June 13, 2006
The President & The Pastor: lessons from George W. Bush’s brave/reckless leadership style
In 2000, Bill Hybels invited President Clinton to speak at Willow Creek's Leadership Summit. The controversial move was based on the assumption that pastors could learn from Clinton's leadership experience - both his triumphs and his mistakes. Following this tradition Ur blogger, Andy Rowell, examines President Bush's leadership style to glean wisdom for ministers. Andy teaches church leadership at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and previously served as the Associate Pastor at Granville Chapel in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Pulitzer prize-winning NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani reviewed seventeen recent books about President George W. Bush in her May 11, 2006 article entitled "Critic's Notebook: All the President's Books (Minding History's Whys and Wherefores)." She concludes that Bush's supporters and critics agree on one thing - that he often ignores advice and chains of command in decision-making. While this approach has the potential to bring fresh ideas to useless bureaucracy, it can also lead to poor decisions. Kakutani's article raises serious questions about the decision-making processes of the Bush administration. Still, the breadth of her reading, her attempt to make her points without partisan exaggeration, and her thorough documentation, make the article wonderful fodder for anyone (Bush fan or hater) seeking to learn about leadership.
In particular it seems that young pastors like me [I'm thirty years old] can learn much from the effects of President Bush's brave/reckless leadership style. As young pastors we can easily spot things that look outdated or overly bureaucratic. We can walk into a room and have a vision for how things could be spruced up. In some ways, young pastors are in demand precisely for these instincts. We have fresh eyes to old problems. We have fresh energy to tackle big challenges. And yet, Bush's example reminds us to take care as we lead.
Lesson 1: Be cautious before acting on our first impression.
Kakutani notes a number of Bush insiders who have indicated that Iraq was on the agenda of the administration before 9-11. They also admit that there was never a clear process by which the decision was made to go to war. The troops were sent to the region and then eventually it happened. Other economic advisors complain that Bush's staff was not interested in hearing any alternative to their drive to cut taxes. There is surely more to each of these stories than these simple characterizations but still the lesson is apparent.
As pastors, we cannot help but make initial impressions about what needs to be done when we enter a church. Still, those initial judgments may not be reliable. When I was new to the church where I pastored, I was disturbed by the shabbiness of the decor of the church building. Six years later, we did end up getting new carpet but in the process I learned a number of things that tempered that first impression.
I learned that on Sunday mornings with hundreds of buzzing people, the carpet was less noticeable. It was most noticeable to me during the week when no one was around. In that case, is it worth replacing the carpet for the pastor's morale on Wednesday? I also learned that this church gave more of a percentage of its budget to missions than any church I had ever attended. I also learned that in an urban setting, immaculate cheery suburban decor may turn as many people off as it attracts.
Lesson 2. Seek out and pay attention to qualified advisors.
According to Kakutani's article, Bush and team did not listen to thoroughly researched reports that Iraq would most likely need a huge investment of time, money and soldiers. They were quite sure that the American soldiers would be greeted as liberators so they dismissed these inconvenient warnings by marginalizing these voices even if they had previously been supporters. (Interestingly, I just heard that Bush got together today, June 12, with some of his advisors to talk about Iraq. These are not necessarily people who have agreed with Bush's handling of the war, but who are acknowledged experts in war strategy. See Bush invites his critics to a war council at Camp David).
As young pastors we should run our plans past a wise pastor friend before we decide to rip all the pews out of the sanctuary. Our initial sense is that we will be greeted as liberators from the status quo, but then again, the response might be mixed. And if that wise older pastor counsels caution, will we discount the advice because he is old and out of touch, or will we take that counsel as an invitation to sharper reflection on the pros and cons of our approach?
At my church, I was a bit frustrated that so few people were attending from the surrounding neighborhood. "Something should be done" I thought, "and I guess I should do it since no one else is." (Ah, the mixture of passion, pride and ignorance.) I began making plans. Fortunately, I was in the habit of briefing my senior pastor weekly on my projects and plans. He gently described to me the efforts that had been made over the last thirty years to reach out to the surrounding neighborhood.
Thankfully, my "aha" moment occurred in his office rather than on one of our neighbor's doorsteps. His narrative helped me see that my instincts were good but any new attempt would need to take into account that many of the neighbors may have had negative experiences with outreach attempts in the past. We ended up giving each neighbor a free Christmas poinsettia plant with a friendly note to thank them for their patience with all the traffic and parking problems that our church generated. It warmed up some relationships that had been cold.
When we sincerely seek out the opinions of others, they will at times say things that jar us - that do not fit with our nicely arranged plans. It is easy to dismiss them as negative or vision-challenged, but if we dismiss them prematurely we endanger ourselves and our flock.
Andy Rowell will be posting more lessons from George W. Bush in part 2 of The President & The Pastor.