It was mid-afternoon on a summer day. The founding board of our newly-created Transforming Leaders Initiative was meeting for the first time in the loft over the garage at Eagle Peak, our cabin in Colorado. Storm clouds rolled in, bringing with them cracks of lightning and rumbling thunder. At 9,000 ft. elevation, it felt like the storm was right outside the windows. "Have you noticed," said Charlotte Roberts, as she guided our formative meeting, "That every time we start storming here in the room, the next thing you see is lightning outside? It's happened two or three times now."
Charlotte has been a mentor to me since I first met her in the early '90s. A moment of inspiration led me to call and invite her to join our founding board. When it comes to helping facilitate what needs to happen in a meeting, Charlotte is the best there is. Her skills were tested mightily that week. The 10 founding board members, many of whom had never met, gathered for three days of vision casting and team-building. We were a diverse group: lay and ordained, theologically liberal and conservative. The one thing we all shared was a passion for raising up and equipping missional leaders. But that common interest was not enough to bridge our vast differences. Building an effective team would take much intentional work.
At the time, our branch of the Lutheran tribe was debating a move to accept committed same-sex relationships in the clergy, and emotions were running high. Because of the contentious issues polarizing the church, we set an operating principle in place from the beginning: Our project would be about leadership and nothing else. We would not be a bullhorn for any other issue facing the church. By establishing that principle up front, we were able to bring people to the table.
My partner Al Sagar and I had become familiar figures across the Southeastern Synod through learning events we had hosted for our Academy for Transformational Leadership. When we attended the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2005, it was for one reason--to network on a national scale with others who felt the call to raise up and equip young leaders. Churchwide leaders Wyvetta Bullock and Dave Daubert came onboard, and with their encouragement, I began to travel across the ELCA casting a vision for this high-potential leadership development learning journey that came to be called the Transforming Leaders Initiative.
For over a year, I had been asking the question, in articles and in conversation, "Who is equipping our future leaders?" In our Lutheran tribe, the retiring pastor has nothing to do with identifying or equipping his or her successor. As a consequence, even the larger churches haven't really developed a leadership pipeline to prepare the next senior pastor. Many associate pastors in large churches are seen as career associates, specialists who are not expected to become the visionary senior pastor. Each of our 65 synods have a process to identify potential pastors and a call process to help churches pick their next pastor. But in my travels around the country, I couldn't find any system to identify and equip high-potential emerging leaders. Seminaries are strong on theology, but they offer little leadership training.
Into this void, I stepped. For a year, I spoke to every gathering of Lutherans I could find. My goal: to cast a vision, draw together those the Spirit called, build a collaborative team culture, and plot a course forward.
A vision was emerging from the shapes in the mist: I would take everything I had learned about visioning, team building, coaching, changing a stuck and broken culture, finding the tipping point, and launching an entrepreneurial venture and use it to create a thriving ancient-future church. The vision was so big, I knew we would need buy-in from across the church. Sara Groves, in a song called The Long Defeat, describes a vision "too heavy to carry but impossible to leave." That was an where I found myself, with a compelling vision that I could not possibly lift off the ground by myself. So I set off to build a team around this emerging vision.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you ever felt that something was "too heavy to carry but impossible to leave"? What did you do?
At each stop in my travels, I would cast the vision to anyone who would listen. Then, I waited for the Holy Spirit to pick the team. When I had tried to lead transformation at my local church, I picked the team. I realized what a mistake that was when I saw the result. This time would be different.
Some resonated with the vision. Others did not. When I saw people energized by the vision, I would follow up with conversation and dialog. While most of the institutional church gave a big yawn, support emerged from surprising places. My yearlong process drew together a group who would become the founding board.
Given the diversity of opinions on the board, trying to coalesce on a vision while simultaneously doing teambuilding with complete strangers was an intense process. I hardly slept for three days. We agreed on the fundamental elements of the vision: We would target high-potential emerging leaders, and we would develop a three-year learning journey that would include spouses and lay leaders. We set an ambitious schedule to launch our first class in a year (showing our unclear view of the landscape in front of us, and the challenges in getting to a launch) and concluded the meeting feeling like we had really accomplished something.
But even at that first gathering, fissures in the team were evident. Most of the group shared the belief that significant change always starts at the periphery of an organization. The core is too focused on control and maintaining the status quo to foster transformational change. One of our design principles was to partner with the institutions of the church but to remain independent of the church structure. We felt that working alongside the church but not being part of it would allow us the flexibility we needed to be effective.
One member of our board saw things differently. He felt that we would gain more credibility and move faster if we worked within the church. What emerged was a conflict of vision. The rest of the board felt strongly that we should walk alongside the institutions of the church, not become embedded within them. We wrestled to maintain our independence for the next nine months.
During that time, I experienced a painful "Judas moment," when someone I trusted and admired turned against me. He tried to convince the rest of the board that I was not the right leader for this effort, and that we should turn over control of the project to a seminary. "Mine the learning from this experience," Charlotte admonished me. "Every participant will experience something similar in trying to move the church to discipleship and mission."
TAKE A MOMENT How do you respond to setbacks? Betrayal? Your Judas moment?
As we went into our fall and winter of uncertainty, I had to revisit my calling and commitment to the initiative. I wanted to be teaching, consulting and coaching. I realized that we would need a couple of years of infrastructure-building before we would ever launch a class. One of my design principles for my second career was to follow the energy. The work of building an organization and laying a solid foundation were things I knew I could do, but they were clearly not things that were energizing to me.
