March 2013
Cultivating Leaders

Getting to the ‘Why’

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

It’s no secret. The Episcopal Church runs on the extraordinary commitment (and real sacrifice) of its lay and clergy leaders. Consider, for instance, the senior warden who must lead her congregation through a difficult clergy transition, or the supply clergy who faithfully serves two churches after a stressful week at the office, or your everyday person in the pew who gives sacrificially of their time, talent, and resources. Such stories of faithful commitment are by no means rare. Indeed, they are part what it means to be Church. And yet, all too often, even extraordinary commitment can wither away when it becomes disconnected from any sense of larger purpose.

Over the past few years, questions of purpose and commitment have come to the fore for many congregations in our Church. More and more, we are realizing that our leadership and financial structures presume a world that no longer exists, one in which church attendance is normative and mainline Protestantism holds pride of place in the U.S. religious landscape. In the midst of these changes, we at the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) are advocating for a different model of leadership, one that starts with the questions of Why? What does any of this have to do with Jesus? And how is all this effort helping us to grow as followers of Christ?

This style of leadership, called transformational leadership, argues that we cultivate and sustain strong commitment when we 1) build a shared sense of purpose and 2) engage in individual and group leadership development.

“Why? What does any of this have to do with Jesus?”
A few weeks ago, I attended my congregation’s annual parish meeting. On one level, it was very much what one might expect from annual parish meetings in The Episcopal Church. We elected new vestry members, reviewed the parish budget, and we were urged to make significant financial gifts for the building up of the community. Just beneath the surface, however, I sensed that there was real anxiety about the future of our congregation. This is because in late December an arsonist set fire to the narthex of the building, possibly in anger over the congregation’s recent neighborhood initiatives and volunteer efforts.

After we heard various reports about the fire – what was damaged, what the insurance would cover, how much we will need to raise – the rector decided to tell a story. His story was about a parent explaining to a four year old how Jesus, who told people to love their neighbor as themselves, ended up being crucified. The four year old then guessed – accurately – that the same thing must have happened to Martin Luther King Jr., for he also asked us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And then came the bold comparison. Our rector argued that our little Episcopal parish had the exact same message and mission in the world, and that despite our fears, we should commit to an even bolder vision for loving our neighbors as ourselves.

We returned to our plodding review of parish finances shortly after, but by then the atmosphere in the room had changed dramatically. Every agenda item from then on out resonated with purpose.

As basic as this example might seem, the reality is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to imbue the everyday leadership of our congregations – the vestry meetings, stewardship campaigns, outreach initiatives – with a strong sense of shared purpose. Thankfully, there are learnable skills and practices for doing so. Here are two examples of Episcopal congregations turning everyday challenges into opportunities to discern a shared sense of purpose:

  • In “Cultivating a Culture of Discernment”, Blaire Pogue discusses how their vestry understands their primary purpose as that of discerning where God is calling their community.
  • In “Lessons from an Annual Giving Campaign”, David Posterero shares how an annual stewardship campaign became about more than just money, but about the shared ministry of all the baptized.

“Why? How is this helping us to grow as followers of Christ?”
I’d had it. Two and a half years into my three-year term on a development committee, I once again found myself alone on a conference call, listening to muzak, waiting for the other committee members to arrive. I had stayed late at work to make the call and began to feel frustrated when no one had shown up five minutes past the start time. This had happened before, but we’d all just committed ourselves to significant fundraising goals. But then ten minutes passed. Then fifteen…

Finally, I’d had enough. I hung up and fired off an email venting my frustration. And, of course, I immediately regretted it. I was miserable, exhausted, and worst of all, now deeply embarrassed by how I’d reacted. On the subway ride home, I wondered how this endless spinning of the wheels was connected to following Christ.

When I got home, I called the chair of the organization to tell her I had decided to quit. She wasn’t supposed to have been on the call and was disappointed to hear what had happened. But then she asked me to reconsider the experience. She told me how her husband, who’d been a priest, talked about the ‘crucifixion’ of volunteer committee work. Sure this work can break us, she noted, but can it break us open to new possibility? In the end, she said that I had a choice to make, and that either one was perfectly respectable: to quit what was clearly a dysfunctional group, or to dive in more deeply. Diving in meant (gulp) apologizing for my email and using the little time I had left on that committee to challenge the patterns that had set in deep. I chose the latter.

While Episcopal congregations face many challenges, leadership of these organizations often comes down to the efforts and commitment of a handful of individuals and small groups. Among the many other priorities that churches face, I believe that it behooves us to place the leadership development of this small group of individuals and teams at the top of the list. Practically, this means learning to skillfully identify and recruit individuals with leadership potential; it means learning how to give these individuals and groups creative challenges, as opposed to just tasks; it means learning how to give effective feedback as they encounter setbacks and make mistakes along the way. Finally, it means learning how to be present during those difficult meetings and late night phone calls, listening and connecting experiences and challenges back to the congregation’s shared purpose.

  • In “Build a Healthy Vestry”, Janie Kirt Morris shares her congregation’s process for skillfully identifying, recruiting, and orienting new vestry members.
  • In the webinar recording “Creating Strong Teams”, Ella Auchincloss of the Diocese of Massachusetts’ Leadership Development Initiative shares core principles for strong team structure. Here, ECF Fellow Devon Anderson (2007) offers an excellent tool for “Structuring Leadership Teams”. Both Ella and Devon’s work are based on the leadership work of Marshall Ganz.

Inspiring Commitment
The Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) believes that our Church needs a leadership model that starts with the Why? Whether it’s stated explicitly or not, ‘why’ gets asked before, during, and after every difficult vestry meeting; it is asked by every newcomer who walks through our red doors hoping for a bit of Good News; and then, of course, it’s certainly asked by every church professional who occasionally struggles to remember what set them on this course in the first place. In next month’s article, I will be shifting from stories to the “meat” of this leadership theory, and will highlight the key definitions and practices associated with transformational leadership. In the meanwhile, for our own sake, and for the sake of the wider Church, let’s commit to finding stronger answers to ‘why’.

Read Part 2 of this article here.

Miguel Angel Escobar serves as Program Director of Leadership Resources at the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF). There, he works with Nancy Davidge, editor of ECF Vital Practices, and Brendon Hunter, Assistant Program Director, to coordinate the Fellowship Partners Program, ECF Vital Practices, ECF’s many workshops and web conferences, and ECF Fresh Start. Miguel is a lay member of The Episcopal Church, a M.Div. graduate of Union Theological Seminary, and an amateur bread maker. Write Miguel at or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


This article is part of the March 2013 Vestry Papers issue on Cultivating Leaders