Ministry leadership a century at a time

TEMC CentennialIn October, I had the chance to review an entire century of leadership in one ministry when I attended the 100th anniversary service of the church I grew up in, Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. Reviewing its senior pastors decades at a time rather than years at a time gave me some really high-level insights into leadership that were sobering, inspiring, encouraging and humbling all at the same time. I’ll share my thoughts with you, but first I’ll tell you what happened at this service so that perhaps you might have the same joy of discovery that I had!

Living with a legacy

Dr. Andrew Stirling, Senior Minister of TEMC and adjunct professor at Tyndale Seminary, gave a sermon entitled A Hand Across Time that told how the senior ministers each received and passed along the same legacy of faith while applying it differently to meet the needs of their times. The children in the service were challenged to make a decision to follow Christ as their Lord so that the legacy would continue.

As Andrew reviewed the key messages of the senior pastors who preceded him, he captured quite well the role of leader as steward and the balance that must be achieved as leaders preserve their ministry’s legacy while adjusting its programs to meet the needs of the current circumstances. In Built To Last, Collins and Porras called this dual focus Preserve the Core/Stimulate Progress.The idea is to preserve the core ideology (your purpose and values) and stimulate progress in everything else. The core ideology must then be faithfully applied to every changing circumstance by adapting its manifestations to suit the times. Here’s how this church managed to do this:

The church’s core ideology comes from Timothy Eaton, who came to Christ as a teenager and became a lifelong Methodist, believing that God was active in his life and was working providentially in and through him. This speaks of a God who is present and interested in us as individual persons. Eaton was a very active lay leader in the Methodist church, and after he died his widow and others built a Methodist church in a growing area of Toronto to perpetuate God’s work. Each church has its own core ideology that drives it, and the core ideology of this church is Eaton’s emphasis on God’s providential presence in our daily activities.

In the sermon, Andrew Stirling showed how the ministers at TEMC applied this core ideology into the various contexts the congregation faced as the century progressed. To the best of my memory, here are some examples:

  • During the First World War, when it appeared the whole world would be embroiled in the unimaginable misery of modern technological and chemical warfare, Rev. James Henderson encouraged the congregation with the hope that because God is active in this world, anything can happen. So press on!
  • In the Great Depression years, Dr. Trevor Davies spoke of the compassion of God for all who suffer and he led the church in being the people through whom God was actively at work. They did what they could to relieve the suffering of others. For example, each week the church delivered 250 gallons of milk to the Yonge Street Mission.
  • In the 1940s, Dr. David MacLennan taught the church about the sovereignty of God. Whatever evil threats may arise, God is ultimately in control and will have his way in the end. He reminded them after the war that their freedom had been preserved at a cost, and encouraged the church to stay faithful and redeem the cost by using their God-given gifts for the good of humanity.
  • In the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, with the threat of Communism and the new spirit of sexual liberation, drugs, and personal freedom, Dr. Andrew Lawson (my beloved pastor during my childhood and teenage years) unrelentingly spoke about God’s love for us and how that applied to social structures. He preached about faith as the antidote for fear and about allowing God to work through us in our relationships. He emphasized family, strong marriages and real love. He gave us a moral compass to help navigate through the storms of protest and social upheaval.

These pastors delivered messages that applied the legacy of faith in God’s providential presence to the great needs of their times.

Leader as steward

As I thought about leaders stewarding their ministries, I became quite intrigued by the rich context the stewardship metaphor provides for your time in leadership.

