Not too long ago I stood in Explorers Hall of the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., staring at the James Caird, a 22-foot whaleboat. Eighty-five years ago, six men sailed this boat 800 miles across open, brutally cold, unforgiving seas. After 10 months on board their larger icebound ship, the Endurance, the full party of 28, led by Sir Ernest H. Shackleton, abandoned their original goal of accomplishing the first crossing of Antartica and instead crossed great stretches of ice in their search for a way home.

As I looked at the boat I pondered the elusive meaning of the word leadership. Shackleton had led his group on the riskiest of adventures, and they failed to meet their objective. But out of this failure came one of the twentieth century’s most striking examples of leadership.

After months of dragging three small boats they later abandoned and a week of sailing the open sea, Shackleton’s crew reached Elephant Island. It was the first time they had been on solid ground in 497 days. After making a safe new camp, Shackleton and five of the party, navigating with only a sextant and charts, sailed the James Caird for another 16 days to a new landfall. Leaving three men behind in another carefully constructed camp, Shackleton set out with the others to cross the uncharted territory of South Georgia. After 36 frigid hours traversing rugged, mountainous terrain, they found help. Still not finished, Shackleton returned to both camps to retrieve the crew he had left behind. Amazingly, of the 28 men who set out on this adventure, 25 survived.

As I looked at Shackleton’s worn-out boat, I pondered all the things that he did, all the decisions he made, and the risks he took to get his men home alive. Maintaining hope against the bleakest of odds, keeping his crew busy and healthy, selecting which things to leave in the doomed Endurance and which to take along (the whole Bible was too heavy, so he cut out two pages of the Book of Job), and skillfully plotting a course across unknown territory, Shackleton provided the kind of elemental leadership that makes the difference between life and death.1

Defining the Mystery
The mystery embodied by Shackleton still eludes us. When, in 1978, James MacGregor Burns set out to provide a definitive analysis of leadership, he noted that “leadership as a concept is dissolved into small and discrete meaning,”2 acknowledging that a recent study had counted more than 130 different definitions for the term.

There is an enormous leadership industry that touches almost every sector of our society. Bookshelves groan, continuing education programs are glutted, and waves of gurus wash through our institutional lives, all promising to help provide leadership. But we continue to cry out about its absence.

The world of religion—the world of congregations—is no different. We have our own booming literature about leadership, or at least about the need for it. Pull a book about congregational health off the shelf and see how long it takes to find that leadership is essential for a congregation to flourish. But even in our own sector, we face Burns’ problem. We want clear, compelling definitions of leadership, and we find the work dissolving before our eyes. We may not be seeking the kind of leaders that Shackleton was, but we do sense a deep need for leadership that goes beyond what we frequently see.

For the past year and a half, the Alban Institute has been taking a fresh look at the matter of congregational leadership. What we have learned both frightens us and inspires us to do new things. We have interviewed key leaders and experts from around the country, we have assembled a large number of studies that touch upon various aspects of our current leadership situation, and we have tested our preliminary conclusions with a sizable number of clergy and lay leaders.3

Dysfunction and Ferment
Here is a snapshot of what we have learned: The clergy system in America is seriously troubled. While the word crisis has been overworked in religious circles and in the culture at large, we nevertheless heard from many people about the crisis they see.

Denominational studies point to a growing clergy shortage. This is a Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish fact of life. Part of this shortage is due to a declining pool of new candidates for ministry. Another part has to do with the growing number of small congregations that cannot afford to support a full-time clergyperson.

This shortage indicates several other important realities. The ministerium of America is aging. People are entering ordained ministry later in life and serving for shorter periods. Also, a serious under-supply of clergy under the age of age 35 is a sign that the old feeder system of church-related schools and the old mentoring system by which established clergy selected and groomed young people for ministry have both become increasingly obsolete.4

There are other ominous signals. The seminaries that train the majority of clergy are receiving significant criticism, both for their lack of rigorous selection criteria and for the relevance of the education they provide to real-world congregational leadership. A large number of denominational executives, seminary professors, clergy, and lay leaders express growing concern about the quality of new seminary graduates and the students who will succeed them.

In addition, many reports give painful evidence of malaise and low morale in the ministry. One study estimates that 30 percent of a particular denomination’s clergy love their work and are thriving, while another 30 percent feel strong ambivalence about their callings, and a full 40 percent are either “well on their way to burnout” or already in the stage of “advanced burnout.”

