Wednesday, May 21, 2008


You probably know that important guides for the Christian faith are the Synoptic Gospels.  Synoptic is a word that comes from the Greek meaning literally to "see together."   A "symphony" is when everything sounds together. Synoptic is when we see everything together – such as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, whose accounts of Jesus more or less parallel one another.

The Cabinet and I have found helpful the leadership insights of Gil Rendle from the Alban Institute in Washington.  During one of our sessions Gil stressed the need today in the church for what he called "non-synoptic leadership."  Gil said that in organizations of the past, when there was low complexity and low conflict, leaders could be simply problem solvers.   Here is a problem; here is to fix it.  In the modern world, where problems seem to be so complex, leaders adopted strategic planning. Much energy was spent in thinking through a complex problem and engaging in complex long-term solutions.  

In the complex and conflicted human organization called today's church, Rendle says that leaders can no longer function well with either problem-solving or strategic planning.  It is unproductive in a conflicted organization where people feel very differently about many different subjects to spend so much time negotiating, bargaining, and planning for a distant future.  Now leaders must act, even if they aren't sure if they have a consensus backing them up, even if they are unsure of the results of their actions.  This is "non-synoptic leadership." 

When I was a young pastor, put upon the church with virtually no training in pastoral leadership, an older, more experienced pastor gave me a couple of bits of advice that I have not forgotten.

 "I am sure someone has told you that you shouldn't change anything when you go to a new church for at least a year," he said to me.  Indeed, someone had told me just that. "Well, forget it!  Don't change anything in a new church unless you become convinced that it needs changing!  Change anything you think that needs changing and anything you think you can change without the laity killing you.  Lots of churches are filled with laity who are languishing there, desperate for a pastor to go ahead and change something for the better.  Lots of times we pastors blame our cowardice, or our lack of vision, on the laity, saying that we want to change something, but we can't because of the laity.  We ought to just go ahead and change something and then see what the consequences are."

I was surprised by his advice.

"And don't wait until everybody is on board, and every possible person agrees with you until you act on some issue," was his second bit of advice.  Sometimes we ask people to make a decision about some change and they don't yet know enough about it to make a decision. There are a good number of people that will never be for the change, no matter what.  Waiting for them to be positive about change is to unfairly empower them over the church. "Don't put every move you make to a vote, unless you have to," was his final bit of advice. 

That older pastor was a practitioner of "synoptic leadership" though he did not know it by the name. 

In any difficult issue Gil Rendle said, automatically about 20% of people in the organization are for doing things differently.  About 20% will never be in favor of doing things differently.  That leaves over half the people of the organization who stand a chance of changing their opinion on the matter.  "A pastor can waste a huge amount of time waiting for, and trying to convince the 20% who will never change.  Work on that 60%, and try to give them room to feel positively about the change at their own rate."  These are some of the principles of non –synoptic leadership.

In the Book of Acts the Apostles have the so called "Jerusalem Conference" in which there is "no small debate" over what to do about the inclusion of Gentiles into the church.  We are not given the details, but I am sure that when you have got people like Paul and Peter locked in debate, there was no small debate!  However, the conference ends with a compromise, an agreement of what to do about the Gentiles.  Luke comments, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…" 

I take this as a biblical example of non-synoptic leadership.  The scriptures do not say that everyone at the Conference agreed with the solution.  It does not even say that a majority agreed with the solution.  Rather it said that there was a sense in the meeting that the Holy Spirit was in this, though not everybody could say for sure in what way the Holy Spirit was in this.  It also seemed good to try to keep with the movements of the Holy Spirit to move ahead, even though everyone could not see the ultimate outcome of their decisions.

Thank the Lord that the ultimate outcome of their decision was the church as it has been given to us today.

It has not been given to us to see the ultimate destiny of everything that we are doing in the church today.  We do not have a complete synoptic point of view.  And yet, by the grace of God we don't have to.  We can trust God.  We can attempt to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit and move along, confident that God gives us what we need to be faithful in our own time and place.

 William H. Willimon


Please pray for the work of our Annual Conference, meeting this year at Clearbranch. Our present Annual Conference, in its two-day form is a great example of the fruits of non-synoptic church!


Anonymous said...

That older pastor was a practitioner of "synoptic leadership" though he did not know it by the name.

Shouldn't that read: "That older pastor was a practitioner of 'non-synoptic leadership'..."?

roadtripray said...

Thank you for your observations on this. I agree that you can't let the nay-saying 20% hold back the church. Now if God grants me the courage to do it ...

Unknown said...

Bishop Willimon - I am 24 yrs old and headed to Duke Divinity School in the Fall to begin my MDiv studies. I have only recently begun any discernment regarding my future vocation (in part because my denominatinal affiliation has become somewhat murky as of late - am I an Episcopalian? Am I an Anglican? Do I dare become a Methodist?). My boyfriend (a Methodist and a 1st year student at Duke Div) has begun the ordination process and is interning at a large church in Indianapolis.

