Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Affirming Leadership
distributed 3/7/08 - ©2008

It has been a fascinating year. The citizens of the United States are working through the long and complex process of selecting presidential nominees. In both of the major parties, it has been a wild season with lots of candidates and a wide variety of positions.

Various commentators have described why this year's elections are so wide-open. For the first time in over a half-century, there is no incumbent, and no anointed ones. Passionate advocates are pressing lots of dramatic issues. The Internet is emerging as a powerful medium for news and commentary, and for fund-raising.

As of last Tuesday, Senator John McCain has a firm claim to being the nominee for the Republican Party. The ongoing (and ongoing, and ongoing) contest is in the Democratic Party. Two Senators are vying for the role; the selection of either one will be historic.

My purpose in writing today is not to endorse a candidate, or to favor a party. (Warning to churches and other non-profit organizations: while we can take stands on legislative issues, our tax-exempt status prohibits us from supporting candidates. Even the appearance of favoring one candidate can bring on an IRS investigation. Know the rules, and be careful!)

Today, I want to reflect on one factor that has become important in this year's Democratic campaigns, and move from that example into leadership considerations for churches.

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The Democrats have an unusual problem this year. They have two very strong candidates with energized followers. The contest between the two is generating unprecedented voter turnouts, and an almost evenly-divided number of convention delegates.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both smart (that's probably an extreme understatement), competent, and effective politicians. Both have built strong political organizations to spread their message, get out the vote, and raise an astonishing amount of money. Both are firmly rooted in the values and style of the Democratic Party. The two contenders are quite evenly matched.

On many issues, the positions and policies of Obama and Clinton are very similar. Their close positioning on issues has led to a situation where many Democratic voters are deciding between these two candidates on the basis of personality and style. Along with their evaluation of what each candidate would do on particular issues if they were elected next fall, the voters are giving strong consideration to how the candidates would provide leadership toward their promised change.

I've seen quite a few articles that describe the difference between Clinton and Obama in terms of "transactional" vs. "transformational" leadership. (That pair of qualities was first proposed in James MacGregor Burns' 1978 book "Leadership"). Columnist Clint Reilly summarizes the difference between the two styles:

Transformational leaders are that rare breed who succeed in creating fundamental change that transforms their world. ... Transactional leaders ... are executives who exercise power to address crisis and they excel at maneuvering solutions through a complex bureaucracy where diverging interests claim territory like competing nations.

Barack is widely seen as an exceptional example of transformational leadership. Hillary is positioned as the transactional leader who is strong on the details. The two candidates present themselves as fairly pure examples of Burns' types. The presence of two candidates who so clearly exemplify the two forms of leadership reveals another dynamic in this election.

Political strategist George Lakoff has often stressed that people (especially swing voters) are "biconceptual". In many political and ethical areas, he says, citizens are not distributed along an ideological spectrum with a few extremists, and lots of folk in the moderate middle. Rather, many of us, much of the time, agree with some elements of various strong stances. We're strongly conservative on some themes, and strongly liberal on others. Our choices are shaped by which of two contrasting values sets are most strongly "activated" as we make a decision.

In this election season, it seems that many Democratic voters are feeling both sides of that biconceptual pull. Both forms of leadership are seen as important and valid. Both have a strong attractive tug. It is not that one is right and the other is wrong. Voters have been wrestling with which of two good qualities is felt to be more essential in today's world. The choice facing the Democrats (easy for some, and agonizing for others) is to decide which leadership style is most appropriate for the United States in 2008. It is likely that the remaining months of the campaign will highlight the candidate's leadership qualities as much as their issues, and use emotionally grounded techniques to activate support for transformational or transactional styles. It will be fascinating to watch!

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What's this have to do with the church? We're not caught up with either-or decisions about candidates, but we do need to consider the demands of leadership within our congregations in this challenging time. What sorts of leadership do we need if our churches are to be faithful and effective in addressing the world's eco-justice crisis?

Luckily, we don't need to pick one style or the other. There is a need for both kinds of leadership within our church communities, and we can make good use of many leaders.

We need to identify and empower those who are skilled at transactional leadership, at "getting things done." Those people will work through the policies and procedures to set up a church recycling program, find the funding for an energy audit, and work through the negotiations to build coalitions with secular partners. The transactional leaders will know the facts, be good at education, and be goal-oriented.

We also need to affirm those who offer transformational leadership. Those folk will ask fresh questions about what our world can be like, and they will inspire us to strong commitments as they lift up new and hopeful visions. They will call us to conversion in who we are, as well as in what we do. Transformational leaders will inspire us, and invite us to work toward new possibilities.

Churches need both forms of leadership, and they have lots of settings where those leaders can act. In our work with churches, Eco-Justice Ministries leans toward the transformational leadership style, so we're delighted when we see that visionary and hopeful approach in congregations. We also affirm the essential transactional leadership of those who focus on policies and programs. We need leaders who will guide us in both our "being" and our "doing".

Thanks be to God for the diversity and the skills of all kinds of leaders among us! May we be wise in discerning and selecting the appropriate forms of leadership and service in our churches, and in our political decisions.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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