In the past, pastoral leadership was all about playing various roles: preacher, teacher, counselor, administrator, social activist, and more. In the future those roles will no longer describe the effective pastor. We already see signs of it. Pastors schooled in all the right roles and skilled at playing them still find themselves presiding over declining churches, buffeted by complaining parishioners, and wondering why their answers don’t work anymore.

The roles worked well in a time of stability and continuity. Pastors equipped to play a limited number of clearly defined roles could count on providing effective ministry for their congregations. But in a time of rapid and tectonic change, just playing the roles doesn’t do the job any more. And in the future, as change becomes even more profound, its impact compounds, and its pace increases, the roles will become even less meaningful. They won’t work because they will no longer accomplish the work that must be done.

Leading for the future isn’t a matter of roles or even the development of new roles. The diversity of ministry settings created by the change that is now taking place will make it impossible to define a set of roles that will ensure effective ministry for pastors. Even if it were possible, these roles would become outmoded and ineffective as rapidly as they were defined. In the future it won’t be about roles. What will matter most is qualities. Leadership effectiveness will be shaped not by playing the right roles but by embodying the right qualities.

So, what are the qualities that will be most significant in a time of rapid and profound change, when old answers don’t work and new ones have yet to be discovered? What are the qualities that are essential for leadership in a time of instability and uncertainty and yet filled with potential for new and deeper faithfulness?

It’s perhaps best not to develop a checklist of qualities. That’s a bit too mechanistic, too rigid for the uncertainty we face. Instead, let’s play with some metaphors of possibility.

Leaders for the future have the heart of a servant. To be a servant leader means to understand that our purpose is to live for others. This isn’t a matter of attending to others’ every expressed need or fulfilling whatever demands they might have. True servanthood is something radically different; it is based in the belief that fulfillment comes as we discover God’s intentions for us and bring them to reality in our lives. The servant, then, is one who works to make that possible. This will need to be the primary focus of the relationships and ministry of leaders for the future. This means that we enter into any leadership position with great humility. We are not there to have our own needs met. Some lead because it feels good to exercise power. Others lead because it feels good to help others. Both miss the point of servant leadership.

To be a servant is to empty one’s self so that motivations are not based in personal ego satisfaction but in the potential growth of others. Let’s be clear: this is not about becoming a doormat, of being so self-deprecating and self-sacrificing that we do injury to ourselves and our own well-being. That would be to deny the person God created us to be. Sometimes sacrifice is needed, but it always comes from our strength, not our weakness—from our ability to say yes, not our inability to say no. The importance of having the heart of a servant is not a new idea. Jesus himself talked about it. In the future, this kind of heart will need to be constantly beating in the life and work of the leader.

Leaders for the future have the mind of an architect. They will be about creating functional beauty. The newness of the future calls for an act of creation. What we create must be a thing of beauty that embodies the richness of God’s kingdom in our time and place. The great challenge of the architect is to be both an artist and a mechanic—to see the grand design and at the same time attend to the details, to create a thing of beauty that works effectively. In the same way, leaders for the future will need to “think big” in order to envision the wonder of a new way of being church, of encountering the holy, of participating in God’s mission. This great creation will need to be a thing of beauty so that it expresses the beauty of God’s love for the world and attracts those whose lives are so often drab and dreary. And yet at the same time it will need to function effectively. This functionality is what makes the beauty of the creation a reality in the lives of people, applying it to their lives in specific ways that respond to their needs. In order to be both beautiful and functional, the “building” will need to have a solid biblical and theological foundation and its “mechanical systems” will need to respond to those who occupy it. It might be a tabernacle or a temple, but whatever it is, it must have a functional beauty. Creating that takes the mind of an architect.

Leaders for the future have the spirit of an ascetic. The desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century understood what it took to remain faithful in a world that was suddenly different. Their genius was in going deeper into the self in order to know God more deeply. This self-knowledge is essential for faithful leaders. It is what enables the personal transformation that makes transformative leadership possible. It is what rids us of (or at least makes us aware of) all the failings and foibles, the sins and self-centeredness that keep us from living for others. It is what gives us the humility to know that the challenge we face is one we are not equal to on our own. It is what helps us recognize our complete and total dependence on God in order to be the leaders that will help form a future according to God’s vision. And, beyond ourselves, our awareness of this dependence is what attunes us to the work of God in the lives of others and in the world. This is what enables us to see God where others don’t, to name God’s presence, and to align ourselves with God’s mission. It is this spirit that leads us to reaffirm, even in the midst of our secular world, that God is at work and that the world truly is in God’s hands.

Leaders for the future have the arms of a hugger. The desert fathers and mothers, as isolated as they seemed to be, knew that community was essential to their faith and well-being. They spent hours alone delving the depths of their beings, but they also came together to share and to worship. Community has always been a part of congregational life, but the community of the future will be different, more difficult to develop, and because of that probably more authentic. It won’t be a community based on similarity of race, culture, economic status, or theology. It will be a community of genuine diversity, not just because diversity is valued (which, of course, it should be) but because diversity will be unavoidable. Even though the urge to retreat to cultural, racial, economic, and theological enclaves may be great, God is already at work in the world to deny such narrowness. Everywhere we turn we are confronted with those who are different from us in countless ways. In the future there will be no escape from diversity, so leadership in the future will need to evidence a warm inclusivity. The arms of a hugger reach out to gather in all who would come, to welcome them, to embrace them, to bring them together into a new creation—a beloved community.

