Quiet Leadership by Public Leaders

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Dale Bumpers was a very public leader for most of his adult life — as governor of Arkansas for two terms and then United States Senator for 24 years until his retirement in 1999. When he died recently at his home in Little Rock at the age of 90, I thought back to the first time I met him at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion after his election to the Senate but before his departure as governor. At that time Newsweek said he had “undeniably been one of the South’s most successful new-style Democrats,” and the New York Times said he was “considered by some to be one of the nation’s ablest governors.” But I wasn’t there to talk about politics but about how religious faith had shaped, and was shaping, his life.

Quiet leadership is made up of small but consequential actions taken away from the limelight and often before an issue becomes polarized.

Bumpers had strong church and Methodist ties from both parents. He was in law school in Chicago at the time his parents were killed in a car wreck caused by a drunken driver. He noted the irony that his mother and father had that Sunday morning signed a card common in those days when Methodists were asked to sign a “total abstinence” from alcohol pledge once a year. Dale Bumpers and his wife, Betty, returned to his small hometown of Charleston where he practiced law and tried to fill some of the void left in the church by the loss of his parents. He was at one time or another choir director, church school teacher, finance committee chair, and lay speaker.

In his early campaigns, some writers pointed out that his speeches projected certain basic values and ideals. He certainly felt that his public commitments were in alignment with Judeo-Christian values. But even in those early days of his political career, he regretted the “moralistic” tone of many church leaders while they showed neglect of social conditions around them. He especially felt clergy should show more leadership. “It’s one thing to preach the gospel on Sunday and something else to translate that into feeding, clothing, and providing health care for those in need as Christ intended,” he told me. What emerged in the nation regarding the narrow and moralistic use of faith in the public square must surely have confirmed his earlier reservations about public leadership from churches.

Quiet Leadership as Greatest Accomplishment

For such a public leader, it may be surprising to many that his obituary in the New York Times reported his telling them of an incident when he was 28 that he considered “probably the most important thing I did in my whole life.” Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court school desegregation decision, the local school board in his Arkansas hometown asked the young lawyer in town what they should do. He told the board and superintendent “that integrating now would be infinitely preferable to waiting for the national chaos that was sure to come.” They took his advice and became perhaps the first school district in the states that made up the Confederacy to do so and with virtually no public outcry.

Now, to put this in context, his town had a smaller percentage of African American population than is typical across much of the South. However, just think of how history might have been different if more communities that were capable of making a relatively immediate transition had done so. It would have been impossible to maintain the pretense of a monolithic culture of white resistance that local politicians trumpeted for decades. Remember just three years later it took the 101st Airborne Division to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. And it would require another Supreme Court decision in late 1969 before the original decision was implemented.

Quiet Leadership by Public Church Leaders

Notice that Bumpers counted this example of quiet leadership as his greatest accomplishment. That’s not how we normally think of the achievements of public leaders. Neither is that how we view the work of the church’s visible leaders. For example, just as politicians might be associated with legislation or electoral victories, so we might associate success by church leaders as their sermons, writing, buildings built, or awards received. Or they may be associated with important social causes and movements. However, it could very well be that some of their greatest accomplishments come in their quiet leadership.

Most of us think of great leaders in heroic terms as bold risk takers who orchestrate major changes. Quiet leadership, even when practiced by very visible leaders, is made up of small but consequential actions taken away from the limelight and often before an issue becomes polarized. It is many of these smaller and quieter acts that can reshape churches and communities.

Here are some examples of how I have seen lay and clergy church leaders exercise quiet leadership when there was no groundswell for the change and, consequently, no organized opposition.

  • Diversifying the people visible in worship leadership in terms of gender, age, and race
  • Changing the membership of a skewed Church Council to reflect the demographic makeup of the congregation in only four years, primarily using attrition
  • Using the repaving of the parking lot as a chance to eliminate the myriad of reserved parking places except those for visitors and persons with disabilities
  • Engaging role stereotyping by including fathers in the volunteer nursery workers rotation and women in the ranks of ushers
  • Advertising and sending news to all community news outlets, not just the ones used most by the members of the congregation
  • Making sure accessibility is included in every renovation effort
  • Making sure that salaries and benefits for all staff are fair and consistent

The quiet leaders could have tried to make these changes through their public roles using oratory or coercion. Instead, they chose to advance things they felt were right and needed. Sometimes such leadership does not work but many times it does. Where are you exercising or at least trying to exercise such quiet leadership


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Photo Credit: University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture. www.ualrexhibits.org

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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