Speaking of Leadership – Gawain de Leeuw (part 2)

Father Gawain de Leeuw was ordained to the priesthood in 1996, serving churches in SeattleKorea, 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. Part one of this interview was posted here.

JS: Why do you think that some of the more evangelical, non-mainline Christian churches have been so successful?

GdL: I think there are several reasons for that. One is that they often start from scratch. With mainline churches, however, you begin with a huge physical plant that you have to invest in and take care of. You also have to spend money for a full-time priest and you have to spend money on church growth.

Many of the churches that are mega churches, they start with an economy of scale that’s very modest. They rent out a movie theatre or they rent out a room at the YMCA. The pastor at the beginning is working part-time. So they’re able to build gradually and they have a plan to do that. That’s one part of it.

But another part is that their understanding of a pastor’s role is different. In mainline churches, the pastor’s really there for the congregation and to care for their needs. But in fundamentalist or evangelical mega churches, the pastor is really out there trying to be in the community, changing people’s lives. There’s more of a willingness to let the pastor create structures and build institutions, which is a little bit different from, say, expecting a priest to do all the visiting and then all the therapy and all the counseling. So the expectations of the role of the priest is very different.

Also evangelical churches are much more open about using technology. Their sermons are less theological and more about how to live. So, they’ve actually been able to tap into some very practical needs of their local communities, which I think that mainline churches have been slower to do. One of the things that mega churches do is that they do studies about what communities need.

JS: They do marketing.

GdL: They do marketing. And what’s wrong with marketing? It’s sharing the gospel.  It’s figuring out what a community’s deepest challenges are. For example, I’ve discovered over the last year that I have five families in my congregation dealing with issues of caring for their parents. So we’re setting up a program where we have a counselor who’s trained to work specially with the children of parents who are infirm, and so on; and we have a lawyer who works as a hospice care provider to give workshops here and then we’ll open it up to the community, because other folks are going through those same issues.

JS: And that gives you an offering that other churches don’t have, and a way to get outsiders to encounter St. Bart’s and maybe decide that this is a place they want to worship, because they’re not going to just walk through the door some Sunday.

GdL: That’s right. We’re addressing a need because we’ve been listening to the community. I also think one thing that mainline churches and priests are going to need to do is enable the laity to do the work of churches out in the community. One of our parishioners is a member of an interfaith community group, and I’ve given her the authority to represent St Bart’s in that capacity. She’s married to a Jewish man, they have kids, they sometimes go to a synagogue, and they’re active in that community, and I’ve told her, “When you have these interfaith meetings, you have the authority of St Bart’s, you can speak for us, and if you have any questions about what that means, we can talk about that and I can coach you.” Or if someone decides they have an issue with city hall and they want to represent St Bart’s, I can talk them through the issue, and they can be a part of the community trying to create more civil discourse, ask harder questions. But I’m giving them power in the community, and that might create a ripple effect where we become at least more visible and more present, because we’ve empowered people in this community of St. Bart’s.

JS: I know you’ve talked about churches needing a strategic plan or vision, and most people don’t think about priests doing that. You know, you’re in White Plains, and you ask yourself, how many people live in White Plains? Of these, how many already belong to a church and how many are left over? This leaves the amount of people I could potentially have at my church, and all that stuff. You know, if you were a small business owner, you would have gone through this exercise from the very start: how many people would want to buy widget X? Which tells me things like how many widget Xs to make, what my cost structure would need to be, profit models, marketing budgets—all of that kind of thing. People don’t think that a priest would have to face this, but you have all these same concerns. Yet you’re expected to operate without the same info as a small business owner, and if you try to get it, your peers look at you like, “You’re a priest: why are you concerned about all this non-priest stuff?” What have some of your struggles been in this area, in trying to set up the vision or plan for St. Bart’s?

GdL: Couple of things. First, time and resource management. Both of these are challenging for all clergy partially because, if you’re expected to do a lot of the visiting or a lot of the planning for education, then you have limited time to do the strategic planning.

Second, asking people to steward their resources to give to a congregation. Because people do this out of love and out of commitment, so do they want to give to the plant, do they want to fund my salary, or do they want to fund the things that will create church growth? And all of that requires almost half a million dollars if you really want to have an effective church that is taking care of the physical plant, pays its staff fairly, and is growing. And then people have to ask themselves, is it worth it?

Given this, one of the primary roles of the priest is to say, “This is our vision, and these are the tasks we need to do as a community to enact that vision, one year down the road, or five years down the road, ten years down the road.” So in some ways the role of the priest is almost to be the consultant to the congregation, telling them, “You have ten years to do this, these are the kinds of things that you can do, and I’ll be the task master.” But in the end, it can’t just be me or I’ll kill myself, and you’ll kill me, or I’ll kill you (laugh). But I can say that these are the things we need to do to get there and ask if we’re willing to allocate the resources. And if congregants need help learning how to do that, can we figure out a way where that’s possible? Do they think it’s worth it? Where are they in their spiritual life so that they believe it is worth it?

And this is the first question, of course, that any priest asks the minute they get to a parish is just that: What’s your vision? Why do people need the church? And why do people need this particular church? Those are sometimes hard questions, but they always have to be in the forefront.

JS: So what would you say is the most important quality that a leader needs to be successful, any kind of leader, not just church leader?

GdL: The one thing?

JS: Maybe not the one thing, but the most important. You need lots of things, but of those, which is the most important?

GdL: I think, broadly speaking, a sense of self knowledge. But the way that it gets lived out is in an ability to listen and an ability to have a sense of humor. I think that a good sense of humor indicates that you know it’s not all about you. And in church settings for priests, they might feel so burdened that they can’t see the absurdity of the situation that they’re in. And if they think that they’re going to save the church, they’re wrong. And there will be times when people will literally ask them to save the church, and the only way they’ll be able to protect themselves is by having that sense of humor. You know, basically recognizing that the world is a crazy place, and things are often imperfect, people will fail, and the way to manage those failures and those challenges is sometimes through laughter. Not to be glib about it, of course, there are always for grief and for sadness and for outrage. But on a daily basis, I think sense of humor is right up there.

JS: Thanks Gawain—appreciate it.

GdL: Thank you.

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