Most of my ministry pals want to be on the “cutting edge”—blazing trails, multiplying effectiveness, and awakening fresh faithfulness. In the words of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, they want to “skate to where the puck is going to be.”
Recently, I stumbled onto an important distinction that can prevent lots of heartache. There are two very different kinds of cutting-edge leaders: bleeding edge and leading edge.
Both are absolutely necessary, but bleeding-edge leaders are true pioneers. They’re crash-test dummies for the rest of us, beta-testing innovations to see which ones are scalable and adaptable. My friends Tony Jones and Mike King are two examples of bleeding-edge leaders. Both have developed extraordinary laboratories for ministry innovation. They regularly call youth workers to authentic discipleship, a “revisioned” church, and a gospel translated for an often-moving target.
Like John the Baptist (or Søren Kierkegaard or Blaise Pascal), they’re itinerant prophets. Speaking from the outside (i.e., not on a church staff), they’re free to be bold and unencumbered. Their challenging words delightfully de-center us, uncoupling us from comfort with systems that have worked for decades. They invite us to acknowledge that the way things have worked for years may not be the way they will work.
Bleeding-edge leaders pay a price. They’re often criticized and marginalized for forcing us to examine the why behind what we do, especially when it’s been assumed as self-evident. Leading-edge leaders, by contrast, are maximizers who implement innovations after the kinks have been worked out. Instead of being on the frontier searching for new discoveries, they implement, find multiple applications, and generally make stuff work.
Leading-edge leaders work from within a church system. They’re resident prophets, applying the hard-won discoveries of bleeding-edge leaders in ways that make ministries more fruitful. They “orbit the giant hairball,” staying connected to their church’s bureaucracy while keeping enough distance to implement new strategies.
Here’s where the problem comes in: When a bleeding-edge youth worker joins a church staff, he or she must be more of an implementer than a pioneer. Without that shift to the leading edge, misunderstandings, broken relationships, and firings result.
So if you’re absolutely called to be a pure innovator, do it. Be a professor. Be a volunteer. Invent things on the side. But if you’re on a church staff, be faithful as a resident prophet. Unapologetically pour yourself into your leading-edge mission: making your church’s ministry as fruitful and effective as possible. ◊