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Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church In America
Volume 1, Number 1
Epiphany 1996


Leaders for Tomorrow

Martin E. Marty


When the planners of a recent Metro Chicago Synod professional leaders conference advertised their intentions, they included a line: “Our first recourse is to God, who promises to be with us and lead us.”

If we really believe that, we are on course. Such a confession does not solve everything, but it clears the air for everything else.

The Large Catechism seconds the motion, or prompted it: faith in the promises of God determined all the rest. The papacy then stood in the way. The temptation to idolatry was there then as much as it is in a “market-driven” ministerial time when one tailors the Gospel to meet the Zeitgeist.

God, said the Catechism, was jealous but gracious­. Hence the promise to be with us, with leaders from Moses and Isaiah through Paul and Peter, to any who lead in the Metro Chicago Synod today.

Leadership draws its models first from God as Creator, the One who builds pluralism and diversity into the design of creation, or allows for it. Leadership therefore, in approaching human diversity, cannot be constricted to a single style—the way management manuals would restrict it. Let a thousand altar flowers bloom.

Leadership draws second then on the promises of God. Of God. We are at once in the realm of theology, not spirituality. Spirituality, which can be a marvelous dimension of human experience, open to devilish pursuits or the sway of the Spirit, is not the same as theology: theos+logos, interpretation of the experience of God as reflected in the language of scripture writers, script writers, the people of the Church. And they all promise promise: that in the middle of finitude, contingency, and transience, God promises the eternal, the reliable, the durable, in the ever-abiding Word that sustains lonely leaders.

If we believe this language we have thereby separated ourselves from what most leadership manuals and courses and retreats set out to do. They talk about control, of course about management, about efficiency, about organization, all of which can have their positive places in the charts of religious leadership. But they are all also undercut by the subversive word.

Paul Ricoeur says you will never understand a pericope that contains a parable of Jesus until you see that it “upsets.” The smallest becomes largest, the strongest becomes weakest, the lost is more important that the never lost, the outsider becomes insider­: and the leader is the one who serves.

Leadership in such a model in a pluralist world, where people may choose to follow no one or someone else or many masters, cannot rely on the props that once supported or substitute for the purposes of God: e.g., civil authority, when the sword backed the mitre; e.g., social pressure, when Aunt Esther in the balcony of the church or the Rotarian competitor down Main Street could make an issue of one’s non-involvement in the church; e.g., when leaders could crack the whip and the whipped had no place else to go—as they do in a free society, where the church-shopper holds sway.

Leadership therefore has to rely on persuasion, not coercion. This is true of the Pope at Rome and the pastor at home; of teachers and deacons and medics. They can command, but the command is ineffectual unless they can convince. And they convince when the message is compelling and when it is connected with semi-credible institutions and credible character in lives. The Book of Acts: Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit, and hence many believed. The Gospels: when God comes in weakness, as in the weakness of a child, of the homeless, of the victim, the ways of God become most credible. But the would-be leader has to find stories and themes, rhetoric and instancing that will confirm what is being said.

To project some of the meanings of leadership into the new century demands first that we acknowledge that historians cannot predict the future, nor can anyone else. We can only read signs of the times.

One of the signs of the times is that there is much continuity. Despite all the changes in world, church, and ministry, the people of 1955 and 1995 have many of the same basic needs and look for some of the same basic leadership features. They want leaders who can use rhetoric well--though the term will not be used. This means that they must be credible, must read congregations and audiences and individual situations, and be informed with something really important to say.

They want leaders who can jar conscience and offer moral guidance, but they want even more those who can be “pastoral,” at their side. They want real people but they also want moral exemplarity and standard setting. It’s still the same old story; that’s what they wanted and that’s still what they want.

In a world of tribalism and technology (Jihad vs. MacWorld), they need and, over the long pull, will welcome leaders who can help bring them into communion and association without relying on rules and threats. They want identities and circles of others to trust. If they are hyper-individualists they do not know the value of communion, but many among their company can be reached.

·Leaders tomorrow will have to live in a postmodern world where pastiches, collages, montages, and assemblages rule: yet in the midst of the chaos they have to help others find cosmos. Colossians chapter one contends that all things are made in and through Christ “and in him all things hold together.”

·Leaders tomorrow will have to help discern, identify, and define modes of community existence that will represent transformations of the family in a time of its beleaguerment. As medical systems grow grossly and go beyond reach, the led will want religious leaders’ help to develop alternative ministries when the expensive institutions fail.

Leaders tomorrow will have to know how hugely they and their congregations or constituencies are

·Shaped by mass communication. Luddites who smash all the electronic inventions are no closer to the Gospel than those over-attentive to them. But those who fail to help provide interpretive evangelical skeins in the media moral labyrinth will leave people of God leaderless in a zone where the things of God easily get trivialized or trashed.

Leaders tomorrow will have to help find new ways for the people of God to move in public worlds. The Christian Coalitions are no more reliable than the old ecumenical bureaucracies as bearers of a vision of God or a mission for God. But the unled will often find refuge in the false absolutisms on Left and Right, and foray forth from their ramparts.

Leaders tomorrow will paradoxically be closer to both the global and the local. We learn in American politics today that intense organizational models, again of the religious right, look local but have national significance. That ought to contain a message for parish pastors and professionals who work on the local scene.

·Leaders tomorrow who rely on the promises of God cannot be merely localist in outlook however. They will need to refine and develop many modes of mediating between jihad and MacWorld, the cozy cocoon of withdrawn life and undifferentiated public existence. For example: I think synods and denominations will not disappear or lose function but be transformed and find some new functions.

·Leaders tomorrow who have the promises of God in mind will not find their ecumenical impulses contained in the forms of the century now passing. We are moving to ad hoc models, for which church commissions cannot supply all the energies or definitions. Christian lay people and their leaders find all kinds of criss-crossing loyalties and invitations, and for some time at least these will not be easily defined or bounded. The ecumenical movement is in trouble; the ecumenical spirit is often moving. Both are often thwarted by self-contained pockets--racial, ethnic, class, gendered, ideological--which serve to develop exclusivisms instead of offering enrichments. Leaders tomorrow will be busy seeking new ways to demonstrate that the Gospel of reconciliation transcends the “identity-politics” boundaries that in the present moment often restrict the sharing of the promises of God.

Leaders of tomorrow will bring the same mix of high and low morale, burning up and burning out, feeling alone in Israel and being cheered by the presence of the 7,000, that leaders today bring.

·I like to quote old Pope Pius XIII from the Bad Old Days who said a good thing: let us thank God that we have been placed in such difficult situations. In response, he said, it is not permitted to any of us to be mediocre.

Leadership transcend mediocrity? With humans this is impossible. But the Large Catechism teaches impossibility: we can rely on the promises of God, upsetting of convention though they be.


Martin E. Marty

Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor,

University of Chicago

Member of Ascension, Riverside