After the Pyramids

written by Kat Bair
1 · 10 · 24

Kathleen McShane has decades of experience leading churches to think innovatively. She is one of the founders of long-time Ministry Incubators partner The Changemaker Initiative, based out of Los Altos UMC in Silicon Valley, and this week, she released her new book, Picking up the Pieces: Leadership after Empire. When I asked her why this was the book she wanted to write, she told me it was a response to what had most often gotten in the way of innovation in churches: pastors assuming they had to do it alone.

She told me when she worked with church leaders to imagine innovative projects, she often heard the same refrain, “it takes 95% of my capacity just to keep the trains running, how would I pull off something new?” 

This is a refrain we at Ministry Incuabtors have heard often too, and a large part of the reason we ask for teams at Hatchathon events, in lieu of solo innovators, is that it invites a broader ownership of projects from their very inception. Expecting leaders to be a visionary, planner, fundraiser, and organizer of a new project, all on top of the work they are already doing is a surefire way to make sure good ideas never become more than ideas. 

Rev. Kathleen (Kathi) McShane and her co-author, Rabbi Elan Babchuck, realized that faith leaders sometimes had a lack of imagination not just about the work, but about how the work could be done. See, Kathi works with clergy, but her real passion is lay leaders. She believes what often trips the church up is the assumption, by everyone from congregants to lay leaders to the pastors themselves, that the work of the church, including innovation, all starts and ends with the pastor. 

Kathi is empathetic to the impossible situation that puts pastors in. She was an ordained elder in the UMC for more than twenty years, and she knows that pastors don’t tend to concentrate power and responsibility out of ego, but because they want to live up to the expectations that their communities place on them. She reflects that pastors are brought up with cultural narratives of leaders who have vision and clarity, who know what to do in crisis, who have all the good ideas. So church leaders sometimes pretend to have the answers even when they(we) don’t. 

Her book offers a simple but revolutionary idea: what if that’s not how leadership was meant to look? Her and Rabbi Babchuck’s book uses Moses as an example of leadership built on a fundamentally different model. This model decentralizes power and decision-making in order to empower the members of the organization, in opposition to a pyramid structure of power. Building on analysis of Moses’s leadership as it developed leading in the wilderness (quite literally in the shadow of the Pyramids), their model is one that is centered on a leader and a community that is always in progress and growing together. 

The book highlights that our current default, hierarchical model of leadership doesn’t emerge from our theological convictions, but rather is a reflection of the capitalist society we live in. Because of that, we are free to, and even called to, challenge it. If the work we do is meant to point towards a different way of living and being, shouldn’t the same be true for the way we do it? 

Kathi’s goal for the book is that it encourages churches to embrace this “Mosiac” diffused leadership, not just for their leaders’ sakes, or their churches’ sake, but for the world’s. This model, she argues, could be liberating for leaders who feel like the responsibility is all on their shoulders, and could unlock massive potential inside congregations, all while offering Good News of a different way of living and working to those both in and outside of the church work. 

Kathi encourages faith communities to “engage in a long-term sustained experiment in this form of leadership” in order to model to the world that there is another way, and that that way may be even better, for all of us.

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Kat Bair

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