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A talk during the PC(USA)’s Stewardship Kaleidoscope poses tough questions for church leaders to consider

The Rev. Dr. Michael Bos says leaders should ask themselves, ‘Where am I looking?’ and ‘Who am I listening to?’

by Greg Allen-Pickett for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Michael Bos, senior pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, addresses Stewardship Kaleidoscope. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Church leadership in this age is not just about technical changes or making adjustments, says the Rev. Dr. Michael Bos. It’s about changing your culture and values, which means there will be dissent, criticism and debate.

Leaders will find themselves sometimes creating conflict and often managing conflict.

Bos was the speaker for the third plenary at the Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference held Sept. 26-28 in Savannah, Georgia. The annual conference is a collaboration between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Bos is the senior minister at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He has co-authored two books with Dr. William Sachs, “A Church Beyond Belief” and “Fragmented Lives: Finding Faith in an Age of Uncertainty.”

Bos worked with the U.S. embassy and the government of Oman to establish a first-of-its-kind program on religious diplomacy in the Middle East for the top chaplains in the U.S. armed services. He was told that his need for adventure may be too high for a traditional pastoral role, so he has pursued lots of ministry opportunities that included planting a church, pastoring a megachurch and establishing an interfaith center in the Arabian Peninsula.

Bos acknowledged that being a church leader is tough, and it always has been; the people make being a pastor a challenge. He recounted a simple verse from Joshua 1, “Moses is dead,” and joked that it was the people who drove him into the grave. The people were emancipated and moving into this new place. They are finally going to get to the Promised Land, but all they were doing was complaining. Despite this challenge, it is love for people that draws him to ministry and keeps him there.

Church leadership is only going to get harder, Bos said. Sometimes we make it hard on ourselves. We are “over-learners” when it comes to negative things, Bos said.

As an example, he talked about a “Brunch Church” for 20-somethings that was unsuccessful. The church that attempted this event overlearned the negative lessons and concluded that all 20-somethings didn’t want anything to do with the church.

This negativity makes it hard to lead because leaders want to be liked, but that’s not the way of leadership for the future. Leaders have to stretch and challenge their people and that means they may not always be well liked. He quoted Ronald Heifetz in the Harvard Business Review, “Followers want comfort, stability, and solutions from their leaders. But that’s babysitting. Real leaders ask hard questions and knock people out of their comfort zones. Then they manage the resulting distress.”

Bos reminded listeners that this is not a new issue, stating that we can go back to see the struggle in the early church in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. There is dissent, not about technical change, but about deep cultural and value change. They had a way of doing church based on Jewish ritual and tradition that was a barrier to the Gentiles. They were debating if they can lift that barrier, enacting cultural change. The early church was listening and sensed God on the move, so they did something bold: they voted against themselves. The things they loved and cherished, they said “no” to, so that the church could be open for new people.

This led Bos to ask two important questions that will tell church leaders whether they are leading significant change: Where we are looking and how we are listening?

Where are we looking?

 If we always focus on the negative, looking down, we will never have the opportunity to look up and out, both literally and metaphorically. If someone begins a meeting with the phrase, “People are saying,” Bos says that he has learned to say, “How many people and who?” This strategy immediately reframes the conversation and focus.

He shared his experience of starting a church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He found it challenging, and asked himself, “Does this place really need another church?” He was lamenting to a new church development coach who asked him what he really wanted to do. He said, “I want to start a church for people who don’t like church.”

By focusing on why he was there in the first place instead of the negativity, he discovered that there are a lot of people who don’t like church and found that unique thing about his new church plant, that it wasn’t like every other church.

Bos shared a conversation with a church consultant who said that 90% of churches think that there is nothing special about them. But he knows that every church has something unique and special that God has given to it, so he encouraged the attendees to find that, look at it and hold on to it, stating that it will make a difference. He encouraged participants to ask, where am I looking? What is special about my ministry?

How are you listening and to whom are you listening?

Bos recounted his experience of a church member with a disability who had trouble speaking. Bos filled in the void by talking to calm his own anxiety. A woman sitting with them encouraged Bos to be quiet so that his church member could speak. He took that advice to heart. During his next visit, which was on Christmas Day, Bos gave the church member a chance to talk. He asked him how he was doing, and the member responded by saying, “blessed.” This moved Bos to tears and taught him that he needs to do a better job of listening well.

When there’s conflict and tension, Bos said his own impulse is not to listen. Instead, he seeks to rally the troops, reduce the conflict and inspire — which, for him, involves a lot of talking. He learned that he needs to do more listening, particularly around generational differences. He acknowledged that he got tired of hearing about these differences for a while, but eventually realized that he was ignoring something very important. The solution for the future, the ideas that are going to come, won’t come from the current generation of leadership, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. Bos said, “For those of us who are older and have more disposable income, we think if we give more, we get to decide more. But we have to give up that notion and turn it over to the next generation.”

This led to a discussion about a different model of the church grounded first and foremost in belonging. Bos grew up with the model best summarized as: you have to believe like us and behave like us, and then you will belong. But that’s not really belonging. Belonging is saying, “I see you for who you are, and I want you to know that there is space at the table for you here, exactly as you are.” In the generation coming up, people want to belong before they know what they believe or how to live out their faith. This is not an easy shift, as Bos acknowledged that he misses the control and consistency of the old model.

Bos concluded stating that listening is a form of outreach, and it means something to the people you listen to. He quoted Mike Park, a church planter in New York, who said, “Being heard is so close to being loved for the average person, that they are almost the same.”

The Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett is pastor and head of staff of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska. Send comments on this story to

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