Everything I Know About Church Leadership (Part I)

Everything I know about leading in the church I learned from the Great British Baking Show.

No, really.

For a part of this pandemic season of binge-watching things we wouldn’t normally watch, my spouse and I watched many episodes, sometimes including the technical background shows. 

You may know the premise: a dozen or so amateur bakers go to a remote part of the British countryside for a marathon test of their baking skills. They will make a number of different baked goods, with a focus on the different kinds of products (tortes, meringue things, flatbreads, custards and such. Each week, after challenges that require a demonstration of basic and classic things, they are expected to produce a “showstopper” where their creativity can shine. At the end of the episode, a winning baker is applauded, and the person who has not risen to the occasion is sent home.  

This is not a new formula, this kind of competition. You might think it’s “Survivor” with sugar and flour and butter. But it’s not. In fact, it’s become one of my favorite shows to watch during CoronaTide, because it teaches me something new every time. As someone who’s baked pretty seriously for many years, I think I know a lot about the topic. But TGBBS has shown me that there is always something new to learn. Not just in baking, though: these lessons apply in other venues as well, and perhaps because of my work, I see its lessons for us in leadership in the Church. 

 So thirteen lessons. A baker’s dozen. So as to avoid mental overload or spiritual diabetes, I’ll divide the list into three sections. Let’s count them down.  

 Number 13 as mentioned above: There’s always something new to learn. If we had thought we knew everything about running our churches, the pandemic certainly proved that untrue. Suddenly we had to weigh the relative merits of Zoom, FaceBook Live, or YouTube, though most of us were not technology experts. We had to assess the relative risk of having indoor in-person worship given the proliferation of new cases of COVID-19 in our locale, though most of us were not epidemiologists or public health experts. We had to encourage musicians to explore technology to avoid super spreader choir rehearsals, although many of us were not musicians, nor did we know the difference between A Capella and Spire. We had to explain to our flock that our decisions were based on the common good, not personal freedom to do whatever an individual wanted. Well, that lesson-learning was happening before the pandemic, but we learned new versions of it, with requisite pastoral grace and diplomacy, in new ways. And then there were PPP loans…and only a few of us were familiar with government lending programs prior to this moment. So we learned, awkwardly, with errors on occasion, but we learned. As we always should learn, because there’s always something more to learn. 

 Number 12: Tell the truth. One of the things I love about TGBBS is that the judges tell the truth about the results of each contestant’s products. This is good, this has too much dark chocolate – can that ever be so? – this didn’t yield the desired result. Clear, honest, truth. It’s a little postmortem on the product, called in TGBBS parlance the “bake”. Oftentimes, we seem afraid to do that kind of postmortem in our churches. As a result, we continue to do programs that have lost their impact because they’ve become mere rote. Here’s your clue that it’s time to do such a postmortem: you cannot get people to volunteer to help. It’s something that has lost its spark. Is this something that needs a tweak in the recipe or has this thing outlived its usefulness?  Do you want to keep making Grandmother’s fruitcake recipe because it’s tradition, even though it ends up in the garbage of the recipients after a token taste? Would those recipients rather get some gingerbread cookies instead? Do you feel like you have to have a Mardi Gras party because Frieda started it and no one wants to break Frieda’s heart that it’s not being continued, even though Frieda can no longer participate in the work necessary to make it happen and you’re down to the only attendees being those who worked to put it on?  

Similarly, we tend to replicate the same liturgical practices because they’re comfortable. And you can hear it in the drone of the responses or the prayers, and you can see it on the faces of those on our Zoom screen. Yes, for those who are part of the more prescriptive liturgical traditions such as mine, where there are books of worship and rubrics, there is less room for flexibility, and yet even in our Episcopal tradition, there is room for variation. Tell the truth about what works and what doesn’t, because you’ll need to do some pruning and tweaking to keep things healthy and vibrant. 

