Wesley Granberg-Michaelson: Christian leaders should prepare for the long term

Photo courtesy of Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

Developing practices that enable you to discern a deep and abiding sense of God’s call is crucial for Christian leaders, says the former head of the Reformed Church in America.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s advice to Christian leaders: Discern God’s call and learn how to sustain your inward life for the long term.

“Leaders have to know who they are,” he said.

“When everything else crumbles and when you are in situations of disillusionment, when plans haven’t worked out, when colleagues have disappointed you, there’ll come those times when you say, ‘Why am I doing this?’

“At that point, what is needed is a deep and abiding sense of God’s call.”

Wesley Granberg-MichaelsonGranberg-Michaelson’s call led him to take on a variety of roles in his career. He served from 1994 to 2010 as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several books, including “Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change.”

Before that, he served as research assistant for U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, managing editor of Sojourners magazine, co-founder of a nonprofit organization, and director of church and society for the World Council of Churches.

Granberg-Michaelson spoke to Faith & Leadership about what has sustained him in his work and what advice he would offer to young Christian leaders. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You’ve had a really interesting career, including working on Capitol Hill and in Geneva, Switzerland, with the World Council of Churches. What did you learn from those roles?

Working in the U.S. Senate with Mark Hatfield is when I first learned about how important it was to have a group that had a deep level of trust together. And that you have to work on building that.

And then in the life of Mark Hatfield as a U.S. senator, I saw the importance of giving voice to crucial issues in ways that helped empower others. The role of prophetic ministry I really witnessed in his life in the U.S. Senate, the kinds of stances that he took against the Vietnam War, stances that were rooted in his own convictions.

Those were qualities that came out of his Christian character. But those were also qualities I saw and learned in that secular context.

When I went to Geneva with the World Council, I got to see the enormous complexities of how organizations function and how decisions are made. I was very involved in a restructuring effort.

We spent a lot of time figuring out models for how church bodies can govern themselves. And the World Council was in a deep discussion -- conflict, really -- with its Orthodox members at that point. I was involved in a special commission on relations with the Orthodox.

One of the key issues was how we make decisions. To the Orthodox mind, it was incomprehensible that a central committee of 150 people could meet together and by a majority vote determine God’s will.

That led to a whole fascinating journey that I’ve continued on ever since, to rethink how church bodies make decisions.

Out of that dialogue came an embracing of models of consensus decision making, which the World Council still uses today, where 150 people will come to a decision that they arrive at by consensus. It’s a discussion, a deliberation that’s led very carefully, very artfully, taking into account the opposing points of view and getting to a point where either the body as a whole agrees or a minority that may not agree are willing to say, “We will step aside and allow this to go forward.” Or convictions are held so strongly that the body as a whole decides it’s really not ready to decide this.

None of these functions by majority vote. It’s a very different model, and I think one that’s much more attuned to how the church could make decisions.

Q: You also were involved with the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. Talk a little bit about that experience and why it was so formative.

This is the church formed by Gordon Cosby. It’s a small community, but it learned how to put together at every part of the church’s life your inward journey and your outward journey.

What that simply meant is that the dichotomy that we’re so used to between those who stress your personal relationship to Jesus and those who stress the saving purposes of God in history and in society and the work of social justice, that this is fundamentally wrong.

You get this right by the way you structure a church community; you integrate the inward journey with the outward commitment, working for God’s purposes in the world.

It’s a model that has had a lasting contribution to make even now that Gordon has died. The legacy is a very powerful one for the wider church. It certainly was for my life.

Q: What’s your advice for Christian leaders?

The first thing is to be clear about an abiding sense that they are following the way in which God has called them. Because often they’ll have nothing else to fall back on.

When everything else crumbles and when you are in situations of disillusionment, when plans haven’t worked out, when colleagues have disappointed you, there’ll come those times when you say, “Why am I doing this?”

At that point, what is needed is a deep and abiding sense of God’s call.

Leaders have to know who they are. They have to take the time to examine themselves and become really well acquainted with their gifts, with their possibilities, with their vulnerabilities, with their weaknesses, with their temperament.

Because all those things will come into play in the task of carrying out one’s position in leadership. And if you’re not self-aware, you’re going to get tripped up in ways that are unnecessary and that are likely to maybe get you into trouble.

Good leadership needs those who have a sense of distance and detachment from the organization that they serve. And that may sound almost ironic, but in fact …

Q: Yes, people usually talk about the leader’s passion, and the commitment, the vision -- not detachment.

