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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Psychiatry, Not Surgery: A Reflection on Adaptive Leadership

We’ll give up when the snow comes, but until then our dogs Hobbes and Abby and I take a three mile walk each morning at 6 a.m. We all get exercise. They deal with bodily functions. I get my mind stretched listening to Morning Edition on public radio. We’re all ready for breakfast when we get home.

The other day I heard a particularly interesting story. It was an interview with Ron Heifetz, Professor of Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. ( I suggest you give this a listen when you have time. Back to the story in just a minute.

My second call turned out to be a train wreck of monumental proportions. Having had three years of experience as an associate pastor, I arrived in that congregation knowing all there was to know. Within weeks I could see the problems the congregation had. I knew the solutions, and was happy to tell the congregation what those solutions were and to begin implementing them. How did the congregation take to that? Picture the fate of John the Baptist after Salome’s little dance.

This was not fun, but I did learn something from it, so not all was lost. Never made the same mistakes again.

Turns out that what I learned is the kind of thing Heifetz talks about in this interview and teaches at Harvard. He says that many would-be leaders approach their task like surgeons. They are confident that they have identified a problem, which they are then ready to attack with their scalpels. (Think me arriving in that congregation.) But surgery only works for certain kinds of medical problems; for other sorts of problems, the surgical approach would be harmful.

Those problems are more in the arena of psychiatry. They are better treated with listening and talking than with a scalpel. This is what Heifetz calls “Adaptive Leadership.” The Adaptive Leader does not set out to solve people’s problems, but to develop their capacity to solve their own problems.

Without ever giving it that conceptual framework, that was what I learned from the train wreck: listening comes first. Helping people find new directions within themselves. This is what good pastors are doing all the time; at least the ones who are out to build something that lasts beyond themselves.

Reflecting back on my own life, I came out of seminary knowing a lot about the Bible, theology, church history, pastoral care, etc. I knew almost nothing about leadership. I hope our interns are getting an education in the art of pastoral leadership, and that their supervisors and lay committees are encouraging them in this. As a matter of fact, I think an intern-pastor team could have a wonderful supervisory session listening to this story and talking about how it might apply to the adventure they are in together!

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