These reports indicate that for many clergy, ordained ministry is a lonely life. The systems that once supported clergy now are perceived by many to be unsafe places for openly confronting the deepest challenges before them. Several reports indicate that clergy—especially women clergy—feel that the people and structures that were intended to supervise and support them are caught in dysfunctional patterns. A recurring theme is the tension between supervision and support in denominational structures. Many clergy wonder how they can talk honestly about the most personal and most troubled parts of their lives with colleagues who compete with them for positions, or with supervisors who will place them in their next position.

We heard a great deal about the economic and health burdens of clergy (one of the lowest paid professions in the nation), about the stresses on their families, and about the problematic status of the profession itself. Repeatedly throughout the research studies clergy voiced their hunger for safe places to form genuine learning environments among communities of authentic peers. Even more deeply, they yearned for new spiritual resources to refresh their parched souls.

That’s part of the story. Another part has to do with the ferment we encountered outside of America’s denominational clergy system. When we looked at the local level and at individual congregations, we saw much that was encouraging.

We learned about a whole new group of leaders that is emerging in American religion—some call them lay pastors or lay ministers—and of the educational programs that have been created to prepare them for roles once filled primarily by clergy. We met countless lay people who have drunk deeply from the twentieth-century theologies that proclaim the ministry of the whole people of God and who look to their congregations for support in their daily vocations. At the institutional level we found stunning evidence of congregational creativity; small and large chu
rches and synagogues are creating alliances, forming not-for-profit organizations, and initiating countless programs to respond to the deep wounds in our society. We also noted the emergence of “new paradigm” congregations and networks of support among them. Underneath all of this abundant evidence of ferment ran a powerful and pervasive spiritual hunger.

A New Awakening?
What do we make of all this? Increasingly, we at the Institute find ourselves employing the metaphor of awakening to comprehend the paradox of dysfunction and ferment. Several prominent historians, economists, and other observers of American life have discerned a rhythm of awakenings in American life. Most commonly known are the culture-wide First and Second Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some have seen another awakening at the end of the nineteenth century and others suggest that we are in midst of one now.

Awakenings occur when a society encounters so much change and turmoil that old ways of organizing life break down. Simultaneously, innovators bring forth a whole host of new ideas, new interpretations of old texts and traditions, new moral concerns, and new proposals about how to shape our lives. These awakenings are times of revitalization in which dysfunction and ferment are always intertwined.

For now, we hold this work awakening tentatively. Awakenings are not inevitable. As the past century reminds us, sometimes dysfunction and ferment interact to create chaos and lead to drastic, even totalitarian, solutions. The jury is still out on whether or not we are in the midst of a real awakening. But in this in-between time, the challenge is to provide leadership.

To be sure, this leadership will not be exactly like what Shackleton offered on the Antartic ice. In fact, it should not be. We live in very different times and in very different circumstances. Most of the readers of this magazine are leaders of congregations in an environment not of extreme cold but of extreme change and choice. But we must be as innovative and resourceful as Shackleton was. We must learn to read the realities, to change our plans, to build up lost and frightened people into purposeful communities, and to value the life entrusted to our care.

As I pondered the now empty and very old James Caird, it occurred to me that what I valued most in Shackleton was his response to failure. Locked in the ice packs, he faced the fact that his original vision for himself and his crew was unrealistic. Rather than clinging to that vision and dying, he let go of it—at least for a time—and formed a vision that saved almost all of their lives. He tried Plan B and then improvised his way to safety.

Part of our challenge, if this is to be a genuine time of awakening for our religious communities, is to let go of some old and cherished visions and to form new ones that may be even more inspiring than those left behind. We must face failure not by trying harder to do the old things but by risking experiment and attempting the previously unthinkable.

My colleagues at the Alban Institute have been thinking intentionally about the appropriate response to this new leadership situation for almost as long a time as Shackleton and his crew were stranded in Antartica. Our journey has, of course, not been as dramatic or as dangerous. But we feel it is time for us to find new ways to help American congregations muster new leadership. We look forward to thinking together with you about our reading of the situation and working with you on new initiatives that we will soon announce.

1. The story is told by Kim Heacox in Shackleton: The Antartic Challenge (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1999).
2. Leadership (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p.2.
3. To review a detailed account of our research, download the new Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership from
4. See CONGREGATIONS, March/April 2001.