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

New Zealand has less people than the Southern Baptist’s – that’s why we are smart!

Written by: on March 7, 2019

Yeah OK, I met these two a couple of years back because Berger and Johnston live just up the road from me and run leadership programmes that I have attended. Nice to read something from people who live in our part of the world. While Johnston is indeed a proper Kiwi, Berger is American. However, like Nicodemus visiting Jesus in first century Palestine, Berger came to New Zealand on sabbatical, saw the light, converted to Kiwi, and never went back. Just saying.

Anyhow, Rooted in Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development, Simple Habits for Complex Times is attuned to the kinds of complexities found in government, public sector and non-profit work. The ongoing use of family issues drawn from the nationwide department of Children and Families seems to make this clear. The illustrations appear to be more American (Berger), but there is a Kiwi feel to the book that is unmistakable as it emphasises a very New Zealand specific cultural egalitarianism (Johnston).

Because New Zealand is small geographically and has a comparatively small population, our diversity socially, academically, culturally and politically make us a melting pot in which there is no way the avoid the often used acronym, VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Berger and Johnston describe VUCA as a global reality, but in countries with a large populous, many of the complexities created by diversity can be ignored by staying within your tribal group, which may consist of millions of people. For example, New Zealand has a population of 4.7 million people, while the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States has 15 Million members. In parts of America, it’s possible to avoid people of difference when your club has twice as many members as a largish pacific country. However, that ability to ‘avoid’ is diminishing globally, which is why this book has become so popular. The voice of New Zealand leadership is making an appearance because we have been living with VUCA for a number of years, especially in Human Services and Non-Profit sectors of society (which includes religious organisations). Thus the ’habits of mind’ found in the book help leaders move forward in the midst of VUCA conditions; not just to survive but rather thrive in unknown and ever-changing territory by engaging with complexity rather than avoiding it. And here’s where Kiwi egalitarianism makes its subversive entrance.  When the authors us phrases like, “keep it simple” and “grow your people to be bigger than your problems” and “support them in their own developmental journeys”, you know you are on a path to shared insight and shared outcomes, which are not manifestations of historic charismatic leadership models.

In fact, the book seeks to confront our historic, cultural approach to leadership personality and even the idea that non-charismatic leadership still needs to look ‘leaderly’. The book nudges leading toward tackling the more rapidly changing and complex organisational and contextual landscape. Berger and Johnston encourage us to think more about what is ‘possible’ than ‘likely’. Consequently, they articulate three primary habits of mind that individuals need to nurture to make the shift:

  1. Asking different questions (instead of having the answers),
  2. Taking multiple perspectives (even when we disagree), and
  3. Seeing systems (including emergence).

I thought the first two were somewhat self-evident, but then I live in the context from which Johnston, particularly, lives and writes. However, the third grabbed my attention: ‘Seeing the systems’ moves me away from tales of cause and effect.

One key mistake we make is to fill in the connection between cause and effect with very little data. We dislike knowing about an effect without a sense of cause—it offends our sense of story. So we take whatever data we have and create a causal story. It doesn’t matter that the story is missing pieces—as long as we can tie the pieces together (and our brains will fill in the missing bits), we’ll be able to make a satisfying story we can believe in.[2]

This of course shapes the way leaders see the past in order to make a way in to the future. The problem is, the story we create may emphasise the wrong parts of the story in order to create an outcome that we want, not one that is required. Hence, searching for the missing pieces of the story may be more crucial, but not necessarily convenient. However, such wilful ignorance scuttles our ability to lead coherently in a VUCA context. That little piece of information I found rather challenging as I do it frequently – tell the story of the past in such a way that it justifies (of at least makes sense of) what is ahead. Connect that behaviour with ‘retrospective coherence’ (we look back at something and can suddenly make sense of it all) and there’s a problem. Retrospective coherence encourages an arrogance as we ask why the previous generation of leaders couldn’t see what is so plainly obvious to us in retrospect; how did they miss it so badly? In doing so we avoid the VUCA reality in our midst. Somehow, by seeing the problems of the past with such perceived clarity, we become trustworthy prophets of an equally uncertain, complex and ambiguous future – our personal leadership feels in control.

As an antithesis to ‘cause and effect’ storytelling and the inherent abuses of retrospective coherence, the authors use David Snowden’s Cynefin framework, which he describes in the Cognitive Edge. [3]

This involves sorting unpredictable and predictable elements into the complex, the complicated, the chaotic and the simple. The whole point is to understand our ‘present’ reality from different perspectives so that our action comes from a much clearer perspective about ‘what is’. Hence the development of the ‘feedback mindset’.[4] This is where egalitarian thinking appears on the scene; we challenge the assumption that the giver of feedback is the sole possessor of the truth, especially a leader. By shift to questions about ‘what can we learn’ in any given situation we enhance our capacity for listening and seeing more data and often a very different picture. Unfortunately, listening is not a strong point in leadership training – and by listening, I mean, hearing and understanding and absorbing and rethinking.

