Speaking of Leadership – Gawain de Leeuw

Father Gawain de Leeuw was ordained to the priesthood in 1996, serving churches in Seattle, Korea, and White Plains. He was raised in Rochester New York, to a multi-faith family. He was graduated with a degree in Philosophy, cum laude, at Oberlin College in 1991, awarded his Master in Divinity degree at the University of Chicago in 1995, and received his Anglican Studies certificate at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church. He was graduated with his Doctor in Ministry in Congregational Development at Seabury-Western Seminary in 2010. After ordination, he received the Luce Scholar’s award, serving the English Mission at the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul and teaching liturgical theology at Anglican University. He has been trained in Leadership, Authority and Organization at the Tavistock Institute and facilitative leadership and coaching at the Interaction Institute for Social Change. He has done his clinical pastoral work at Roosevelt-St Luke’s hospital and at the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago. He has written for the Anglican Theological Review, The Witness, SoMA magazine and Salsa New York. He has served as the chair of the Committee for the formation of a Credit Union, and is currently the Dean of the Westchester Central Clericus, and president of the White Plains Religious Leaders. He serves on the board of the Westchester Housing Action Council and Meals on Wheels. He is a founding member of the Garrison Institute’s Clergy Initiative. He is also a Rotarian. When he is finished with his daily work, he is occasionally found at the Lazy Boy Saloon enjoying a Rogue, or a Captain Lawrence.

As part of the Speaking of Leadership series, I sat down with Father Gawain de Leeuw recently to talk with him about leadership inside and outside the church.

JS: Tell me the story of how you came to be the rector at St. Bart’s.

GdL: Well, about 10 years ago I was struggling with a church where I was the curate. I had at one point thought that I would run a corporate social justice parish that was active in the community, fairly urban, community-centered, but also with a commitment to worship and music. And that sort of church, Grace Church, was where I had my first cure. However, I didn’t have a rapport or relationship with the rector of the church. She thought that I was depressed, that I needed to get checked into a hospital, and she also thought I was an alcoholic…

JS: Not a stellar recommendation!

GdL: No, not a stellar recommendation at all! So consequently, I took it as feedback, and visited a psychiatrist for a diagnosis, who said  “Well, this is job related anxiety” (laughs). Which made total sense because obviously we didn’t have a very productive relationship, and that was affecting my work as well as her ability to manage me—and there were a lot of deep reasons for that.

At the time I left that position I wasn’t sure if I would remain a priest, and another priest asked me to support him in his church. When I got to his church –which is this church, St. Bart’s – he was having a very challenging time. It was a very difficult place, and there were some reasons for that: it didn’t have a mission, it had a sense of a very glorious and prosperous past, and it was still working out its issues with previous rectors. And although I came in simply to support him, he didn’t quite have the skills then to address the system, and honestly, he had already really been on the way out, and there was much mutual disillusionment.

So, the parish asked if I would stay, and I said, “That’s something that will have to be discussed with the bishop,” because I frankly didn’t know whether or not I was going to have to find other work elsewhere. The bishop thought St. Bart’s seemed like it could be a good place, that it just needed a little bit of love and care because it’s had 14 years of really horrible management…or at least management that didn’t give the church a vision, didn’t excite the parish.

And I’ve been here for 9 years now. But my first 4 years the bishop just said, “Be yourself, love the parish, do visits, and listen.” And that was really good advice, because when I got here, there really wasn’t a sense of vision, most people were really burnt out, and they didn’t know necessarily what they wanted or who they wanted to be. And in a volunteer community you have to have these things, because as a priest, I can’t order people to do things. I really have to develop a sense of vision and which sometimes means I have to hold people’s hands, coach them and really give them a sense of the possible.

JS: Given all that, what would you say some of the challenges you face now are?

GdL: I think one of the big challenges for all churches is that we’re very much in a post-Christian society, which means that the language of church is very unfamiliar. Forty years ago, if a church taught well and opened its doors, you would find people stumbling in because the church was a place where people found community. Church was something that people expected to do on a Sunday. Now we’re in an age where people have other things they want to do: they want to go kayaking, they want to read the NYT, they want to sleep in—we have to compete with that. And that means, for example, we have to be more assertive in saying “We’re here!” We also need to recognize that people will not just join a church and stay because they have to. There has to be something that we offer towards their continued spiritual development.

