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Tomato plant

Leadership Metaphors: Garden and Machine

Tomato plant

I started to acknowledge that my leadership role, at its best, would be like cultivation—helping to create conditions in which life could thrive.

I was only about a month into my first call as solo pastor of a small Presbyterian congregation when a new class of elders rolled onto the Session, which is the church’s governing board. In my congregation, much of the ministry is carried out through teams, and the Session asked me to organize them, which meant rearranging some existing elders and assigning new ones to leadership positions. The problem was, with just a month in office, I felt I didn’t know them well enough to have a sense of who would fit where.

I had before me a list of teams, a list of elders, and a church directory.  I cleared off the table in my office and set about the task. Using color-coded note cards, I shuffled and reshuffled elders and church members among the teams, struggling to figure out the optimal arrangement. I was at this for about an hour before I stopped and asked myself, “What the heck am I doing?”

I realized that I had been treating the church as if it were a machine and people as though they were interchangeable parts. I think this is common, actually, in the vernacular of management—I have a feeling that in their professional lives many of the people in my congregation are subject to a similar kind of mechanistic metaphor. The language and concepts of industry have crept into our understanding of human beings. Employees find their names printed on organizational charts, an orderly arrangement of identical squares joined by straight lines. The task of handling people belongs to a department called “human resources,” as though people were raw materials like iron or copper or gravel or sand. Read more