Review: Leading the Congregation

July 20th, 2011

Roger Heuser and Norman Shawchuck have been at it together for nearly thirty years, writing, consulting, and teaching on leadership in and for the church. Their collaborative wisdom and experience shine through the pages of Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People, a newly updated and revised version of the 1993 edition. Their insights and learnings have been culled and honed from countless workshops, lectures, articles and conversations across the last three decades of church life, a period marked by both exhilarating and perplexing moments of boldness, stagnation, creativity, determination, paralysis, fear, and hope.

To the work of leadership in such a time as this, Heuser and Shawchuck offer a treasure chest of material that is simultaneously timeless and timely. This is a book to refer to again and again, digesting its wisdom in small doses, returning to it with one’s own questions and experiences of ministry. This is not a quick-fix, how-to book. It does not presuppose a magic template for church transformation. It’s more the kind of reference book one keeps around the house for how to fix every appliance and approach the most common problems and challenges that can arise in real life. It is practical and foundational, requiring an inquiring mind and spirit from the user and a willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and jump in to the work at hand.

The scope of the book ranges far beyond the stated title, or perhaps redefines care of oneself to push beyond internal work to questions of leadership modes and to the work of the congregation itself. Heuser and Shawchuck address the transformation of one’s life as a pastor, the transformation of a congregation, and the transformation of the community.

Part One does in fact deal with the spirituality, call, internal attitudes, and vision of the leader. This section of the book is nurturing as well as challenging. In a season in which clergy evaluation often comes with a punitive tone reflecting the frustration and desperation of the institution, Heuser and Shawchuck pastorally invite clergy into greater intimacy with God, with vocation and with calling, while naming and analyzing the many rocks and shoals that threaten congregational shipwreck and personal low self-esteem. The invitation is to go deep, to connect with the most authentic and vital parts of one’s call, and to mesh one’s gifts with the most important work the congregation is being called to do.

Part Two covers material that is new to this edition. Emphasizing that leadership is not done by going-it alone, the focus widens out to leading with others—working in teams, team formation, team ethos, working through conflict, and better understanding of team emotional dynamics. This material may be more challenging to a generation that grew up on role models of “hero” leaders, but it will nevertheless by helpful to all who strive to work in team leadership with laity, staff, and other ministry partners.

Part Three moves on into the transformation of the congregation. The definition of spirituality that was explored for the individual in Part One is expanded out to embrace the life and growth of the entire congregation: “spirituality is a growing awareness of God and receptivity to God’s Spirit in our lives, and the means by which we keep that receptivity alive and vital toward the end that we are becoming formed in the Spirit of Christ for the sake of others and indeed for the whole world.” (p.206) This section of the book moves into exploration of a clear and compelling mission and vision for the congregation, with again, a wealth of tools for insight, analysis, diagnosis and action.

This is a resource that needs to be read, digested and contemplated a bit at a time. It readily lends itself to be used segment by segment with congregational leadership groups, with clergy covenant or support groups, and in spiritual discernment groups, as appropriate, using the helpful discussion questions and conversation starters at the end of each chapter. There is room here for scriptural and theological reflection, for organizational analysis, and for personal introspection and growth.

The book concludes on a grace-filled note. Noting that “leading a congregation may [italics added for emphasis] become more challenging in postmodernity and in what many are calling the post-Christian and post-denominational age,” (p.300), the authors conclude with the reminder of the promise of God’s grace ever given. The blessing they offer is for all who strive to lead in such a complex and demanding time as this.

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