Episode 53: “Developing Effective Leaders” featuring Bishop Yehiel Curry

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 53: “Developing Effective Leaders" featuring Bishop Yehiel Curry

How can we more effectively develop leaders? In this episode, Bishop Yehiel Curry of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, offers his insights on leadership development.

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How can we more effectively develop leaders? In this episode we speak with Bishop Yehiel Curry of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The bishop offers his insights on leadership development.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the Director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Bishop Yehiel Curry of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Our focus for this podcast is developing leaders.

I want to begin, Bishop Curry, by asking, before you were elected bishop, you were the pastor of Shekinah Chapel and I just wanted you to tell us a little bit about the church and how you developed leaders.

Bishop Yehiel Curry: Yeah. So Shekinah Chapel, it’s actually a unique story. It’s one of the first in our denomination that was actually started in a camp. Normally, congregations start camps. But the story of Shekinah Chapel is after the LA riots in the early ‘90s, the Lutheran Church put together a camp for African American males, called SIMBA (Safe in My Brother’s Arms). And what they learned from this camp, the cluster of youth coming from Chicago were loosely tied to Lutheran congregations or not at all. So they started a worship service called Shekinah Chapel. And Shekinah was never meant, at that time, to be a church. It was just an outreach program for these kids who were going to camp. And so, I started attending as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system. I found out about camp and knew some people who were going to the worship service. And what ended up happening is there’s this process by which new ministries are formed. And in our ELCA tradition, we call them SAWCs (Synodically Authorized Worshipping Communities). And that’s like the first birthing stage of a congregation. But I wasn’t aware. I thought I was just coming to a worship service. And so, ultimately in 2007, I was asked to be the lay mission developer, which basically said that this community identifies me as a leader who could develop the church. And so we moved to a place called Riverdale, which was about 15 miles from Chicago – an impoverished community, landlocked on three sides by railyards. And that’s where we began to build a ministry. And because it was a poverty ministry, we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of staff. And so I began the process of really focusing in on lay leadership development. It was also necessary because part of my program meant that I was building the church, but also going to school at the same time.

Doug Powe: Well, let me first say, that’s a powerful story. And I really appreciated how the outreach moved towards becoming a place of worship. But I want to follow up on the lay leadership a little bit and the lack of staff. Because as you know, in your role as Bishop, even congregations that are used to having staff find themselves in a place where they don’t have as much staff today. So, how did you go about determining who you thought would have the gifts for different roles? And how did you become aware of those gifts as you were building lay leaders?

Bishop Yehiel Curry: Thank you for the question. I believe in a model that calls for shared leadership, shared burdens, and shared vision. And so, if you could imagine, if

I’m in school three days a week, that means someone else is doing the pastoral care, somebody else is doing the Bible study. So I started really investing in leaders and I really used a community organizing model for that. As we were doing our evangelism, the old form is to door knock. And that’s what we did. We had a survey that basically asked “What are the top three things in the community you’d like this church to help you with?” That’s really how I gleaned new leaders. But their survey told me what their passion was about. And so I started grouping people based on their passion areas. Too often, we get those workers who are very determined, very productive, but they get burned out. But I found that when we work in our passion areas, sometimes we could work for four hours and it feels like two. And so I started grouping based on passion. And once people were in their passion areas, I looked for experts, either at the seminary or who were part of my life, who could come in and started investing in some leadership development. I think the final phase was what we called our apprenticeship model. Because people come and go in transient areas, we started making sure that every ministry lead, publicly identified an apprentice. And so, we would make sure that this apprentice was as involved in whatever the ministry was as the lead. And so, if there was a change or if someone left, it was automatically expected that the apprentice would be present and available.

Doug Powe: I think the apprenticeship model, in particular, is really important. And too often, we have individuals in churches that are excellent and have excellent gifts that they bring to leadership, but they have no apprentice. So if something happens to them or they decide to step away, then we are left with a void. So I think that’s really important. I want to continue in this vein and sort of hone in and ask you, what are the key characteristics of leadership for you?

