Last Autumn, I presented a work in progress at the conference on Mennonite education held at Bluffton College. This Summer, I actually put finger to keyboard and wrote out my largely extemporaneous talk about servant leadership and circle process. As usual, it took more time than I was expecting, but was so, so worth it when I got it done! The impetus for getting it all written down was the invitation to submit it for publication in the conference proceedings.
A point that I make in the original manuscript that had to be cut for length reasons, I want to share here. “My own introduction to servant leadership came from a presentation I heard as a student a then Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in in the late nineties. A member of the staff of either the Oakwood Academy or the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. In either case, my sense of servant leadership is linked to Robert K. Greenleaf, and I have been and remain puzzled that our references to and reliance on servant leadership in Anabaptist-Mennonite pedagogy and curricula fail to include robust engagement with either Greenleaf’s theories or the thought leaders who have taken up the mantle of his work through the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Certainly, there are notable exceptions. The critique I am raising here is that owing to a tendency among ’internal churchly scholars’ to be intellectually pragmatic, we assume stances, utilize ideas, and employ language that are best-suited to advancing our arguments. To speak metaphorically, we are more interested with the taste of a piece of fruit than we are concerned with the particular tree, orchard, or agricultural practices that produced the thing we are consuming. A strength of this pattern is that our focus is on immediate intelligibility — we undertake analysis and synthesis with the intention of simplifying complex ideas. A weakness of this pattern is that we downplay or even dismiss how a chosen perspective fits into larger conversations that intersect with or even counter the view we are advocating. Servant leadership is a significant case in point.”
I‘ve posted a draft of the essay here (pardon the formatting glitches here and there), and I’ll put it up on Academia.edu when it’s finally published.
photo | “Milkweed” by Edith Maracle (Berghout) | Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC 2.0
Learning to Teach the Circle Way
Thanks to the fine folks at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religion and Theology, this August I’m beginning a pedagogy and research project connected to my broader research agenda.
My project involves developing the syllabus and core content for a course in the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary curriculum that I have agreed to revive: “Ethics for Organizations.” The course is for students focusing on the Leadership Development components of our curriculum who might be MDiv or MA students, and we will likely market the course to other AMBS constituents who are interested in thinking about what happens when human beings organize themselves. Our degree-seeking students are Mennonite, broadly evangelical, and mainline folks, and they are all interested in thinking about organizations as organisms. Many of them value analyzing systems and are sensitive to power dynamics, difference, and social location.
Thus, the students I teach come to AMBS wanting to learn how to think systematically about peace theology, and they want to participate in communities that practice Christian faith in ways that have deep coherence by integrating thinking, being, and doing. Teaching people how to do integrative work is a challenge because it is a “both/and” process. Supporting critical thinking so that students can contrast biblical exegesis with theological reflection is important, and so is helping students understand how these processes work together as we interpret, evaluate, and apply the gospel message to our lives.
With the help of the Summer Fellowship, preparing for and teaching this course will allow me to do two things. First, learn how to lead and teach Circle Process, a practice of nonviolence and ethical integrity. The practicum I’ll be participating in as part of my project has a four-part focus that informs the training and content: social infrastructure of conversation; energetics of interaction; challenges to process; and setting vision, discerning reality, and naming intention.
Second, articulate my critique of Mennonites’ appropriation of Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership paradigm. These two things are part of my larger teaching and research project to develop a constructive, systematic peace theology I call shalom political theology.
My hope is that students enrolled in Ethics for Organizations will, through the wisdom of Circle Process, develop skills to use their power and enact their authority nonviolently without undermining their position as organizational leaders. In other words, I want them to uncover and face their hangups about “being in charge.” How? The course’s content and format — organizational ethics taught in a three-week January session — call for creative pedagogical practices like structuring and running the course based on organizational ethics I want students to put into practice.
I anticipate that my research will help students see how and why Servant Leadership alone is not sufficient for achieving effective, ethical organizational culture. While this paradigm is an important turn away from autocratic, corporate leadership, when Christian groups and organizations uncritically declare themselves servant-leaders, they all too easily sanction dysfunctional behaviors that lead to lousy organizational ethics and even systemic forms of violence. How can we uphold the values of leadership that eschews corporate concern for the bottom line (shareholder dividends) while also building leadership patterns defined by deeply Christian ethics committed to nonviolence? This is the question and problem at the heart of this project.
Naming my hunches and finding ways to turn them into meaningful paths of inquiry for communal learning is huge part of who I am and how I do my work. I have found as a student, teaching assistant, and professor that teaching and learning have been most effective for me, my peers, and my students when the content of a course shapes how it is taught.
photo | “Cornflowers” by Henry Hemming | Creative Commons License: CC BY
My multiple wish lists on Amazon.com are brimming over with interesting titles, and I recently purchased two of volumes from my African American environmental history list with the last three still awaiting purchase:
photo | “Bee Balm” by Christopher Patterson | CreativeCommons License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0