For several years I have invited groups of lay and clergy leaders to play with the chart shown on page 9. And “play” is the operative verb. “Don’t take it too seriously,” I advise, as I give everyone a copy. “It’s just a conceptual tool, and it’s not perfect!” After this initial perspective, plus brief interpretive comments, I let the group have fun with the chart.
The results are as unpredictable as working with a Rorschach inkblot test. They are also as fruitful. As people reflect on the chart, some identify a growing edge as leaders. Others recognize and claim gifts they had never previously named. Still others clarify areas where they need to supplement their specific leadership strengths. Groups begin to consider the special demands of leadership in the church and ways to respond faithfully to these demands. To speak of results here, though, gets ahead of the process. At this point, it will be most helpful to look directly at the chart itself.
The Leader as Manager, the Leader as Seer
The chart presents two modes of leadership: the leader as manager and the leader as seer.
In today’s social context, the manager stands out as the more familiar figure. Our society prizes good managers and does so with sound reason. Good managers get things done. Even the word “manage” expresses this idea. It comes to us from the Latin word manus, meaning “hand.” A skillful manager handles matters, sorts them out, and passes them along. A good manager helps others build up the household, the community, or the organization. A solid manager leads people to shape their resources appropriately for the tasks confronting them.
A seer does precisely what the word implies. The seer sees, looking deeply on events, people, hurts of the human family, and hungers of the heart. The seer cherishes details yet also remains completely open to what lies beyond the details. Consequently, the seer ultimately helps others perceive whole new paths to follow.
Whenever I present the chart, I note that the commitment to faithful leadership in the church calls us to be both managers and seers. Without good management, even the simplest programs can fall apart and the best mission plans slide into chaos. As church leaders we need to recognize and hone our management skills. At the same time, Jesus steadily urges us to “Behold!” and “Watch!” and to attend to the plain fact that “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). In short, we need to become seers, seeing deeply and helping others see as well. This approach, as the chart indicates, points us toward a fresh set of disciplines and challenges.
A Look at Particulars
The chart offers seven areas for comparing the leader as manager and the leader as seer.
1. Primary Emphases. The manager emphasizes accountability, both for self and others. A good manager needs to ask, “Am I doing what I said I would?” “Am I getting my part of the job done?” “Are others fulfilling their tasks?” Such questions arise as an essential part of leading any process to completion. Answering them well requires analysis: “What do I see going on here?” It also depends on accurate information. An effective manager needs clear pictures of what is happening.
Among the best managers I ever knew was a lay leader who possessed, at most, an eighth-grade education. She was superintendent of the church school and kept all the official records for her congregation. Unassumingly (“I only do this to keep my head straight!”) she kept checklists of everything. She monitored her own tasks first and then the tasks of others. She praised freely and motivated gently. Morale remained high. Few balls were dropped.
The seer places primary emphasis on presence. In the film Gandhi, when the emerging leader returns to India from South Africa in 1915, many expect him to take dramatic steps for independence. Instead, Gandhi simply boards a train. He spends months quietly traveling about the land from which he has been absent for years. A true seer starts by being present—whether the object of that presence happens to be a people, a parish, a neighborhood, or a broad swath of society in deep need. And while being present, the seer draws forth what is actually going on. What are the values? The needs? The strengths? The seer begins to name clearly the answers to these questions.
2. Use of Time. The manager carefully monitors time to spend it with the things that matter. Such discipline means allowing ample time for basic elements such as meetings, personal reflection, preparation of talks or sermons, and the encouragement of others in their part of the work. It also means protecting time for relationships, play, and spiritual nurture. For the good manager, all these are “things that matter.”
The seer attends to all of the tasks just listed. In addition, though, the seer carefully monitors time to spend it even with “what is low and despised in the world.” The phrase comes from the writings of Paul (1 Cor. 1:28). It shines in the example of Jesus, who lavished time on those for whom others had no time at all—the poor, those with leprosy, traitorous tax collectors, and women and children. The seer knows that the most profound opportunities for fresh vision, and the richest realms for responding to God’s call, often lie well beyond what others regard as worth the time of day.
