The great winemaker Robert Mondavi was once asked for advice by a wealthy man who wanted to start his own vineyard. “Just go piano,” Mondavi said. Piano here is the musical term, not the instrument; in Italian, it means softly and gently.

The bold leader is an icon of our time. This change agent is a rugged and courageous hero who must persist in the face of the ignorant opposition of ordinary people. Bold, pioneering leadership that overcomes the inertia and inherent passivity of organizations is thought to be the one thing needful to save our failing institutions.

In the Episcopal Church, a misreading of Family Systems Theory has helped popularize the heroic leader who persists in the face of sabotage and seduction. (I have written about that topic on my blog.) The image of leadership being valorized in both the Church and the society in our time is the leader who can play the changes fortissimo. But is it not also important to be able to play piano?

The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:25-28, KJV)

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There is a time and place for boldness, for the fortissimo, but the boldness of Jesus Christ, his great fortissimo note is the meekness and humility of the cross. He expects this meekness and this humility to be hallmarks of the leaders of his Church. The teaching is what he enacted by washing those leaders’ feet on the night in which he was betrayed. He treated the disciples (who appear incredibly clueless in the Gospels) with great tenderness and respect, and bade them to love each other as he loved them.

Yet how do we treat disciples in our own time? How do we treat those who are baptized, who are actually the body of Christ, and who share in the Spirit? Do we treat them as a management problem to be solved, a kind of ignorant inertia to be circumvented by skillful leadership technique?

Here are a couple of stories of bold leadership to which I have been a witness over the years. At one time I was the vice president of the clergy association in a large diocese. Our meetings had well over a hundred in attendance. Few churches were centrally accessible or had enough parking space. We met at a beautiful facility with a spacious campus, a large A-frame church building, a large parish hall, and a huge parking lot at the intersection of two major highways.

Church planners had determined in the 1960s that there would be a huge building boom in this area and that the diocese should plant a church there. For that reason, the healthy parish on the main street in the local town was convinced to close its doors and relocate. It was managed skillfully over the objections of a very large part of the parish. After the relocation, less than half the parish made the move and the building boom never materialized. The diocese was left providing support to a parish that used to be self-sustaining. The new building never gathered more than a few dozen people on Sunday morning. Hardly the model.

In a parish I once served, one of my predecessors was an expert on church growth and had been a diocesan staff officer for church growth and evangelism. He came to a small parish in a small town and pushed through a series of bold changes that (according to experts) should have had the result of new growth. Instead, the changes drove away about half of the existing parish without drawing new members. Years later the parish was still struggling to regain the lost ground. Another example of playing fortissimo, when piano might have suited.

I think there are hundreds of parishes in the Episcopal Church and most other North American denominations that have been decimated by a series of short-term bold leaders who have had the knack of pushing through change without the knack of loving the people, valuing their wisdom, and committing to them for the long haul.

I was in parish ministry for 26 years and then in the seminary for eight years. I am back in the parish now. I am about three years in. I know there are times to sound a strong note, a time for bold leadership. Mostly I try to play piano, trusting that the people also have the Spirit and have wisdom; they likely read the local situation better than I do and know what will be sustainable after I am gone. I don’t see the parish as a management problem to be solved or resistance to be overcome, but as people who have borne the brunt of battle in the heat of the day and who have made great sacrifices for their Lord and his Church and who deserve to have their wisdom respected. They will not always be right, and then again neither will I.

When I came to this parish there were three things that I thought needed immediate correction. I decided not to mention them and to work on my relationship with the people and on teaching and preaching the basics of the faith. All of these issues have been addressed. They were raised in the vestry one by one, not by me, but by other leaders in the parish. They have all had a happy resolution.

It could be a coincidence, or it could have something to do with learning to play piano.

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