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Natasha Jamison Gadson: How I lead from the middle

One of our newest members looked completely bewildered as we stood outside the locked church in the rain.

A ministry leader had neglected to inform me about a last-minute change in the meeting schedule, so we were left waiting outside for 20 minutes until the church sexton arrived.

“You don’t have a key to the building, but you’re second in charge?” she said. (The senior pastor actually had suggested that I get a key, but we had decided to wait until after all the locks were changed.)

This member’s reaction speaks volumes about the paradox of my role as minister of leadership growth and development at Turner Memorial AME Church.

Some members have the erroneous perception that I wield authority and influence over everything that happens. Others feel that since I am not the pastor, they do not have to be accountable to me.

The truth falls somewhere in the middle, the place from where I am called to lead.

Leading from the middle can be challenging and often frustrating. The AME Discipline dictates that the only person “in charge” (besides God, of course) is the senior pastor. In fact, associate ministers are not even mentioned.

Yet my contract clearly states that my responsibility is to assist the senior pastor with administering all facets of the operations of the church.

This puts me in a situation where I have to lead people and manage the work of ministry when the perception of my authority does not always match my level of responsibility.

As a practical matter, this means I have to continually follow up with ministry leaders, ask the right questions and frequently check in. I constantly wrestle with the question, “How do I provide effective leadership without micromanaging?”

In my 16 years of experience in ministry and as an organizational communication consultant, I’ve learned to employ the following general practices to lead effectively from the middle — and to avoid the micromanagement trap:

Articulate the vision clearly and consistently

In our annual strategic planning meeting, every ministry team meeting and every one-on-one meeting that follows, we ask the question, “Based on the preaching, the teaching and what you have heard communicated, what is your understanding of the vision God has given us as a church?”

My senior pastor uses this question to ensure that our ministry leaders understand the articulated vision and to address any misperceptions they may have about our general direction. I too have found it to be instrumental as I work with ministry leaders to ensure that initiatives remain consistent with our overall objectives.

Currently, all of our ministry initiatives are focused on physically going into the surrounding community with our gifts, health screenings and other resources and – most of all — the word of God to make an impact and transform lives.

A huge aspect of my role is evaluating ministry effectiveness, which at times can feel like micromanaging. The articulated vision helps me by serving as a guide for evaluating the work of ministry.

Is this ministry initiative consistent with the articulated vision? How does this activity relate to our core values and accomplish our objectives?

A thorough understanding of the vision equips leaders to examine these questions with their teams and evaluate their work before I enter the conversation. This eliminates the perception that I am limiting a ministry’s activities when in fact they do not align with the vision.

Use the tools of processes and guidelines

Earlier this year during our annual day of strategic planning, I covered all policies and guidelines in painstaking detail. I explained the process for everything — from requesting a flyer from our graphic designer to obtaining approval of dates on the church calendar.

The administrative team and the various leadership boards of the church spent about a year compiling our standard operating procedures, a portion of which I also covered in our annual meeting.

Processes and guidelines that are efficient and make sense are my best tools in managing the work of ministry. While some ministry leaders may think these are created for the purpose of keeping good ideas bogged down in red tape, the real reason they exist is to keep things in order.

Order helps all of us operate with excellence, particularly in a church with a lot of moving parts. If multiple ministry teams are planning initiatives or the use of church funds at the same time, processes can help us make decisions without involving personalities or preferential treatment.

Good processes ensure that all the pieces fit together for the good of the church. Processes also ensure that every ministry’s needs are met, or at least addressed, and that all ministries are held accountable equally.

Not long after our strategic planning session, our highest-functioning ministry team and an underfunctioning ministry team both requested a special consideration that would have delayed finalizing the budget and the calendar for the year. Both requests were denied — showing that it was the process, not the personalities, that determined the response.

Follow a sound model of leadership

As I provided some direction concerning the plans for an upcoming event, a colleague jokingly remarked, “You sound just like your pastor.” Hearing those words felt profoundly similar to that moment you realize you have somehow become your parents.

Just as I have done with every senior pastor with whom I’ve served, I have spent a significant amount of time learning the preferences, thought processes and decision-making patterns of my current senior pastor.

He often says to the staff, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” If we trust that he is talking to God and trust him as our pastor, then we ought to have some trust that he is presenting a good model of leadership.

Doing so has allowed me to address issues and identify solutions with the confidence that my leadership is bringing about consistency and not conflict. Most of the ministry leaders know at this point that my language and my perspective will be consistent with what has been communicated by our senior pastor.

As I grow as a leader, my senior pastor’s task-oriented approach sometimes feels counterintuitive to my more relational style. Yet I am aware that his 20 years of experience in the senior pastorate offer insight and perspective beyond my degrees and training.

I try to gain wisdom from observing, asking questions and engaging in conversation whenever opportunity arises. Many times, I have questioned my pastor’s decisions and actions only to find later that his methods were effective and — more importantly — Spirit led.

