Implications for Leadership in the Missional Church

I said, in the introduction, that the typical Lutheran suburbanite lives under extreme societal pressures to be a self-actualized, successful individual who navigates between a myriad of cultural choices as a radical individual with the power to choose. How can the Lutheran leader of suburban congregations cultivate spaces in which these suburbanites can find help to navigate these turbulent waters? What have we learned from the DITB project that might provide some insight into this question? In this, the final section, I will focus on my personal experience of leading the RT, my theological reflection upon it, and its possible implications for the missional church.

Stewarding Power

The first way we can address the question of leadership is to be honest about the issue of power. I faced an ongoing struggle with this issue as I led the RT through the DITB process. How would I handle my power? I entered the project carrying two forms of power. The first form of power is positional. I am an ordained pastor in the ELCA. The RT was comprised of ELCA members, most of whom are members of the church in which I serve. The Lutheran tradition has a history of hierarchical power structures in which the pastor (historically male, exclusively) wielded great control over the various congregational processes. I was automatically imbued with this power in the RT simply because I am a pastor. Further, I was the lead researcher. It was my project, for my dissertation, so the position of “leader” also carries with it inherent power. The second form of power I possessed was cognitive. This was, after all, my PhD research project. I have been immersed in four years of academic study, therefore my head is full of information that the RT did not have. Modern, Western society, being dominated by rationalism and empirical science, values knowledge above all things. Therefore, as Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge, training, and extended vocabulary tends to intimidate people who are not fluent in a particular academic discipline and shifts the power to the one in the room who is considered “the expert.” I was the “expert” in the question the RT set out to explore and they often looked to me to give them “answers.”

Palmer, Brookfield, Hess, and Kegan all acknowledge the power differential inherent in the role of the teacher/leader. The purpose of critical social theory and PAR is to create communicative spaces in which adults can feel empowered to think critically about the dominant power structures and imagine a preferred future. The subject-centered model proposed by Palmer ideally brings the teacher into the circle with the other knowers. This process, however, is not one that ignores the power wielded by the teacher. Rather, it is one in which the leader/teacher is transparent about the power differential and understands the weight of responsibility to steward this power for the good of the community.

I struggled with the power differential throughout the research process. I was keenly aware of how much control I had over the structure of the room, the framing of the questions, the direction of the conversation, etc. I was also keenly aware of the constant push from some of the team members to ask me to give more direction, more clarity, and more answers. They often felt frustrated by the open-endedness of the process. Honestly, I felt frustrated by it at times and constantly fought the urge to swoop in like the hero-leader and fix everything.

I asked the RT to reflect on this issue in Phase Three. I asked them what advice they would give to the church leader based on their experience in the DITB project. The RT data indicate that the process of this project, and how I stewarded my power, is a good model for how the church leader should structure communicative spaces. They said that the missional leader would be better served if she understands her role to be that of the humble servant who facilitates God’s power, through knowledge and wisdom, to create a democratic and generative community of God’s grace and peace. This was demonstrated through the communicative action in the Dwelling in the Word exercises, the various pedagogical modalities, and the action projects carried out by the RT.

We must acknowledge that none of these things would have happened if I—the leader of the team—did not set a table that empowered such communicative action. This was my research project, after all, and I could have implemented instrumental reason at every step of the way and used my knowledge and skill to manipulate the research team. It was a learning and stretching experience for me to constantly step back and let the process unfold, trusting that God was working in, with, through, against, and for the RT the whole time.

The Communicative Zone

The second way that we can address the question of leadership is to understand the pluralistic dynamic of the suburbs and the skills necessary to navigate the communicative zone that exists in the space between seemingly polarized dichotomies. The typical suburbanite is constantly faced with a myriad of options at every level of life: ranging from mundane choices between brands of cereal to the profound choice of which faith tradition—if any—in which to participate. These choices form a perplexing array of apparent dichotomies.

