Leading with questions

May 15, 2014

I just returned from a learning retreat for the residential (active) bishops of The United Methodist Church. One of our leaders was Marty Linsky. Along with Ronald Heifeitz, they have written the definitive works on adaptive leadership. They both teach that effective leaders are courageous enough to lead with questions. Mr. Linsky taught and modeled this basic tenet of adaptive leadership throughout his time with the bishops.

Leaders do not need to have the answers; leaders must have the right questions. Leaders who have all the answers usually are not good listeners. Leaders who lead with questions are generally equipping God’s people to listen to the prompts of the Holy Spirit deep within them. Forward movement in community emerges from the lives of leaders who are spiritually attuned, humble, and curious. We are called to be a community with others who ask questions, who wonder, and who hope.

In a few short weeks, we will gather in St. Cloud for the 160th session of the Minnesota Annual Conference. Under the theme, “Unleashing  Fearless, Spirit-Led Churches,” we will explore the practices and characteristics that unleash congregations to become more vital, missional faith communities. Rev. Adam Hamilton, Church of the Resurrection’s senior pastor, will be our conference teacher.

Vital, missional churches do not have all the right answers. They do, however, constantly ask themselves the questions that lead to insight, imagination, and innovation—to becoming unleashed!

Several years ago, I was introduced to the following story from Tales of a Magic Monastery by Theophane the Monk. It is a story about a parish priest who seeks out a spiritual director noted for his wisdom. The parish priest writes:

“There’s a monk who will never give you advice, but only a question. I was told his questions could be very helpful. I sought him out.

‘I am a parish priest,’ I said. ‘I’m here on retreat. Could you give me a question?’

‘Ah, yes,’ he answered. ‘My question is:  What do they need?’

I came away disappointed. I spent a few hours with the question, writing out answers, but finally I went back to him.

‘Excuse me. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my ministry during this retreat. Rather, I wanted to think seriously about my spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?’

‘Ah, I see,’ said the monk. ‘Then my question is:  What do they REALLY need?’”

As I reflect on the meaning of this story, it is clear that the spiritual vitality and health of any congregation is inexplicably and intricately interwoven with what those we serve REALLY need. The way to become a fearless, Spirit-led congregation is to listen and respond to those outside our churches who hunger and thirst for love, acceptance, justice, bread, shelter, salvation, new life. If we listen carefully and respond in the pattern of Jesus, we will discover that what we REALLY need is also what our neighbors REALLY need.

The Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City is a United Methodist congregation that is clear about its primary task. It is a fearless, Spirit-led congregation. Members of the congregation are constantly asking themselves the right question:  “How do we turn church inside-out?” As a result, part of their stated mission is to “find a need and fill it; find a hurt and heal it.” Their ministry, including worship, is focused on those who are not yet members. They understand that the key to growth and vitality is servant ministry.

How does a congregation begin to “turn itself inside-out?” How does a congregation draw on the strength of those inside the church to focus on those outside the community of faith? It begins with learning to embrace the right questions. It begins with a fearless attitude and spirit-led hearts—unpretentious, genuine, visionary, Christ-centered, servant-oriented hearts.

I pray for every United Methodist congregation in Minnesota to be “turning itself inside-out.” I pray for every United Methodist congregation in Minnesota to be a servant church—a missional church. I pray for every United Methodist congregation in Minnesota to be asking the question, “What do they REALLY need?” I pray for every United Methodist church in Minnesota to be growing in its capacity to love God and neighbor, reach new people for Christ, and heal a broken world.

The Minnesota Conference has a proud tradition of finding needs and filling them. We will celebrate expressions of this tradition at this annual conference session, including the successful completion of our Imagine No Malaria campaign and the tremendous response to our Million Meals Marathon. We have many congregations that focus on those who are not yet included in the community of faith. We will embrace this mission at this annual conference session with the launch of our Reach · Renew · Rejoice Initiative. We have bold, Spirit-led lay and clergy who lead with questions, not easy answers. We have congregations that daily turn themselves inside out and take fearless, Spirit-led risks to change, innovate, re-invent, sacrifice, serve, and pray for Holy Spirit breakthroughs.

I look forward to seeing many of you in St. Cloud. Together we will embrace the questions that will lead us into a future with hope. Together we will explore the question:  “How do we become an unleashed, fearless, Spirit-led movement of God’s saving grace all across Minnesota?”

May God grant us the courage and wisdom to embrace the challenging questions. How do we turn church inside-out?

Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area.

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