 Number 11: Critique the product and not the person. The judges on TGBBS will tell the truth about a baked product. It’s over baked, it’s under baked, it’s got too many different flavors, it’s messy. You should have made sure the layers were the same depth. The caramel isn’t dark enough; it should be a dark amber. But they never say “Charlotte, you’re a sniveling mess” or “Johnny, have you got ADHD or something, because you’re so disorganized!” Critique of product is very different than criticism of the person. One of the interesting phenomena is that when the judges do their judging of the product and not the person, often the person says, “yes, I thought I’d gotten off track with that,” or “I see.” Much less defensiveness, because these contestants, like all of us, are usually their own toughest critics. If a judge said, “stop crying! There’s no crying in baking!” the recipient of those words would probably cry harder, feel worse, and learn nothing…and think the judge was a mean person. So let’s say someone who was relatively new to the congregation volunteered to run the Christmas pageant. It came off, barely, despite the fact that the lead volunteer had not asked others to help and was doing it mostly solo. We want to encourage parishioners to lead, and the good news was that the pageant got done. Doing a post-pageant debriefing provides the opportunity to offer love, praise for doing the job, and a little coaching in whom that lead volunteer might ask to help in the future, or ways to use resources to relieve the pressure.  

 Number 10: Find the good and tasty in the mess (within reason). Our judges on TGBBS regularly say things like “I like the flavor in this, even though it doesn’t look pretty.” As in Number 11, we are our own worst critics. If something comes out messy, we know it. Someone saying, “yes, it doesn’t look like something you’d put in the bakery window display, but that frangipane is just delicious,” it tempers the judgment with a bit of love…and also with a bit of truth, because the judges on TGBBS never praise something if it is not worthy of praise. Praise has value: if undeserved praise is given too often, it devalues the praise in the eyes of the recipient. So that parishioner who volunteered to lead the pageant? Would there be an opportunity for praise? What was good and tasty? “I loved the way you made space for everyone to have something to contribute, each child, and that you gave each of them your full attention while they were doing their thing.” With no  “but” anywhere in the sentence. Occasionally, there are situations where it seems there Is nothing to praise. Rare, but it does happen. False praise is not the solution. Loving truth and a clear debriefing to make the next time better, if there is to be a next time, is important.  

Number 9: Reasonable people can disagree. Often, the judges will have different opinions about an element of a bake. Even among experts, tastes differ. One might think that a flavoring element is too strong, another finds it just right. But neither judge feels compelled to insist that their opinion is one that the other judge must agree with. As a result, they can return their focus to critiquing the whole bake, not just the element that is the source of the disagreement. This presumes a comparable level of skill, knowledge and experience between the judges, and mutual respect. An amateur baker who is a contestant on the show will not challenge the judges because their credentials are respected. Here’s the tricky part of this in congregational life: a person with superb credentials in one area may challenge the decisions or credentials of a person in another area, as if their expertise on their area immediately confers wisdom in an area where they have no training or experience. It’s the brain surgery conundrum: if I have expertise in baking cakes, really superior cakes, beautiful cakes, does my skill as a baker translate into skill to do brain surgery? Of course we say no. But in the church, do we have brilliant lawyers/doctors/educators who opine on liturgy without the requisite training, or gifted clergy who opine on a real estate transaction despite their lack of training or understanding of it? And here’s where it is important to know who has skill or training on what subject, to use those gifts for the common good, and to recognize the points where the mix of gifts and skills intersect are the very places where there might be disagreements.  And that’s okay. Again, mutual respect and clarity…

 So there are the first four of these savory ideas, some sweet, some tart, and in good balance, I hope. Have I piqued your taste buds? Do you want to push back on something? Feel free to comment below, but, as we say in the South, “be sweet.” Bless you!

Yes, I baked my wedding cake. Remarkably, it was a decent bake. Still wouldn’t recommend it if you want a low-stress wedding.

Copyright © 2021 Mary Brennan Thorpe

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