You probably know that important guides for the Christian faith are the Synoptic Gospels. Synoptic is a word that comes from the Greek meaning literally to “see together.” A “symphony” is when everything sounds together. Synoptic is when we see everything together – such as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, whose accounts of Jesus more or less parallel one another.
The Cabinet and I have found helpful the leadership insights of Gil Rendle from the Alban Institute in Washington. During one of our sessions Gil stressed the need today in the church for what he called “non-synoptic leadership.” Gil said that in organizations of the past, when there was low complexity and low conflict, leaders could be simply problem solvers. Here is a problem; here is to fix it. In the modern world, where problems seem to be so complex, leaders adopted strategic planning. Much energy was spent in thinking through a complex problem and engaging in complex long-term solutions.
In the complex and conflicted human organization called today’s church, Rendle says that leaders can no longer function well with either problem-solving or strategic planning. It is unproductive in a conflicted organization where people feel very differently about many different subjects to spend so much time negotiating, bargaining, and planning for a distant future. Now leaders must act, even if they aren’t sure if they have a consensus backing them up, even if they are unsure of the results of their actions. This is “non-synoptic leadership.”
When I was a young pastor, put upon the church with virtually no training in pastoral leadership, an older, more experienced pastor gave me a couple of bits of advice that I have not forgotten.
“I am sure someone has told you that you shouldn’t change anything when you go to a new church for at least a year,” he said to me. Indeed, someone had told me just that. “Well, forget it! Don’t change anything in a new church unless you become convinced that it needs changing! Change anything you think that needs changing and anything you think you can change without the laity killing you. Lots of churches are filled with laity who are languishing there, desperate for a pastor to go ahead and change something for the better. Lots of times we pastors blame our cowardice, or our lack of vision, on the laity, saying that we want to change something, but we can’t because of the laity. We ought to just go ahead and change something and then see what the consequences are.”
I was surprised by his advice.
“And don’t wait until everybody is on board, and every possible person agrees with you until you act on some issue,” was his second bit of advice. Sometimes we ask people to make a decision about some change and they don’t yet know enough about it to make a decision. There are a good number of people that will never be for the change, no matter what. Waiting for them to be positive about change is to unfairly empower them over the church. “Don’t put every move you make to a vote, unless you have to,” was his final bit of advice.
That older pastor was a practitioner of “synoptic leadership” though he did not know it by the name.
In any difficult issue Gil Rendle said, automatically about 20% of people in the organization are for doing things differently. About 20% will never be in favor of doing things differently. That leaves over half the people of the organization who stand a chance of changing their opinion on the matter. “A pastor can waste a huge amount of time waiting for, and trying to convince the 20% who will never change. Work on that 60%, and try to give them room to feel positively about the change at their own rate.” These are some of the principles of non –synoptic leadership.
In the Book of Acts the Apostles have the so called “Jerusalem Conference” in which there is “no small debate” over what to do about the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. We are not given the details, but I am sure that when you have got people like Paul and Peter locked in debate, there was no small debate! However, the conference ends with a compromise, an agreement of what to do about the Gentiles. Luke comments, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”
I take this as a biblical example of non-synoptic leadership. The scriptures do not say that everyone at the Conference agreed with the solution. It does not even say that a majority agreed with the solution. Rather it said that there was a sense in the meeting that the Holy Spirit was in this, though not everybody could say for sure in what way the Holy Spirit was in this. It also seemed good to try to keep with the movements of the Holy Spirit to move ahead, even though everyone could not see the ultimate outcome of their decisions.
Thank the Lord that the ultimate outcome of their decision was the church as it has been given to us today.
It has not been given to us to see the ultimate destiny of everything that we are doing in the church today. We do not have a complete synoptic point of view. And yet, by the grace of God we don’t have to. We can trust God. We can attempt to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit and move along, confident that God gives us what we need to be faithful in our own time and place.
William H. Willimon
Please pray for the work of our Annual Conference, meeting this year at Clearbranch. Our present Annual Conference, in its two-day form is a great example of the fruits of non-synoptic church!