Bishop Yehiel Curry: First of all, be coachable. And what I mean by that is sometimes the assumed teacher becomes the student. My mother, Regina Curry always calls it co-learning. So whenever you go into an environment, even if you’re the assumed teacher, you find yourself in moments where a 10-year-old has taught you something new through an example. So, one of the characteristics for me is always, it doesn’t matter how old we are, we have to be willing to receive some new learning from adults, from youth. So that’s the first key for me. And the second one is the ability to transfer skills, abilities, gifts. Sometimes we have the mindset that “only I can do it.” Or “it has to be done by myself.” I like to see development. I like to see that I’ve been able to transfer some things from myself to the group. And so, the two things I’m always looking for is somebody willing to learn more and is there a capacity to be able to transfer? And that could be done many ways, from allowing something as small as the Sunday School ministry, being able to transfer to an apprentice or being able to share your gifts with a larger group and allow them to actually take the mantle and go ahead and lead. Those two character traits are what I’m always looking for in the development of new leaders.

Doug Powe: I want to talk a little bit more about those, and particularly the co-learning. I think co-learning is critically important. But the challenge or the struggle I often see in some congregations is people give lip service to being willing to learn from younger people, but they don’t actually, in practice, receive learning from younger people. Are there some insights you can give of how you’ve tried to help people be co-learners, particularly from younger individuals?

Bishop Yehiel Curry: Yeah. So, I’ll start with the camp I was talking about that was formed, SIMBA. But when I began leading, we expanded it to two more camps, so there’s a SIMBA, there’s a SIMSA (Safe in my Sister’s Arms), and there’s a Multicultural camp called MYLA (Multicultural Youth Leadership Academy). All of them are leadership camps. At some point in our camps, the adults sit down and the youth do all of the teaching, the leading. They go from Bible studies to group dynamics to leading songs, leading activities. And so, true youth leadership means that it’s all youth. And so when I’ve never led in this capacity, the entire program has to be planned by youth, they have to be at the table, and they have to be executed by youth. And so, the co-learning piece, we typically like to put together a program, and then insert the youth — a program that they didn’t have the opportunity to design or develop. So that’s one of the key pieces. But with co-learning, there’s also a cultural piece. Because we’re an impoverished ministry and we built a unique relationship throughout the US, people would come in with the mindset that we’re coming in to help. Or we’re coming in to do a project. Or what can we do? And I would always say “you’re coming to be.” You know, “you’re coming to be with your siblings.” And in many cases, just by being present, when people felt like they were coming to give, they actually received. And so, I wanted people to come into the environment with a certain mindset of “I’m just coming to be present with my family and whatever they’re doing that day, that’s what we’re doing.” And in many cases, there was some learning exchanges on both sides that was reciprocal. And that was beneficial to both communities.

Doug Powe: I think that’s helpful because I believe that’s a challenge that we see continually played out in many congregations. And if congregations are going to flourish, that emphasis on co-learning is something that I hope our listeners will take to heart. We talked a little bit about when you were at the church, but as a bishop, how you thought about leadership development? Now that you are bishop, have you expanded the way you’re thinking about leadership development? What are the resources you’re drawing upon as you think about helping congregations in different areas and in different places and not just one congregation thinking about leadership development?