I think with gratitude of a lay mentor I had many years ago. In her use of time, she lived as both manager and seer. She managed superbly the steady commitments of a career in nursing, raising children, and serving as chair of a church committee. Yet somehow she always found time to attend deeply to the needs of the poor in her area. Over the years, her attentiveness opened wide the eyes of others.
3. Literary Forms. The basic literary forms for management today are the case study and the “how to” book. Both are immensely useful. When well done in relation to the church, both types provide insights on everything from dealing with major conflicts, to helping congregations cope with traumatic loss, to forming fresh ministries in our changing culture. Leaders that handle well the crises and opportunities facing them attend carefully to this literature. At times, they produce it.
Seers point us in another literary direction. They tell stories. Henri Nouwen once said of Jean Vanier, founder of the worldwide network of L’Arche communities for the mentally disabled, “Jean always tells stories, as Jesus did.”1 Seers speak of God acting. They openly confess how God teaches them through the lives of others and stretches them through what they are privileged to witness. Theirs is the confessional literature of Saint Augustine, Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa; of Quaker leader Thomas Kelly and of writer C. S. Lewis. If we live as seers, we read their timeless offerings. We also read carefully the movements of God in the lives of the people and communities that surround us. And then, as part of our leading, we tell others what we have seen.
4. Most Needed Skills. The manager’s most needed skill is, quite simply, management. To manage well is to lead toward the fashioning of clear objectives. It is to delegate, to monitor progress, to encourage participants, and to elicit evaluations when a project is complete. Managers never do all the work. They often remain in the background. A skilled manager, however, can help ensure that the stewardship program goes forward, the newsletter goes to press, and the tutorial program reaches into the elementary school three blocks from the church.
The seer’s most needed skills are listening and prophetic speech. The seer listens deeply to others, to their pain and their joy. The seer hearkens to themes of need, injustice, and opportunity coursing through the neighborhood and echoing from the farthest rea
ches of society. Then the seer speaks openly and effectively about what has come through the listening.
Mabel, 84 and living in a nursing home, was among the best seers I have known. At a county board meeting some young entrepreneurs asked for a zoning variance so that they could build a nightclub on cheap land next to the home. Mabel had gotten wind of the request, showed up at the meeting and positioned herself in the front row. She listened intently to every word in the young men’s presentation. At length she raised her hand to speak and struggled to her feet, looking as feeble as possible. “I need to tell you people something,” she said very slowly. “A lot of us in that home are really old. We get confused. We forget what we’ve just done. We. . . .” And over the next five long minutes, she told of residents wandering outdoors and getting attracted by what they saw, and maybe they’d head over to the bar parking lot, and “Wouldn’t it be awful for everybody if one of us got run over and killed?” On that note, Mabel sat down. Then, with no time elapsed, up went her hand again and up came Mabel. “Just one thing more. A lot of us in that home are really old. We get confused. We forget what we’ve just done. We. . . .” And word for word, she went through the entire speech a second time. Well, the bar never got built, and Mabel knew darned well what she was doing. She listened to real needs. She spoke as a prophet, the finest of seers.
5. Coveted Virtues. I once sat in a meeting in which a young woman told her highly effective campus pastor that he appeared to be mellowing. “Mellowing? I hope not!” the pastor bellowed. He paused, then continued more quietly and with a hint of a smile. “I would like to think, though, that maybe I’m becoming more compassionate and, well, even more patient.” The young woman nodded and said, “We’ll give you that.”
For 15 years the man had developed innovative programs on everything from Bible study to race relations and political action. He had done these things despite numerous roadblocks erected by nervous administrators and unhappy alumni. When some advised him to quit, and others told higher-ups, “Fire him,” he persevered. And through even the roughest times, he kept a positive outlook. He stayed in touch with the smallest movements toward a goal. Even when projects failed outright, he would say, “We can learn from this experience.”
Now something new had entered his way of working. His sermons and his prayers reflected a growing capacity to experience the pain of others, including the pain of those fearful of everything he stood for. Without letup he pressed for social justice, but he also acknowledged that his own deepest changes had taken years and, “My heavens, they’re still going on.”
