Hope Morgan Ward: Lead with questions

A bishop in the United Methodist Church describes the importance of learning to embrace questions as part of faithful leadership.

Editor’s note: This reflection originally was published in the Spring 2014 issue of DIVINITY magazine. The following version has been edited.

“I want to know what pastors know,” I remember thinking when I applied to divinity school. Decades later, as a bishop of the United Methodist Church, my desire has changed. Instead of knowledge, I now seek inquiry. I want to ask what pastors ask.

My path into divinity school was neither linear nor focused. As a child of the middle of the last century, I meandered in the stereotypical fashion of so many of us in that generation. I was curious, with no long-term plan. As an undergraduate, I explored the wide range of liberal arts, hoping at various times to become a political scientist, a historian, an archaeologist, an English teacher or a layperson who knows what pastors know.

Seasoned now, with years of learning and experience behind me, I know what I do not know. Paradoxically, this posture feels like maturing confidence, which arises from deep awareness of the power and providence of God and my own humble capacities in comparison. I have learned that to be willing to ask questions -- which reveals our lack of knowledge -- is to embody the good hope of God’s wonderful reversals: the humble are exalted, the last are first, the least are greatest and the weak are strong.

My learning continues to prompt me to the biblical practice of inquiry as I seek to lead as a bishop. I am in local, conference, regional and global settings where I have the opportunity to hear the kinds of questions that people ask of the Bible, of God, of themselves, of one another and of the world. Those of us who seek to lead the church do well to embody humility in this changing universe we inhabit.

I have discovered that pastors in our time are asking important questions: How might we create ancient/new expressions of Christian community and mission? How can we engage a more diverse and expansive host of people? How might we align resources toward the mission? How can we use vast human and material resources toward a new future God is giving? How might we re-create systems for church governance and leadership development and church planting? How can we build a culture of peer learning and partnership? How can we create new synergies in our patterns of connection and conferencing?

I find these sorts of questions to be faithful and encouraging. Long lists of questions have biblical precedent. For example, the texts that move us through Lent toward Easter are filled with a myriad of questions. How can we be born again when we are old? How can we understand? Why do you ask me? Where do I get this living water? How were your eyes opened? What do you say about this? Would you teach us? Do you believe? Why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? Do you believe because you have seen? Do you have any fish? Do you love me? Is it I? What is that to you?

Responses to these questions are found within the story of Jesus, a story that shapes our imagination with wonderful images: wind, water, light, life, bread and fish. We mine this inexhaustible imagery all our days, even as it illuminates our way. These images arise from Jesus even as they lead us to Jesus.

Recently I have engaged with the leadership team of the North Carolina Conference in a learning covenant. We have agreed to focus anew on our Wesleyan heritage and to invite faculty from Duke Divinity School to help us explore the newly articulated role of the district superintendent, the theological grounding of our polity and the fascination and focus of John Wesley on ministries both of health and wellness and of engagement with the poor.

We have discovered that we have many questions: What does it mean for district superintendents to be “chief mission strategists”? How can we teach and embody the polity of our church with scriptural grounding, authenticity and effectiveness? What practices in leadership will turn our churches faithfully toward reaching young people? How can we follow Bishop Francis Asbury’s exhortation to take the resources to the edge, engaging people who are poor or excluded? How can we embrace the gift of holistic salvation -- body, mind, spirit and relationship?

Scholar Ronald Heifetz teaches that effective leaders will be courageous enough to lead with questions. Forward movement in community emerges from the lives of leaders who are spiritually attuned, awake, humble and curious. We are called to be a community with others who ask questions, who wonder and who hope.

In this time when we face an array of challenges, the church needs more examples of leaders who model the humble courage and courageous humility of Jesus. Rather than expecting pastors to have neat, authoritative answers, we will be better served by allowing them to join the community of those who seek wisdom from the resources of Scripture, the work of the Spirit and rich tradition.

We know that our journey together through questions and queries will lead us through thickets of complexity. We also know that on the other side of these tangles and thickets lies simplicity. We discover powerful insights as we move through the complexity, devoting studious and prayerful energy to engage with texts, contexts and circumstances.

“What then shall we do?” The biblical question, posed in the church by a grounded and trusted pastor as spiritual leader, can evoke wisdom. In the pastoral context, wisdom is given by God as people are convened, chairs are set in a circle and questions are asked by a prepared and brave leader.

Correspondingly, schools of theological education would be wise to lead with questions as well: What do leaders need to experience in theological education in order to lead the church in this new age? How can we inform the will along with the intellect? What are the connections between academic success and pastoral effectiveness? How can we form spiritual leaders who will listen, learn and lead effectively? How can we engage technology to serve the church and the world? How can students gain expansive experience as global citizens who anticipate the reign of Jesus Christ over all people and all creation?

As the divinity school and the church continue to partner in the mission of training leaders, we need to be brave enough to ask the right questions. One of the best gifts we can offer new pastors is space to think creatively and to explore spaces that are murky and unclear. We need to discern wise ways to engage this world while we remain faithful to the One who is ever new. As we ask good questions, we do so in the light of Jesus Christ, who was asked many questions and who remains our example of humility and courage for leadership.

We recognize the grace that washes over our lives and sustains our work together. In profound gratitude to God, we will continue to learn together, drawing from the rich resources of our life in Christ, our life in learning community and our life in mission to the world.