No Cookie Cutter Leaders

July 23rd, 2013

An interview with Bishop Alfred Johnson,
retired bishop and current pastor of Church of the Village, in New York City

When training leaders, we tend to elevate certain “success stories” as models to emulate. In the UMC, it is often Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter. What are the pros and cons to this approach?

There’s a Bible teaching mantra I often use: “Everything is adaptable, but almost nothing is adoptable.” Our leadership training has to be adaptable. I have a problem with the word models, because it assumes someone has something that the rest of us don’t. When I became a bishop, the others in the Council of Bishops told me, “We won’t tell you what to do, but we will share our experiences.” It’s the same with Adam and Mike. We can learn from their experiences, but we have our own context and culture.

Holding up certain leaders as models can make you feel like a failure when you’re not. Models are only valuable if we see them as witnesses, expressions, and experiences of how God has been able to use them and work through them in particular congregational situation. You can take somebody else’s experiences, but you have to heavily relativize, find a new path, and open some new doorways to do it yourself.

How do you feel about the focus on numerical growth? Do we equate size with success too much?

People often misquote I Tim 6:10, saying “Money is the root of all evil,” but it really says, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” The Message paraphrases it this way: “But if it’s only money these leaders are after, they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble.”

Substitute the word “numbers” for “money”: “But if it’s only numbers these leaders are after, they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for numbers brings trouble and nothing but trouble.” That’s my feeling about it. Money and numbers are both extremely important. Money is central to our growth, as are numbers, but I don’t want us to get addicted to them.

You’re the Dean of the Bishop Melvin Talbert Institute. I was struck by the way the Institute’s page on said numerous times that the program isn’t seeking to create “mini-Talberts” or “cookie-cutter leaders.” What is the Institute’s approach to leadership development?

I have to give a whole lot of credit to the Board of Directors, esp Marilyn McGee Talbert, and the biggest credit to Bishop Talbert himself. Not making cookie-cutter leaders was his thing. In January 2011, we announced [the creation of the Institute] at BMCR meeting. He said he was pleased and honored, but he didn’t want to create mini, cookie-cutter Mel Talberts. We didn’t use him as model; we used his values as evidence of experience. Values like timeliness, preparation, advocacy, ecumenism, etc. (See the complete list at

We didn’t know what we were creating, and it evolved over time. We started with mentoring and now we call it coaching. The term mentors assumes, again, that somebody has something somebody else doesn’t have. With coaching, we walk alongside someone who already has something, and we enhance and enlighten what God is already doing in them.

Church of the Village doesn’t seem like your “cookie-cutter church,” but a vibrant, much-needed faith community for its location and context. Tell me about Church of the Village and its ministry in Greenwich Village.

Where I am is not anywhere. Almost all our people are under 40, with financial resources. We are about creating progressive, radically inclusive, fully-engaged disciples for Jesus. That’s what drives my evangelism. I am really engaged in calling people to that kind of discipleship. We’re heavily into reaching out to LGBTQI people. We’re not bound by tradition; we not only embrace diversity but we’re thrilled about it. It’s a true haven of acceptance.

We are [the product of] a merger of three churches that were declining, with buildings in ill-repair. We instituted growth measures, simple things like having a welcome that says, “In this church, we welcome all people. . .  In our worship today, we’ll be using three different worship hymnals. . .” I got a lot of resistance because the old-timers were saying, “everybody knows that already.” Now they understand why we do it, because we expect new people. They would have a nervous breakdown now if we didn’t have new 5-15 people each week. We expect visitors. A lot of churches do not.  

How do we measure and improve leaders’ and churches’ success, given the wide range of ministry contexts across the denomination?

First, I’ve really got a problem with the word “success.” I think the word “faithful” fits better for me. A faithful leader is more important than one who does all the right tactics and techniques. Are you living your faith, and continuing to learn? A leader is always learning, moving forward, gathering, and creating other leaders.

A leader has a style that is catalytic, not necessarily charismatic. A charismatic leader leads by personality, and a lot of churches grow on that, but when they leave, the church is left poorer and can’t sustain itself. A catalytic leader inspires others to be leaders.

There is the gift of leadership, but it’s a gift that can be developed and grown. You can learn how to be effective. Some are natural leaders, but they can’t stop there. Style matters. They need to study, do training, take inventories, read books. Be constantly asking for feedback. You can’t lead in a vacuum. You’ve got to be working on your leadership and move in the way leadership is moving.

How does your perspective as a retired bishop now back in the local church affect your view of expectations and pressures placed on pastors in the UMC?

I see pressures on pastors I didn’t see before. Pastors are in situations they didn’t create and that they can’t do anything about. We place a huge amount of responsibility on pastors without giving them the authority. Their only real authority is over worship, but in everything else, we’re subject to votes. And there are some places where people won’t vote for the future.

We need to help pastors and churches feel better about themselves because they will do better if they feel better. Our [denomination] is great at creating guilt and self-esteem issues that don’t have to be created. Especially for urban pastors. There is no economy of scale in our expectations. Large churches are where people tend to be going, and they need to be supported to keep on growing. But a church with one door and an outhouse needs to do what they can do. One church [in my episcopal area] had only 6 members, but they were powerful in mission. They hadn’t made a new member in years, but they made soup for everyone, and did other things. When I first went there, I thought, “We need to close this place!” I would never say that now.

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