Vol 4: 29 Still Hung Up on Leadership: Finding a Spirit-led Way of Leading

Alan Roxburgh in a recent Missional Network (October 23, 2013) newsletter writes,

“There isn’t an executive leader I’ve met recently who doesn’t recognize that practically everything about their jobs and roles has changed. They can describe how things used to work but confess they have few clues about how to lead in this new space. Leaders find themselves in a ‘space between.’ This is a space between the world in which we were formed and this indefinable territory our churches now have to navigate. What is coming into focus for leaders I talk with is that this space between is more than a stopping off place while we wait for the fog to clear; it’s the new normal and will be so for a long time to come.

Our future is in leading in this space between. The pressing question I am asked over and over is “How does one lead in this space?”

I guess I should not be baffled by this, but I keep wondering why leaders keep asking this question. Inherent within this question is not only a fear of what to do next, but also an arrogance in which the leader assumes that they are responsible for getting the leading done. Indeed, leading is a spiritual gift that needs to be exercised, but I think our arrogance lies in our continually buying into the myth that we are the leaders.

In some way being leaders is what we are or think we are because the people we are called to serve look to us for leadership – and so we must be the leaders.

In my own pastoral journey – I was equipped to pastor during the heyday of the Church Growth movement – I came to realize the way I was leading more often did harm to the people I was pastoring. And the more I thought leading and being the leader was my responsibility, the more harm I ended up doing – as well as being harmed in the process.

It took about a fifteen year “wandering in the desert” for me to discover a different way of exercising the gift of leading that shaped me to be a very different kind of pastor – uncovering the myth of leadership in which being the leader is our responsibility.

I know that this myth is still very much alive and the arrogance that accompanies it because in talking with a worship pastor a few weeks ago, just sharing our stories, our journeys, he expressed how refreshing it was to hear a different way to exercise the gift of leading in the body of Christ that nurtures a community to participate with God in God’s redemptive mission.

Alan is right, for those of us who buy into the present leadership paradigm, we are struggling navigating this between space. But, why? Why is it so hard to navigate this space? Why is so hard? I believe it is so hard because we are unwilling to let go of our own desire to exert control, to shape the process in ways which we think the direction of ministry and church ought to go.

Yet, in my own discovering of becoming willing to give up control of where church and ministry ought to go, I discovered that there was no between space, but rather spaces of discovery in learning to discern and move with the Spirit of God.

“How does one lead in this space?” I think is the wrong question – for to ask this question is one way to perpetuate the need for our being in control as we lead. Rather, the question that I find to be more helpful in dealing with our sin of “take charge” or “needing to control” leadership is: how do we follow the Spirit in this new space we find ourselves?

Indeed, this is “God’s space” as Alan remarks, and as such it is “creative space.” For in this space, as we learn to discern and follow the Spirit’s moving, the Spirit’s leading, the Holy Spirit invites us to engage in new and different ways of exercising the gift of leading – one that I submit is more rooted in a posture of servantship than leadership. In doing so, as Alan expresses, “the Spirit is disrupting our established leadership habits and inviting us to enter this strange, disorienting space between.”

A few years back our Church Board was challenged to explore what discerning and following the Spirit’s lead entailed. We got rid of goal setting and developing strategic plans. Instead we developed a strategic way of thinking that sought to discern and discover where the Spirit was moving in us, amongst us, and around us so that we might step out in participating with God in God’s mission in our neighborhood.

This transition did not come easy. We asked ourselves, “won’t this be chaotic?” And we discovered in one sense it was, especially as we tried to exert our control into the situation. Chaos ensued if we tried to take charge of where the Spirit was leading. But as we learned to discern and follow the Spirit’s lead, not only did we discover a sense of peace, we also discovered we were being led into ministry situations and relationships we would never have considered. What we learned and are still learning is that the Spirit has a pretty good handle of how to lead us as a community of Christ.

In this way of following after the Spirit, there is still a place for the exercising of the gift of leading for the pastoral team, but rather than being one that controls what is going on in the community, it is one in which we are guiding the people within our congregation to attend to God and to what God is doing. We do this by encouraging deepening our communicating with God in prayer, of engaging God’s Story and Vision through Scripture engagement, and fostering spiritual conversation among us and between us as we explore where we see God at work in us and around us. This is helping us as a community to discern together where God is moving, helps us to hear the Spirit together and follow the Spirit together. As pastoral team we are leading our community to recognize that the Spirit is leading us and we are learning as a community to follow the Spirit’s lead. As such, we are exploring and discovering creative ways of participating with God in God’s redemptive mission of making all things new.

