You realize, don’t you?, how much ambivalence most of us have about leaders and leadership. Warren Bennis, for many years president of the University of Cincinnati and a noted expert on leadership, wrote a fine but troubling book a few years ago entitled Why Leaders Can’t Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues. He talks about the countervailing pressures in our culture, both for and against strong, creative leaders. Simultaneously, we seek and sabotage leadership. We want innovative solutions to our problems, but we don’t want anything to change. We want less bureaucracy and more responsiveness, but we cling to the rules and customs which have form the iron bars of the status quo. We want leaders to offer us compelling visions and motivating dreams but we want them to be easy and cheap. We want achievement without effort and heroism without sacrifice. Throughout our culture, we clamor for leadership and then resist it, and the result is that leaders become little more than parrots of their confused constituents, mouthing the often contradictory lines of a script written for them by the latest opinions of the ever-shifting majority.

In churches, leadership often poses a puzzling, intriguing set of questions. We want strong leaders, who bear legitimate authority, but we are allergic to anything which smacks of authoritarianism. We want leaders with at least some charisma, but we don’t want them to think of themselves as local celebrities; we want them to sparkle a little but we don’t want them to live in a spotlight. We want them to get things done efficiently and effectively, but we want them to operate by consensus and collaboration. We want them to be persuasive but not coercive, to suggest but not insist, to set an agenda but not to drive one.

Leadership in a church is like fronting a jazz band: you lay down some tracks, invite improvisation, delight in detours and diversions, and then come back to the central theme. It’s getting the players to play their own best music and, at the same time, to honor the sound the group is trying to produce. And the central theme, always, is the great love of God.