Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sara Wenger Shenk: A leadership biography

When I came to Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in 2008 to begin graduate studies, I did so specifically to be dual-enrolled in both the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) and the Seminary (EMS), working toward a degree in each program. When the time came to plan my seminary classes for the first semester, I sat down with Sara Wenger Shenk, the associate dean of the Seminary, to do so. As I look back on that experience from a year and half ago, I seem to recall that my first impression of Sara was fairly neutral. She struck me as quiet and reflective, perhaps even a bit intimidating to someone new to the university community, such as myself.

But over the course of my time here at EMU, I have come to see a tremendously deep well of wisdom, insight, and zeal for her work and community from Sara, not to mention a profound awareness and expression of her Christian faith that has made an equally profound impression on my own faith. In the crowd of wonderful professors, mentors, leaders, advisors – both academic and spiritual – and friends that I am exposed to here, Sara stands out. It is the intention of this paper to describe the kind of leader that Sara is. I will do this by way of relating my own experiences of her leadership in her various roles, along with elements of her own reflections on her formational journey that has brought her to this point. In addition, I have interviewed two other people in the Seminary context and will incorporate their reflections into this paper, providing a multi-dimensional view of Sara Wenger Shenk's expression of leadership.

Read on after the break for my reflections on Sara and her leadership...

In addition to the academic advising Sara has provided for me, she soon became a spiritual leader to me in her role as teaching elder at The Table, the experimental Mennonite congregation that she and her husband, Gerald, helped form. My family has been regularly attending The Table since soon after we moved to Virginia and it did not take long for me to become involved in various ways. For my first year of seminary, Sara was also a professor in a year-long, team-taught doozie of a course called “Christian Tradition,” which covers the 2,000 years of the church from the perspectives of history, theology, and worship. Sara covered the worship angle, as that is her area of expertise. After my first semester, I was invited by Sara to help plan worship services for EMS's annual School for Leadership Training (SLT), which is held in the opening weeks of the spring semester in January.

After my first full year of seminary, I had amassed a number of experiences with Sara in and out of the Seminary context. By the time summer rolled around and I began taking the class for which I'm writing this paper, “Leadership for Healthy Organizations” in the CJP's Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI), it became quite clear who my subject should be for the leadership biography project. Sara's leadership to me in the variety of roles she held at that time were then quite significant; so in June of 2009, I sat down to not only interview Sara, but also two other people connected to her in the Seminary context, something I will discuss further below.

Little did I know at that time, but Sara's leadership capacity, skills, and experience had also caught the attention of others.  During the summer of 2009, Sara had been contacted by the presidential search team at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana. Amidst this highly confidential process, Sara sat down for this interview with me, with much soul-searching going on inside her. She made veiled comments at the time that seemed to hint at the fact that something significant was going on, but I didn't push her for more details. As the summer wore on and gave way to fall, it was then announced that Sara had been offered the job as president at AMBS, and shortly thereafter she accepted that offer.

Now that I sit down to write this paper in early 2010, over six months after initially beginning work on this project, I have experienced another dimension of Sara's leadership. The seminary internship, which typically comes in an M.Div student's second year, is one activity that I am going through this academic year. My internship site is The Table, and my site supervisor is Sara. In that time, I have become more involved in worship planning from week to week – a very creative process at The Table – as well as being invited onto the design team, which oversees the strategic direction of the congregation. In that sense, my appreciation for her visioning coupled with theological depth has deepened. But I am also getting very close to the time when she will be moving on from EMS and The Table, into her new role as president at AMBS in Indiana. She will no longer be a direct influence on me in her four or five leadership roles, under which I have grown so much. So in addition to the   purpose of the paper stated above, it is also the intention of this paper to be a send-off of sorts, a letter of appreciation to Sara, thanking her for the gifts that she has so deeply shared with not only me, but the other people she is connected to in her various communities. If this exploration helps her next phase of life in any small way, all the better.

Interview Summary
In June of 2009, I sat down to interview Sara and two additional people related to her in the Seminary context. First, I interviewed George Brunk III. At that time, George was serving as the interim president for AMBS, which had taken him away from his teaching responsibilities at EMS. He also served as dean for EMS for a number of years before Ervin Stutzman began his service in 2000. George played an instrumental role in calling Sara into service at the seminary, which eventually led to her place as associate dean.

Next, I interviewed Nate Yoder, the associate professor of church history at EMS. Nate worked with Sara in her transitioning roles at the Seminary, eventually relating to her not only as professor to associate dean, but also professor to professor, as they both taught in the Christian Tradition class. My interview with Nate provided insights into the interesting situations created by those dual roles, as well as someone who had seen Sara grow into her leadership roles.  Finally, I interviewed Sara. My interviews with George and Nate were around 30 minutes in length, and Sara and I talked for nearly an hour. I videotaped all interviews.