In the times when I strongly disagree with my senior pastor, I remind myself that he holds the position and I have a commitment to respect his decisions. Yet I also make a personal resolution to be open to different decisions when I find myself in the senior role.

If we are to do ministry effectively, I have learned that while we can have a clear vision and efficient processes, the leadership we provide must be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

I love serving at a historic church with a storied past. I thought about this on Resurrection Sunday morning, when I stood alongside my clergy colleagues and looked around.

The mass choir, all dressed in white, sang, “He decided to die just to save me.” Choir members filled the length of our ornate altar draped in white fabric, while the ministers lined the pulpit behind them, also in white robes.

It reminded me of how African-American churches are often depicted in movies. The moment may have looked completely scripted, yet I know that the joyful shouts of praise and exuberant worship were unquestionably authentic.

I love the fact that my church’s narratives include a rich legacy of both lay and clergy who have served through the years. Typical of many midsize churches, ours is a family church. Most of the members are related, by blood or by marriage, to others in the congregation. Many were born into this worshipping community.

They can point to generations of family members who faithfully served before them and have raised their children to continue that legacy — something I’m proud to be a part of.

Yet serving a historic church also comes with its challenges, particularly for a woman in ministry.

I know I’m not alone in this — a video produced by United Methodist pastor Stephanie Arnold documents what many ordained women experience.

But my intersectional experience as both African-American and woman includes an additional layer of frustration, because of our cultural norms.

African-Americans are known to place high value on age and the wisdom of experience, and in the black church, we hold our clergy in high esteem. But that esteem sometimes doesn’t extend to me, because I don’t fit the expectation of what an African-American pastor looks like.

Although our staff has consistently been gender balanced, I’ve been told on numerous occasions that we need more male clergy.

That’s because the prevailing stereotype of ordained leadership is still male and/or older than 50 — and I am the only minister on staff who does not fall into one of these two categories.

I’ve endured invasive questions about why my husband and I don’t have children. On Father’s Day, several people commented that they thought my husband would be in church — even though he is not a member and has never visited.

Despite being in my mid-40s, highly credentialed and ordained for more than a decade, I am often not viewed as a competent leader. Many members are more comfortable seeing me as daughter, little sister or girlfriend. These are roles I vehemently reject, particularly since our ministerial training discourages making the church your social circle.

It has even been suggested that I stop covering my gray hair or become less personable if I want to be respected in my role.

Outside partners such as community leaders often assume I am the pastor’s assistant and have on occasion referred to me as “good help.” Funeral directors are often surprised to find that I’m the officiating minister and will sometimes make that known with a sweet but condescending “bless your heart.”

I have found that there is not a lot of support in my context for defying these stereotypes.

Often, the issues facing black women clergy get overshadowed because we are expected to align ourselves with the fight for racial equality and social justice. Consequently, gender discrimination within our churches and denomination does not get addressed, and it becomes much harder to change people’s mindsets.

Being a clergywoman in a traditional setting can make you doubt your own worth. Early on, I downplayed my contributions and achievements so others would be more comfortable with my presence. I tried not to make mention of my doctoral studies and felt apologetic when I did. I opted to be called Rev. Gadson or even Rev. Natasha to blend in with my colleagues.

I even felt uneasy correcting members who simply called me by my first name, even though informally addressing clergy is considered inappropriate in African-American church culture.

But I quickly realized I was not serving the people, nor was I being my authentic self, by trying to be who I felt others wanted me to be. My moment of clarity came when it became part of my role to approve and deny the ministry plans of ministry leaders. Some were surprised and even frustrated by decisions I made, because they confused my friendliness with my authority.

I ultimately had to decide that being respected was more important than being well liked.

I immediately made some adjustments by setting boundaries and getting clear about what I believed to be my assignment. For example, I don’t allow myself to be coerced into participating in youth events — another assumption about women in ministry — or other things outside my scope of responsibility.

More importantly, I embraced the understanding that my call is to serve and provide leadership, not to be well liked or accepted. To my senior pastor’s credit, he consistently supports and affirms my leadership, even in the smallest of ways — such as addressing me as “Dr. Gadson.”

Although I still struggle sometimes, I’ve become a lot less apologetic about how I choose to walk in my ministerial identity. This has allowed me a new level of freedom — and even humility — in my service that I never expected to find.

I laugh to myself sometimes as I pour water, carry face towels and do other things for my pastor that might incense my womanist foremothers. But I can do these things because I know exactly who I am, and I’m no longer afraid to let others know as well.

Our ordination vows instruct us, among other things, to “take thou authority.” I am grateful to have found that the courage and willingness to embrace my authority is as much an act of surrender each day as when I said yes to this call.

I sat in the pulpit on a recent Sunday, listening to our extraordinary choir singing J.J. Hairston’s “You Deserve It.” Their voices rose with the opening line of the gospel song, which promises everything to the Lord: “My hallelujah belongs to you.”

