Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of reflections on leadership by Richard J. Mouw, professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he served as president from 1993 to 2013.
A few years ago, while visiting Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent school supporter took the opportunity to meet and talk with several senior administrators. Before he left, he told me how impressed he was with what he had seen and heard.
“You sure have put together a good team here at Fuller!” he said.
He meant his remark as a commendation, and that’s how I took it. But the way he had expressed himself -- specifically, his use of the word “team” -- made me a little uneasy. At the time, I had been hearing quite a bit in church circles about “team ministries” -- so often, in fact, that my Kuyperian antennae were starting to tingle a bit.
As I explained earlier in this series, I am an adherent of the “neo-Calvinist” perspective associated with the 19th-century theologian Abraham Kuyper. In his theory of “sphere sovereignty,” Kuyper argued that God intended that the creation would encompass a variety of spheres of cultural interaction, each with its own unique contours. Whether family life, business, politics, art, education or any other area, each sphere has a distinct role and focus, he said. The way we describe them -- the words and metaphors we use -- matters.
Businesses, for example, are not families; churches are not civil governments; universities are not armies. At the core of each is a unique function, with a unique kind of leadership. To be sure, these spheres can overlap -- and that is where things get complicated. The owner of a family-run grocery store may fire her son for doing a bad job at stocking the shelves. But when she ends the employer-employee relationship, she does not thereby cancel the continuing mother-son bond (although her business decision will surely affect her family relations!).
Likewise, congregational leadership has become very complicated in recent decades, with a proliferation of roles and positions. Back in the 1950s, when my father was a pastor, titles like “administrative pastor” and “director of singles ministry” were unheard-of. With many congregations now having multiple “reverends” on the payroll, we in the church need to think new thoughts about pastoral leadership. We need to make sure that the minister of music is not working at odds with what the youth pastor is trying to accomplish, and that the sermon is not in tension with what is being taught by the “discipleship and spiritual formation” staff.
Given these and similar challenges, the “team” concept makes some sense in church life. Various functions do need to be integrated. Each staff member can’t be doing his or her own thing. In a complex ministry setting, it obviously helps to have everyone work out of the same “playbook” and clearly understand who “calls the signals.”
But “team” can be dangerous when applied to church ministries. Picture, for example, a former college or professional football star or coach who later goes on to seminary and becomes a pastor. In his church, he talks often about what it means to be a “winning team.” He sees other local congregations as competing teams, and talks much about winning and losing, and about formulating effective “offenses” and “defenses.”
As a football fan, I am not disturbed by that kind of language applied to sports. But when too often applied to churches, the results can be disastrous. Churches are not athletic teams. Ministries are not evaluated by points scored over the competition but by, among other things, how hospitality and nurture takes place.
If anything, churches are more like families than teams. But here, too, the analogy can fail. As any churchgoer knows, congregations can also be unlike families in significant ways. Too much “family” talk applied to congregations can be misleading.
During my own years in seminary administration, I learned much about how to adapt ideas from business “best practices” to the tasks of theological education. I was not afraid to apply the language of “marketing,” “branding” and “customer satisfaction” to the life of a seminary. But I always tried to do so with a sense of caution about the degree to which these concepts, taken too literally, were inappropriate to the calling of a seminary community.
Sphere sovereignty is a way of thinking that has special ties to a Reformed theological perspective. So I can understand why folks in other traditions may not find it as compelling as I do. But despite those Reformed ties, sphere sovereignty offers wisdom for all traditions, including this bit of ecumenical advice: Be careful with metaphors.
It can be helpful to borrow concepts from one kind of institutional or cultural setting to illuminate important aspects of another. But the borrowing must be done carefully. What is literally true for one kind of activity is only metaphorically appropriate for another.
One of my seminary professors unwittingly illustrated the confusion that can result when metaphors are used inappropriately. A recent immigrant, he often tried to make important points about church life by using concepts from the North American context that he was only beginning to understand.
As he put it so well in a lecture once: “Sometimes in the church we think we have come up with an effective new recipe, but when we try cooking it, we see that it really can’t get us to first base!”