Denominational leaders as bridge-builders

They manage tension between people, issues and factions. They connect congregations to support systems. They stand in the space between old leadership models and the future.

Years ago in divinity school I encountered the poem “This Bridge Called My Back,” in which Donna Kate Rushin describes the ways she has been a bridge between various groups of people and their understandings.

“I explain my mother to my father my father to my sister/My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists/The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks/To the ex-hippies…”

Rushin’s words returned to me last month as I worked with a group of denominational leaders who came to Durham for the bi-annual program Denominational Leadership: Serving God and the Church as an Executive Leader. In one of our first sessions together, we worked with a variety of images to help us understand and articulate their challenges as denominational leaders.

The image of a bridge was one powerful expression of the issues they face now and anticipate facing in the future. But what most struck me were the ways in which, rather than despairing of their bridging roles, these leaders accepted the challenges and articulated the issues with clarity and grace.

First, they understood themselves as being “bridgers” who manage polarity and tension between people, issues or factions in the denomination. As such they must sometimes interpret or reinterpret events, rules or challenges. One leader explained she often has the task of reframing the story in order to help people change: Is the tree barren, or is it simply springtime and the buds are beginning to show?

Second, these leaders saw their role as being a bridge to support systems and resources for congregations that are disbursed. In a climate of scarcity, what are the ways in which we can connect isolated pastors and congregations to much-needed people, funds, models and ideas? What are the various forms of capital to which we can give them access?

Third, guest Marlon Hall, Houston pastor, filmmaker and leader of the Awakenings Movement, helped the gathered denominational leaders think about the ways in which they are a bridge between “the powerful and the engaged,” between the status quo and disruptive innovation. How do they remain good “company men and women,” as one participant put it, while still serving their pastors and congregations faithfully? “How do I let my pastors know I have their backs? How do I enforce the rules and yet give them room to innovate?” asked another.

Poet Rushin describes this soul-searching movement, as she concludes, “The bridge I must be/Is the bridge to my own power/I must translate/My own fears/Mediate/My own weaknesses.”

The gathered denominational leaders recognize the need to be a bridge between old models of denominational leadership and the future. But looking inward, they wrestle with the fact that that future may look very different from what it is now. A future question may be, “When should we be a bridge, and when will we need to let go?”