I looked around and wondered, “Am I crazy for leaving?”

Six years ago, when I joined the ministerial staff of my current church home, I was told that no one leaves here. The consensus is that there’s nowhere to go from here. This is the top.

My church could be considered the Disney World of the African Methodist Episcopal churches in my region. We have three locations, state-of-the-art facilities, a robust youth ministry, music ministry directors who are also recording artists, and a membership so large that I stopped counting once we grew beyond 12,000 people.

Like me, our members are well-educated and upwardly mobile. Many have moved to Prince George’s County — the nation’s highest-income majority-black county — for educational or career opportunities.

We’re a regular stop for gospel artists, celebrities and politicians during their tours, promotions and campaigns. And our music and arts department puts on elaborate productions for Easter and Christmas.

Megachurches aren’t an unusual phenomenon, but a congregation of this size is certainly an anomaly for the AME Church, where most worshipping communities range from 30 members to 700 members. A church that has the financial capacity to undertake any ministry initiative one could imagine is certainly exceptional for African Methodism.

And it’s important to note that we don’t preach the prosperity gospel people now associate with megachurches. This congregation was built on the biblical preaching and expressive worship of the black church tradition.

There is no church like my church. Yet I’m leaving the staff.

When I told the ministers I serve with, the look of surprise on their faces made me weep uncontrollably. One by one they comforted me, assuring me that I will do great things at my new church.

This was an agonizing decision. I wrestled for months before saying yes to God, and I had moments of doubt almost every day after submitting my resignation.

Yet I knew that this decision was critical to my ministerial identity.

I’d been jolted into this a little over a year ago when I talked and laughed with fellow students in my D.Min. program for the last time. Over the crackling sound of the fire pit, one of them asked, “Natasha, are you being a good steward of your gifts by playing it small? You have a multiplicity of gifts for which there is a need in the body of Christ, and you are not being a good steward if you are not operating in them.”

He was right. I had gotten comfortable. I preached occasionally, communed with the shut-in monthly, participated in the worship liturgy weekly and greeted members after services. I complained that my gifts were not being utilized, yet I hadn’t taken any action to change my situation.

In the year or so since, several people have asked me the same question, including a friend and mentor who will soon become my new senior pastor.

What I came to realize is that the more I had grown accustomed to doing church, the less I was willing to do my part in being the church. Captivated by my setting’s splendor, I had been waiting for a ministry opportunity to arise rather than taking responsibility for sharing my gifts with a worshipping community that really had a need for me.

In a denominational context where ministerial identity is largely constructed based on a relationship with pastoral leadership, I realized that I needed to exercise personal agency.

Knowing that my skill set would never be fully utilized in my current setting, I did something my denomination frowns upon. I took the risk of establishing relationships with other senior pastors to identify ministry opportunities. I also leveraged my consulting work, offering my services without charge, which allowed me to demonstrate my capabilities.

My friend began asking me to preach, teach Bible study and serve when he was short-staffed at his growing church. It soon became clear to us both that God was sending me to join his ministerial staff.

One afternoon over lunch, I listened to my friend talk about the church’s needs. I sat quietly, knowing I was finally ready to accept his invitation.

Like many others, he wanted to know how I arrived at my decision. The short answer is his leadership. My new pastor skillfully marries our denomination’s valued traditions with innovative ideas to breathe new life into the worship experience. The opportunity to design and launch ministry initiatives for the fulfillment of his extraordinary vision far exceeds what I had to give up.

With only 680 members, my new church is certainly less influential and less wealthy than my current church. This will undoubtedly require of me twice the work with a fraction of the resources.

No doubt, I will miss the perfectly timed worship services and the efficiency of our operating procedures — and most importantly, the wonderful people I have served for the last six years.

But I’ve learned the importance of sacrificing comfort on the altar of service.

My new church home will be different, but the work is important. My new congregation is focused on discerning and embracing their spiritual gifts to achieve social justice within the African-American communities represented by their membership.

In light of the current racial climate, this allows me an important opportunity to operate in my gifts and passion for helping other people find their own gifts and passion.

In addition, far from being complacent about our county’s relative wealth, my new pastor is committed to partnering with other pastors to shine a light on the socioeconomic disparities many of the county’s residents are facing.

And my new pastor is making an effort to connect with the increasing Hispanic population by creating Spanish worship opportunities and connecting with Hispanic community organizations.

The very last Sunday I served my beloved church, I cried through all three services. My pastor enjoyed watching me go into the ugly cry each time he made the announcement and the congregation thunderously applauded. He hugged me tight as my colleagues presented me with flowers and members told me how proud they were of me.

I’m sure I will doubt my decision. I will idealize the last six years, even the most difficult seasons. But I know I’ve made the right choice. Am I crazy for leaving? In one sense, yes. But I am choosing to lay claim to the woman in ministry I have the potential to become by fully embracing this new season.