Grant J. Hagiya: Systems theory and the gospel

UMC Bishop Grant Hagiya applies business structures to mission and outreach in leadership development.

Connecting systems within church structures is one way Bishop Grant J. Hagiya envisions using his training in organizational leadership to lead constituents from a landscape of shrinking congregations to the fulfillment of their gospel message.

Hagiya, bishop of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska Conferences of the United Methodist Church, asks churches to engage their mission field to give the church new life. With this approach, Hagiya guides congregations to implement structural models that allow people to enter into leadership roles from every age group, at every level of church and denominational life.

Before being named bishop in 2008, Hagiya served eight years as a district superintendent in Los Angeles and then became executive director of Leadership Development and the Center of Leadership Excellence, a joint project of the church’s California Pacific Annual (regional) Conference and the Claremont School of Theology. Hagiya was assistant professor of religion and society at Claremont, as well as Claremont’s executive director of Urban Ministries.

He earned a D.Min., M.Div. and an M.A. at Claremont and is pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership at Pepperdine University.

Hagiya spoke with Faith & Leadership while visiting Duke Divinity School for a gathering of the United Methodist Centers for Excellence.

Q: Recently you gave a talk on the landscape for leadership in the United Methodist Church. What does that landscape look like?

The leadership landscape is pretty dysfunctional currently. [In terms of systems theory,] the different systems in leadership have cut themselves off from each other. There’s very little cross-fertilization, very little collaboration. They operate in their own worlds. This is replicated at the national level, the conference level and the local church level. We’re calling for a leadership model that is holistic.

Q: When you talk about using different systems, which systems are you addressing?

Take the children’s system, for example. Youth and young adults from our churches should be handed off to our campus ministries when they go on to higher education. They should be working in concert with one another; the campus ministries must create an ethos of United Methodism rather than just a fun experience for kids. They should be creating good United Methodist members.

Children don’t come back to the church unless we cultivate them in their college years; if we hand them off to a young adult program when they graduate they will immediately go into a local United Methodist Church wherever they land for jobs. [In this systems model,] there would be a factor integrating them into a local church where they could offer leadership and make a difference. If they’re connected with a seminary or they want go into ordained ministry, that seminary would pick them up at the campus ministry level. When everybody is working on the same page, it creates a flow.

There is a place for every age group in a leadership model and in a growth model. That’s what we’re trying to achieve, and we’re far from that. We’ve fragmented ourselves into separate parts that just are not working in concert with one another.

Q: In a recent message posted on your website, you said there is a sense of urgency as never before in the United Methodist Church, writing that “you can’t do church business as usual and expect to survive.” Why did you use the term “sense of urgency?

I used the term because of the statistics. Our membership decline has been going on for the last 30 or 40 years, but the global economic downturn really increased the urgency. All of us have the sense that we cannot sustain the system financially as it has been sustained. We should have thought about this 20-30 years ago. We’ve known these stats, and we’ve chosen to basically ignore them.

Now, we’ve gone back to Jim Collins’ principle of confronting the brutal facts but never losing hope and really working towards a viable future. The danger is that we will be reactionary -- here’s the crisis and we’ve got to slash things and we’ve got to restructure -- but, if you look at the secular literature, most companies that do that don’t survive. We’ve got to find ways that we can attract and retain the next generation.

Q: How does a religious leader prevent a serious and perhaps even life-threatening event for the church, without instilling fear, while keeping hope alive?

In their new book on strengths-based leadership, [“Strengthsfinder 2.0”] the Gallup folks list four qualities followers look for in leaders. Two of them are relevant to this discussion. One is stability and the second is optimism or hope for the future. How do you ride that line? You are that non-anxious presence that tells people that somebody is in charge; you realize the gravity but don’t panic. Provide anchors of stability but also visions of a hopeful future that will lead people toward a vision.

In our conference we’re doing this on a growth trajectory. We will start 20 new faith communities in the next five years. We started three of them this year. Every church will assess themselves in relationship to their mission field. I’ve challenged them to try for a 10 percent increase in their worship attendance and in their professions of faith. If you’re a small church and you bring in a couple of people, that’s good for me. What I’m asking is that they really engage their mission field; that’s where we’re going to find new life. Not in recycling our own members or in hanging on to a club, but in our mission and outreach.

Q: What’s it like to be a bishop in the Pacific Northwest, which is considered one of the most un-churched regions of the U.S.?

It’s great to be there because the mission field is wide open. We don’t have the megas like California or Texas. As a denomination in the Pacific Northwest, we have a chance to be competitive with the other religious folks. I’d rather be in an area that has a competitive environment than in some of the big areas of the nation that don’t. Definitely.

Q: How does your knowledge of organizational leadership impact your style as a bishop?

It shapes the way I go about being a bishop tremendously. It’s made me think outside the church. Our problem is that we stay within the bounds of our own culture and don’t think outside the box. We need to incorporate all of the disciplines -- this is why our laity is so important to have at the table for these discussions. Our laity includes professors, managers and CEOs with broader perspectives than the four walls of our institution. This program has helped me think in terms of corporate structures, business organizations and non-profits.

