Leadership: Forms and Void
by Melinda E. Weekes, M.Div., J.D.
In my first year at seminary, I took a class on the practice of ministry. Experienced pastors visited and shared wisdom gleaned from years on the job.
I’ll never forget the words of one guest who spoke of the importance of a pastor’s “ministry of presence” and “ministry of absence.” While it is vital to shepherd in a way that visibly attends to the core matters of the parish, he insisted that we strive against “omnipresence,” if you will. Sometimes, he admonished, practicing absence is being a good leader.
In Ecclesiastes 3:11, we’re told that “God has made everything beautiful in its own time.” The leadership challenge, however, is to discern the best approach given the times, and once known, to summon the will and skills needed to change. Change — as we have witnessed in a profound way on a national level this year — is not easy. Versatility of approach is a fundamental leadership challenge for leaders of every stripe: It’s the criteria utilized by political pundits in second-guessing a U.S. president. It’s the bane of millennials’ existence in “managing up” to their baby boomer bosses. And it’s the stuff of parking-lot chatter after the church’s annual meeting.
Lessons for leaders
Our inability or unwillingness to adjust as leaders can have significant, unintended and negative consequences. At times, a direct, hands-on, activist approach is needed. Other times, leaders need loosen their hold of the reigns and allow for spontaneity, emergence and the leadership of others.
An easy way to detect how this plays out is in those spaces where organizational culture is most evident: meetings. Often, the person with formal authority will facilitate. In a workshop I teach through the Interaction Institute for Social Change, the “presence” v. “absence” dynamic shows up in a related concept called “Balancing Form and Void”:
Creating “form” is providing participants with a framework or approach for moving toward achieving meeting outcomes. Creating ‘void’ means stepping back and allowing for open space in the meeting, both verbally and physically.
While not faith-based, our firm’s course designers appropriated the phrase from the Genesis creation narrative as an analogy to help trainees understand that creativity, productivity, and leadership can emerge organically when space is created. In this instance, less is more.
In a recent training workshop for grassroots leaders across the Gulf Coast, participants reflected on the perils of leaders doing too much in community-based work. One woman, a co-founder of a community center in rural Mississippi with her husband, spoke about the many years of successful programming they enjoyed, so long as they were the ones handling all of the details. Now at a point were they want to pass the leadership baton to the next generation, they find it nearly impossible to recruit volunteers who are ready, willing, and able to carry on the work.
Her insight was that if their leadership practice had been more focused on fostering the leadership potential of community members, and less on heading up every initiative, the center’s mission would have had more of a chance to flourish into the next decade.
Another participant shared his rather edgy way of creating void. As a pastor with lots of charisma, he knew his position and his personality could intimidate budding leaders. To remedy this, from time to time, for high-stakes press conferences on social justice issues his community was addressing, he would rehearse and prepare extensively the night before with some of his younger-generation leaders. Then, unexpectedly, he would fail to show up at the important meeting the very next day. Although risky for sure, this change agent felt that this was a viable way of breaking people out of dependency on the leadership of one person, and breaking them into greater levels of confidence and actual leadership experience. However we may seek to strike the balance between form and void, between presence and absence, it is a thing worth figuring out. To lead in a way that self-empowers others is to heighten sensitivity to their unique gifts, and to make way for that leadership potential to emerge.
In times past, which leadership approach to choose was a mere matter of personal style. In our times, we often lament that there are precious few who are willing to step up to the plate of leadership. It is my belief after many years of working and supporting community transformation, that if more of us take up the cause of cultivating other leaders into our leadership practices, our collective wisdom would yield powerful, lasting and better, results.
Melinda Weekes is an ordained itinerant elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and serves as the chaplain to the Protestant community at Simmons College in Boston. She is a senior associate at the Interaction Institute for Social Change, and hosts The Soul Sanctuary, a gospel music Internet radio show. She holds a B.A. degree from Wesleyan University, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a J.D. from New York University School of Law.
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