Breaking the Rules and Taking Risks

tribesBy Matthew Messenger, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

What does it mean to be a spiritual leader in the current post-congregational moment? Seth Godin argues that to be a leader in the modern moment, you need to find your “tribe”, or those people that resonate with what you are saying. He argues that a leader needs to be passionate and willing to break the rules of whatever system they are working within.

As a culture, we like stability. We don’t like change and once our minds are made up, we pretty actively resist change. We only like new ideas when they line up with our pre-existing beliefs. However, stability is an illusion. We may not like change, but change is constant. Leading requires that we embrace that what worked yesterday, probably won’t work today, and what works today might not work tomorrow.

Thinking about spiritual leadership, there were a couple of points that resonated with me. For example, how we tell the story matters. If we are excited, other people will be excited. If we are not consistent in our story and we don’t know to whom we are telling it, it won’t be successful. It is also important to remember that what we don’t say, and the visuals we use are as important as what we do say. Another point is that the story that we tell isn’t about us; it’s about the community. The community, or tribe, to use Godin’s term, is what matters.

The book left me with more questions about what we are doing as leaders in the church than answers.

For example, why aren’t we excited about our story? What are we missing? Why aren’t we telling it in a way that gets people excited? What are we scared of? I have a lot of why and what questions. All of them lead to talking about the F word.


There are so many kinds of fear that keep us from being willing to take the lead. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear that people won’t like what we have to say. So much of what we left undone is the result of being ruled by fear. Godin argues that successful leaders don’t let themselves be ruled by fear. They use it, but they don’t obey it. A good leader is not afraid of being wrong. They commit to an idea, try it, and if they fail, they pick themselves back up and try again in a different way.  Good leadership doesn’t mean not making mistakes, it means not being ruled by them and being willing to try again.

So what does it mean to be a spiritual leader? At a conceptual level, Tribes makes a pretty good argument about how to be a church leader. At a bare minimum, the book articulates what things you might want to try if you want to lead. Leaders need to break rules and set the course. They need to be ok with, and even thrive in uncertain times. When faced with the usual doom and gloom about how the church is dying, being a spiritual leader means being willing to take the risk to tell the story in a honest way, being transparent and understanding that if you live by the words “we’ve always done it that way,” you will die that way.

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