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Surmounting Leadership Defeats

by Lew Parks

Lewis A. ParksHow do we rebound from setbacks to our best-laid attempts to exercise responsible leadership in ministry? I recently returned from a large denominational gathering where a major reform effort into which persons had poured incredible amounts of research, labor and time, was overturned at the last minute on a legal technicality. There was shock, anger, and various degrees of resignation. The phrase I kept hearing was “what’s the use?” I have often felt this same sense of disappointment in the local church setting when a major vote did not go my way or one of my cherished plans fell to the ground.

My antidote is to retreat to the basics. Whether by dumb luck or grace (I often cannot tell the difference until much later), I decide to concentrate on preaching and soul care — which is not only the lucky or right thing to do — but for me it is the necessary thing.

I preach. I reconnect with my basic call into ministry. I immerse myself in the Scriptures. I give myself over to the sheer joy of connecting weekly with a congregation about the things of God, a rhythm of creativity, now strenuous effort, now waiting on the Lord. 

I provide soul care. Sometimes, in the throes of some leadership challenge, I react to the request to go to the hospital or a nursing home with irritation. But this irritation lifts soon after I arrive and engage in the pastoral visit. What a privilege to be strategically present to a soul in a season of testing or a moment of crisis.

I preach. I provide soul care. And somewhere along the way new inspirations to revise and update the congregation’s structure begin to surface. New patience for the incremental work of bringing about lasting change in an organization moves in like a front announcing a welcome change of weather. 

I need to remember this: before my desire to take on mainline decline in general or my congregation’s stasis in particular, there is the Spirit’s relentless pressure on the church to be reformed, semper reformanda. It never was all up to me!

We can try, fail, get up and try again. The Spirit gives resilience. But the Spirit also uses those occasions of leadership defeat to call us back to our first love and the institutions we lead back to their reason for being. There is a why that will sustain us while we search for the next how of institutional reform.

Dr. Lew Parks is professor of theology, ministry, and congregational development and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Wesley Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Preaching in the Small Membership Church (Abingdon, 2009). It can be purchased at Amazon or Cokesbury.