There is a bit missing from all this though. Most churches and organisations expect their CEO, Pastor or Key Leader to be people who know, “You’re the boss, you decide”, in part because there is a desire to deflect blame. So, though the book provides a new model of leadership, for many leaders there is a long transition to changing expectations around decision making processes. Though it is partially addressed in chapter 8,[5] shared consideration tends to require shared accountability, but transitioning to that kind of culture is not well covered in the book.


[1] Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), Kindle Edition 13

[2] Ibid. 37

[3] Ibid. 43

[4] Ibid. 59ff

[5] Ibid. 217f

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.

9 responses to “New Zealand has less people than the Southern Baptist’s – that’s why we are smart!”

  1. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Great critique about the shared leadership conundrum Digby. In the Presbyterian model, the entire idea is around a shared vision. Pastors are called “Teaching Elders” and the members of the Session, which is the board who helps guide the church are referred to as “Ruling Elders.” This nomenclature is designed to historically, theologically, and practically express a unified crux . . . but when something goes wrong, it gets much trickier.

    Do Kiwi’s have an answer for that too? Thanks!

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hey Jacob. Just got back from eating KFC. I always feel like I’ve dodged a gastric bug when I go there. I keep waiting for the person serving to ask the question, “would you like salmonella sauce with your fries?”
      Shared vision is the easy bit. That’s why we go for it and organisations love it. It’s a bit touch feely and esoteric. You can argue about ideas and possibilities without responsibility. Implementation is a different score. That’s the point where everyone dives straight back the ‘probable’ and away from the ‘possible’. It’s the moment where the great cloud of visionaries dissipate to a few (and possibly one) who actually put thier a** on the line. Have you noticed that? Denominations love that stuff because the bottom dwelling pastor carries the can for the national vision. They are responsible for the outcomes to elders, congregations and denomination henchmen and women (it’s international women’s week). Although, perhaps if women were actually allowed to lead “as women” then the situation might be different. Oddly enough, without being trite, a lot of the renewed critique of leadership and it’s systems is occurring because women are being engaged globally. And quite frankly, it’s cool. Thank the Lord for social evolution. As to your actual question, which I have fudged this far, the answer is yes, sort of. I teach leadership to new pastoral students and we talk about the ethical differences between accountability and responsibility. The trick is to get the to see the difference in application. Organisations and ceo’s Are often held accountable but not responsible. Accountability means wiggling away from the ethics and getting a massive payout. Responsibility is the whip in the tail of accountability. Those responsible are at fault – they go to jail. Guess which group Pastors tend to be in. Watching Trump at work is a classic example of Neanderthal zero sum games. His may have to account for negative outcomes, but he is never responsible – but then few presidents are.
      Knowing the difference means setting vision and implementation with clear sense of what the outcomes will mean and for whom. I make it clear, that setting vision is corporate and responsibility for vision is corporate. Win or lose, try and fail, we are all part of the outcome. I also think we are rediscovering the role of priest and prophet that is a shift away from corporate business leadership. As we are losing our voice in wider society, we are finding a new voice. We are together, responsible before God for one another.
      Sorry, that was very long.

  2. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I agree that transitioning to shared accountability is a key to this shift in thinking. One of the complex issues within the church is the classification of church members. That is, they aren’t employees, so the alignment with corporations is faulty. There is no pay check to keep them there. As pastors, we hope they are not consumers that we are marketing towards, though Miller made a solid argument that such an orientation might be impossible to escape. But we aren’t a social club either. Nor are we a volunteer agency. Back to the question then, how do we create an environment of willingly sticking around when things fail? And then willingly share responsibility for it? How do we need people to identify themselves in relation to the church (as the church?) in order to take this step? I suspect this will take us down the track of ensuring they see themselves as stakeholders.

  3. Mario Hood says:

    1. Awesome post.
    2. How do I become a Kiwi?
    3. Our church as slowly moved to this model of leadership where we have an executive team meeting every week and make all of the “big” decision together. We have taken the posture from the scripture, “It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit” Acts 15:28… so what I’m really saying does this give me enough credit to make the change to Kiwi!

  4. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thank you, Digby. I am with Mario, how do we become a Kiwi?! Your brilliant takeaway that I am going to be pondering awhile is, “Berger and Johnston describe VUCA as a global reality, but in countries with a large populous, many of the complexities created by diversity can be ignored by staying within your tribal group, which may consist of millions of people.”

  5. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby, Without parroting others’ posts, if what Garvey Berger and Johnston are commending has been tooled out in the fires of Kiwi VUCA living, than we all need to change our mascots. How can I get a Kiwi cap? By the way, what is a Kiwi and how does it look emblazoned on athletic gear?

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