  • First, it reminds us all that we are not ‘masters’ of a ministry (even if we founded the ministry). Jesus Christ the Son of God is the real master. That reality should shape our attitudes toward ministry leadership! Be a humble servant working alongside your team. While the board has given you the authority to ‘call the shots’, know that there is someone higher than you who really calls the shots and you need to be in step with that person!  Your personal spirituality is a vital part of your ministry’s success! If you take your stewardship role to heart, you will realize that it is not your ministry; you are just the one with temporary custody of it.
  • Second, it puts your time in leadership into its historical context and provides a bigger canvas on which your years of leadership are painted. You are but one link in a long chain of leaders of your ministry that stretches across the generations (thanks to Dietrich Bonhoeffer for that wonderfully comforting image). There is a certain humility that comes with the realization that you are just one of the many people who will provide leadership in this ministry. The ministry is not about you at all. It is about a purpose much bigger than you, and that I find exciting. Being part of a bigger picture keeps your attention on God, not yourself.
  • Third, although we often think of the senior leader as being in a lonely role, you are in a way a member of a leadership team of pastors or executive directors that exists across time! My church recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and all five of the surviving pastors were present for the weekend. I sat through all of their ministries and it was amazing to think about the contribution that each one made in his own way. Very different people, but each of them spoke of the core values and purpose of the church and what they said was consistent across all the pastors. The widow of the founding pastor spoke as well, and told us how the core ideology was birthed along with the church. Although they never worked a day together, as the pastors stood side-by-side I thought, “What a team!” I find the thought of fellowship across time very heart-warming.

The steward’s work

Paul stressed the importance of preserving the core ideology throughout his leadership in the early church, saying in 1 Corinthians 11:23 “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” He worked hard to stay true to the faith that was given to him and to maintain the integrity of his mission against all attacks. He preserved the core right to the end, at which time he could honestly say, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7).

To know what you are preserving, you may have to do some research. For example, to better understand our core at CCCC, I have talked with Ian Stanley (who had the idea for CCCC) a couple of times and visited him once for a more extended discussion of how and why CCCC was founded. I have read all the board minutes for the first fifteen years and talked with several other senior leaders from the early years.I have reviewed our entire library of Bulletin newsletters and the programs for conferences back to 1983. And, of course, I have had many talks with Frank Luellau about his time of leadership. If you can crystallize your ideology, I believe it could be a major piece of your promotional material, because it clearly identifies who you are and probably will separate you from all the other ministries doing somewhat similar work. It will also give your strategic thinking sessions more focus and provide an overall logic to your programs.

However, preserving the core is only half my job. As the leader of the ministry today in the circumstance we are in, I should not have a slavish devotion to the past or to the means by which previous leaders worked to fulfill the ministry’s purpose. They all worked on the same purpose, but were free to innovate and find ways to fulfill the purpose that were relevant to the circumstances of the time. I realize afresh how important it is to always be thinking, “If we were starting again today, knowing what we know now, would we do it the way we are doing it now or would we do something entirely different?” And so we work hard to stimulate progress at CCCC through innovation, challenging the ways things are and exploring the boundaries to discover how else we could fulfill our purpose.

Performing in the arena

Finally, I cherish the idea of the universal church that crosses all geographical and temporal boundaries. I love to think of my brothers and sisters in Christ from everywhere and all time united one day in praise of our Lord and Saviour. So it was natural that, as I listened to the sermon, I thought of Hebrews 12:1, where we have the image of a runner in an arena competing in a race surrounded by (and cheered on by) all those who have gone before, including our predecessors who led our ministries. Andrew Stirling expressed the same sentiment in his church’s September 2010 newsletter:

I have had the privilege of examining a selection of the famous transcribed sermons given by preachers at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church over its one hundred year history. I have been struck by both the timelessness of the messages as well as the profound contextual nature of their content. I also have a fuller appreciation of the privilege of continuing this legacy and humbly feel the mantle that rests upon our generation. In a preaching class I taught a few years ago, I commented to the students that when I commence a sermon I am not only aware of the needs of the audience before me and the presence of Jesus as depicted in the Holman Hunt window behind me, but also the inestimable great women and men who have preceded me.

(The Holman Hunt window pictured at the top of this post is a depiction of Revelation 3:20 – Christ knocking at the door.)

As I perform in the arena surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, I know there is meaning to my work beyond my short time of performance. As the team I lead builds on the past, gets results today, and positions CCCC for the future, I can almost hear the crowd’s roars of approval as they discern our strategies and see how the way our team plays the game supports our shared mission and contributes to the fulfillment of their hopes and vision for our ministry. Looking at leadership a century at a time gives me a much clearer perspective from which to guide the ministry today. So what’s the long view from where you sit?  Enjoy the vista!

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