Roger Owens: Pastors can learn from Obama how to go slow

Obama’s hesitation to rescind “Don’t ask don’t tell” is not cowardice. It’s shrewd leadership.

President Obama is drawing criticism from gay rights activists for not moving fast enough to end the military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as he promised he would in the campaign. Pastoral leaders might have something to learn from his moving slowly on this.

On June 29, NPR reported that 265 protestors -- the number of service members discharged for being gay since Obama’s inauguration -- gathered in Washington to show their displeasure. “Damn the politics; full speed ahead,” shouted one protestor. But for Obama, it’s anything but full speed ahead. Why would Obama risk alienating these close allies? Doesn’t he know that you’re supposed to “dance with the one who brung ya?”

My guess is he knows that rule of prom etiquette, but it doesn’t apply in politics. Not if you want to be a leader who lasts and who can lead lasting change across the political spectrum. Obama is in exactly the situation Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe in their book “Leadership on the Line.” They argue that leaders who want to lead beyond the faction already devoted to them must risk disappointing their closest constituents in order to widen support for a broader agenda. Obama cannot risk becoming a marionette in the hands of an interest group, even if he shares their interests. As Heifetz and Linsky say, “Over and over again we have seen people take on difficult issues, only to be pushed by their own faction so far out on a limb that they lose credibility in the larger community.” If he wants to accomplish the broad domestic and international agenda he has laid out -- salvaging the economy, fixing health care, and getting out of Iraq -- he certainly can’t damn the politics at this early stage.

The criticism Obama has gotten reminded me of an episode in the first season of the “The West Wing.” Hollywood billionaire Ted threatened the Bartlett administration that he would cut off money to the party if Bartlett didn’t publicly promise to veto a bill in Congress banning gays from the military. Though Ted was assured the bill had no chance of passing, he still demanded that the president publicly declare his opposition:

“People in my house want this, and they are complaining—you take their money and run.”

“I will never sign that bill.”

“Why won’t you say so publicly?”

“Because I know what I’m doing Ted. Because I live in the world of professional politics and you live in the world of adolescent tantrums. The worst thing that could possibly happen for gay rights in this country is for me to put that on the debating table. You’ve got to trust me -- I know what I’m doing.”

When the scene was over, I turned to my wife, who shares the job of pastor with me, and said, “Don’t you wish we could say that sometimes?”

But I think we pastors are often afraid to think -- and even more afraid to act -- politically, especially when that means disappointing the people who really like us. We like being liked. Saying, “No,” or, “Not yet,” to our buddies who are pushing for change is hard to do, and never more so when we can see how desperately the change is needed. But we pastors are leaders of whole communities, and we need to think politically, in the best sense of the word. And then we will have to find the courage to face the disappointment of our friends.

My wife and I have been co-pastors of our church for one year, and I’ve already seen someone leave, a talented young man who would have been a great ally in moving the church to deeper engagement with the community. But after a few months worshiping with us, he thought that we were still too white and too rich to be faithful, and that I was missing opportunities to push for change. It’s painful to watch people leave who share with you a vision of what a faithful future might look like. And it will be painful for Obama to watch his approval ratings fall among those who were his staunchest allies.

But not as painful as it would be if moving too quickly on this issue were to jeopardize the fragile alliances he will need to push through his broader agenda.

Roger Owens is, with his wife Ginger Thomas, co- pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, NC.