Martin Copenhaver & Lillian Daniel: Leadership is loving people

Two United Church of Christ pastors talk about practicing ministry “with delight.”

Lillian Daniel is senior minister of First Congregational Church (UCC) in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and co-host of the Chicago-based television program, “30 Good Minutes.” Martin Copenhaver is senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church (UCC) in Wellesley, Mass. The two recently co-wrote “This Odd and Wondrous Calling,” a book about their experiences in ministry.

They spoke with Faith & Leadership about how their work as pastoral leaders might inform leaders outside the church, the importance of humor and storytelling, and why institutions matter.

Q: What prompted you to write “This Odd and Wondrous Calling”?

Copenhaver: We were looking for a book that described ministry honestly and appreciatively by authors who still practice it with delight. We wanted a book to give someone considering ministry or someone who has forgotten why they got into it. But we couldn’t find that book.

Daniel: We love Rick Lischer’s “Open Secrets,” but it’s set in a different time. Heidi Neumark’s “Breathing Spaces” is beautiful, but it’s about a unique ministry in the South Bronx. We’re both pastors in the suburbs and wanted to show how that is also odd and wondrous.

Q: Why did you do this project together rather than individually?

Daniel: We were both influenced by Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Leaving Church,” and we both do a lot of writing and speaking to encourage ministers to stay in church. We had a fair amount of material already, and Martin said, “Why don’t we write this book together?”

Copenhaver: To have two perspectives -- as well as male and female voices -- helps show that there is more than one way to go at this work.

Q: How can your collaborative approach apply to leadership more broadly?

Copenhaver: A pastor needs to initiate and collaborate. An initiating leader has a sense of what the gospel calls us to do, but then she or he must always collaborate with others. In our Congregational tradition we emphasize that discernment is always a communal exercise.

Daniel: Friendship is important to both of us. The higher one goes in leadership, the greater the need for peers. Yet it’s precisely then that peers are harder to find. It may be difficult to be friends with the minister across the street because you might feel some competition. Plus we’re often scattered around the country from friends from seminary. So we’ve always been intentional about having rich, deep friendships with other ministers, making the effort to get together and talk on the phone. Clergy can get lost without friendships.

Q: What can church leaders contribute to leaders in other spheres?

Copenhaver: The literature has focused a lot on what business leaders can teach leaders in the church. There is also something to be said about how leadership in a church can apply to other settings. I find very little that’s more gratifying than folks saying, “There’s something I learned in church that I’m applying in my work.” It tends to be around communal discernment. Leaders have to take the time to hear from a broad group of people. We have to listen to everyone because we never know who the Holy Spirit is going to choose to speak through, who is going to have that critical insight at any given moment.

Daniel: Pastors are not CEOs. Or, if we are, it’s of a very tiny business. We’re working with all volunteers. We’re trying to motivate people who don’t work for us. We don’t have any financial leverage over them. We can’t fire them. It requires an incredible agility to be able to switch from a business model to the church, where all you have is charm and persuasion. Often business leaders in my church will get into church leadership positions and they’ll say, “All the stuff from work does not work here.”

Q: What other image besides “CEO” better describes your ministries?

Daniel: Discipleship. There is a difference between a culture of membership where you’re an expert and a culture of discipleship where you’re trying to cultivate the ministry of others.

But I don’t shy away from the word “leader.” Leader is a very different word from CEO. You’re not a leader if you turn around and no one is following. You may be a leader on a given day and the next day you may not be.

Copenhaver: I’m really impatient with folks who eschew the title of leader. Often it feels like leadership is sitting on the table waiting for somebody to pick it up. If you’re not going to pick it up as a pastor, someone else will.

Q: Where did each of you get your gift of storytelling?

Daniel: I was raised in a family of Southern storytellers. We never let the truth get in the way of a good story. On the other hand, my father was a journalist and so told stories with an insistence on getting the facts right. It took me a while to figure out that storytelling had a place in the church. My writing has evolved much more into storytelling because I’ve learned I can make my point better by showing rather than saying.

When I tell a story in preaching, parishioners come up and say, “I’m always going to remember that sermon and the point you made.” Many people learn not through expository speech but through stories and parables.

