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I’ve spent the past few days at Duke University Divinity School, discussing the topic of leadership with a diverse group of women and men serving congregations, denominational offices, colleges, and seminaries throughout the United States. Our “convocation of leaders” will gather throughout the next eighteen months for the sake of vocational formation, specifically to grow in our capacities to cultivate communities of faith and to create institutional structures that enable such communities to flourish. We’ve read an interesting array of books and articles in the fields of biblical studies, practical theology, and faith and health, and we’ve visited with an inspiring pastor whose leadership exemplifies an abiding trust in Jesus’ words: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10).
The phrase, “leading from abundance,” captures well the central theme running through our discussions. Rest assured this is no prosperity gospel; this notion of leading, grounded in the promises of God and in the One who is God’s Promise fulfilled, won’t be found at the Osteens’ church (as best I can tell).
Leading from abundance begins with profound trust in God. It is a trust that the Spirit’s presence is already at work in our communities. It is a trust that Jesus Christ lives and therefore so do we. Such trust frees leaders from frantically trying to meet needs, to keep programs running, to slow the decline of the mainline, to confront all manner of injustice, and to fix outdated curricula (and so on). It frees them for discerning, naming, and blessing the gifts already present in a community, which paradoxically often end up meeting needs, healing wounds, and righting wrongs.
The difference is a matter of focus. Those who lead from abundance tune into life even when death looms large. It may be that such leaders don’t deal with death and its many faces (as in trying to control it or conquer it), because God in Christ already has done that for us.
If leading from abundance flows from trust in divine action, then it is expressed in power-sharing, risk-taking, and permission-giving. In other words, trusting God and trusting others go hand-in-hand, for God is at work in and through the latter. Securely grounded in God’s promises, we relinquish control and become less attached to outcomes. When we lead from abundance, our posture is one of openness, curiosity, and mindfulness: openness to the gifts and insights of others, especially those from whom we least expect it; curiosity about how life is bubbling up in a particular community at a particular time; and mindful attunement to faith, hope, and love as manifestations of life.
To share a concrete example, I served at one of those churches that by most standards was thriving in the mid-twentieth century and dying at the beginning of the twenty-first. Fifty years ago the sanctuary was bursting at its seams as multiple generations gathered weekly to worship and learn together. It held a prominent place in its neighborhood, and its endowment was growing. In the early 2000s, a small band of thirty (only a few of whom were children) gathered for worship and education. Volunteers burned out from taking on too many roles. And the endowment was in steep decline. Rather bravely, the congregation prayerfully asked, “Is God done with us? Is this particular gathering of disciples still called to join God’s ministry in this time and place?” These questions were actually faith-based rather than fear-filled. Not only did the congregation discern an affirmative response to these questions but also they resisted the temptation to engage in frantic attempts to turn the church around. Instead, they sought to discern signs of life in their midst: “What gifts had God already given them? What did they do well on account of that? What brought them joy?” From this discernment emerged clarity about their core values and practices and from that emerged significant innovation, more than a handful of new members (including children and youth), and a witness to God’s faithfulness that reaches beyond their own walls. Sure, struggles, challenges, and questions remain for that community of faith, but in the midst of those, they are flourishing because they’ve found their source in the One who is Abundant Life.