Church Leadership as Adaptive Identity Construction in a Changing Social Context

It is widely acknowledged that organizations and institutions in the Western world are changing dramatically, along with their forms of leadership. Churches are no exception to this trend. As a consequence, pastoral leaders must adapt and reshape the social identity of their Christian communities to address the new challenges of their changing social context. Looking through the lens of the social identity theory of leadership, this paper examines the efforts at congregational identity building of both the apostle Paul and a number of interviewed pastoral leaders in the US and Europe in order to explore innovative ways of community formation.

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The apostle Paul is popularly perceived as a model leader, establishing robust churches that withstood the pressure of Greco-Roman society. But this is hindsight, attributing much greater leadership status to Paul than he actually experienced. He was a strongly and frequently contested leader, who needed to continually envision and construct the religious and social identity of the communities that he founded. How do you see Paul doing this in his epistles? What dimensions of identity have you encountered and how does Paul interact with them? What does that tell you about Paul’s style, focus and skills of leadership?

Pastoral leadership seems to have shifted from:

-people management (pastoral care, spiritual guidance, and counseling) to

-church management (leading and influencing the congregation in its vision, organizing its ministries) to

-identity management (shaping how congregations participate in their neighborhoods and cities – not only to draw people out of the world, but to engage meaningful in their world and contribute to human well-being).

The first two ‘styles’ of pastoral leadership operate within an existing paradigm or church model, while the third ‘style’ adapts or even recreates this paradigm. One could argue that the apostle Paul’s leadership fits especially the third style of (re)envisioning and (re)constructing church identity, although many of us have probably read and applied Paul as a pastoral leader in one of the first two styles.

Considering these shifts in style,

  • In which ‘style’ of pastoral leadership are you mostly involved? Why?
  • How is the identity of your church shifting its roots in its theology, its affiliations and/or its relationships with the surrounding community?
  • How would you evaluate the strength and clarity of your church’s religious and social identity? Is it increasing, maintaining or decreasing? Why?
  • In what ways does the identity of your congregation relate to your location (neighborhood, city, country, etc.) and/or the social/ethnic/age groups you reach? What challenges do you face here?
  • In which ways does your leadership revolve around questions of identity? How has this changed from tasks and skills of one or two decades ago?
  • What major challenges have you experienced or significant lessons learned identity leadership in your church?
  • What do you wish you had learned in your ministerial education about identity leadership?

Jack Barentsen will share about these ideas at ARL’s 2015 annual conference.

Jack Barentsen, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and interim Chair of Practical Theology and Researcher Institute for Leadership and Ethics at Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven, Belgium   St. Jansbergsesteenweg 95 3001 Leuven, Belgium

Contact jack at: jack.barentsen@etf.edu or visit: www.etf.edu

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