Richard Topping is leading one of the most dramatic turnarounds in North American theological education at Vancouver School of Theology. I have managed to be at VTS each year, giving lectures and conducting workshops, over the past few years. Recently President Topping interviewed me about the preparation of pastoral leaders. The interview was recently posted in the magazine for VST. A portion of the interview is reprinted here:
RT: What characteristics do the most transformative leaders in congregations have in common?
WW: Leadership is what pastors do and is among the most important services a pastor can render to a church. Many pastors do not conceive of themselves as leaders. In fact, they are very suspicious of that language and I would say that they perceive of them-selves mostly as caregivers, those who provide support and encouragement at best, as well as those who periodically deliver the Word.
My judgment is we do a fairly good job, when we’re at our best, in theological education. What we’re failing at is to say “You’re here to be a leader.” Every Christian has a responsibility to have a theology, to evangelize, and to serve in the name of Jesus. So just saying that is important, is a beginning. In terms of qualities of a transformative leader I’d say having selfawareness is required and particularly at this time. You used the words “transformative leadership”. Maybe I’m being unfair, but we’re being forced to talk about matters that our predecessors didn’t talk about 50 years ago. Transformative leadership wasn’t needed – the church did not perceive its need at that time. The need is really new and pressing and urgent because of the churches we serve.
RT: In your work as a bishop or in your work as a theological educator, how do we get to these people?
WW: We ought to do a better job of identifying people who have gifts for leadership and calling them forward. When’s the last time you have pulled aside the most talented young person in your church youth group and said “Hey kid, you can get into medical school if that’s all you want to do. You can make a bunch of money in business. But we think, with alot of hard work and study, you could be one of our leaders.” As a teenager, people pulled me aside and said,“Hey I think you would make a great preacher and I tell you what, I’d love to have you as our preacher someday.” That’s a healthy church. And so part of recruiting begins with that and part of that begins in seminary.
You need to discipline yourself not to be dragged down by people who are failing. It is important to spend time with your best people. “Who do you reward with your time, with your best pastoral appointments?” Because those signals are going to be taken and we need to encourage those that need encouraging.
RT: I’m listening to you and thinking that perhaps the most important people I have in my school, in terms of committees, are the people in Recruitment and Admissions, because they are making decisions precisely about the kind of candidates that we’re going to invest theological education in.
WW: Some of those people are getting some of your most important, though often painful, feedback. When they are told by prospective students “I was thinking about going there but then I just decided not to”, or, “I have heard this or I have heard that”. The Admissions and Enrollment people help prospective students discern their vocation. One of my students said he was at Duke because one of our Admissions person asked what the student’s reservations were, and he responded, “I’m really impatient so I don’t sit well in one place very long and I get angry at stuff. I witnessed an injustice and stayed up night and day working on that problem.” The Admissions person said “I beg you to come to Duke Divinity. We need you so badly. Do you know what God can do with impatience in a moribund system?” I just hope we don’t mess up this kind of energy. I’m going to call up that Admissions person and say “Good work!”