Let me know what you think. I would be willing to explore with you how this way of leading is shaping us as a community – as we grow as God’s missional people in this creative, Spirit-led between space.

  1. Linda Wiens says:

    Sorry, but I find this article totally incomprehensible. The “between space” is mentioned many times,but it is neither defined nor described. How am I to know such a thing exists? A space between what and what?

    How about just trying to describe the current “realities” in which people with certain positions are supposed to exercise leadership, and in which some people without the title, role or label also exercise leadership?

    • roland says:


      If you click on the Missional Network (October 23, 2013) link it will take you to Roxburgh’s article in which he talks about “between space.” I am responding to his article in my blog. Hope this helps you understand the term better.


  2. diane ratliff says:

    This is a wonderful article for me! I so often think of myself and this God’s journey of mine as placing me “in between” –where I am, and where I am going–my way?-God’s way? or the old by-way???? thank you For me good leadership denotes the gift of opening others up to grow in God (lots of ways all hopefully leading to HIM!!!

  3. Lynne Kuhl says:


    Thank you for this comment on Alan’s commentary. I find the place called ‘in between’ a challenging place to serve God. It is not a place of programing or a place where a defined series of steps are found instead it is the journey. Many of those I have worked with in leadership positions (in the church or in the business setting) had a great road map or finely defined roles and expectations. For the moment in time this worked but life is dynamic and we as people spend more significant time ‘in between’ that next great plan or that next ‘leader’.

    So as I read what both you and Alan have discussed I am encouraged. As Alan stated:

    “Critical to leading in this new space is grasping that this is exactly the location where God has always met us. Throughout the Biblical narratives, as well as at critical moments in the church’s history, God has come to engage us in this space between where our capacities to manage, control, predict and strategize no longer work. Space between is God’s space!”

    In this space I find that walking along side the greater gift than someone either marching in front of me with details of what I am to do or be or being prodded from behind because I am wondering in the ‘in between’ space the better way. Truly this is a place of hope.

    Thank You

  4. Stephen Vanderwoude says:

    First, thank you Roland for this blog post. Finding this to be exactly the challenge we as a church are facing. We have moved with the work of the Spirit in our midst into new and exciting areas of outreach and ministry. Impacting the community for the kingdom, and yet there remain those that struggle with the changes, that desire to remain where they have been and forget that we are always moving into the already not yet reality of ministry according to God’s plan and purpose. First, my understanding of the “in between place” is that it is the space between where we are and were we want to be. Which is to say were God wants us to be, the challenge I see is that when we seek to control we lose sight of God and God’s purpose.

    It strikes me that the uncertainty and instability of being in this “in between place” is so unsettling to the point that often all we do is complain. Israel found themselves in the desert wandering and wondering and complaining about life because they could not embrace what God was doing. And to be honest the thought of eating mana for an undetermined number of days or months would lead me to complain.

    My observation within myself and others is when in this place I find it hard to as you wrote “be attentive to God and what God is doing” and I to slip into the same place Israel was. My question is 1: how do you help guide people to an awareness that being in this difficult place is ok, that just as Israel wandered sometimes we need to wander. 2. is it sufficient to keep refocusing people back to God and God’s work, is there more to do. Even as i type this I realize I am trying to replace waiting on God with doing and thus have perhaps answered my question. Would love to hear others insights and observations on this. Thank you again for the post, it has been a gift from God.

    • Roland says:

      Stephen thanks for your comments and questions. In terms of how you guide people, its a “long obedience in the same direction” kind of thing. I have done this by telling the story of God being with Israel in the desert as a reminder that God is with us even when we are wandering. I also remind my congregation that my role among them is not to tell them so much what God wants of them as to help them, guide them to attend to God, to become aware of where God is working in them, around them. I say my role is to help them see God by pointing out to them where God shows up in their stories, etc. So I have been doing this for 4 or 5 years and slowly different persons in the congregations are beginning to see more and more where God is at work.

      So the above also answers your second question. What goes along with this is realizing that we can becoming impatient in exercising our gift of leading, but what I have come to realize is that the Spirit is leading us and my role in leading is to continually be pointing to the leading of the Spirit. My congregation is discovering that the Spirit is leading us in places we never thought of – and we are discovering that is the way we want it – rather than taking back control from the Spirit and doing it ourselves.

      This takes the anxiety and stress out of our leading as we continually lead by pointing and interpreting what the Spirit of God is doing in our midst. For me this is the kind of leading that is fundamentally missional.

      Would be glad to be in further conversation with you Stephen. By the way, how are you? It was good to hear from you again.


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