During a recent talk at Washington National Cathedral, Garrison Keillor told a story about the songs he grew up singing in church as a child. We didn’t sing those happy, “7/11” songs, he said. “Do you know what I mean? Songs with seven words sung eleven times.” He shared his love of poetry and hymns, spiritual tunes set to beautiful texts. Knowing he was an Episcopalian, someone asked, “Which hymn do we need to sing to help bring harmony to the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church?” After thinking for a few moments, he said he could think of no one hymn. But he suggested a song that can bring us back together again as a nation. And he launched into America the Beautiful, guiding us line by line through all four stanzas. He knew each verse by heart.
That’s not management. That’s leadership.
In a book called Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations, church consultants Alice Mann and Gil Rendle use the story of Moses and Aaron in the book of Exodus to explain how leadership and management, though different, are equally vital. Here’s their wisdom:
The story of the Exodus can be instructive for a congregation’s planning. In the wandering in the desert, it is clear that it was the journey much more than the destination that shaped the people. Had Moses been a better planner and pathfinder and discovered a straight route to make the trip to the Promised Land in a matter of months instead of wandering for years in the desert, the people may not have been changed when they arrived. They might have arrived much as they left Egypt – as a slave people. It was the journey, when they had to ask questions of how they would form community and what was important about their relationship to God, that shaped them as a nation.
Allow planning and discernment to take the needed time. An axiom of general systems theory is that a congregation (or any system) cannot learn faster than it can learn. Don’t rush ahead, despite the reality that there will be those in the congregation or on the board – including yourself – who will be anxious to get to the “answer” and know what to “do.”
The story of the Exodus also reminds us that leadership is a dance in which we seek a more distant future that is both meaningful and faithful, while simultaneously managing the specific day-to-day realities of the trip. A friend who is a rabbi once shared a more contemporary midrash (an ancient rabbinic way of interpreting scripture- Ed. note) about the relationship between Moses and Aaron in the desert that points to this dance of equal necessities. Moses’ task, of course, was to envision the future. It was Moses who went off alone to encounter God face to face. He would return with new energy, a sense of direction, and a visible radiance from the encounter. Aaron, on the other hand, was the voice of management. He structured the trip from day to day, organizing tasks, assigning responsibilities and making decisions.
In this midrash, the teller focused on the part of the story of the delivery of the commandments. It was visionary Moses who, alone on the mountain with God, received the commandments. It was Aaron who waited below with the people, organizing daily life and trying to address the needs and anxieties of the people. The irony of this story was that just as Moses was receiving the commandment not to make graven images, Aaron was working below with the people who were busy creating these very same images in an effort to offer a visible leader (“gods…who shall go before us”) on their journey. (See Exodus 32:1-35).
The lesson of the midrash is that both Moses and Aaron were needed for the journey. Leadership needs to search for vision and ask the big questions of purpose and identity. Management needs to take care of the travel – determining the steps to take, giving people appropriate tasks and making decisions. The only risk is to let Moses and Aaron get too far apart. It was when Moses and Aaron, vision and management, got disconnected that things fell apart. A planning process cannot be all vision and without structure and direction. Neither can the planning process simply be a list of tasks or exercises that will magically lead somewhere. The leader and the planning team must be willing to dance between Moses and Aaron – to slow down enough to allow vision to take shape while also structuring a plan that will assist the people to move toward a future. Being flexible about the planning process, instead of rigidly following a set process, allows the congregation to be open to discernment. Structuring the planning conversation with appropriate questions and tasks allows the congregation to move ahead and make progress on the journey (pp. xvii-xviii).
In Memphis I learned the expression “I’m going to be in a slow hurry about that.” It has stood me in good stead. As Christians, we need to be in a slow hurry, discerning and considering carefully when to lead, when to follow, when to get out of the way, when to manage and when to let go, on our spiritual journey with Jesus – who teaches us how to sing and dance divinely.
– God’s peace, fathermom