The personnel team invited us to a conference room on Baylor’s campus to participate in a “collective staff review.” We each had our individual performance reviews as the spring of 2013 came to an end, but they wanted to share with us some ways they believed we could work better as a team. This sort of thing is rarely fun for me. For several years in my teens and early 20’s I instructed ropes course and team building activities at a camp and retreat center in East Texas. I enjoyed the work, but as time passed I began to appreciate these activities more for the opportunities they gave groups to have fun together, rather than for the “lessons” that were trying to be squeezed out of them. In subsequent years I discovered that in professional settings, the “lesson” gets top billing, which is why I cringe when I have to participate.
But on this occasion I remember making a conscious decision to set aside my reservations for the day and to be a full, willing participant. (Of course, as is the case for most introverts like myself in these situations, I was a little flustered that I was being pulled away from my work to talk about my work.)
The exercise we participated in was actually a helpful tool to get us thinking about how we worked together as a pastoral staff. We were asked to write down on sticky-notes every task we were responsible for as individuals, and everything UBC did as a church. On a white-board was our newly constructed mission statement, and we were told to decide where each sticky note fit within the circle of that statement. The purpose was for us to see where we may have been doing things that weren’t actually in line the mission of the church. Since our recently developed mission statement was basically constructed around those things we did well as a pastoral staff, there weren’t too many items that fell outside of the big circle.
The difficult part of the exercise came when the personnel team asked us to then describe what our process was for determining which of the tasks represented by sticky notes received priority when one seemed to be in tension with another task. They wanted to know who, in each situation where that may happen, was responsible for resolving the tension. This is where it got, well, sticky. For the next hour we discussed, sometimes with great passion, our different opinions for how this should happen. Like most large families, we formed alliances on some tenets, which shifted when other tenets came into the picture. Sometimes we raised our voices. Sometimes, unfortunately, we probably questioned the motives of others. It was loud, confusing, and messy.
I loved it.
The exercise illuminated a way of “doing church” that we had for years said we valued. For me, the messiness of our interaction meant that we were finally operating in a way that we always claimed to operate. Which is to say, we were placing the more communal value of everyone having an equal voice ahead of the more corporate value of “getting things done.” At the end of a conversation about something the church should or should not be doing, we might have a shaky, unsteady understanding of what came next, but something would eventually emerge, so why sweat it? We could put all that behind us and go enjoy a beer together afterwards.
At the end of the day together, we sat around a table to debrief what had occurred. Lacy, speaking on behalf of the personnel team and, by extension, (in theory,) the entire church, told us that what had happened that day was proof that things needed to change. She told us that the church wanted us to figure some things out. She gave us two options. The first was to figure out a way to make flat leadership work. She reminded us that she had shown us ways this could happen in the past, but that we had not found a way to incorporate her suggestions into our system of leadership. Because of this, the personnel team had doubts that we could do so in the future, and therefore they were recommending the second option—That we move to a more hierarchical, senior-pastor led system. Many people, she said, shared with the personnel team that they were frustrated that this hadn’t happened yet, and that they didn’t understand why we didn’t just ask Josh to be our senior pastor so that things could change.
I don’t know if, at that point, the room grew silent or I just wasn’t able to hear anything aside from my heart sinking. I believed that a flat leadership model best represented the values of UBC, but deep down I always feared this would happen. I understood why many people in the congregation didn’t understand our leadership structure and why we operated under flat-leadership. Most of the time it seemed as if everyone in the Leadership of the church accepted it as a given, but only a few of us talked about it as a good thing that needs to be preserved and championed. Actually, I’m being generous. It felt like I was the only one who championed it.
Anyone who walks into a contemporary American church assumes several things about the congregation, and one of those things is that there is probably one pastor who is the “main” leader of the church. There may be multifaceted systems and flow charts describing how decisions are made, with any number of nuances and people who are a part of the process, but there is likely a singular figure at the top of the chart. Another assumption is that the person occupying that space is virtually always going to be the same person who preaches from the pulpit most Sunday mornings. This is so clearly assumed that no one ever has to name it as a fact. It just is. Senior-pastor led congregations are the default setting in most of our minds.
If this “default setting” assumption of a senior-pastor led church isn’t how a certain church operates, there’s only one way for people to know that it isn’t —You have to tell people it is not. And you have to tell them often.
I did say it often. Any time someone would ask me to describe how our church operated, it was the first thing I would mention. Not that I was responsible for discipleship, Toph for students, Tye for arts and Josh for teaching. But I would lead with “we all share the primary role of leadership for the church.” I said it so often that it became my “thing.” We all have our “thing” we are known for, that thing that probably grates on people’s nerves at least a little, and mine, I’m sure, was that I was the “flat leadership guy.” For me, it was as important a part of our identity as the fact that we were the home church of a famous Christian musician.
But in the absence of clear, repetitive communication that people are operating under a false assumption about the structure of a church, two things are always going to be true: The person believed to be at the helm of leadership is, in fact, the de facto leader. And, that person is also the only one who can communicate to people that their default belief that he or she is “on the top” is incorrect. (If it is, in fact, incorrect.)
When Kyle, David and Ben instituted the new flat leadership structure in 2004, everyone who was a part of the core of the church knew. (With some exceptions, the students coming in and out of the revolving doors of UBC didn’t care.) Kyle didn’t have to keep making an announcement that he was not the Lead Pastor. Had he lived, it probably would have been necessary somewhere along the way for him to talk about it periodically. After he died, Ben took on such a heavy load of leadership, and David commanded such a strong presence, that by the time Josh came on as the Teaching Pastor it was pretty evident that leadership was divided between the three of them. But then after Ben and David were gone, the dust began to settle and the old, traditional assumptions took over.
Josh was the only person who could effectively address false assumptions about our leadership structure, but he rarely did. It just wasn’t on his radar, as it never really affected him. When Ben and David were around, their strong personalities, and the “prestige” that Josh’s preaching role brought, all balanced each other out, giving a strong “flat-leadership” impression. And for the biggest part of the life of the church, everyone knew David got the final say on most important matters anyway, so for Josh, there was nothing either to be gained or lost by people assuming he was the Lead Pastor. I likely would have been just as silent as he was on the issue had I been in his shoes.
All that to say, of course people in the church didn’t understand why Josh wasn’t our senior pastor. They assumed he was, and since he never really corrected that assumption, it became true.
The staff (full time and part time) gathered early the next week to discuss what had transpired, and to talk about the options we were given. We decided to each share where we were on the issue before voting on taking a proposal to the Leadership Team for final approval. We met in what was known as the “Red Room,” which is the darkest room in the entire building, and it matched the mood perfectly. Going around, sharing our thoughts, we were basically split down the middle. Toph and I wanted to find a way to make flat Leadership work. Josh and Tye wanted to move to a senior pastor model, where Josh was the senior pastor. Emily and Michelle were undecided.
In the meeting, I made a complete ass of myself. For years I had been losing people I loved, and now it felt like an identity, a way of understanding church that I loved, was slipping through my hands, and I reacted in anger. Cutting off people at every turn as they talked, my lack of maturity and emotional stability was being vomited out for everyone to see.
I had lost my way.