For each interview subject, I began with the same question, essentially: “Give me your definition of the word or concept of 'leadership'.” The topic of this project – a leadership biography of Sara – had been communicated to all subjects in advance, but this question helped get them thinking intentionally about the concept of leadership. For each subject, I then asked one or two follow-up questions to allow for more personal reflection on their own leadership development and experiences, before finally turning to the topic of Sara and her leadership, and their experiences related to that. At this point, all questions were guided by the conversation and took on a more narrative-eliciting quality.

After all interviews were conducted, I transcribed each one into its own text document. I sent George and Nate each the the transcript from our interview and allowed them an opportunity to restate or redact comments they had made, or correct potential mistakes of my own. Neither responded with any corrections, and gave me the go-ahead. Time constraints prevented me from doing the same with Sara, but I trust she's comfortable with whatever she said at the time, as well as whatever form this project will end up taking (which went through some revisions). I will, however, still send her the transcript, along with a copy of this paper.

With all transcripts complete, I ran each one through a word frequency generator, a software program, which simply creates a list of all words in the transcript and the number of times each word occurs. This includes not only the interview subject's words, but also my own, but those account for very little of the textual material. In a single spreadsheet document, I placed the word frequency list from each interview on its own sheet. For each list, I then sorted the list in descending order based on frequency, removing all non-essential words such as “A, as, I'll, yeah, um,” and so on. I then re-sorted the list alphabetically and aggregated common words and summed their frequencies. For instance, “lead, leads, leader, leadership” all became aggregated into a “leadership” entry. I then once again re-sorted the list in descending order based on word frequency, and placed the top ten themes from all three interviews on a fourth summary sheet. After color-coding common themes from each top ten list, I created a fourth list that summarized all three, creating a “master” theme list.

I use this quasi-quantitative analysis data for a few things. First, it represents the big-picture concepts that undergirded all three interviews, but it also helps me guide my thoughts through the subsequent sections of this paper, providing a framework to the narrative responses as I work with them.  Here are the themes:

It should come as no surprise that three conversations about leadership should have leadership placed squarely at the top, so I won't spend time reflecting on that. Similarly, people are a key part of leadership, as a leader can not be such if there are no others around to lead. Leadership and people are the only two that showed up on all three lists. Knowing is a bit more interesting. It ranked high in Sara's list and showed up on Nate's list as well. I couple this with the making entry and it seems to represent the epistemological/meaning-making that goes on for people who are self-reflective and engaging in an exercise such as these interviews. Gifting is the last one I'll offer reflections on here, because it factored so significantly into Sara's interview and was also talked about in George's interview.

Personality Preferences and Interpersonal Style
On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment, Sara has reported herself to be INTJ: (I)ntroverted, I(n)tuitive, (T)hinking, (J)udging. Growing up, Sara was the middle child in a large family and describes herself as having been very quiet and withdrawn from socializing in the family, choosing rather to observe and inwardly reflect on circumstances and situations. This introversion was certainly apparent the first time I met Sara; however, she is rightly aware that these assessments are always meant to be descriptive and not prescriptive, so Sara has shown herself able to step out into more extroverted expressions as she has grown and matured in her professional life.

Sara's preference for introspection also reflects her strong intuitive and thinking qualities. In my work with her at The Table, we have often had conceptual-theological discussions about worship practices that are so central to our experience in that congregation. She has obviously thought long and hard about these things, and is able to articulate them in creative, imaginative ways. This intuition, an ability to to leverage imagination and see new possibilities, played a crucial role in the formation of The Table as a congregation, and is a profound input to a key leadership function: vision.  Finally, the judging measure is apparent in Sara's orderliness and punctuality, which serve her well with the variety of roles she carries and the functions necessary to successfully carry each. This seems to also balance her intuitive nature, giving her imagination a structured framework in which to operate.

The Friendly Style Profile assessment by Susan K. Gilmore and Patrick W. Fraleigh (henceforth referred to as the “Gilmore-Fraleigh”) is perhaps lesser-known than the MBTI, but it offers a more interpersonal assessment, with the added dimension of gauging interpersonal styles in times of both relative “calm” and “storm,” offering a more nuanced assessment. The Gilmore-Fraleigh also measures its four categories by numbers, taking a less “bucket-like” approach than the MBTI. Before going into too much detail on the assessment itself, I will rather report Sara's results and offer reflections as it relates to her personality preferences and my experiences with her in leadership.

In times of relative calm, when things are going smoothly and nothing out of the ordinary is going on, Sara scores high in the measure called Achieving/Directing, which describes someone who is proactive and oriented toward accomplishment and leadership. In my experience with Sara and especially in my interview with her, she strikes me as someone who has had a high capacity for achievement her whole life, but because of her shyness and inward nature, had it called out to her by other people along the way in her journey. Rather than aggressively seeking achievement and success, as an extrovert might do, her personality coupled with her Christian sense of gifting and call had success and achievement coming to her by way of others.

