A friend of mine referenced a paper by Scott Cormode called “Multi-layered Leadership: The Christian Leader as Builder, Shepherd, and Gardener.” I was intrigued by her allusions to the paper so I decided to read it myself. Cormode’s paper is definitely worth reading. I’ll try to summarize his thoughts below followed by a couple of my own comments.
Cormode begins by discussing how Christian leadership has argued between what he calls the Builder model (structural) and Shepherd model (interpersonal) of leadership. However, he contends that the debate between these two models misses the point by making false assumptions about solutions, programs and empowerment. Cormode states that solutions rarely exist for our most important problems, programs often accomplish little and most people don’t want to be empowered.
Although these two models are the most prevalent leadership styles in American Christianity, they actually fail in certain organizational conditions that are quite common to churches. These conditions are what scholars call “ambiguity” and “adaptive change.”
First, ambiguity refers to organizational conditions of unclear goals, uncertain technologies and multiple constituencies. Despite common business wisdom, it is impossible to clarify and measure the ultimate goals of a congregation. Spiritual growth and justice cannot be quantifiably measured. Also, the technologies or means to accomplish a congregation’s goals are not guaranteed to succeed. A perfectly executed program may still fail because of factors outside the congregation’s control. And each congregation consists of multiple constituencies with differing goals and measurements of success. Cormode summarizes, “In short, ambiguity means that a congregation’s most cherished goals are beyond our capacity to understand, its most trusted technologies do not lead to predictable ends, and its various constituencies have conflicting interpretations of success and failure.”
Second, adaptive change are issues that challenge our deeply held beliefs and values that have made us successful and relevant. These challenges cannot be solved through “technology.” Rather, they require people to discern and embrace new roles, new relationships, new values, new behavior and new approaches to work. These challenges require people to change the way they see the world.
A third way of leadership, what Cormode calls the meaning-making Gardener model, is needed. The Gardener model inspires action by making meaning. The leader is the “theological interpreter,” a prophet who points to God. “The Gardener plants vocabulary, sows stories and cultivates theological categories that bear fruit when the congregation uses those words, stories and categories to interpret their world.” When people have a new view of the world, they will take new action. This model relies heavily on stories and rituals.
The Builder views organizations as structures. The Shepherd views organizations as communities. But the Gardener views organizations as cultures. The Gardener helps the congregation construct meaning by properly selecting stories to create an interpretative grid. The Gardener selects stories from Scripture and stories from the congregation’s history to lay beside various aspects of the congregation’s current unfolding story to help them construct meaning about God, themselves and the world. Therefore, the principal work of ministry is cultivating this kind of learning environment.
Cormode then argues that leaders must view all three models as “frames” of reference and learn to work simultaneously in all three. Many circumstance facing congregations have aspects that require the Builder frame to define roles and set a clear plan of action, the Shepherd frame to empower people for nurturing relationships, and the Gardner frame to construct new beliefs, values and meaning that form the core of the congregation’s identity and action.
I think Cormode’s paper has some good strengths as well as significant weaknesses. Probably the greatest strength is his contribution of the “third way” of the Gardener leadership model. I have come to a strong conviction that people need help constructing meaning in their world. This is one reason why I always refer to God’s Story as the backdrop to everything I teach. Personal stories and communal stories must be rooted in and inflated with meaning from the larger narrative revealed in Scripture. As NT Wright has pointed out, many Christians can easily check off their list of doctrines, but incorrectly connect these doctrines into any resemblance of the biblical narrative.
A second strength is Cormode’s insistence that leaders must learn to work in all three frames of leadership simultaneously. Leadership challenges are complex and cannot be addressed by simplistic methods.
However, Cormode’s paper has some weaknesses. I’ll mention three. First, the Gardener’s style of meaning-making can easily turn into manipulation or worse. Stories are powerful. And such power can be used for good or evil. The Gardener must be especially guarded against modernity’s temptation to use stories to promote one’s agenda and power-base and postmodernity’s temptation to deconstruct all stories, and therefore self, into a morass of conflicting forces and impulses. The Gardener must help people construct meaning around Reality. In this light, the Gardener must always be wary of his or her use of such power and must constantly submit himself or herself and the community to God’s larger, grander narrative.
Second, in comparing the three styles, Cormode likens the Builder to Nehemiah and Jethro, the Shepherd to Jesus, and the Gardner to Nathan the prophet. Is Cormode saying that Jesus’ leadership is therefore secondary to the Gardener’s style? First, it could be argued that if Jesus’ style was the Shepherd’s style, it was necessary for his specific historical context. However, I think Cormode misinterprets Jesus’ style altogether. As NT Wright has pointed out, especially in The Challenge of Jesus, Jesus was engaged in retelling God’s and Israel’s story. He was subverting Israel’s long-held and cherished symbols with renewed symbols of his own. He was also climaxing God’s Story, but in a fresh, innovative and completely unexpected way. In fact, I think I could confidently argue that Jesus engaged in the multi-layered leadership that Cormode recommends in his paper’s conclusion.
Third, Cormode’s ideas on leadership doesn’t adequately address Jesus’ redefinition of political power in Mark 10:41-45. Leadership is primarily not about influence or mobilizing people to do something. It is about sacrificially serving others, becoming a slave of all. Cormode’s recommendation of a multi-layered leadership can help Christian leaders become this kind of servant and contribute to Jesus’ redefinition of power. However, it’s my opinion that he doesn’t devote enough space, if any, to this issue in his paper.