DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Channeling Snakes

Written by: on May 9, 2019

Losing the will to live is a rather common experience of pastors in transitional ministry. If not that extreme, living on the edge of “losing your mind” is a routine occurrence. Consequently, Diane Zemke’s book, Being SMART about Congregational Change, could easily be something of a godsend to church leaders, assuming they read it early in their ministry.[1] The book is not an instruction manual, but rather emphasises being smart, astute and aware as a ministry leader.

Zemke implicitly points out the language is essential when working through transition, and if not considered carefully it can create unnecessary problems. Ultimately, transition in church life and ministry is about more than just renewal and change. It is about becoming more than we have merely settled to be.

“At its heart, renewal is about re-examining and updating congregational culture and narratives. It’s about sorting through all the pieces of the culture and narrative and deciding what can be kept and what must be adapted or left behind.”[2]

Words have psychological attachments that are less nuanced than they should be. Change often interpreted as unwarranted, abrupt, and self-serving for the ministry leader and tends to draw battle lines. Church renewal should have spiritual, pastoral and theological shades that are understood on both sides before potential Christian conflict arises – and Christian leaders should equally comprehend it.[3]

Zemke requires that leaders understand their people and take the time to do so. However, that understanding is more than superficial; it requires seeing the past, looking at community distinctives, engaging the shared historical narratives and knowing the lifecycles that got them to where they are. It is also understands who the gatekeeper and shareholders are; Zemke calls these groups ‘clans’ and ‘bureaucracies’; [4] none of which see eye-to-eye and tend to understand their role as protecting and defending the past and the story it tells.

With Harry Fritzenschaft, the word ‘adaptive’ stood out, not so much just for the leader, but to acknowledge that adaptation has already taken many forms. Churches adapt to decline, they adapt to leadership vacuums, and they adapt to conflict; none of which is always done well. Subsequently, new leaders who wish to engage with change must have the ability, confidence and leadership tools to adapt their own ministry to the new and complex human world they find themselves navigating. Moreover, to that end, the book is a handy tool.

The section on self-care was welcome, and the short chapter on the issues facing women in leadership and change management was equally welcome, though I can hardly make a comment on that front, excepting to say, women face resistance (passive and aggressive) that I do not face.

Yet, what is missing from the book is perhaps the most problematic issue church leaders face: there is no mention of the sociopaths, narcissists, and issues surrounding mental health that too often plague leadership groups in churches – or any organisation for that matter. Leadership books seem to assume that congregations are made up of well educated functioning human beings who, with the correct amount stunning leadership, will flourish. That is not the case. And perhaps that’s where adaptive leadership is most important.

While I was the senior leader at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, I discovered that many of our congregants and church leaders suffered from varying degrees of Asperger’s syndrome. The question was why? Why such an imbalance? The reason was liturgical. Cathedrals have a worship style that follows a strict liturgical format, and that means predictability. The church calendar is fixed year to year, and indeed the lectionary means teaching is likewise determined week by week. For people on the Autistic spectrum, such worship reliability means security and safety for their mental health. However, it also meant that change was a threat that was not going to be navigated with speed or ease. Also, many of those people were on the leadership board of the church. Again, I have navigated church conflict with leadership groups infiltrated by marginally functioning sociopaths who were hell-bent on getting their way at the expense of community.

So, who trains pastoral leaders for situations where rationality, structure and good process do not result in good outcomes because of the people they work with? In most cases there is very little training, and there is very little support either. So, I am left wondering why such books are not written. Then again, leaders can be narcissistic sociopaths too. Maybe those books are not written just in case we recognise ourselves.

Another area missing from the book is the existence of multiculturalism in the change process. Zemke mentions it in passing by looking at feminism and women from other cultures when thinking about ‘debate’ as being very male and western,[5] yet the topic is not covered directly. Perhaps that is an Americanism I am missing as a New Zealander? Books like The Culture Map that we reviewed earlier, indeed attended to that issue more directly, but not in the context of change.[6] Multiculturalism is a ‘thing’ that is growing across the globe – and it is complicated.

If I were going to apply a biblical verse to the book it would be Matthew 10:16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” I’ll stop there, the following verses are bit depressing.


[1] Diane Zemke, Being Smart About Congregational Change, Kindle ed., 2014 (Create Space Independent Publishing, 2014).

[2] Ibid. loc 764

[3] Ibid. loc 47

[4] Ibid. loc 266

[5] Ibid. loc 1525

[6] Erin Meyer. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Edition

Cited Works

Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016. Kindle Edition

Zemke, Diane. Being Smart About Congregational Change. Kindle ed. 2014, Create Space Independent Publishing, 2014.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

13 responses to “Channeling Snakes”

  1. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Stimulating and entertaining post as usual. Among many wonderful points you made I was most struck by, “Leadership books seem to assume that congregations are made up of well educated functioning human beings who, with the correct amount stunning leadership, will flourish.” I am reminded of Haidt’s construct of the elephant and the rider. That is people of a congregation have come to their preferences from the “beast” within and not primarily through rational thought processes. This is why more logic and better communication do not typically resolve church conflict (especially if these individuals are in influential positions of leadership.) Long term investment in relational understanding is needful in an attempt of adaptive collaborative leadership. Digby, to your point as to why these “from the trenches” leadership books have not been written – you have not published them yet!

