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Abstract: The prophet Jeremiah worked at the

intersection of the seventh and sixth centuries BC.

Various empires were reshaping the options available to

Judah, and as a series of Judah’s kings and counselors made decisions, Jeremiah challenged the hermeneutics of their situation and choices. Mark Lau Branson works with the Jeremiah text and context, creating an interplay with contemporary matters of social dislocation, church leadership, and the more specific work on interpretive leadership. He works with the social and communication theories of Jürgen Habermas and recent leadership frameworks of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

Introduction Practical theology requires work at the interface of current on-the-ground realities and the embedded theoretical constructs with the texts of our faith traditions. Those texts give us access to earlier on-theground situations and their own theoretical resources.

When a culture or community experiences major societal shifts that bear on their identity and agency, leadership functions need to adapt or the group’s identity is at risk. I believe that North American churches and their leaders need to name and interpret our current social dislocation and the accompanying disorienting challenges. It is expected that leaders might instead work to avoid such challenges, pretend to provide expert fixes, or mangle the tradition in efforts to deflect responsibility. I have found that Jeremiah offers an alternative. Jeremiah consulted neither Ronald Heifetz nor Jürgen Habermas. I enjoy my work in practical theology because I can bring them into Mark Lau Branson is the Homer Goddard Associate Professor of Ministry of the Laity, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

Journal of Religious Leadership, Vol. 8, No.1, Spring 2009 28 BRANSON conversations. I propose that the disorienting context at the cusp of the Babylonian exile can, with Jeremiah’s help, give us access to the challenges we face and the leadership required. I will work with the leadership frameworks of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky and the philosophical and communicative frameworks of Jürgen Habermas, with the hope of increasing our interpretive skills and broadening our imaginative resources.

Definitions Elsewhere I have proposed a leadership triad that provides a framework that includes the spheres of relational leadership, implemental leadership, and interpretive leadership.1 Relational leadership concerns attention and activity patterns that discover, initiate, nurture, and sanction the human connections that comprise a social entity. For example, a church leadership team participates in and fosters the connections among persons and groups that serve covenanted missional life.

A major goal of attending to relationships is the distribution of leadership. This includes intergenerational and intercultural relationships, peacemaking and conflict management, attention to opportunities for mentoring, the care-giving initiatives of prayer and healing, and numerous modes of accountability and encouragement.

Connective vocabulary includes love, peace, justice, kindness, truth, hospitality, partnership, and several words concerning sending and commissioning. We are a people who are called and sent, specifically to be sign, foretaste, and instrument of the Reign of God. So relational leadership attends to the on-the-ground work of shaping and nourishing the human connections that serve our identity and agency.

Implemental leadership concerns the experiments, systems, and practices by which we live out our identity

1 See Mark Lau Branson, “Ecclesiology and Leadership for the Missional

Church,” in The Missional Church in Context, ed. Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007) and “Forming God’s People,” in Leadership in Congregations, ed. Richard Bass (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2007), 20.

Journal of Religious Leadership, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2009 BRANSON 29 and agency. While our lives include some very fluid activities that require little structure, there are numerous ways in which we organize our common life—schedules for a single event (a wedding) or a series of gatherings (worship or study). Some decision making will always be immediate and on-the-go, but we also embed corporate decision making in the activities and documents of governance. Much Christian formation is spontaneous, but we also shape catechesis and seminars. These systems and structures require a variety of competencies and skills in the sphere of implemental leadership. Further, such competencies should give a priority to creating contexts and resources so more persons can be involved in leadership activities.

Interpretive leadership is the work of shaping and resourcing a community of interpreters.2 This is the continuous work of hermeneutics—giving attention to texts and context as meanings are discovered and made.

Interpretive leaders in Christian organizations are responsive to the written texts of scripture and tradition;

they attend to events that shape texts; they bring to consciousness the events and texts that have shaped the interpretive community (socio-cultural factors, personal journeys, congregational narratives); and they also lead the community of interpreters in attending to the presence and activities of the Trinity. This work includes shaping environments in which a community can attend to texts and context—creating and supporting study, research, and conversations, thus providing the means for a new social imaginary3 that lures the community to participate with God, on the ground, in the church’s engagement with the powers and peoples of its context.

In this essay, I will focus on biblical resources behind this concept of interpretive leadership.

2 Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

3 Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

Journal of Religious Leadership, Vol. 8, No.1, Spring 2009 30 BRANSON Epistemologies and Leadership Any church or organization operates within the framework of certain epistemologies—the knowledge and frameworks and interpretations that are shared by the group. Jürgen Habermas’s concept of “lifeworlds” includes the conceptual background, the assumptions, the linguistic fields, and the social imaginaries within which persons live.4 These structures of meanings are assumed and largely unconscious, yet they are the basis of any efforts at communication and cooperative activities. For example, persons can talk about “calories” without being explicit about how this measure is based on calculations concerning heat and water. Likewise, church members can use the word “pastor” yet be unaware that they are assuming theoretical constructs from modern management theory or from therapeutic schools.

