and lay out a grand plan that is guaranteed to work, I will try to count on the curious hopefulness of Jehoshaphat’s prayer:  “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.”

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.