Bishop Yehiel Curry: Yeah. I think for me, my context is 185 congregations in the region that I’m responsible for that we refer to as the Synod. And I often share that it will take me four years to visit every congregation, if I do it on Sunday. And so a reality sets in that this one person couldn’t possibly do it for 185 congregations. So what I started with was the team. I wanted to be intentional about having a diverse team. And that’s something that I feel really confident that we’ve been able to establish. And my four associates to the bishop is where we start with some fundamental workings of, you know, what’s our role? Our role is to expand the table. To do leadership development. And those are some of the things that we’ve been focused on. And so those four associates each have two conferences which might total 60 congregations. And so we’re trying it on a regional level first, in order to have a larger impact than we do. And we’ve been in office since September 1st, so it’s not a great deal of time. But our road map is to try and do it on the conference scale for which there’s eight, and then evaluate our effectiveness and our reach. And we’re trying to drill down and go deep within the conference. So I want people to know each other locally first. And our second phase will try and do something more on a synodical level. Or we may do something two conferences together, then three conferences together. So we want the intimacy to be present whenever you’re talking about leadership development. So I have a smaller group that’s possible. But my reality is that my fundamental ministry of presence, and so where my gifts lie, I don’t get a chance to utilize as much as I did in the parish.

Doug Powe: Before I go to the next question, I actually think that your last comment is interesting. In talking with other leaders, particularly those who are responsible for, like you, multiple congregations, or even in organizations, I think often times, that the very gift that we have for leadership is often a thing we have to give up sometimes when we get into particular leadership roles. Any advice on how you have dealt with that to help other leaders? Even in a congregation, I think, sometimes you may be gifted in preaching, but what the church really needs is a great administrator or great outreach. So how do you navigate that as a leader? You can’t just completely work where you’re gifted.

Bishop Yehiel Curry: I think the first thing we have to do is acknowledge it. And I have to be honest with myself that this new learning for me was like a mourning state, too. I spent 13 years developing people and now I’m in a role that’s calling for more administration, more administrative presence. And there is a lot of preaching, but I’m not probably going to preach in education again for years. And so, I just had to come to grips with the reality of it. And that’s what would be my recommendation to anyone is that, sometimes, in order to grow, we have to move out of those spaces where we are so that others can step into them. When we step down, others step up. And it’s just my realization that I can be present as a mission developer in my career, when somebody steps down, the community asks me to step up. So I have to trust that the Holy Spirit is stirring in that arena. So my recommendation is you first have to own that it doesn’t always feel good. But it is necessary. It is necessary so that we can take inventory of the gifts that are now present and then we have to learn a new way of being. And so, I’m honored that the Holy Spirit has stirred in this way for me to be bishop. I take my role very seriously. But I also have to take my learning seriously because I’m having to learn a new way to be in the lives of congregations and pastors and lay leaders.

Doug Powe: I want to pick up a little bit with going down sort of a side street here. As we are leading people, regardless of what position we may be in, sometimes we start losing people. For whatever reason, they just don’t connect with our particular style, or our personality, or something of that nature. So a two part question: One, are there warning signs for us that we are starting to lose people? And then secondly, are there things we can do, knowing that there may be challenges but are there opportunities to still have them be a part of the team and working towards the mission we’re trying to accomplish?

Bishop Yehiel Curry: Yeah. The one sign to me is always, if I’m not being interrupted by crying babies, I always check myself. That is the sign of new faith. And so that crying, and the pitter-patter of feet, and being interrupted by kids that wander into your meeting or during that preaching moment, is a sign of growth. I’m looking for three generations whenever I’m present. And I’m not just looking at them to sit in the pew. But I’m looking for them to have a role in the community. What are they doing in the service? How are they responding? Those are the warning signs. If we don’t have those three generations, that tells us that somewhere, somehow, we missed it. The other piece is we’re attracting people older and younger than the leaders that are mainly present. So I’m looking for the diversity, but I’m also looking for a diversity in age as well. So, if the primary leaders are attracting people 10 years older than them and 10 years younger than them, how can we shape our leadership differently to maybe bring in those who we need to remain healthy? This idea that church is only in the walls of where we preach on Sunday is gone. It’s done. If that’s the way we are measuring our vineyard, then you might as well move out of the way. Because we are competing with soccer practice and baseball practice and everything else that happens on that Sunday morning. There are opportunities for us to also gather and build community in the evening on different nights. And some people call it community time, community meals. There are other ways for us to have a presence in the community. There are other ways for us to build the community up in church outside of the one or two hours on a Sunday morning. I’m somebody who has three daughters in their twenties. And, as I look to them, in many cases, they want to be involved in justice opportunities, more so than Sunday morning service. What I mean by that is, if there is an opportunity to feed on a Saturday morning, they’re there. If there’s an opportunity to help someone else or to help a kid with homework, or there are these moments that they gravitate to. And I find that they would give up the luxury of an apartment and are willing to sleep on somebody’s couch for a year to be involved with something that’s feeding them spiritually and eternally. And that’s not always happening just on a Sunday morning. So we have to start looking at how we can be church outside of the four walls.

