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Courageous Church Leaders Walk a Tightrope

For congregational leaders, courage is lived out on a rope held taut by the priestly function of the clergy on one end and the prophetic function of the clergy on the other.

Rudolph Giuliani’s popularity suddenly escalated, as well, as he bravely tackled the problems caused by the terrorist attack on New York City. He is reported to have said, “The greater the crisis, the more calmly one must respond.”   <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
One brand of courage involves forcing oneself to think clearly, make rational decisions and respond hopefully in the midst of a crisis. We call this “courage” because, while we hope that we would respond with similar resolve if faced with a similar crisis, we just do not know how we would react until faced with the situation ourselves. 
Many pastors and congregational leaders also regularly respond courageously in the midst of crises. Often, congregations and their leaders become beacons of benevolence and stations of triage following tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.   
Leaders who respond with fortitude in such situations deserve our admiration for their courage and bravery. Congregations that respond to natural disasters often portray the church at its best, putting on public display the human capital that may have existed for years in a particular congregation, but simply lacked opportunity. 
Another kind of courage stems from making a statement or performing an act in the midst of an ongoing struggle rather than in the midst of a newly formed crisis. This form of courage can be a bit more complicated.   
America often sends conflicting messages to its leaders about such situations. Political leaders in particular often receive clashing signals over what to do. “Stand up for your convictions,” we shout, “but do not neglect my convictions, my views, my causes or my concerns.”   
We want our leaders to render the courage to speak the unusual word or perform the extraordinary act, but we also want our leaders to represent our views in the process. The inherent anomaly is that the courageous word or deed is only courageous because few others have been willing to speak it or do it. 
Valuing both courage and democracy can place the leader in a precarious position. By definition, courage involves doing the minority thing. It means taking the minority stance. It involves saying what few will say, doing what no one else will do, defending those no one else will defend and helping those others have passed by. While many people may have thought about responding before, the one who does it first is the one laden with courage and thus labeled courageous.   
For congregational leaders, this type of courage is lived out on a rope held taut by the priestly function of the clergy on one end and the prophetic function of the clergy on the other. Pastors constantly struggle between providing too much cognitive dissonance so as to “lose their voice” and too little cognitive dissonance so as to maintain the status quo.   
Walking into worship with the first person of a different color ever to enter the building, convincing your committee to commit dollars to an AIDS ministry, volunteering in a nearby prison, saying yes to an electric guitar in the sanctuary are all courageous acts … not because no one else has ever thought of those things, but because you would be among the first to do so in your setting.   
Performing too many courageous acts can cause one’s influence to shrink quickly. Muzzling the prophet forever tempts one to abandon faithful ministry altogether. It is not easy being courageous, especially in the church.   
Jeff Woods is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Ohio.
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Better Than Success: 8 Principles of Faithful Leadership
We’ve Never Done It Like This Before: 10 Creative Approaches to the Same Old Church Tasks
User Friendly Evaluation: Improving the Work of Pastors, Programs and Laity