Review: Quirky Leadership

July 16th, 2013

John Voelz does not want to tell you what to do, and he certainly doesn’t want you to tell him. What he wants is for leaders to lead with confidence and abandon, and to see the church transformed because of it.

In Quirky Leadership, Voelz argues against weak leadership disguised as collaboration. To him, a leader does just that: leads, and without apology for his or her decisions. Church leaders, he asserts, are called to set the overall vision of the congregation, keep that vision in focus, and filter out unhelpful challenges to its implementation.

But Voelz goes a step further. In situations in which more than one right answer is possible, church leaders are paid to make decisions on matters of taste. Voelz, an artist and musician with a strong sense of aesthetics, instructs leaders to shape the life of the congregation based on their own specific tastes and preferences.

Voelz illustrates his story through his own experience at Westwinds Communiy Church in Jackson, Michigan. Along with co-pastor David McDonald, Voelz entered into ministry at Westwinds not realizing the deep hurt and dysfunction that defined everyday life for the staff. He, McDonald, and their colleague Randy Shafer developed a model of leadership they called Coriolis that helped turn Westwinds into a thriving, healthy congregation.

Perhaps the most helpful feature of Quirky Leadership—one that helps structure the latter two-thirds of the book—is Voelz’ notion of “plumblines.” The concept takes its name from a simple building tool used to check verticality, which also serves as a key image in the book of Amos. For Voelz, a plumbline is a deeply held belief that serves as a guiding principle for all of life.

Identification of plumblines doesn’t start with the principles themselves, however. The process begins with some self-analysis of the way we behave—by observing our own quirks before trying to interpret them. For instance, Voelz reports being sent into orbit by complaints over work/life boundaries, failure by volunteers to follow through, or people being late. By grouping these together, he came to the realization that “Sacrifice precedes reward” is a key plumbline for him.

Once plumblines are established, they must be implemented through the commitment of paid and volunteer staff. The lead pastor has been granted permission by both God and the congregation that hired him to hold everyone accountable to those plumblines.

How Voelz’ ideas hold up in the realities of church employment are not quite clear. He and his partners managed to survive the turmoil of a transforming church, but they might as easily have been fired by the congregation that had called them. Leaders in the appointive system of the United Methodist Church have yet another layer to consider before going rogue with their authority.

Voelz’ book is a perplexing mix of church leadership language and discontented rants. He talks about team building and sharing mission, vision, and dreams, but he also places enormous stock in the lead pastor to make the key decisions and ensure that staff holds to them. He rejects mass-marketed slogans and music, but his key principles and the language he uses to communicate them are relatively standard fare for hip evangelical churches.

Inconsistencies aside, Voelz does offer a helpful resource, particularly for lead pastors and for churches trying to work out their own quirks and plumblines. Quirky Leadership can be a bit spastic in style, but still provides a passionate set of ideas from a committed pastor that, if nothing else, challenges church leaders to think deeply about their specific place in God’s larger work.


Read more from John Voelz on Ministry Matters, including excerpts from Quirky Leadership.

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