Doug Powe: Thank you, that’s helpful. You mention, as you were responding, the word measure. And in the church, whenever you start talking about measuring or measurement, people always start getting nervous. But, as we all know, we do need some form of trying to figure out how effective we are. Can you speak a little bit about how can we figure out if we are being effective as leaders?

Bishop Yehiel Curry: Yeah, when I say measure, I’m always talking about impact. There is a story on this side of Chicago, where I’m at. At Concordia Church, 20 or 30 years ago, a group of 30 was trying to figure out how we were going to survive. And I heard this story about this ministry that was taking place in the basement of Concordia Church. And it was a daycare. And 30 years later, when you measure their impact, they have three different state-of-the-art daycare sites. They’re doing ministry different. But on the Sunday morning, they still may have 30 to 60 people showing up. So if you were only measuring the people on Sunday and never look at the impact that this ministry in the basement has birthed into something called Concordia Place. So when I talk about measure, I wouldn’t just go to that church. I want now to go to this ministry that they produced where something is happening Monday through Friday in three different locations and measuring impact. And I think that is wise for us, if we are partnering with the school, if we’re in a park district, if we’re doing a feeding program that’s serving 200 families a week, if we are involved in various groups, we need to start measuring our impact. And I do think that is valid. And it’s viable. And it lets us know how well we are feeding into the Great Commission.

Doug Powe: Bishop, as we get ready to bring this to a close, I want to get your thoughts because, as you know, leadership is always a mixed bag. Things are never completely perfect and things are never completely horrible. In most circumstances, you have a mixture of both going on at the same time. So I’d like to hear your thoughts on how, as leaders, can we work on leading transformation, those places where it’s needed, while at the same time, sustaining those things that are going well?

Bishop Yehiel Curry: That’s interesting. Because if you have the formula, please send it to me. I think we always have to be trying something new. We can never get comfortable. And what I’ve had to learn is, you know, I’ve got to be ready to make a bunch of mistakes. Something that looks like it’s dead may actually be planting roots. Something that I might have dismissed as something that’s not growing at all, I’ve learned it is actually producing fruit. And so, I’m always trying to have us pay attention to what’s happening in the midst. Where is there energy? Where is there excitement? And, in many cases, that involves exactly what you said — maintaining what is there, but also being focused on what is to be, or what has possibility. But I don’t have that secret formula, yet. I’m actually looking for it. So if it’s in a book somewhere, please send it to me. But I think us knowing each other, us having conversations, finding out how different contexts might be handling certain circumstances. I think our ability to connect with one another, regardless of denomination, regardless of social location, that our ability to just be interested and functioning could be an answer to that.

Doug Powe: Yeah. Well Bishop, thank you very much. I really appreciate your taking the time with us today and your insights on leadership and look forward to connecting with you in the future.

Bishop Yehiel Curry: Thank you for the opportunity, I really appreciate it.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talkswe speak with Doug Powe about his new book The Adept Church and what churches can do to move toward a more interactive way of connecting with others. Dr. Powe is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

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About Author

Bishop Yahiel Curry

Bishop Yehiel Curry was is bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Prior, he served as pastor and mission developer of Shekinah Chapel Lutheran Church in Riverdale, Illinois.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.