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Thanks, Harry. Long term investment is necessary but also fraught. As Jenn pointed out, long term is difficult when your congregation is so transient. Also, people often want action and change without the need for investment and time, which I think we read about earlier in “Consumer Christianity”. Which is why you focus on adaptability is so important.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Great post. 1st it seems like you need to write that book :), second please stop self-identifying as a sociopath in your post, it’s not healthy!

    On a serious note, multiculturalism is a thing, especially in Gen Z. I find in America most churches don’t resemble the community at large but the committee the Pastor wants it to be. Therefore you can live in a diverse place and only have one group in your church. Much like being absent from the book, it is absent in pulpits at large (in America at less) and might be the answer to why she didn’t write about it.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Mario, I am working all my “….paths”. You’ll be pleased to know I’m adding more each year. They key is perfecting them. I’m learning to live the old saying, “if you can’t beat them, join them”.
      I’m guessing you are probably right. Church leadership can be rather boutique when it comes to being monocultural in multi-ethnicity contexts.

  3. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Great insight on what is missing, Digby. I had never considered the need of people groups who rely on consistency for stability. It sounds like there is a new book to be written in your future!

    I also agree about multiculturalism. I have found it wise to get all such resources in front of our key non-anglo leaders and get their feedback before making sweeping recommendations as their context sees these matters quite differently.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Actually Tammy, it hadn’t really occurred to me until after I left. It was an interesting pastoral reflection that mental health issues and disabilities can often frame a church community, making the necessity for change less about relevance and social engagement and more about situational incarnation – something I am trying to get my head around in my current context (among other things).

  4. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Digby, great post. You even set us up for next weeks reading with your closing Bible quote.

    Regarding multiculturalism . . . something that is happening in the Presbyterian Church is that some church communities are merging together to form one larger body. These communities often have different foundational myth, cultural, even liturgical history, and how the process of how this “rebirth” is still a work in progress. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Jacob, all that is very true in mainline churches here in New Zealand. It’s no easy task and it seems like we are often living out the issues the Jerusalem Council had to address in Acts 15. What goes around comes around, it’s just unfamiliar to middle-class Western Christians. Once upon a time cross-cultural mission was something that sent people overseas to address. Then we just sent them across town, now we’re doing in our own context. It challenges leadership, it challenges ministry, it challenges relationships and it sure a h@#$ challenges individuals. That’s why we are all doing GLobal Leadership Perspectives!

  5. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I appreciate you drawing out that “Zemke requires that leaders understand their people and take the time to do so.” One of the challenges I’ve faced over the years is that in my efforts to be an empowering, collaborative leader, I spend considerable time getting to know people before really suggesting a direction. The challenge is that so few people want to take time. And church turnover with the younger generations is quicker and quicker. How do we slow the church down in a hyper-speed culture? And what about the prevalence of mental health problems in the church? Can we nurture environments that are accomodating and not controlled by such people? Where do we find the training to know how to draw healthy, safety boundaries? There are far too many things seminary didn’t cover.

  6. Digby Wilkinson says:

    YEP, the whole transient thing is a problem. Then there’s the transient intelligence (here one minute and gone the next when it’s all too difficult). And, like you say, many people just can’t be bothered or don’t want to invest time and energy (consumer Christianity). Mental health and social disorders just add to the fun. So, what would Jesus do? What did Jesus do? What do you think the mental health status of the disciples was? I’m hoping, terrible.

  7. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    It’s interesting that Jesus did a lot of wondering with whoever stuck by rather than settling down, building a home base and fundraising to maintain it. Then the early church kept using homes. If churches weren’t buildings, there would be no such thing as a church ‘closing’. We would just be broken people following, learning, teaching, performing miracles and caring for the poor.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      I used to wonder the same thing until I travelled through turkey looking at 2nd century Christian worship spaces 100 feet under ground to avoid persecution. People lived together in community but built these beautiful and elaborate frescoed sacred spaces. It is true that community has little to do with buildings, but buildings (especially sacred ones) are equally part of our human expression. Religious architecture is a really interesting study. Sometime I wonder if our fundraising problem isn’t so much fundraising but rather we no longer build anything inspirational. #sagradafamila. When I was the Cathedral, the most inspirational place that drew visitors was our tiny chapel for 40 people. It was an amazing old space where young and old would sit for hours each week. When function takes the place of form, we lose something decidedly human and sacred.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Sorry, typing from my phone.

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