My first experience with church was attending a high school youth group, which meant that the first church leader I ever met was a youth pastor. That youth pastor had a larger than life personality with a larger than life persona to match. He fit a stereotype for youth pastors in the late 1990’s: he was a man, he was highly competitive, he possessed the ability to be over-the-top in volume, jokes, and conservative moralism, and ultimately, he was effective in bringing youth into contact with Good News and transforming our perception of our high school world through joy.
In fact, apart from the conservative moralism, he was a lot like the comedian Chris Farley.
Ministry practices have continued to change since I first attended youth group nearly twenty years ago, growing in diversity and expanding in creativity: there are more women and social minorities in leadership, there have been shifts away from leading by personality toward leading through relationship, and many ministries have shifted from centering on the preservation of Christian moralism to include focuses in social justice, community development, and ministries of compassion.
However, rather than defending their mistakes, Farley’s characters learn from them; rather than pretending to be someone other than who they are, Farley’s characters figure out how to use their giftedness to benefit their goals, even if achieving those goals requires Farley’s characters to act contrary to their self interest.
This ever-increasing variety in diversity and creativity is an extraordinary gift to the Church. And yet, at the same time, many churches still preserve the personality-driven leadership model as the ideal, often looking for dynamic, male leaders to rejuvenate and rebuild ministries that have been diminishing in numbers and resources.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with this particular kind of leader, leadership theory has widely grown and expanded over the decades to recognize more sustainable forms of leadership in the formation of learning communities (like churches) and in the long term growth of organizations. And so I want us to look at some of these new theories through the lens of an old stereotype: the top three lessons of effective leadership as portrayed in Chris Farley movies, namely “Black Sheep” and “Tommy Boy.”
Lesson #1: Leadership is practiced, not inherited.
Many people in both church and in society consider leadership to be the result of an inherent set of traits, saying that someone is a “born” or “natural” leader. This Trait Approach was one of the first systematic attempts to study leadership, focusing on the innate qualities and characteristics possessed by social, political, and military leaders such as Catherine the Great or Mohandas Gandhi, and then applying those “leadership traits” broadly across different contexts.1
But much has changed in leadership studies since the Trait Approach originated in the early 20th century. While some people may possess the traits that help them emerge as leaders, they may not possess the traits that help them maintain effective leadership over time.2 As a result, many more theories have emerged that identify how effective leadership skills are developed, not inherited.
Let’s take Tommy Boy, for example. In the 1995 comedy, Chris Farley’s character Tommy is the son of a wealthy car part maker who inherits a position in his father’s business through nepotism. Though Tommy and his father are similar in both appearance and personality, Tommy does not possess the sales skills of his father. When his father unexpectedly dies, leaving the fate of the car company on Tommy’s shoulders, Tommy fails miserably and repeatedly before he learns how to effectively gain the trust of buyers.
In other words, even though Tommy possessed the same innate traits as his father, his leadership skills were learned over time as he adapted his particular gifts to the particular context of his work. Which, for Tommy, required him to abandon the methods his father had used (how to evaluate a t-bone steak, for example), and rely on his own Authentic Leadership style.
Lesson #2: Authentic and Humble Leadership in a narcissistic world.
Because Trait Approach has been so dominant in leadership theory, many leaders feel as though they need to suppress or conform their natural giftedness in order to fit a pre-determined mold of “leadership.” For example, introverted leaders may attempt to appear more extroverted, or women leaders may attempt to appear more masculine.
But narcissistic betrayals by public and influential leaders have created fear and uncertainty in society (think of disgraced priests/pastors/politicians, corporate scandals at companies like Enron, and the financial meltdown of the banking industry in the mid 2000’s), which has in turn created a demand for authenticity and humility from persons in leadership rather than particular traits.
Authentic Leadership, while still an emerging theory, is composed of self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, and relational transparency.3 Similarly, Humble Leadership is composed of self-awareness, openness to new ideas, and the ability to look past, or transcend, oneself.4
We see this Authentic and Humble Leadership from both Tommy in Tommy Boy,” as well as from Mike, Chris Farley’s character in Black Sheep. In both movies, Farley’s characters are highly self-aware of their tendency to mess things up—Tommy confesses his failures to a potential client (consequently losing the sale) and Mike apologizes to his brother multiple times for creating media gaffes during his brother’s political campaign. However, rather than defending their mistakes, Farley’s characters learn from them; rather than pretending to be someone other than who they are, Farley’s characters figure out how to use their giftedness to benefit their goals, even if achieving those goals requires Farley’s characters to act contrary to their self interest.
Lesson #3: Sensemaking matters.
However, not all lessons from Chris Farley’s characters should be replicated by current-day church leaders.5 Part of what makes Black Sheep and Tommy Boy so funny is Mike and Tommy’s lack of skill in correctly making sense of particular situations. When he hits a deer in Tommy Boy, Tommy loads the deer into the back of his car, assuming the deer was killed on impact (it wasn’t.) When Mike makes phone calls for his brother’s campaign, he assumes he is speaking to an adult when he is actually speaking to a child. Neither Tommy nor Mike are able to make good sense of their situations in ways that move them closer to their goal without putting their person or their outcome in terminal danger.
And many faith communities make the same mistake. Because many faith communities have been around for generations, church leaders often find themselves facing challenges that have been met and overcome before, leading community leaders and members alike to say deadly phrases like, “we’ve done it this way before” or “no reason to re-invent the wheel.”
However, as the work of Karl Weick has shown,6 approaching familiar challenges with previously prescribed solutions can blind us to recognizing the full circumstances of the present challenge. This, in turn, can lead to fatal outcomes.
Let me give you an example: while pastoring a small, Presbyterian, urban church, I once came across a research study written by a local pastor that was distributed throughout the presbytery.7 Written in the early 1960’s, the pastor had compiled data showing that presbytery numbers were diminishing. He urged local congregations to adjust the use of their resources accordingly. However, because local church leaders had never experienced permanent downturns in numbers, no one heeded his call. In fact, many of the local churches built large education wings during this same period, after the report came out. In the end, those large education wings were never used. By the time they were done being built, there were not enough people in the congregations to fill them.
Too often in the church, leaders look to repeat past solutions in order to overcome new challenges, ignoring the nuances that make new challenges novel. But falling upon past solutions, while it may appear efficient at the time, can often lead to long-term failure.
Increased diversity and creativity in our society has gifted the church with new opportunities and approaches to ministry. It’s important for our ministries to express the same diversity and creativity in our leadership ideals. We can do this by encouraging our leaders to continually practice new theories of leadership, such as Authentic and Humble Leadership, and by guiding our ministries toward good sensemaking as they faithfully fulfill their calling.
1. Northouse, Peter G. Leadership: Theory and Practice, Seventh Edition. Sage Publications, 2016. Kindle location number 682.
2. Ibid, Kindle location number 904.
3. Avolio, B.J., Walumbwa, F.O., and Weber, T.J. (2009). Leadership: Current theories, research, and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 421-449.
4. Morris, J.A., Brotheridge, C.M., and Urbanski, J.C. 2005. Bringing humility to leadership: Antecedents and consequences of leader humility. Human Relations, 58: 1323-1350.
5. Massive understatement.
6. Weick, K.E. 1993. The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38: 628-652.
7. A “presbytery” is a geographical collection of presbyterian churches in a particular area with the mission of creating shared ministry opportunities between churches.
Jessica Vaughan Lower is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in El Paso, TX and a PhD student in Leadership and Change at Antioch University. Jessica believes that God intended church to be enjoyed, that living a life of faith requires both risk and a sense of adventure, and that God still uses people of all kinds to change the world for the better.