Q: What are some things that you might not have seen about church leadership without the organizational perspective?

The Pepperdine program has an emphasis on knowing yourself as a leader first. Before you lead, know who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are in light of the leadership tasks before you. Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence” work opened doors to some new ways of thinking. Robert Quinn’s “Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership,” where he juxtaposes leadership traits and says that if you go overboard in any direction there is a shadow side that can really be harmful. Those have been helpful in my getting a handle on my own leadership.

My passions are for big picture thinking and for teaching creativity. Then I like to get people to whom I can assign all the minutia stuff. I have a great administrative assistant who has trained four bishops. She loves the detail work. It’s a perfect combination.

That’s what I try to do with the cabinet, to define what their strengths are, accentuate the strengths and then find ways in which we can offset some of our limitations as a team. That’s another thing the secular world has helped me with, team-building.

Q: How do you deal with resistance from people who are skeptical that the world of business could offer lessons to the church?

By renaming the business concepts in theological language. When I started out I used a lot of industry terms. A few people would always bristle that [the ideas were] too business-like. I said, “Let’s translate those ideas into theological terms.” It’s the same concept but it’s palatable for church leaders.

For example, we need entrepreneurialism in leadership, but now I call it apostolic leadership, instead of entrepreneurial, which is the same thing. Church leaders get that. We need that bridge between our constituency and the business world.

Q: Why do you think leadership is a hot topic?

Who knows how long it will be that hot topic because we are very fickle about fads. Leadership [development] needs to be a long-term reality. People are paralyzed because they know how important leadership is, but where do you start? We’ve got to break through and get people to a holistic understanding of leadership rather than focusing [exclusively] on clergy leadership.

That’s important, but what about our lay leadership? What about developing our children as leaders? What about a system where anywhere I enter into a church I can enter into a leadership position?

The postmoderns are saying, “If it’s not going to make a difference in my life or in other people’s lives I’m not going to bother with that organization. But show me how I can make a difference and I’m there.” Churches are ill-equipped for that. We have to develop entry points for leadership throughout the denomination.

Q: To borrow a question that you asked of participants at the 2009 Annual Conference, “What do you want the United Methodist Church to look like in 25 years, and how do you get there?”

In 25 years, our clergy and laity would be two decades younger than we are now, we would be vital, and we would be making a difference. We do that now -- Nothing But Nets is transforming the continent of Africa in a wonderful way in terms of global health -- but we aren’t doing very well in terms of a localized understanding of what it means to transform the world.

That means [changing] the community where a person lives. What homeless shelters are we starting? What educational endeavors are we initiating? Going back to our Methodist roots, we started thousands of hospitals, thousands of educational institutions. There was the drive to make a difference. That’s what young people are looking for. If we provide that we can fulfill their needs to make a difference in the world, and also fulfill our gospel message, transforming structures and lives for the better of all.

Q: How do you begin to lower the age in the church?

It really is about relationship. I met with five Duke students here who were interested in the Pacific Northwest. We had a wonderful personal conversation. “What are your interests? What is your experience?” They shared with me. I shared a little bit about our conference and the fact that we’re looking for young, talented clergy. A relationship was built. Personal contact is important.

We have also established a panel to recruit talented young clergy. The panel is developing a video about the Pacific Northwest to give people a sense of what a marvelous place this is. Everywhere I go I try to cultivate young people’s interest in church leadership. I was at a church the other day and there was a young woman who read the Scripture. I said, “Have you thought about the ministry?” She told me, “Well, I kind of thought about it.” I said, “You really should.”

I’m pretty unabashed about putting these seeds wherever I go. Whenever I see young people in the church, I’m so excited that they’re there that I always ask the question, “Have you thought about ministry?”

Q: Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Annual Conference said being a bishop was like leading from a third-row seat.

Theologically we need to have a vision of the kingdom of God, but we can’t bring it in. Only God can bring in that kingdom. What we can do is contribute to setting up the structures that will help that kingdom become a reality.

In many ways it comes back to relationship. Where do you start in leadership? In relationship. It’s sad because the higher you go in leadership in our system the more you’re insulated from personal relationship. I see more people with less depth at every level that I’ve gone into in the church.

My first church was very small, very intimate; it transformed my life and transformed the lives of the laity. It was a profound experience. The next church was a middle-sized church, and it was less intimate. A large church is less intimate. [The next leadership level] is as a district superintendent. A lot more people, more leadership, but less intimacy in terms of relationships. With bishops, it’s the same thing. I talk to 200 youth in a conference, but where is my personal relationship with them in mentoring and transformation? It’s removed.

It’s about the art of possibility. Wherever you are you can provide leadership. I’m looking for ways to mentor and have personal relationships because I think that’s our legacy. It’s not this grand leadership initiative that we’re going to undertake.

It’s people who have been affected by who you are; their lives have changed because of that. And they change you.