Follow the Heretical Leader

tribesBy Marcy Wright, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43: 18-20)

As I read Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, it was this prophetic scripture that played in my mind over and over again.  As he considers the future of organizations, relationships, and communication strategies, Godin articulates a new paradigm for how tribes—people connected to one another, to a leader, and to an idea—can work together for transformational change. But he insists that tribes cannot thrive or even exist without strong leadership. Throughout, Godin asserts that the tribe is ready, but needs that one person, or more than one person, willing to step out. “Tribes need leadership…people want connection and growth and something new. They want change…” (2).

Nowhere is this kind of thinking, and acting, more needed than the church.  As we face the new reality of “fewer congregations, shrinking memberships, and limited jobs in established churches,” it is clear that Isaiah’s words to the people are more important than ever. The same old thinking and behaving will not lead us to the promised land of old—we must embrace the new.

Who will help us perceive it? While Godin doesn’t focus specifically on the Christian church–he does make reference to the role of faith and religion in this new model—he offers compelling and valuable insights about the kind of leaders who move the way forward.  And it’s these leaders who, if willing to lead, can help move the church forward.

So what is Godin’s prescription for this new way of being leader? Many of the characteristics cited as signs of effective leadership in this new standard are words we are all familiar with: good leaders inspire and motivate (4), they have vision and passion (5), they are generous (7), and don’t care about taking the credit (135-136).

Our church tribes have many of these people, clergy and laity alike, in their midst. But what is often lacking, and yet what is so desperately needed, are spiritual leaders who exhibit courage and imagination, and a willingness to exercise those gifts on behalf of the tribe and their shared interests. Churches need leaders who are willing to assume the mantle of the heretic, someone unafraid to challenge the status quo (49), who proclaims to the people that with faith in God, and our Gospel narrative, we are able to do the new thing that will enlarge our message and strengthen our connections, to each other and to new tribe members that we will attract.

Change is scary, and for many it is easier to cling to that which is familiar, that which we’ve all ways done.  Bible study is always Tuesday at 7pm, at our church.  Revival is always in March and October, at our church.  Our youth group always has its lock-ins at our church.

“Always” offers a sense of stability, which works because it is in our nature to seek stability.  And, in truth, at one time “always” was a viable option. But the heretical tribal leader understands that stability is an illusion (16). The heretical tribal leader boldly says “no” we can’t continue to operate the way we always have. The heretical tribal leader understands the fallacy of “doing the same things and expecting different results” and has the courage to communicate how insane that process is.

But along with that courage, must come the imagination.  When I consider that word, I immediately think of the ordination vows I took to become an Elder in my congregation.  “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?” (W.4.4003h). It was always “imagination” that stood out to me. I even posted the question on my bulletin board at work; it was important that I be reminded of my responsibility in leading that tribe too.  All the energy, intelligence and love in the world would only take our tribe so far.  I had to be able to share my idea of how we did the new.  I had to help them perceive.

The heretical tribal leader doesn’t just say we need “new”, she/he offers an idea of what “new” looks like. They offer the tribe “a vision of something that could happen, but hasn’t yet (137.)  What if (imagine) we offered bible studies with a dinner potluck in various tribe members homes where they could invite their friends? What if (imagine) we created a gathering place for our homeless neighbors other than just the winter months? What if (imagine) we organize volunteer opportunities for our youth at various youth-serving charities to increase opportunities for fellowship and service? Heretical tribal leadership sees and communicates the possibilities.

Without a leader these and other possibilities can’t be realized, and it is here that Godin makes his most compelling plea.  For a tribe to exist and thrive and grow, someone—or even better, more than one “someone”—has to take the courageous step to lead.  That someone “has everything they need to build something far bigger than themselves…the people realize this and they are ready to follow (37).

Ultimately for our church tribes, more “someones” need to be willing to take on the spiritual leadership needed today, not unlike Isaiah’s time long ago. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)


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