And I think leaders play an indispensable role in that, and they do so in a variety of ways.

But at the same time, you can’t ask the questions that an organization most needs to hear if you don’t have that ability to step back and remove your own ego, remove your own personal investment, and look with honest and ruthless clarity at the life of the organization.

Organizations share a kind of emotional life, and that emotional life can be healthy or it can be dysfunctional. The role of a leader is to help tend the emotional health of an organization, and that’s done when the leader is what others have called a deeply self-differentiated person, who doesn’t become part of the kind of system of emotional dominoes where feelings and anxieties are just bouncing off one another.

Q: When you were in positions of leadership, what practices did you have to maintain that?

Every leader has to determine how they’re going to try to take care of their own soul.

Organizations don’t do this for you. Maybe they should, but typically they don’t. Organizations just keep asking, asking, asking until you will finally burn yourself out if you do everything they ask, and then they’ll hold you responsible for burning yourself out.

I find times of retreat in relationships of spiritual direction to be really helpful.

So when I started as general secretary, I told our General Synod Council, “I want to take one retreat day a month, and I want to be held accountable to this. You want to hold me accountable to all these measurables, all these things that we’ve got to produce. That’s fine. But I also want to be held accountable for how I deal with the things of my life that I think are going to be necessary to sustain all these.”

I learned early on through my time at Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., where I really was formed in so many important ways, the importance of having a spiritual director, having someone who would help guide me.

A more extroverted person may find accountability through gathering with groups and through any number or variety of practices. But you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do something.

The organization won’t do it for you. And despite the best intentions of those in a church organization, they will be happy to just watch you burn yourself out.

Q: Do you think that it is a unique calling to be a denominational official?

Absolutely, I do. I mean, this is not a job. And I mean, who would ever want it if it was a job? These are terrible. I mean, you talk about tension -- you can’t make everyone happy. People are always blaming you for something that you’re not responsible for. You’re trying to deal with a wide diversity of opinions of people who can’t get along with one another, and you don’t have enough money to do everything that people are asking you to do.

I mean, why in the world would you do this?

Q: You do make it sound fun.

You only do this because you’re called to do it, and you believe that these structures, despite their imperfections, are the expressions that allow us to live life together as a body of Christ in ways that we are connected and we are accountable, and that we will be able to do more together than we could do separately.

And that, in my view, is an essential need in the life of the church today.

There’s no image of the church in the New Testament that isn’t that of a connected church, a church where a body belongs to one another. I mean, why in the world was Paul traveling around and writing all these letters? It was because we weren’t all out there as independent churches that had nothing to do with one another. We were in this together.

And that calling is all the more important today. We’ve got to find those ways in which we’ll be the church together. A denominational structure is simply a structure that tries to express that.

It can do so poorly, or, if we learn how to work with them, it can do so well and make a difference. But to be called to it is a real ministry.

Q: What would you say to folks who are starting their careers and looking at these systems?

The most important thing is that anyone embarking on ministry has to go on the inward journey that allows them to really discern and discover where will they be making their unique and intended contribution.

I would certainly hope that among those options, working in larger denominational systems would be one of them.

Some are doing better than others. There are some real places of vitality. Racial, ethnic minority communities are growing and are vital. There are 4,000 new church starts a year in the United States. Pentecostal churches are growing. You find denominations like the Evangelical Covenant Church that are growing and are multiracial.

You can find lots of examples that are good, and then you can find examples of structures that are struggling. But they’re not going to disappear. They need those who can lead, because if they’re going to be any good, it will be because of gifted leadership.

Q: Are there any particular pitfalls you would advise against for young Christian leaders?

In many denominational structures and other Christian organizations today, it’s very easy to feel that there’s so much to do and, you know, I’ve got to work 70 hours a week in order to keep this thing afloat. Well, in the long run, that’s not going to work.

I remember when I first started on the Hill, I was working like that, and I was burning the midnight oil, and we were trying to stop the war, and we were trying to do things that we felt were pretty important.

But it’s when I got in the Church of the Saviour that I learned the balance between the inward and the outward life and learned that I needed to be clear about the capacities I had to sustain myself for the long term. I had to nurture those; I had to take care of those.

I would encourage young people going into such organizations to prepare yourself for the long term. Figure out how you can do this for 20 years. Figure out how you could make that kind of commitment -- and that’s very countercultural for the younger generation.

Your peers are changing jobs every three or four years, and maybe you will too, but you’ll do your job better if you’re trying to do it for 20 years. So that would be my main word -- try to think about how you would do this in a way that would last.