Book Review: Quietly Courageous by Gil Rendle

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Gil Rendle is something of a rockstar in United Methodist circles. His work spans almost five decades dealing with leadership and change in institutions – particularly the Church. He has served as a senior vice-president for The Alban Institute, the Texas Methodist Foundation, and as a senior consultant for the United Methodist Church in the development of leaders. He has written eight books, including Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for CongregationsJourney in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline ChurchesBack to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement; and Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics.

Quietly Courageous: Leading The Church in a Changing World is a tremendous gift Rendle leaves the Church as he continues to focus on consulting and leadership initiatives in local churches and as he continues to coach clergy and professional laity in leadership and change.

This book could not have come at a better time as the culture of our country shifts from a slow-moving solid culture grounded in convergence to a liquid and divergent culture, changing, growing, and dividing faster than many comprehend. This book compiles years of research, hands-on initiatives through TMF, and reflections on a lifetime of work in leadership and change. The result is a vision for leading churches that is entirely different than the common leadership of the attraction-model church and the pastor as CEO. In fact, Rendle’s courage is more than quiet in offering an entirely different view of church leadership in a time of aberrant change.

Quietly Courageous is divided into four categories:

  1. moving beyond merely improving leadership: the contention between apostolic movements and established institutions; or “what happens when creativity and innovation in what the Church currently faces comes up against the approved methods of the institution”
  2. assumptions in anxious systems: moving away from linear, technical problem-solving to non-linear, liquid, and shorter-term adapting
  3. temptations in anxious systems: falling too far into playing it safe and becoming so non-anxious that systems move from proactive to reactive; falling too far into our own Christian Empathy that our quest for relationship clouds our purpose; and falling too far into tiredness that the desire for conflict resolution supersedes our critical thinking and the movement of the Holy Spirit
  4. moving forward in a liminal time and appropriately managing internal and external conflict for continued growth and development

This book is particularly useful in framing a meaningful vocabulary for discussing the temptations of leaders in a time of aberrant change, or what Susan Beaumont is calling the Church’s “liminal season.” A liminal season is one in which what we were once a part of is not yet ended, and what we may become has not yet begun. Even so, in a liminal season an organization cannot go back to what once was, because for all intents and purposes it no longer exists:

Quiet courage is needed when there is no going back because the “back” that is remembered doesn’t exist anymore. Our current reality is that we are not in a turnaround situation. Leaders cannot take us back to a more comfortable time when the church (especially the mainline church) was established at the heart of the culture as a bedrock, trusted institution.

Rendle, Gil. Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World (p. 21). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Because the Church cannot go back, and is not yet what it will be, we must have a common vocabulary and a guiding story for where we are betwixt and between. Rendle’s vocabulary is a three-generation journey away from convergent culture to divergent culture, from compromise to individuality, and on leading to the end of the flashlight in a foreign land.

There is not another book available that utilizes this much collected data and experience to create what almost amounts to a traveller’s journal across a changing landscape.

Pay particular attention to Rendle’s use of the following ideas for crafting narrative:

  1. Discerning between “public” and “private” mission
  2. Moving away from leadership that is “Good” to leadership rooted in “Purpose”
  3. Changing the meta narrative from “things have gone wrong” to “the world has grown different”
  4. Building capacity in leaders that moves from “problem solving” to “adaptive exploration”

Problem-solving is no longer acceptable leadership in a church institution whose problems cannot be fixed. This is where Rendle brings in the work of Ronald Heifitz to address our current reality. A technical problem is a broken arm. Pins are inserted, a cast is applied, the bones are healed, and the cast is removed. The Church does not currently face anything “technical.” Therefore, anxious laity looking to clergy to “solve problems” is ultimately unhelpful. Rather, we are in a season of adaptive challenges. An adaptive challenge is not a broken bone – it is the diagnosis of a chronic illness. You cannot solve it; rather, you must adapt to living with it.

The only way to live fully into the midst of a paradigm shift, Rendle asserts, is to drop assumptions entirely, and to be tirelessly self-aware of our temptations in the midst of change. This paradigm shift is not just in the United Methodist Church, nor is it just in denominations. This paradigm shift is across the world, the country, our technology, our politics, and our priorities. It is no wonder that traditional efforts at church revitalization in aging congregations is by-and-large failing across the connection: we now face problems that do not come with clear solutions.

Courageous leadership is being able to convey to those under your leadership that we are too close and too much a part of current changes to be able to accommodate them in any real way. Thankfully, as Rendle points out in several places, much of the biblical narrative in our Holy Bible centers on servant leaders who encouraged those influenced by their leadership in liminal spaces, trusting in what may be. Here, Rendle moves our language from knowing a destination to knowing about a destination.

Finally, and in my humble opinion most powerfully, Rendle calls us to the quiet courageous leadership of controlling our narrative. Churches can tell gloomy stories about weaknesses if they want to, and there is data out there to support that narrative. They can go looking for all the information on churches declining and closing they can muster. Churches can also control their narrative from places of strength, and there is more than enough out there to defend this approach. It is possible to lead without knowing, it is possible to speak concretely about mystery, and it is possible to be honest about current realities without scaring away disciples.

Rendle’s book leads to the end of the flashlight, and offers a new vocabulary, data, and stories to help leaders and churches do the same.

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