News and Views

Next Level Leadership Academy inspires Church to bigger dreams

Posted by Erik Alsgaard on


By Melissa Lauber and Erik Alsgaard

The time for merely keeping the church doors open has passed. Today’s church requires excellence. It demands a passion for learning and addressing new challenges. It needs people to step up to the next level of leadership if the church is to survive and thrive. 

“This is not a season for mediocrity,” Bishop LaTrelle Easterling told the 61 participants who gathered online Nov. 20 for the first day of the Next Level Leaders Academy. “If anyone has been dancing to the tune of mediocrity, the dance floor is now closed.” 

In the opening session of the two-day academy, sponsored by the BWC’s Leadership Development office, Bishop Easterling called lay and clergy leaders to dream bigger. 

“In our present milieu," she said, “every church is a new church start. Right now, every business is a startup, and every leader is an entrepreneur. This is a season for individuals who want to grow, want to innovate, want to dare greatly, risk much, fail well, and rise even stronger.”

This was the inaugural session of the Next Level Leaders Academy, produced by the Rev. Rodney Smothers. Leading the online training was Dr. Bob Jennings, a former president of Lincoln and Alabama A&M universities; the Rev. Don McLaughlin, a pastor and author from Atlanta; and Lia McIntosh, an expert in coaching.

“Next Level Leadership is iron sharpening iron,” Smothers said. The long-term plan is to develop cohorts from this first training event that will exist for weeks and months to come, he said. “That is how we will continue to grow.”

Delores Martin, Conference Lay Leader, attended both days of the training. She noted that this was a time that benefitted both clergy and laity.

“I must say, however, I was expecting greater participation,” she said. “I am encouraged that we have our bishop’s wholehearted support of the sessions.”

Initially, Martin said, she wasn’t sure that she should participate. 

However, she said, “after experiencing this rich opportunity, I am ‘over the moon’ that I did. One of my messages always is that clergy and laity work in partnership and I saw evidence of this.  I wish that there could have been more members from the same churches to make sharing information and developing leadership programs more meaningful.”

In interactive sessions, the participants examined what kind of leaders might be needed for the year 2030, given dramatic potential changes in technology and artificial intelligence, the younger and more diverse demographics of this nation, the shrinking relevance of mainline churches, and other observable trends.

As futurists, they imagined the changes leaders will be asked to address, and then projected those attributes onto today’s leaders and the rapid pace of change they’re facing. They reflected together on the remarks of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who referred to the church as “moribund,” lacking in the vitality and vigor to address society’s needs. 

Stepping into this “wisdom of God,” they explored their own leadership styles and how they fit into the classifications of autocratic, authoritative, pacesetting, democratic, coaching, affiliative, and laissez-faire style leadership. 

Knowing which of the leadership styles works best for you is part of being a good leader,” McLaughlin said. “Developing a signature style with the ability to stretch into other styles as the situation warrants may help enhance your leadership effectiveness.”

Every type of good leader adopts certain practices, McLaughlin said. These include:

  • Know yourself – engage others to help you reflect on your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Understand the different styles and examine what skills you need to develop.
  • Practice leadership. Be genuine and also get better and improve. Don’t be a mediocre part of something special.
  • Develop your leadership agility, you may need new skills and approaches for new situations and seasons.

But, no matter what the style, McLaughlin stressed, “this is the time for our leaders to speak of hope and of the capability of God. We’re living into the awareness of the battle we’re in and drawing people’s attention to God’s presence.”

The goal of leaders in 2020, the participants decided, is to do more than to persist, it is to thrive. While some clergy reported frustrations in changes and challenges that need to constantly be addressed, one pastor reported that the virus and online worship enabled them to reach five times as many people as they did last year. “COVID-19 gave us a blank slate,” said another.

Leaders thrive, McIntosh pointed out, when they are authentic to who God has created them to be, when they work out of their giftedness, and realize that they are part of the larger community of God.

Participants then broke into small groups and explored the challenges they’re facing and the need for “fresh fire to come upon us.”

During the day of theoretical and practical discussion of leadership, Jennings encouraged them to never stop learning and exploring new ideas. He also held up several proven strategies that leaders should remember. They included:

  • Pray first. Moving people requires the work of the spirit of God.
  • Celebrate the church’s heritage without idolizing it.
  • Read your context well. See who the “movers and shakers” are and bring them on your team and ask their opinions.
  • Seek the suggestions of others but make the choice yourself.
  • Make sure you can describe and defend the “whys” for changes you want to make.
  • Plan a bunch of lunches; strategic conversations go a long way.
  • If necessary, take what victories you can get and then move on.
  • Say thanks.
DAY TWO: Rest, goals, and resonant leadership

The second day of the training began with people examining how much time off they take. “How much time do you spend for ‘me time’?” Jennings asked. He noted that effective leaders know how to budget their time wisely, including taking time away from work.

As the Rev. Carey James said, “You have to be intentional about doing something for yourself.” James serves as pastor at Jones Memorial UMC in Washington and chairs the BWC’s Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

For the Rev. Twanda Prioleau, pastor at Christ UMC in Baltimore, not taking time off is not an option, she said. “We need to set an example for our congregations,” she said. “Me not taking time off led to burnout.”

Prioleau, in fact, has chronicled her journey from burnout to health in a new book, “Breathe: A Pastor's Journey to Wholeness,” available on Amazon.

Many times, pastors and church leaders seek help from others to overcome burnout. While that is a great concept, McLaughlin said, “not everyone is equipped to help you when you’re not doing well.”

Participants then examined the importance of setting goals. Jennings said that having measurable goals that can be reached in 3 to 5 years is crucial.

“One of those goals always needs to be that we going to be trying to win more souls for Christ,” he said. “That needs to be a numerical goal. You may not make it, but people need to know that we are trying to bring 25 more people into this fold this year, or 10. Be realistic – be aggressive, but be realistic.”

Jennings also issued a warning about goals, or rather, not having them. 

“If you don’t set a goal, I can almost guarantee you that it won’t happen,” he said.

Saturday afternoon, attendees focused on diversity and racism. Jennings said that Bishop Easterling had specifically asked his team to include a section on these topics. 

To come at these topics, Jennings placed the participants in small groups. Each group was given the same task: using identical profiles of 30 mostly fictional characters, pick seven people with which to start a new world.

As the five groups reported back, Jennings noted patterns of who was selected and who was not, asking for reasonings from group members.

This exercise, Jennings said, was designed to not only help clergy think about their nominations committee work, but also what biases they bring to a selection process.

Bishop Easterling is confident that the leaders of the BWC will continue to seek out training like this two-day experience. The church needs “people who are intellectually curious, who are hungry for cutting-edge understandings of the philosophical and paradigmatic changes that give them an understanding of how the world working now,” she said.

“We as a conference already have a dynamic vision. We can continue to create exciting programs; we can even dream God-sized dreams. But if we don't have a cadre of well-formed and informed leaders ready to take the helm, then it will not bear as much fruit,” the bishop concluded. “It’s important we learn well today, to lead well tomorrow.”