And then there are some technical things that have to be done: making sure that the plant is taken care of, that there’s good signage, that the worship is powerful, and that individual churches really have a sense of purpose. But when someone walks into a church and it seems like a museum or like a club, people have better things to do. So the challenge for any Christian leader, especially mainline churches that do not have fundamentalist interpretations of scripture, and are neutral in the culture wars, is to remind people what the church is for. Doing that requires several different steps, several different tasks.

JS: You said that if someone walks into a church and it seems like a museum or a club, it’s a problem. What should it feel like when they walk in?

GdL: I don’t think there’s a universal answer to that. But a sense of anticipation and joy – reverence – are worthy experiences. A church should seem exciting at the very least. Not necessarily entertainment, but it should seem serious that these are people who are doing something interesting. There should be some sense of life and activity in the church, so that when people walk in, they witness that we care about what is going on in worship, and that people care for each other, and are dedicated to the church. And that’s sort of a real challenge in this day and age when people are often only dedicated to things for short periods of time. To encourage people to be dedicated for a year or two years, or a lifetime, is incredibly challenging. I think excitement or passion are things that the church has trouble encouraging when it has no vision. Sometimes it’s hard for people to sense the very moment they walk in, but if you have a powerful worship service that people are excited about, I think they have a window into the soul of that particular church.

JS: People don’t think about the fact that you’ve got all the concerns of a CEO: staff, finances, physical plant, operations, marketing. In your day-to-day job, how do you balance all that with the stuff folks traditionally think of as the role of a priest, i.e., being the ambassador of God on earth and a spiritual leader, with all the spiritual baggage a CEO doesn’t have?

GdL: Well that’s a very good question, because what they’re finding is that pastors are suffering from burnout because pastors feel that they have to do it all. Small churches can be, in this fashion, more difficult to manage than large churches. I may have to be the graphic designer, and train the ushers, write the newsletter, visit, arrange bible study, and be the kind of person that’s going to draw people into the church. The thing is, that priests can’t do it all, and what I think most churches are learning is how to be able to build leadership within the congregation. And so the job of the priest should not be to do it all, although that is exactly what’s expected of them, but to enable and empower people to take on those leadership roles in the church. However, this entails a lot of mentoring, a lot of coaching, a lot of reminding people of the common task, of saying to them, “These are things that need to be done if we care about this institution, so how can we do it?”

Desmond Tutu once said that the job of Anglicans is to meet, and so we meet. One of my primary roles is to get people together and to meet to solve a problem; to get all the stakeholders in a room and we try to create a plan, and we implement it, just like you would in any corporation. The challenge is that I do it on people’s spare time, so that’s why the mission has to be that much more clear. They have to have a sense that this is worthwhile.

And even though it seems like a small thing, it changes things. So in many ways the job of the priest is changing from being a therapist to being a coach, from being a parish administrator to being almost the parish cheerleader or the parish trainer. My job is really about enabling leadership so that I allow the priesthood of all believers to live into their own vocations. Because every person’s vocation can be a call from God—it’s not simply the ordained priesthood where God calls people.

I try to stoke the fires under other people, and that’s really the only way to protect priests from burnout and also to give the church life. That’s the shift that many clergy find hard to make, often because they tend to be personality types that want to be loved, that want to be needed. But probably the better way—and maybe the more challenging way—is to say, “We’re trying to work our way out of a job, we want other people to feel comfortable visiting, caring, teaching…”

JS: Writing the newsletter.

GdL: Writing the newsletter. Exactly. And by letting some people have that power and taking the risks, we’re doing more for the kingdom than simply assuming that it’s all got to be us priests—that’s just simply not true.

In part two of the interview, Gawain and I discuss his views on the differences between mainline church leadership and “mega church” leadership – and how the role of leader needs to change for mainline churches to remain viable.

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