Quietly Courageous: Leading The Church In A Changing World

By Gil Rendle
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield (2019)

Reviewed by DAN DAY

One of the major questions for Christian leaders, especially those engaged in leadership training, is: “How do we bridge the gap between the need for change and the degree of change the organization is prepared to entertain?” We in denominational leadership can talk all we want about “revolution,” but when we do, everyone knows we only mean “a relatively tame revolution that knows its limits.” This is because if we meant more than that (that is, if we were to advocate for anything like a true revolution that stomps through the marketplace and upsets tables), we’d likely be out of jobs. Only promoting “mild revolution”—the sort that stays within the lines—lies within our charter.

However, in the new book Quietly Courageous, Gil Rendle, a former senior vice president of the Texas Methodist Foundation and the author of many leadership books, argues for a different kind of revolution. It is one that might well help us bridge the gap and raise our aspirations to plausibility. Rendle tells a story taken from the Midrash, a collection of stories the Hebrews told that was intended to “fill in the gaps” that were supposedly missing from the biblical text. In this story, the children of Israel are standing at the edge of the Red Sea during their attempt to escape from Egypt, and they are arguing over who should be the first to step into the water. One man by the name of Nashon, of the tribe of Judah, watched as the others argue, and finally was quietly courageous by doing something other than what organizations tend to do: argue over how best to move ahead. Thinking only of the mission God had given His people, Nashon and his family stepped into the water. They walked until their noses were about to be submerged, trusting that God would fulfill His promise, at which point the water finally parted.

This is a great old story, even if it is a bit creative for those without the proper background or mindset. However, the question it asks us is contemporary: How “quietly courageous” are we, today, as Christian leaders? Are we among those standing at the edge of the sea, arguing over theology or ecclesiology, or are we among those in Nashon’s family, who adventure for God in a quietly courageous pursuit of His mission?

Quietly Courageous is a rather remarkable book. It is not just some rant from the edges of the church, calling us to act in ways that serve the author’s heated dreams, demanding that we radicalize our religious practices or reimagine our faith in order to be true believers. Rather, this book takes a candid look at where we are and what it will take to get us where God needs us to be. It then offers suggestions to act deliberately and persistently to do the things that matter the most.

As he begins, Rendle states: “Central to my argument in this book is my conviction that the established institutional church cannot now thrive on the good leadership it currently has” (p. 4). This is a challenging assertion, but it is not written to discourage us in church leadership. Instead, it is to give us a more grounded hope. Rendle’s fundamental argument is that those of us in leadership, however much we talk about innovation or revitalization, seek to implement it only in institutionally approved ways. Unfortunately, these ways fail, in most cases, to move the ball down the field. We talk about “cutting new territory,” but our options are constrained because we only consider the sort of incremental changes that we believe will be acceptable to those to whom we report. Rendle describes it as the gap between aspirations and reality (a concept first described by Ron Heifetz in his classic book on leadership, Leadership Without Easy Answers) and warns that because we’re satisfied with small changes “on our watch,” we will never aspire to the big changes that are needed for mission to be advanced in the ways God needs.

This is one of those observations about church life that we rarely hear in such a thoughtful manner, but we need to ponder because it is delivered with grace. Rendle wants us to understand the existing coalitions within the church and how they constrain leadership’s assertion that it wants bold initiatives. These include both coalitions of pastors and lay members. At the clergy level are all those in the existing structure— including organizations, institutions, and agencies of the church—who agree that we should change the world but whose livelihood depends on things remaining largely as they are. At the member level, Rendle cites the coalitions of members who agree that the church needs to be a more welcoming place, but who are unwilling to see the redirection of attention or resources required to diverge from the satisfaction they currently enjoy from the way things are.

Rendle also wants us to understand that the way ahead will not be found in improvements of what we are now doing but will require far more fundamental changes, starting with the underlying assumptions we make—assumptions that were formed in an earlier time in religious history (where they may have worked), but which no longer fit our time. In addition, Rendle wants us to grasp the temptations we must resist, such as the fact that leaders don’t necessarily do what we ask them to do, however lofty or service-driven our requests. Instead, they do what we pay them to do, which has to do with the reward systems that allow those who work hardest to protect what we now have in place to advance in their leadership careers, while those who advocate change are weeded out.

Fundamentally, Rendle describes how difficult it is to advance mission if we ask only the more limiting questions. He argues against questions that emerge from believing we live in a world gone wrong when the better questions emerge from a world grown different. Rendle seeks to move us from problem-solving to exploring new ways based on new learning.

This is one of those rare books that asks us to think more deeply about what we believe works in church life and ponder what pathway to walk if we want mission to be advanced in meaningful ways. He asks us to recognize the difference between doing things right, which infers a judgment on the process, and doing the right things, which directs us toward a more strategic approach, including discussing the purpose of the things we’re doing and includes a pathway to helping people finding their own sense of purpose.

Rendle admits that his approach will make people uncomfortable. One of the most uncomfortable truths Rendle shares with us is that there is no going back to the time of rapid congregational and denominational growth that most of us in leadership—as “Boomers”—saw during our formative times. “Ours is not a turn-around situation,” he tells us. “It cannot be addressed as a move ahead situation. It takes courage to face a reality that is difficult and can’t be turned around to reclaim an earlier day that is remembered as strong and was certainly easier from a leadership perspective” (p. 21). What Rendle means is that when we talk about the Christian mission in North America, we’re not talking about a time when our churches will be full again and whatever we do turns to gold. Rather, it is about creating congregations so focused on mission that our sense of purpose draws those who seek the same thing in their lives.

It is fair to ask Rendle about processes and outcomes from the pathway he proposes. If he would move us away from problem-solving approaches, what is he moving us toward? He argues that the primary difficulty with problem-solving is that it seeks to return us to a pre-problem state no longer available. Instead, he urges us to move from fixing and improving to moving in new directions that can only be seen with a new mindset. He suggests that we consider Chris Argyris’s idea of single loop thinking and double loop thinking, writing, “Questioning what lies beneath our problem solving, our aspirations and our activities is the necessary work of moving ahead” (p. 222). He then drives us toward the apostle Paul, who described the dilemma of trying to fix things: “For now we see in a mirror dimly but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12, RSV).

Ultimately, Rendle calls us to move ahead with a quiet courage, even when we don’t have all the answers and can expect some measure of opposition. He proposes that we do this through four elements. He says we need to (1) begin with a new narrative, (2) employ the power of proximate purpose, (3) lead without knowing, and (4) require spiritual leadership that includes accepting mystery. In terms of leadership style, Rendle wants us to embrace conversation’s critical role, choose to work slowly, even during a fast time, get loose from the past, and work from the edge, not the center. By this, he means that we, in leadership, see ourselves at the center of things; from this position, we rarely learn from those who are outside, looking in—the only ones who can share what it would take to reach our communities for Christ.

Unlike in many books, which fizzle out toward the end, it is in the final pages that Rendle lays out in more detail just how we do these things; these are the most interesting in the entire book. I highly recommend it for those who’ve been forced to face the complexity of leadership in times like these and yearn for better ideas. In these pages, you will find some new ideas that will make your work easier and your own sense that you are where God wants you, clearer.

DAN DAY is an Adventist pastor who currently works in the Office of Strategy and Research at the North American Division. He works with pastors and union and conference leaders, training them for the mission-driven approach. He is the author of over 30 books from Pacific Press and AdventSource.

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