Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shepherd Leadership: Wisdom for Leaders from Psalm 23

As I come to the conclusion of my reading for my upcoming D.Min. Coursework, the last book in the rotation is Shepherd Leadership, a slender tome dedicated to squeezing every last little bit of leadershippyness out of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm.  It's put together by two professors, neither of whom is a bible scholar or a theologian.  One is from the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor and the other a professor of public policy and law at Pepperdine.

I'll be honest.  In reading this book, it was a little difficult retaining an entirely open mind.  It just product.  Leadership books are sellers, and the 23rd Psalm is one of the few bits of the Psalter that are still well known in our culture.  The agent's elevator pitch to the folks at Jossey Bass is just too easy to hear.  "We take the 23rd Psalm, you know, the Lord is My Shepherd, yadda yadda, then we mix in some movie references, a few anecdotes about leaders, a Max Lucado endorsement on back, and bam, I'm telling you, we'll nail the 30-40 Christian business demographic with this baby."

This feeling, unfortunately, was coupled with the fact that the 23rd Psalm is not, at its core, about leadership.   Not human leadership, anyway.

Pretty much the entire book, all 126 pages of it, are keying off off of the image of "shepherd."  This felt forced, in the way that one of those late 90's Saturday Night Live skit-movies felt forced.  Five minutes building off of one premise can be funny.  An hour and a half with one premise?  Not so much.   Adam Sandler still does not get this, unfortunately.  I reached the point in the book when I actually found myself laughing at the sheer absurdity of it.  Take this passage, where we hear about the affection a shepherd has for sheep:
"...shepherding was a high touch activity, and the good shepherd had a name for every one of his sheep...some names, like "Big Boy" or "Little One" referred to the size of the sheep.  Other names like "Hop-Along" or "One Ear" were rooted in something abnormal about the sheep.  Still others, like "Scruffy" or "Feisty" were rooted in the unique personality traits of the sheep."
Beyond the silliness of the whole thing, I found myself wondering how this might work as a means of showing care for a congregation.  I'm sure members of a church would feel the love behind being called "Scruffy" and "Hop-Along."  It was at this point that I started getting the giggles imagining various different names one might also use.   Those giggles were magnified a few pages later by the following graphic:

The idea behind it was not so terrible--view every business-attired being as an immortal soul--but I found myself having difficulty taking the book seriously.

So I set it down, got a nice night's sleep, and started up again.

I realized, after having a chance to reflect on it further, that the primary problem I was having with the book was that I was mistakenly assuming it was a work of theology.  It is not.  It is a work of general management advice, loosely framed by this familiar Psalm.  Within the framework of those limitations, I unclenched a little bit, and tried to encounter it with a more open heart and mind.
As I read deeper into the book, some of the essential wisdom being presented by McCormick and Davenport came more to the forefront.  The section on transforming conflict, particularly what they term “destructive interpersonal conflict,” (p. 72) was valuable as it laid out a series of conceptual tools and practical approaches to managing conflict.   While the use of the term “shepherd” was more metaphorical and less theological, it was nonetheless sound advice that could be used in any organizational context.   Having recently come out of a deeply conflicted congregation, I found myself strongly resonating with the ways in which they laid out some of the essential principles to managing conflict.  While negotiating such a conflict and delimiting it’s impact would require more tools than provided in this short work, the basic principles presented were sound.
The discussion of the core purposes of congregational vision work on pages 101-103 was similarly helpful.  The future-oriented/positive/simple principles for vision development established as a baseline for creating a vision were not bad as baselines, and mirrored some of the intent behind the visioning work I had the pleasure of undertaking with my prior community.  Again, while there wasn't enough detail to really guide a pastor through a visioning process, the principles were sound.
Ultimately, I think the limitations of this work theologically and the somewhat simplistic manner in which the material was presented were simply too great for me to find strong personal resonance with it.  That said, it wasn’t terrible or organizationally inaccurate.