As all leaders of Christian congregations understand, when we speak of the cross we are talking about more than the crucifixion on Good Friday. Speaking of the cross is really shorthand for the whole drama of salvation. The cross is God’s decisive act of reconciling the world to God. The cross is about dying and rising with Christ. It is about what we undergo, and therefore what we lose and gain, in this dying and rising. The cross is about the death of our old self, the self born of Adam and Eve, and the rising up of a new self born of “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 8:11).

The cross has a way of inserting itself into our lives. Often knowledge of the cross goes hand in hand with the experience of some significant life failures. To recognize that you are, after all, a broken vessel can sober you up a bit about your quest for glory.

In our culture the quest for glory, and so the failure to achieve it, wears many faces. The recent cult of celebrity seduces many of us, and not least those who crave the food of endless attention, praise, and adoration. The neurotic need for order and security beckons those whose quest is for an ultimate safety that the world cannot give short of the grave. And many cannot live their lives except through others and with their approval.

We are loath to acknowledge any of this, of course. We have become practiced at “keeping our game face on” and “never letting them see you sweat”—unless it’s to make a spectacle of our woes by turning life into another second-rate reality show. Perhaps the starkest reality is being useless in a global marketplace whose mythology is that you can “be all that you can be” if only you will reinvent yourself daily. As the social scientist Richard Sennett reminds us, “Failure is the great modern taboo.”1 

At a deeper level, the cross is the story of the world’s resistance to grace. The cross is the showdown—yes, the confrontation—between a steadfastly loving God who wills and calls a world into covenant partnership and a world that wants to live in its own strength, playing God for itself. Jesus comes preaching a kingdom of righteousness, justice, and unconditional love, and the world says, “No thanks. We think our system of merit and scorekeeping and judgment is safer. We prefer the reign of our marketplace to your upside-down kingdom that reckons by grace. So count us out.”

But public leadership in the church is subject to a continuous cycle of death and resurrection. The very initiatives, actions, and plans of leaders undergo the cross. Under the cross, the moment-by-moment doings of ministry are subject to countless deaths and resurrections, few of which are heroic or glorious. So how does this transformation take place amid the rough and tumble of parish practice—through what I call cross-shaped leadership?

First, cross-shaped leadership is not only about taking an initiative but also about receiving the initiative of others—the divine Other and the others of the world. In this aspect of cross-shaped leadership, ministry can be viewed in terms of what leaders undergo, rather than what they do. Leadership is about what I like to call action in passion. The very act of leading is subject to or “suffers” the event of the Word’s proclamation and the world’s resistance to that proclamation. Leadership is caught up in, and so is a response to, the undergoing of this event. In practice this means that what leaders do is always provisional, contextual, and fallible. It is always interim in nature.

Second, the struggle within us between the true self and the false self is the root of vocational discernment and ministry formation. Rediscovering our true self is the central challenge of the Christian life and identity. The challenges of leadership magnify the vulnerability of the self in its true and false guises.

Third, humility marks cross-shaped leadership. There’s not much humility in evidence among today’s heralded “visionary” or “purpose-driven” leaders. Yet strong-willed humility (a paradox, of course!) is the most noticeable mark on leaders left by the cross.

Fourth, cross-shaped leaders are focused on people before ideas, answers, or master plans. They are listeners and questioners before they are visionaries or seers. Cross-shaped leaders focus first on the Who of God and the who of the people in covenant, and only secondly on the what of the leader’s supposed vision. Biblically, vision arises from, and remains grounded in, a community of people in partnership or covenant. Vision is always responsive; it is a function of the call and response of a living dialogue. Otherwise, as is so often the case in institutional life, when vision becomes detached from partnerships and covenants (spoken or unspoken), it deteriorates into an ideology or an agenda. It hardens into an abstraction, and then it commands by coercion instead of willing obedience.

Fifth, cross-shaped leaders live a double life. Every group has its stated mission for work and an unspoken, usually unconscious, emotional contract about why people have come together. Leadership is a dance: it always means getting on with the mission at the same time that one tends to the unconscious life and health of the body. Ministry is always “in sickness and in health.” It means befriending the imperfect and sometimes the irrational. Moreover, our life together under God’s Word calls for mutual love and discipline of one another as members of the assembly. In this regard, the clinical/health model of community life (“healthy vs. unhealthy” congregations) is rooted and grounded in what the confessional tradition calls the “marks of the church,” such as the Office of the Keys, the Offices of Ministry, and so forth.

Sixth, humor is a sign of our need for grace. Cross-shaped leaders take themselves less seriously, because they take God’s grace more seriously. Laughter, with its recognition of the contradictions that make up our life together, can keep us honest about our allotted place as creatures and even call us to that repentance, to that change of mind and heart, which prepares us to hear once again the good news of God’s forgiveness and unconditional love.

Ministry is hard. Ministry is, in fact, impossible. (Just try to referee a fair fight about the virtues of “contemporary” versus “traditional” worship if you need any reminders about that.) It’s a perfect storm in which leaders are pressured either to pick winners and losers or to feed the multitudes by offering a cafeteria of consumer choices. Here’s the good news, though. Once we’ve accepted the truth that ministry is hard, even impossible—once we’ve stopped living in denial of this reality, or perhaps whining about it—it becomes the truth that sets us free. We cease being gloomy servants, weighed down by our resentful conviction that we are all alone in our work, and instead become joyful coworkers of a strong, wise, and consoling Lord.

1. Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 118.


Adapted from Cross-Shaped Leadership: On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice by John A. Berntsen, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. 

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AL375_SMCross-Shaped Leadership: On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice by John A. Berntsen

For Lutheran pastor John Berntsen, those who lead are subject to the cross no less than others. Cross-shaped leaders are not primarily the providers of master plans, nor are they master builders. Cross-shaped leadership is provisional, contextual, and fallible—an open-ended ministry that is always under construction and revision. Our moment-by-moment functioning in ministry is subject to countless deaths and resurrections, few of which are heroic or glorious. But Berntsen offers good news within this potentially dismal perspective. With optimism, humor, and deep empathy, Berntsen’s Cross-Shaped Leadership offers hope and challenge in the midst of the rough and tumble of parish practice.

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