Every dichotomy appears to have two extreme and opposing views on either end of a continuum. Most of human history is the story of opposing sides going to war over which side is correct and best for the world. Often times a move toward peace is the move to find a spot in the middle between these extremes. This, however, is not peace between the two poles, but is the creation of a completely new perspective that is neither one side nor the other. This is almost never acceptable to either side, and it simply perpetuates the ontological gap between particular spaces on the continuum.

An image emerged in my imagination as I progressed through the DITB project that has helped me to understand the implications for leaders as we help people navigate these dichotomies. Imagine that there is a pendulum that swings between two extremes. It does not stop in one middle place on the continuum, but continually moves back and forth between the extremes. As the pendulum swings it creates a field of energy between the two extremes.[1] The movement of the pendulum is both a particular object—the flat disc itself—and the field of energy created by the perpetual movement between the polar extremes. I would suggest, as illustrated in figure 18, that the space between the polar extremes is the communicative zone. It is a dynamic energy that keeps the tension of the two extremes in constant dialogue, thus creating life in the third space it creates. Further, it is another image of Trinitarian praxis. I witnessed the communicative zone form within the RT as we engaged in communicative action through the various modalities of our shared project.

The Communicative Zone

Figure 18. The Communicative Zone

How does this discussion impact the suburban leader? Here, again, we can look to Kegan for help. Kegan uses historical timeframes as an analogy to help us understand his orders of consciousness. I will add to that analogy and use a caricatured image of the small town vs. the suburban context to further describe these orders. The small town is third-order consciousness.[2] It is a single, homogenous system in which every member understands her particular role in society. Suburban life exemplifies fourth-order consciousness. The suburban landscape is comprised of thousands of radical, atomistic, autonomous selves moving through the chaotic, ever-changing transactionally based networks. Each connection is a consciously chosen, transactional relationship that is accidental to the primary substance of the individual self. Fourth-order consciousness recognizes that there are multiple systems, and each one of these systems are equally valid, and equally meaningless in the larger scheme of the mechanistic universe, in which the detached, objective observer and wielder of power can have free reign. This lifestyle ultimately leads to isolation, loneliness, abuse of power, and the high potential for violence and oppression. These autonomous entities experience an ontological gap between that which is the “other” and this gap can often be terrifying.

This is the challenge facing the missional leader in the suburbs. Most of the members of our suburban congregations are either third-order thinkers overwhelmed by the suburban lifestyle, or fourth-order thinkers experiencing increasing levels of isolation. What if God is calling us, as the missional community, to dwell in the communicative zones between these autonomous entities and myriad of choices that exist in society? What if we are called to stop and reflect on these relationships and to notice the movement and agency of the Holy Spirit between these seemingly polarized extremes?

We are not asked to abandon our faith cultures, but are invited to open ourselves to the interfaith dialogue, to be willing to listen to each other: to dwell in the world and the words of the stranger. Kegan claims that fifth-order consciousness realizes that all the apparently disconnected systems are, in fact, interconnected and interdependent. It is impossible to be autonomous. The apparently radical extremes need each other to exist, and are actually created and sustained by the pendulum that swings in the field of the communicative zone. This is fifth-order consciousness. This is a picture of relational ontology. This is the life of the Trinity.

Fifth Order Consciousness and the Communicative Zone

Figure 19. Fifth-Order Consciousness And The Communicative Zone

Here, again, we see why the ELCA may be an ideal space for the missional imagination, as I mentioned in chapter two. Lutheran theology upholds the tensive energy of paradox and has the theological imagination to cultivate the communicative zone in society. Could it be that the Lutheran pastor, leading in a fifth-order, missional key, might be able to structure spaces that lead to God’s peace? I would argue that this is the framework for a missional spirituality in the suburbs. Who knows? If we step into the spaces between, we just might meet the Spirit of the Living God in the suburbs.


[1] This is similar to the superposition of quantum physics that Simmons suggests. Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology.

[2] I am drawing an analogy to the caricature of the small town as a geographically homogenous space as opposed to the caricature of the suburb which is fractured and multi-faceted. It would be naïve to suggest that all small-town people are third-order and all suburbanites are fourth-order. The reality is that individuals within all geographical locations will be spread along the continuum of the orders of consciousness for various reasons.