Leadership and Community

For the past few years, I have lived along the beautiful urban canal meandering through downtown Indianapolis. One of my favorite pastimes has been to take early morning runs along the canal before I start my day. Along the way, I inevitably see people walking to work, riding bikes, and runners like me. Recently, I was on the canal when I saw three men running together. This sight, in and of itself, was not unique. I often find that groups will exercise together. What was unique, however, is that the three men were connected to a single rope that prohibited any of them from running ahead or falling behind. The runners were literally tied together. In an almost trinitarian way, this vivid image helps me understand church leadership and discipleship better.

First, the image of the connected runners helps me understand church leadership. In recent decades, there has been considerable leadership literature suggesting that church leaders need to adopt the best business practices and take the posture of some of the most successful CEOs. There is certainly much to be learned from this corpus of knowledge; however, at its heart church leadership requires interdependence. Pastors and lay leaders need to understand that for better or for worse they are tied to other members of their community of faith. This is one of the reasons why congregations make decisions slowly. Church leaders may find difficulty in trying to “pull” others along. Or they may realize that working within the given system may in fact prove to be more efficient (and dare I say faithful). Recently, Bill Hybles has released a fantastic resource for church leaders that helps them understand this process. Here is an extended video where he discusses some of the key concepts.

Second, the image of the connected runners helps me understand discipleship. You may recall the often quoted story of the “Lonely Ember.” In this story, a pastor visits a church member who has been absent from the congregation for a number of weeks. Invited into the home, the pastor finds the church member seated before a blazing fire. In the course of conversation, the church member questions why he needs to be present at the church. “Isn’t my faith enough?” the church member asked. “Yes, your faith is enough,” the pastor said, “But without the fellowship of others, your faith may become cold.” The pastor moved one of the hot, glowing embers from the fire and, in time, the coal became dark and cold. “This coal is like our faith when removed from the fellowship of others.” Before leaving, the pastor put the coal back into the fire, and quickly, the ember began to glow again. When we are connected to others, our faith and discipleship become stronger.

Following the Apostle Paul’s encouragement, Christians need to “run the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). In the process, however, we must understand that we do not run alone. This race is not an individual affair. Rather, we are connected to a “great cloud of witnesses” both past and present. It is this connection that that binds us together for both leadership and discipleship. As the ‘ole hymn says, Blessed Be the Tie that Binds.

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne,
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts, and our cares.

We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

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Thad Austin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, a Ph.D. student at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and the Graduate Assistant at The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Thad also serves as Editor of the Church Leader Collective for Seedbed. Thad served as Executive Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In his free time, Thad loves to travel (41 countries and all 50 states, thus far), hike (has hiked the 1,100 miles between Pennsylvania and Georgia), sail, and spend time with friends.

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