I spent a couple of months in prayer and meditation asking God if that was truly what he wanted of me. In those times, I was led to examine the path that led me here. I could see that I had spent my entire career building infrastructure. Our construction equipment business served the customers building dams, sewers, nuclear power plants, roads, bridges, subdivisions and skyscrapers. We had also built an organization, taking it through three rounds of visioning and three restructuring processes in 10 years as we grew. Further, working for my father for 15 years had built up in me a strong reservoir of perseverance and persistance. I came to see that my gifts and experience might make me uniquely qualified to move this vision to reality. Becoming clear on my renewed call, I continued down the road.
It would still be a couple of years before we would get our first class off the ground. I began to understand that my timing and God's timing are not always the same. Mike Foss, my friend and one of the founding board members, says it this way: "God and I rarely disagree about what needs to happen. Most of our arguments are about the timing." Over the next two years, I went through several periods of wandering through the spiritual desert. Sometimes these periods would last for months. During those dry times, I would feel thwarted at every turn, and I had a hard time sensing God's presence or direction. Here's where perseverance becomes critical.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you spent time in the spiritual desert? How did you deal with it? What pulled you through?
Since we made the decision to continue on independent of the established church, we struggled with funding. But, in moving forward independently, we've stayed true to the calling the Spirit laid on our hearts, and true to our deeply-felt belief that what we were trying to accomplish could not be done by the institution itself. I kept asking myself and others, "If the seminaries could do this work, what has stopped them so far?"
The farther we went down this path, the more I understood how threatening we were to those in the institutional church. Our goal wass empowering people to listen to and follow the calling of the Spirit. When we start trying to figure out where the Spirit is leading, it is rarely toward the preservation of the church. The expansion of the Kingdom is the calling, and many churches have very little to do with that work. They are too busy trying to get people to fulfill the needs of the church, pay the mortgage and expenses, and preserve the status quo.
When the Board gathered for a summer retreat in July of 2008, we zeroed in on launching the pilot class of our Transforming Leaders Initiative in April of 2009. This project required a weaving together all I had learned about visioning, team building, coaching, changing a stuck and broken culture, finding the tipping point, and launching an entrepreneurial venture along with the picture of a healthy ancient-future church that is emerging from the mist. We felt momentum building, we had made it this far with very little money, and we had a good list of potential candidates for the three-year learning journey. Before we parted, we spent several hours doing scenario planning. We examined one scenario in which we might have more candidates and resources than we anticipated for the launch. We created a "best case" scenario to guide us should we find ourselves in that place of abundance. Then, we created a scenario in which we could not raise the resources for a national launch. In that case, we decided to shift to a regional model, which would allow participants to drive to events and cut costs in half.
The couple of hours we spent gaming that scenario proved invaluable. By Labor Day, the financial markets had begun melting down, and we realized funding the ambitious launch of an unproven initiative was unworkable. By the end of the month, we adopted the regional scenario. We canceled plans for April, realizing we could not put a regional class together from scratch by spring.
From the beginning, I told the board that as an entrepreneur, I was tasked with creating this vision. I did not plan to stay as leader once it was operational. I had prepared the board to be aware and thinking through who would lead next. As we shifted to the regional class and the April start evaporated, my energy evaporated as well. We had set and missed so many target dates that I told the board it was time for someone else to lead. I felt I had exhausted my credibility.
We turned to Dave Daubert, an early supporter and friend. While continuing his work as a parish pastor, Dave had launched a church consulting business called A Renewal Enterprise. We agreed that Dave would step into the Executive Director role on a part-time basis.
During my low point that fall, I spent a day in Chicago with Dave and and his consulting partner, Kelly, talking strategy for the Transforming Leaders Initiative. On the way back to the airport, Kelly hit me with a hard truth. She said, "You know, Gregg, I think this project is at the point where it could move ahead without you. With your attitude, however, you could kill it." Over the next few weeks, I realized she was right.
TAKE A MOMENT What do you do when the winds of change blow you off course, and your current plans are untenable?
It was January before I could remarshall my energy and recommit to a different role. In early 2009, the core of our team began to come together with me in a new role as Storyteller and Network Organizer. The shift from entrepreneurial leadership to refining, managing and expanding was necessary and timely. As our team came together and began clarifying roles, synergy began to emerge.
Our board had deep roots and strong relationships in Ohio, so we decided to launch our pilot class there. One of our large church partners, Trinity Lutheran in Ashland, Ohio, agreed to host and cover some costs for our first event. We created a list of high-potential prospects from across the church, and I began to contact everyone on our radar screen within 250 miles of Columbus.
By Easter, we were receiving applications, and by Memorial Day, our first class of 15 leaders was set. With our focus on equipping emerging leaders, we realized that we shouldn't penalize anyone whose church wasn't ready for mission or discipleship. So, despite the fact that many of our recruits were in churches that had been on plateau or in decline for some time, we moved forward with these pastors because of their potential.
Our first class was as much a learning experience for us as it was for the students. Our launch came four long years after I began casting the vision and three years after our founding board meeting. I have learned a great deal about doing business at church speed. It took four years to accomplish what would have taken 18 months in the business world. No wonder the church struggles so much.
My friend Harvey Cheatham gave me good perspective about the slow progress. Harvey said, "You are trying to take a vision the Spirit has planted and create it in the physical world. This is the birthing of an idea, and it needs to be viable to be born healthy. I think it is amazing you have made this much progress."
Spiritual Reflection: Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.... And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.