Copenhaver: I was the youngest in my family, and I learned early I could get people’s attention with a story. But preachers are always storytellers. We’re tellers of the greatest story, the gospel story. We try not only to tell that story, but also other stories that reflect that greater story.

Q: How important is it for leaders to be good storytellers?

Daniel: One really important thing about leadership is to learn how to tell your own story. When you write about a character and that character is yourself, you’re forced to go interior. One of the blessings of doing this kind of writing was to have to make sense of times in our past that we didn’t understand before.

I’ve got a story in the book about being rejected for ordination by the Episcopal Church. I carried that around in my back pocket for 15 years. This book gave me an opportunity to look at what happened and explore how it shaped me. A good leader does that kind of interior work.

Copenhaver: A good leader tells the story of the organization in a way that takes control of the narrative. There are always other ways to tell that story: “What are we about here?” How do you tell the story of an institution, in this case of a church, so as to call forth the best from that church? Which threads of the narrative do you pick out? Which parts of the story do you emphasize and repeat on an ongoing basis until they seep in and people say, “We’re this kind of people.”

Q: What leaders have inspired you?

Copenhaver: My father. He grew up in humble circumstances. He was the first person in his family to go to college and he ended up being a leader of leaders. He served a church the last 18 years of his ministry with a lot of CEOs and corporate leaders. They looked to him as a leader, perhaps because he had a sense of self-possession.

Daniel: A parishioner of mine is a middle-school principal. He was doing a training day for his staff and the teachers, and asked me to be part of it. From the moment he stood up I could tell he was the leader of that school. It was all very ordinary, and yet it was obvious by how people reacted that this guy led them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

A huge part of church leadership is loving people. People will allow you to lead when they believe that you love them and have their best interests at heart. This is love with its work clothes on.

That’s different from, say, a consultant, who comes into an organization as an outsider who is not expected to love you. Their gift is that they can see things more clearly. Sometimes an outsider can help an organization see things. But that isn’t leading. To lead, we have to have a sense that we belong together and love each other.

Q: Tell me about the importance of humor for you.

Copenhaver: We have to take the gospel more seriously than we take ourselves. We have to have a sense of humor about ourselves most of all. Self-deprecating humor helps put me in my place before somebody else does.

Daniel: When I entered ministry I didn’t bring my humor with me. People who knew me would say, “You’re yourself up there in the pulpit, except there’s nothing funny.” I finally figured out that God calls you as you are. If you are funny then humor should be a part of your ministry. Many people who are not naturally funny are great leaders, but if you are funny, bring your whole self.

Copenhaver: Clarence Jordan compared parables to a Trojan horse. You let the horse in, and only when you’ve let it in do the troops come out and capture the city. “There was a man who had two sons…” Humor can be that way. It lets you hear truths that might be defended against if they were presented in another way.

Q: What does the concept of traditioned innovation mean to you?

Copenhaver: Diana Butler Bass talks about re-traditioning. Bob Webber talked about “ancient-future faith.” However we talk about it, it’s encouraging, especially in the UCC where we abandon a lot of our traditions. Soren Kierkegaard would say of the moribund state church in Denmark that “it’s as if we inherited a mansion but we live in a tent in the front yard.” Re-traditioning is a movement back into the mansion to draw upon the riches of the tradition in a way that is responsive to the times.

Daniel: For Congregationalists this makes a lot of sense. We have a history of taking bold stands for social justice long before the rest of the church, but we always did it by harkening back to an ancient tradition. If we connect a progressive move to our history then we can be bold going forward. For example, as we talk about equal rights in marriage, we refer back to the Amistad and the abolitionist movement and what Congregationalists did there.

Q: How important have vibrant institutions been to each of you?

Copenhaver: When people say they don’t believe in the institutional church, I say, “I don’t either. I’m in the UCC.” But the question is, “Do you believe in community?” We know we’re shaped by community, but sooner or later, our community becomes an institution.

Daniel: There are now churches that claim not to be institutions. They bring church in on a truck and you worship at the local high school. That’s appealing to me when I’m dealing with an old roof on our building. In the mainline church for too long we’ve apologized for our institutions. We say things in giving campaigns like, “Please give to the church because we give 10 percent of it away.” We’ve got to stop acting like we’re just an inefficient United Way. If you just want to give money away, there are other ways to do it.

We have to reclaim our institutions as things that matter.