Recent events about clergy leadership reported in both the New York Times and the Washington Post refer to “a difference of leadership style.” This catch phase is coming into more common use as a blanket over the real events that are taking place. I remember when a similar blanket phrase, “he is leaving to spend more time with his family” was in common use. It meant: “We are not really going to say why he is leaving.” The intent was to strike an altruistic note that this person, usually a man, had worked so hard for so long that he now needed a much-deserved break at home. The phrase became so frequently used that people saw it for the cover-up that it was and ceased to believe it.
It is time that the cover up phrase “a difference in leadership” stop being used as way to not say what is really going on between the clergy leader and the congregation. Most often this phrase is used for women clergy. The “difference” is not in the leadership style. The “difference” is that the lay leaders feel differently about themselves when a woman is a position of authority in the church or congregation. (I know the world of the church. I can assume similar dynamics happen in schools and businesses.). Unfortunately, the assumption is that all will continue the same no matter who the leader is. The reality is that the internal workings of a congregation do feel different when a different person is in charge. That different leader could be an interim, a long-term pastor who is covering for the current pastor’s sabbatical or medical leave, and, often the difference becomes apparent two years into a clergy leader’s call to a congregation. I believe the “difference is leadership style” is highlighted and therefore that much more uncomfortable when a woman leads. Add that the new leader is the first woman senior pastor, rector, bishop, district superintendent, and the “difference” grows.
Hopefully when a difference is uncomfortable those who experience the discomfort can look inward and not outward. Self-awareness is the first step in any form a leadership. Soul searching questions, with a mentor, spiritual director, or people who will be ruggedly and yet kindly honest with you, reveal blind spots as well as raise more questions about one’s own behavior. I wonder how different some situations could have been if a man who is accustomed to believing that he can get a kiss from his senior pastor, or that he can make comments about her hair, or, that he can say “why can’t you be more like your husband,” or, that he can leave her a bottle of wine with derogatory note, had a rugged yet kind peer say to him, “Maybe that used to work for you and it won’t work any longer. It is rude to speak and to act that way. You don’t seem like the kind of guy who wants to be rude and crass in front of your senior pastor and the congregation?” Or even better to say, “Yeah, you know that your actions are a power play. Why are you feeling a loss of power? What are you trying to prove in a power struggle with the senior pastor?” Sometimes we all need rugged and kind help to look inward. When we do, we have a good start to unravel the uncomfortable difference.
Sadly, many people skip this inward step. Perhaps it is one person skipping this step. Perhaps it is one person influencing the thoughts of others. It can just as easily be a group of people, like a governing board or long-term members, who together skip this step. Instead they go outward. Since none of the discomfort is addressed at the interior source, it has to go somewhere. That somewhere is most often the perceived exterior source of the discomfort. The pastor, that other person who is not truly one of us, is to blame for all the discomfort in the congregation. Then, conditions for the exterior source are set in motion for that other person being totally and completely wrong for the congregation. Then, the discomfort becomes a wrong to be expunged. The easiest way to publicly explain away the initiator’s lack of self-awareness and the accompanying lack of personal accountability is to say, “there is a difference in leadership style.”
It is normal for any leader who leads with heart, head, and spirit to feel anger, pain, and profound confusion at this out and out rejection as ‘the other.’ It is particularly painful in the church because rejecting ‘the other’ is the opposite of our Christian way of life to accept others, ‘..love your neighbor as yourself.’ When our beliefs and values are both trampled on for the sake of a person’s or group’s comfort, it is particularly painful because so many can see what those who are uncomfortable cannot.
I wonder what will slow, and even stop, the use of the “difference in leadership style” phrase. My guess is that the first step is that those who can see what is happening speak up. This will likely take a series of public comments, again preferable by a group, before, during, and after the event. As human beings, we regularly don’t hear a message the first time. Another step is for the ruggedly-kind-yet-honest small group of peers to step up to this toughest of challenges – speaking the truth in love – and have a word with your outward looking fellow congregant. Yet another step is just to refuse to use the phrase. Either state as close as possible to the real situation, or, do not say anything now. There are limits in personnel situations and limits of public speech for personal dignity that are appropriate and needful. And, if we have forgotten them, then there are others who can recall them for us. Even within the limits of acceptable public speech, a statement can be meaningful. If you have to resort to the ‘leadership style’ blanket phrase, then the individual members of the congregation, as well as the whole congregation, has more inward work to do, and, they not ready to publicly make the announcement about the changes taking place in the congregation.
A “difference in leadership style” is a sign that real inward work needs to be done to dig deep into the source of the discomfort. Let’s find a way to describe the real differences we have even if we have determined they are insurmountable. That is better than a cover up that helps neither the leader nor the congregation.