At my first conversation with the Joint Nominating Committee, I was told that MUC has a ‘flat’ ministry team (no designated leader) and how do I feel about that? I remember replying: “I have been in ministry for over 30 years. I don’t think I have a fragile ago and I am not looking to be the ‘kingpin’. However, it’s important that we recognise each of us bring different gifts and have different roles and responsibilities.” For me leadership has never been about titles, positions, structures, or flow charts. Since then, I have been reflecting on what led to MUC to decide on ‘a flat ministry team’ structure. Where did that come from? What was the rationale? I might be wrong which is highly possible, the real issue might be about power and control (?).
Someone once said to me, “The Uniting Church is a non-hierarchical church and so we don’t have leaders.” I think that’s a misreading of what it means to be a non-hierarchical church. To be honest I am not sure that we are truly non-hierarchical. Maybe on paper but not necessarily in practice from my observations and experiences.
I remember many years ago, a colleague of mine said that he didn’t believe that ministers are called to be leaders but simply to be facilitators. I told him I disagree with him. It’s not either/or but both/and. I have been exercising leadership throughout my over thirty years as a minister.
Dance Hall and Balcony
The metaphor of the dance floor and the balcony aptly speaks to the importance of perspective for leaders. It’s about how to gain perspective while in the midst of action. Heifetz and Linksy (in their book ‘Adaptive Leadership’) describe it as “the skill of getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony – an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back in the midst of action and asking – What’s really going on here?”
In his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Heifetz made the point that when leaders periodically get off the dance floor and get up on the balcony, they will be better equipped to see the patterns as well as the flow than when they are right in the middle of the action.
Leadership is both active and reflective. It’s my opinion that too many leaders focus on doing and not enough on reflecting. Good leaders have both eyes on both the detail and big picture. Non-reflective leaders are dangerous.
Being on the dance floor means you are directly in the middle of things and a part of the action. You can see the details; however, it is impossible to see the full picture. To see the full picture, you must move to the balcony where your view is unobstructed, and you can take everything in. Moving to the balcony means taking a step back. Making a conscious effort to regularly spend time on the balcony is a vital skill for you to cultivate in order to have the freedom to grow or lead.
Leadership: It’s Not About Me
I do believe that some people are born leaders and learn throughout life to become better leaders. One of the best lessons I learned was that it is not about me. So many of us have made leadership about us.
Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is not about you. It’s about investing in the growth of others. Leadership is not something you do to people. It’s something you do with people.
I like John the Baptist. Some of us probably think of John as this rather weird guy in the wilderness, wearing clothes made of camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey.
John the Baptist knew that his ministry wasn’t about him. When Jesus showed up and immediately drew a following—many people turned from John to follow Him. John’s loyal disciples struggled with this. They too were used to the attention and now it was gone. But how did John take it? “He must increase, but I must decrease.” I love these words. John got it. He knew it wasn’t about him but the one that was to come. I am afraid some leaders are too self-centred to think beyond themselves.
I believe wholeheartedly that life-giving leadership is about working ourselves out of the picture. It’s not about me, it’s about enabling, empowering, and investing in others. It’s about relinquishing. It’s knowing when to ‘step down’ so that others can ‘step up’. That’s why it’s so important to focus on how we can renew leadership in MUC. That will not happen unless we are prepared to ‘decrease’ so that others might increase.
Yes, there might not be a ‘designated’ leader in the ministry team, but every member of the ministry team has been exercising leadership. A recent good example is my colleague Emma who I believed has provided excellent leadership in overseeing the completion of the Community Mural that we launched on Saturday, 25th June. Of course, she didn’t do it all by herself, but she provided leadership.
Yes, the Uniting Church in Australia is structured around a series of inter-related, non-hierarchical councils but within each of those councils there are leaders exercising leadership. No organisation, including the Church can flourish without good leaders or leadership. One of the other tasks of renewing leadership is also about identifying, encouraging, and empowering others to take up leadership. I believe we all need to have a mindset of how we can ‘decrease’ so that others might ‘increase’.
The antidote for “bad leaders (autocratic leaders)” is not no leaders but better leaders. Likewise, the best response to “bad” theology is better theology, not necessarily secularism.
Shalom, Swee Ann July 2022
 Another misunderstanding some have about “flat ministry team” is sameness. The ministry team members are not the same because each of us have different roles and different responsibilities.
 For me, bad theologies are those that seek to dehumanise, discriminate, disempower, and colonise others who are different.