Leaders for the future have the strength of a gymnast. Gymnasts amaze me. It’s not just their physical strength—which allows them to balance on beams and suspend themselves on rings—that I marvel at. It is also their strength of spirit, which allows them to focus and perform these near miraculous feats under great pressure and in the midst of great distractions. Imagine the fortitude it takes to run full speed into failure. That
’s essentially what a gymnast does on every vault. The chances of achieving the perfect 10 on a vault are infinitesimal. The chances of missing the landing are great, even for accomplished gymnasts. And yet they are able to focus their effort, marshal their strength of both body and spirit, and enter into the challenge ahead of them. And they are able to bounce back quickly from a failure in order to try again, perhaps taking an even greater risk this time. That’s the kind of strength leaders for the future need. It will need to be a strength that enables us to focus even in the face of possible (and maybe even likely) failure, because the answers do not exist and even the clues are not clear. It will need to be a strength that allows us to move into the challenge ahead of us with great intensity (if not necessarily great speed), even if we cannot be sure of the outcome, because anything less will lack the energy needed for the task at hand.

Leaders for the future have the legs of a marathoner. Marathoners are in it for the long haul, and so must be leaders for the future. The work that needs to be done won’t be accomplished soon. The transitions that are taking place in society are leading us to something new, but we don’t yet know what that is and probably won’t know for some time to come. It is, after all, a postmodern, post-Christendom world we live in now. We are unable to describe it in any way other than to say what it is not. Someday we will know what it is, but we’ve got a way to go until then. That means leaders for the future will need to stick with their mission. They will need to try and fail and try again. They will need to keep learning, discovering, discerning the new things God is doing and calling us to become. They will need to deal with those who resist change, those who clamor for more and faster change, those who are tired, those who are fearful, those who are annoyed, those who want to give up.

Perhaps the most striking physical characteristic of the marathoner is leanness. That’s also a trait of leaders for the future. They must be lean, free of the baggage of the past, having set aside the programs and priorities that no longer serve their purpose. The journey into the future cannot be successful with a lot of baggage. Leanness is essential for the long haul.

Leaders for the future have the soul of a poet. Poets help us see in new ways. They combine words and images in ways that create new realities for us. They help us feel, as well as think. Pain is expressed rather than internalized. Hope emerges from despair. Impossibility becomes reality.

Leaders for the future are poets. They help us see what we could not see before, creating new possibility, new reality, for us. They show us where God is at work, where God’s justice is being made real, where God’s kingdom is being formed. They help us understand that, ultimately, as uncertain, as insecure, as different as it may be, this future we are moving into is God’s future. They help us have faith.

We’ve been playing with metaphors here, not creating a checklist. Even so, what has been described probably seems impossible. Embodying these qualities in one person approaches being a ridiculous fantasy. Don’t worry about it! This leader for the future doesn’t exist and never will. The leader for the future isn’t a person. It is a team. It is a group of people gifted and called by God to lead. It is a community drawn together by a sense of the possible within a congregation and committed to making God’s kingdom just a bit more real in their time and place. This fact alone changes the notions of leadership that pastors and congregations have operated under for years. It breaks down barriers between professional and lay leaders. It blurs the distinctions between clergy and laity. It refocuses our attention on gifts and call as being the basis for ministry.

When gifts and call become the basis for ministry, our whole understanding of “who does what” in the congregation changes. If gifts and call are the basis for ministry, the assumed distinctions between clergy and laity disappear. What matters most is not title or role but the gifts that have been given and the call that has been answered. This focus on gifts and call also leads us to a new humility about leadership. It reminds us that no one has all the gifts, but all the gifts are present within the Body. That is why a leadership team is essential for the future. When the challenges before us are great we need to take advantage of every gift God has given. That is only possible if we approach the task of leadership as a team.

This leads us to one final affirmation about leaders for the future. Many of the qualities we’ve already discussed are important to team-building. Someone in each congregation, however, will need to see his or her primary call as bringing together the group that embodies these qualities, as well as others that the congregation might need. That responsibility requires the eyes of Jesus to see the gifts in others and call them into ministry. The team may include clergy and laity, paid staff and volunteers. The team leader’s responsibility will be to gather those who are needed, guide the development of a common vision for their work, and support and encourage their efforts. Often the pastor will be expected to play this role. That may very well be the way to do it, but it doesn’t have to be. Remember, it is the gifts that matter most, the gifts that determine the responsibilities we take on. However, the pastor, at the very least, will need to understand this and encourage it, whether he or she is the team leader or not.

This team will serve two essential roles in the life of the congregation. First, it will provide the leadership that is needed, guiding the congregation as a whole into the future to which God is calling it. Second, and just as important, it will model a way of working for others in the congregation. If it is a community that embodies the reality of spirit-directed leadership based in gifts, it will provide the example for others to follow as they begin to discern their gifts and call and move into God’s mission. The leadership team will provide the model for the ministry teams that will be essential to congregations of the future.

The focus for our playful encounter with these metaphors of possibility has been leadership for the future, not leadership in the future or of the future. If we wait for the future, we’ll be too late. Right now is the time to begin to let go of roles and embrace qualities. Right now is the time to begin to develop the gifts and discern the call of those who will be part of the leader team. The future is already in our midst. Leadership for the future begins today.

Questions for Reflection 

  • For what reasons do you agree or disagree with the author that leadership for the future will be shaped by qualities rather than roles?
  • Which of the metaphors discussed in the article spoke most directly to you? Why?
  • What other metaphors do you think might help us explore leadership for the future?
  • Do you believe that leadership for the future in congregations needs to be based on teams rather than individuals? Why or why not?
  • In what ways might the roles of clergy and laity change if the insights of this article were applied to your congregation?