Unless this background is surfaced for consideration, perhaps by circumstances or, one hopes, by interpretive leaders, there are profound limits on what is socially possible.5 Paulo Freire refers to this consideration as “problematized.”6 If the background realities are to be problematized, a social group will be well-served if communication assets are strong. Habermas provides a useful means for sorting a group’s communication. He specifies three worlds within which we all live and speak; each world has its own subject matter and standards for integrity.7 According to Habermas, when we describe external events, texts, and objects, and make truth claims, it is the “objective lifeworld” about which we are building a body of shared 4 Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2: Lifeworld and System, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston, Beacon, 1987).

5 Senge’s “mental models” help with this process of assisting others to see and enter into new practices. Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990).

6 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970).

7 It should be noted that Habermas explicitly worked within the structures of modernity and was dismissive of exponents of post-modernism. He believed that modernity could deliver more if we attended to communication and hermeneutics.

Journal of Religious Leadership, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2009 BRANSON 31 knowledge, and our communication is held to the measure of truth. Our communications about our personal, inward experiences deal with the “subjective lifeworld,” so we use expressive, affective speech that is subject to the measure of honesty so that trust can be nurtured. As groups, we form and reform ways of living together in our “social lifeworld.” We talk about norms regarding regulations and intentions, and the measures are those of justice and love. Interpretive leadership fosters communicative integrity in all three worlds, shaping the interpretive community with attention to the adequacy of its perceptions, hermeneutics, and norms.

Expectations and scenarios for leadership are significantly different when the social group faces discontinuous changes in its context (external) or in its own makeup and experiences (internal). When a group faces discontinuous change, which requires a reconsideration and reformation of basic beliefs, values, and practices (an “adaptive challenge” according to Ronald Heifetz), leadership must provide (1) reality testing; (2) a reconsideration of values and priorities with clarity about trade-offs; and (3) an environment in which an increasing number of participants are mobilized for shaping new social arrangements.8 In addition to the challenges presented in such discontinuous environments, there are also contexts of change that are continuous but of such pervasiveness and depth that adaptive work is needed.

A significant part of the work is the forming of a new social imaginary that can provide cultural coherence as reshaped meanings and practices are tested and owned.9 Charles Taylor notes that we also live in the midst of false imaginaries that are “full of false consciousness.”10 One cause of such false consciousness is a group’s tendency to conjure continuity even when it is not 8 Ronald A.

Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press, 1994), 22-27.

9 Taylor, 23-30.

10 Taylor, 183.

Journal of Religious Leadership, Vol. 8, No.1, Spring 2009 32 BRANSON present.11 The adaptive challenge of interpretive leadership is to discover and explore texts old and new;

as noted by Taylor, “the background that makes sense of any given act is thus deep and wide.”12 So during transitions, “people take up, improvise, or are inducted into new practices” in a way that background meanings and the current context are mutually reinterpreted; “new understanding comes to be accessible to the participants in a way it wasn’t before.”13 Heifetz, who posits that leadership is not primarily about character traits and positional authority but rather about actions that certain persons take,14 explains how leaders can create an environment—through their practices and words—that makes innovation possible by giving the adaptive work to a larger group of participants.15 This is not the vision of strategy, command, or control, but rather interpretive work that connects with the background, distributes leadership, and experimentally innovates a way into the new realities of a different context.

Working within his lifeworlds model and the requirements for integrity in communication, Habermas examines the fluctuations and threats of crises. For example, a culture (with its assumed body of knowledge, interpretations, and practices) must be able to reproduce itself as new situations arise, or it will cease to exist. The culture must secure “a continuity of tradition and coherence of knowledge sufficient for daily practice.”16 Disturbances can lead to the loss of meanings and an extensive crisis in the culture’s epistemologies and reproduction. When Habermas looks at related situations with societies and with individuals, such disturbances include the instability Scott Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 9ff.

12 Taylor, 28.

13 Taylor, 29.

14 Heifetz, 20.

15 Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 123ff.

16 Habermas, 140. The italics are in the original.

Journal of Religious Leadership, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2009 BRANSON 33 of collective identity, the rupture of tradition, personal alienation, crises of legitimation, the loss of motivation for persons to adhere to the culture, and societal anomie.17 If the culture is to be renewed through the situational challenge, communicative action must include the “transmission, critique, acquisition of cultural knowledge,” a “coordination of actions via intersubjectively recognized validity claims,” and avenues for persons to participate in identity formation within the cultural semantics.18 Jeremiah and Interpretive Leadership The prophet Jeremiah can help us see and interpret discontinuous challenges, and learn how new social imaginaries might be formed. Those who had positions of authority around Jeremiah—the royal household, the priests, the court prophets—worked with the covenant and their context in certain ways. They made assumptions about God, goals, neighbors, actions, and what it meant to be God’s chosen people. This was the shape of their lifeworld—the assumptions that they brought to bear on how they exercised authority—how they as authorities interpreted their historical context, how they interpreted their texts and traditions, and how they prescribed their community’s response. They described reality based on their perceptions and biases, and they prescribed (and enforced) norms. Jeremiah’s interpretive leadership, from within an alternative lifeworld, countered these assumptions and prescriptions. He interpreted texts and context differently, so he promoted an alternative social imaginary (and sought the implementation of that alternative in particular actions and practices).

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