Dave Odom: Education meets experience

How should collaboration between recently educated and venerable leaders look?

What is a picture of wisdom born of education meeting wisdom born of experience? The relationship between a new pastor straight from seminary and a longstanding lay leader comes to mind. So does the one between a newly commissioned second lieutenant and a sergeant in the U.S. Army.

U.S. Army Gen. Jim Dubik once told me that the role of the sergeant is a distinguishing mark of the U.S. Army. Freshly graduated second lieutenants supervise sergeants who have 10 to 15 years of experience working in a platoon of 20 to 40 people. Dubik described his first command out of college in which the lead sergeant he supervised was a veteran of four tours in Vietnam. He quickly realized something: Effective lieutenants learn to listen to their sergeants.

My mind went immediately to Mary Lou. In my first week as the pastor of the Mountain Grove Baptist Church -- only three weeks following my seminary graduation -- Mary Lou rushed in my office. She handed me three handwritten 5x7 pages containing names with notes on medical conditions and driving directions. Her ministry was to care for the homebound in the community. This was her way of equipping me to visit them; it was also a straightforward plea, her way of telling me these people would greatly benefit from the new pastor visiting them. The sergeant of the homebound reported for duty.

Most of us leading congregations or Christian institutions don’t sow stripes on our sleeves or get saluted when we enter a room. But the relationship between the lieutenant and sergeant correlates to ministry. What makes a sergeant and what does the exchange of respect look like between experience and education?

Sergeants know their context. They know how to get things done in their world. They know who to ask for what, how to persuade and when to let go. They’ve done this many, many times over the years. When I was learning the institutional ropes as a new program director at North Carolina Baptist Hospital, I would often visit with our department’s administrative assistant. She would guide me to the right people for the current challenges. She would read over important papers and suggest key phrases to insert.

New ministers bring a fresh set of eyes. They ask all kinds of questions and pose possibilities that might not occur to the most dedicated sergeant. The new pastor’s enthusiasm and energy translate into new programs and services.

In my early years of ministry, I started a host of programs at Mountain Grove. A group of lay people poured themselves into those initiatives. As I look back, I notice the initiatives that took root and outlasted my nine-year tenure had sergeants who took them on and made them work when I turned my attention elsewhere.

Sergeants and lieutenants working together create a structure for traditioned innovation. The sergeant knows what has been and the lieutenant has an idea of what could be. Working together they carry the vibrant tradition forward and add to it with innovation. The tradition grounding a lieutenant’s education might no longer connect to the practices of the congregation or institution. The sergeant who knows what works can help the new leader discern how to renew the lost tradition.

The skill of recognizing the wisdom of those who really know how to get things done is useful throughout a leader’s career. In the Army the recognition is institutionalized in the role of sergeant. It’s not as clear in the church, and we must watch for more subtle signs of effectiveness and faithfulness.

Who are the sergeants and second lieutenants in your world? How do they work together? What do you learn from them?

Dave Odom is Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.