Bishop Willimon - I am 24 yrs old and headed to Duke Divinity School in the Fall to begin my MDiv studies. I have only recently begun any discernment regarding my future vocation (in part because my denominational affiliation has become somewhat murky as of late - am I an Episcopalian? Am I an Anglican? Do I dare become a Methodist? Wasn‘t I an Evangelical once?). My boyfriend (a Methodist and a 1st year student at Duke Div) has begun the ordination process and is interning at a large church in Indianapolis.

I wanted to let you know that your thoughts and musings have been of great interest and encouragement to me over the last year. I listen to your podcasts frequently (even though sometimes I find it a bit strange how excited I am to listen to sermons in my spare time!) I have especially appreciated what you (and Hauerwas) have illuminated in regards to the Church being loyal to a different story (The Story) and creating a culture all its own. I've been living in a l'Arche community for the past 2 years and have found that l'Arche is the closest tangible example of the Church (universal and peculiar) that I've ever encountered. I think the Church has so much to learn from the way l'Arche has dealt with and embraced it's strangeness to the surrounding culture. If you have not yet visited a l'Arche community, I would encourage you to do so. I think you would really enjoy the experience.

I am saddened that you will not be at Duke (officially) next year but I wish you all the best in Alabama.

Blessings to you!
Heather Bixler

William H. Willimon said...


You will have a great adventure at Duke Div. Most selective of all our schools. I’m sure that your denominational discernment will be helped along there. I hope that your boyfriend will help God make you a United Methodist! We’ve gotten some great pastors that way.

Have a wonderful first year in seminary. I’m thrilled that my writings have been helpful to you.

William H. Willimon said...

Anonymous, thank you for pointing that out!

Anonymous said...

Among the many themes you address in your blog, Bishop Willmon, is one not overtly stated that is a primary focus for me these day. Your blog seems a good example of the tension that the church lives with as organizational insitution with all that means in seeking to remain viable. And the church seeking to be a counter-empire community of faith created by God through Jesus the Christ. I was brought up short a few years ago by Matthew 20:24-28 regarding church leaders remaining servant leaders and not assuming the title of priest or rabbi. It will do us well to remember what you said about the waiting patiently to listen to the Spirit, which we discern as a community.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the words! I am really anticipating a wonderful experience there. You may actually know my boyfriend - Dave Allen. He graduated from Duke undergrad in '04 and was involved some at the Chapel.
All the best,

William H. Willimon said...

I certainly know Dave, remember him well. What is he doing now? How is he enjoying the Divinity School?


Unknown said...

Dave is doing well and very much enjoyed his first year of Divinity School. I'll let him know you were asking after him.

indymark said...

Thank you very much for the insightful comments on "non-synoptic" leadership. As rector of just such a church here in the "heartland" (Indianapolis)I very strongly resonate with the thoughts offered and thank you for the inspiration to keep moving forward (that is, until the Vestry "says" otherwise!!!)
As a new comer to blogging myself, I offer the following modest effort:

Anonymous said...

Bishop Willimon,
Has Gil Rendle published his thoughts on "Non-synoptic leadership" beyond his reference to it with the cabinet? I have often walked the line between the leadership discerning the vision and the pastor naming it. I'd be interested in his further thoughts on this.

Anonymous said...

hiwvvrBishop Willimon;

This post brings to mind a great story I believe is attributable to you. (and forgive me if the source was Dr. Hauerwas). A distraught member greets the Pastor after the sermon and says, "Pastor, your sermon upset me. I'm not happy." To which the Pastor replies: "Madam, who ever said my job was to make you happy?" The connection to your point on moving ahead in leading the church without worshipping the false gods of strategic planning and consensus building is both clear and very useful. It's exciting to think of all the TIME that would be saved!

The only thing I'd toss into the recipe you've put down here--and it would be a flavoring---not a main ingredient--would be the notion of spiritual engagement. The "test" for moving ahead with a decision would not be---are we or are we not in agreement? ---the "test" would be: Are we all spiritually engaged?

Not necessarily HAPPY---but engaged. I might not LIKE the sermon or the decision. But I'll still be in the pew or still painting the parsonage wall blue when everybody else thought it should be green.

Thanks for this!
Roger Wright

Matthew said...

This is great advice, though hard to put into practice.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bishop! I don't know how I ended up as anonymous (I probably did not do something right - I'm not in the habit of responding to blogs). I don't mind if my name shows - Rev. Michael Redmond. I heard and met you at an event for the pastors of the Central Texas Annual Conference a couple of years ago. I saw you again at GC2008 at a book signing. May God continue to bless all that you do for United Methodism and the universal of church of Jesus Christ.

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