As a young leader, he had showed perseverance and a positive outlook that inspired others. With these clear and needed virtues, he managed project after project. Now, as his compassion and his patience grew, he saw more deeply into the lives and realities he dealt with day by day. And he helped the rest of us see more deeply as well.
6. Burning Questions. The manager wants to know, “How can we solve this problem?” and “How can we move matters ahead?” The seer asks, “What beckons beneath the surface here?” and “What do I [we] need to live out as a result of this situation?”
Not long ago I found myself in circumstances that stressed the value of all these questions. I would like to claim that I caused the “problem,” but hasten to admit that I was only a participant. A regional church group booked a retreat center for an event designed to deepen the spiritual life of church leaders. Almost at once, more than 80 clergy and laity signed up. The center could normally accommodate 55. Somehow the sponsoring group said yes to 62. It then, of course, faced a series of important managerial questions. How do we squeeze 62 people into the sleeping quarters? How will we handle the meals? How shall we communicate with those who couldn’t get in, some of whom have strong needs and are sure to be disappointed? I cannot attest to what happened to the people who were turned away. But the skill with which leaders handled the crowding leads me to that believe that those who couldn’t be squeezed in also received thoughtful, personal treatment.
At the end of the retreat, the leadership group shifted its mode of questioning. What did it mean, they wondered, that so many felt they needed this particular event? And what did the answers to this question say about steps they ought to consider for the future? The group now surveyed the deeper significance of the “problem” they had just dealt with. They considered how God had beckoned to them through the situation. They became, in effect, a collective seer.
7. Fruits. The good manager’s work bears important fruit. This fruit may take shape as a problem solved. It can bud forth as a strategy developed to meet a pressing need or to carry out a new long-term mission. And because the good manager draws people together for the task at hand, the manager’s work bears fruit in the blending of diverse lives and skills.
The primary fruits of the seer’s work both augment and enrich the nourishment offered by the manager. As a listener and watcher, the seer draws forth the gifts of others—even gifts they have not themselves acknowledged. A teller of stories who constantly looks at what beckons from beneath the surface of events, the seer helps the community to discern its fresh calling in the larger story of God’s work in the world. Spending time with what is low and despised in the world, living the way of compassion, and speaking prophetically, the seer leads the community to reach out with God’s shalom.
Presentation and Questions
When presenting the chart to a group, I follow the pattern I have used here. I offer a brief overview of “The Leader as Manager—The Leader as Seer.” I then introduce “The Particulars,” sharing brief statements and examples. I keep my presentation brief, to the point, and encouraging. The introduction needs to be evocative, not exhausting.
People respond to the chart personally. When they see it, they want to know what it says about their own ways of leading. To encourage their explorations, I invite the group into a time of quietness and ask that participants look over the chart with the following questions in mind:
- What do I see on this chart that reflects my present passions and gifts as a leader?
- What does this chart suggest about how I have changed in recent years, or am now changing?
- What does this chart say about my own needs for growth or support in particular areas of leadership?
- What would I add to the chart that is not there?
I find it important to allow group members to work with the chart in the ways they are most drawn to, so I never ask that they try to answer all the questions. Often the questions simply point to more personal lines of investigation, and participants need freedom to follow what most attracts them. Depending on the group, the silence lasts anywhere from five to 20 minutes.
To initiate discussion, I ask a neutral, open question: “What are you seeing as you look at the chart?” It never takes more then this prompt to start the responses. Later I will revisit the four questions cited above, but only to make sure that people get to share everything they wish to say. The intent of the discussion is not to reach a tidy set of conclusions. It is to provide an opportunity for people to explore the richness of the call to leadership in the church and to view their own ways of living and growing in this call.
When participants come from the same church board or governing body, two additional questions can elicit helpful reflections:
- Where do we see differing elements of management-leadership and seer-leadership lived out among us?
- How can we more fully support one another and more faithfully lead, with our differing gifts for leadership?
Again, silence followed by open discussion will yield the freshest insights.
Of course we all keep growing and changing. And sometimes our best thoughts come long after a meeting or a sermon. Accordingly, when a group has finished working with the chart, I invite participants to hang on to it. “Pull it out occasionally if you wish. Have some more fun with it. See where it takes you the next time.”
1. Henri J. M. Nouwen, foreword to Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1992), 2.