Authority or Leadership?

In olden times, we like to think, society accorded great authority to clergy. Whether or not this rosy generalization stands up to scrutiny (it does not), we mainstream clergy certainly have lost some of the cachet our counterparts enjoyed from 1945 to 1965 or so. Many people then believed attending and supporting congregations to be just as much a part of being a good person as stopping at stop signs, dressing neatly, and keeping your lawn mowed.

I believe our loss of authority presents clergy with a great opportunity. Authority, appealing as it is, can also be confining. In the days of easy postwar growth, U.S. congregations fell into rigid patterns and became more similar to one another. Like an inbred, highly cultivated strain of livestock, they became vulnerable to common threats. The social changes of the 1960s brought death to many congregations, especially—I would say—those that depended too much on authority.

The opportunity for us lies in developing a new capacity for leadership. Ron Heifetz, in Leadership without Easy Answers, sheds light on the differences between authority and leadership, and suggests how by depending on authority less and learning to lead better, we can redevelop a more varied, robust, and disease-resistant strain of congregations in America.

Authority is the legitimate power to make things happen. Check-signing authority, for instance, is the power to compel the bank to release funds. The right to direct the work of others, to hire and fire, to sign contracts, or to choose sermon topics—all these are examples of the formal authority given by a congregation to designated leaders.

Authority can be informal also: when some people speak, others listen. Jesus “spoke as one with authority,” and so do certain long-time, trusted leaders of a congregation, whether they hold office at the moment or not. Formal or informal, authority is always given to us by others

And sure enough, those who give authority expect something in return. Check-signers must sign only the approved and proper checks, congregations must provide expected services, and preachers are expected to give sermons people like. Anyone who has authority and wants to keep it needs to pay attention to the strings attached.

Leadership, as Heifetz defines it, is quite different. Leadership is not a personal trait, but an activity: getting the whole group to address its most important challenges. Leadership is measured not by whether leaders get their way, but by how well the resources of the congregation come to bear on crucial questions.

Authority can be a help to leaders, giving them the right to convene meetings, name issues, and hold the group’s attention. But the expectations that accompany authority can be a hindrance. People do not usually give authority in the hope that leaders will distress them by inviting them into hard conversations! Only certain people—call them managers—can use authority, but anyone, from any seat or pew, can lead.

Managers use their authority by making decisions; leaders exceed their authority by making others ponder troubling questions. Managers calm people by resolving ambiguity; leaders often frustrate people by refusing to decide quickly what can only be solved slowly. The most important challenges are too big for individual decision-makers to address alone. That’s where leaders come in to bring the whole group’s gifts to bear.

Which situations call for authority and which for leadership? One consideration is the nature of the challenge to be faced. If the furnace breaks, it must be repaired. The congregation needs to authorize someone to pick a contractor and spend money pronto. But a once-successful youth program that no longer attracts participation may need a cross-section of good heads to take whatever time they need to cook up a fresh vision of youth ministry.

A second factor in deciding whether to use authority or practice leadership is the amount of courage available. A “broken” youth ministry may be fixable simply by replacing one of the moving parts—for instance, a staff member. That’s the easy course. But for a brave congregation, even a broken furnace could become the kind of challenge Heifetz calls “adaptive.” Such a congregation might choose to interpret the cold sanctuary as a wakeup call, and ponder whether to install a new, “green” heating system.

The deciding factor often comes down to the fact that even the bravest congregations can deal with only a few adaptive issues at a time. Many congregations have no “bandwidth” for adaptive leadership at all, because their leaders are too busy using their authority. A clergy leader who cannot delegate to staff and volunteers soon has no time to address bigger issues. A governing board that is reluctant to delegate authority to staff ends up in the same position. Without a firm and mandatory plan for delegating authority, the decision-making demands that come with authority quickly overwhelm the people at the top of any organization. It is tempting, when this happens, to interpret every issue as a technical, decision-making matter.

The temptation to quick fixes is nowhere greater than in the fields of money, property, and personnel. A deficit, at one level, is merely a problem in arithmetic: expenses exceed revenues. The problem can be fixed by lowering one, raising the other, or a combination. Looking at a deficit this way leads us to ask questions of authority: Who can cut spending? What fund-raising methods will induce greater giving? When it comes to money, where does the “buck” stop?

But a deficit invariably points beyond itself to deeper issues. Perhaps the congregation has become overly dependent on endowment revenues. Perhaps it is still trying to engage people in outdated concepts of membership. Perhaps it clings to a grand style of congregational life that no longer fits the values or lifestyles of potential members.

Questions like these deserve the sustained attention of a varied group of leaders, information from outside, and time for conversation, prayer, reflection, and decision. Who will do this? Unless the senior clergy and governing board have freed themselves by delegating some of their authority to others, they will never get around to dealing with the most important matters on their plate.

Fortunately, anyone can lead. While it is far from the ideal solution, when official leaders fail, then leadership can still emerge from the periphery: from ad hoc planning teams, from voices crying in the wilderness, even from the mouths of babes.


This post was originally an article in the Clergy Journal, Jan-Feb 2011, and was reprinted by Alban Weekly, Jan 31, 2011.