Just a few points behind in the “calm” category, Sara also registered high in the Affiliating/Perfecting measure, which describes a person who strives for the betterment of a group, seeing a better situation on the horizon, and joining with others to work together toward this vision. This seems to line up quite well with Sara's poetic visionary nature, again largely resonating with what I've experienced with her at The Table. Balancing her inward, creative nature with an exciting vision for the future, Sara does a wonderful job of enlisting the help of other talented people to work toward that vision with her. I recently talked to someone new to The Table, who had been attending for a few months, who had no idea that Sara was such a central figure in the way we do Church there, illustrating the degree to which Sara is able to share vision and delegate leadership responsibilities.

Transitioning into the “storm” category, when situations steer toward anxiety or conflict in a group, Sara's top two measures flip-flop. She becomes strongly Affiliating/Perfecting, while her Achieving/Directing impulse plays a supporting role. This reflects a desire to continue moving forward in spite of rough waters, but perhaps a slightly stronger will to make sure others are still along for the ride. It is noteworthy that Sara's third-place measure, Analyzing/Preserving, remains unchanged in times of calm or storm. This measure describes a tendency to be conservative in situations, or a “slow and steady wins the race” approach. The proximity to #2 (Achieving/Directing) in times of storm does narrow, indicating that Sara may keep in check the relative intensity that typifies her top two styles.

The fourth and final measure in this assessment, which is consistently the lowest in Sara's results, is  Accommodating/Harmonizing.  This measure describes the person that wants to make sure everyone's happy and tends to avoid conflict. If Sara's results are accurate, this doesn't tend to be a major concern for her in many circumstances, although her score in this measure does increase slightly when transitioning into times of storm, again perhaps signaling that her concern for others being along for the ride is a consideration while moving forward. It is worth noting that Sara describes herself as naturally wanting to avoid conflict, despite what the score in the Accommodating/Harmonizing category might suggest, which ties back to her personality preferences.

Sara's Gilmore-Fraleigh results in respect to the transition from “calm” to “storm” will be helpful to keep in mind in a subsequent section: “The Leader in Conflict.”

Leadership Style
We switch now to more explicit discussion of Sara's leadership, both her thoughts on it and her experiences with it, as well as the reflections of others including myself. When I asked her the first “What is leadership?” question in our interview, I did not get a short answer; but she essentially identified vision as the key ingredient. For Sara, the leader catches a vision and then provides this vision to the group, becoming responsible for inviting others to work toward that vision. The leader has one eye on the future and one eye on the present, being a steward or a shepherd along the way.

While discussing her beliefs on the innate or learned capacity for leadership, Sara expressed a belief that most people have the capacity for leadership in one form or another, but identified a distinguishing factor: scope. The scope – the complexity and time-frame of the task at hand – is what begins to separate people out. This was one point in our discussion where gifting came into play. While there are certain predispositions and capacities for leadership, for Sara's personality – as previously stated – it took the insight of others around her in leadership/mentor positions to call it out of her, to name it, and allow her to wonder “You see that in me?,” triggering her creative imagination, allowing the future possibilities to take shape. Now in leadership roles herself for quite some time, Sara is aware of how powerful this was for her formation, and so strives to share that same gift with others.

In my interview with Nate, he related a story to me about the formation – or reformulation, rather – of the seminary course now called “Christian Tradition,” and how Sara was variously involved in that process. She was the interim dean of EMS at that point, between George Brunk III and Ervin Stutzman. A course on church history, theology, and worship was up for review after having received some degree of negative student feedback and faculty attrition. Nate had been recently hired as professor of church history and wanted to see the course continue. As interim dean, Sara laid out the things that needed to be addressed in order for the course to continue, and then appointed Nate the lead professor of this course.

At some point, Sara transitioned into the associate dean role when Ervin Stutzman came in as dean, and then became not only associate dean, but also a member of the “Christian Tradition” teaching team. Nate reflected on this arrangement as leader of a team of professors, including Sara, but also being accountable to Sara in her role as associate dean. He acknowledged having some rocky experiences with that arrangement, but after working it out and conducting this course with Sara for some time now, he gave assessment that, “It has affected how I lead...kind of raising my expectations of myself in recognition [of] how I've experienced Sara's leadership, and in recognition of who she is as the associate dean. It's been a real plus in terms of having that kind of affirmation coming from the institution.”

One of the ways that Nate describes navigating this potentially complicated dual-role for the “Christian Tradition” class is being intentional about language in communication, saying things like “I'm coming to you as team leader right now, as another member of the team,” or “I'm coming to you as team leader, speaking to the associate dean.” So a willingness to simultaneously lead and be led can be seen in this situation between Nate and Sara, and I've seen similar expressions of this style in my own experience with Sara, particularly during the SLT 2009 planning, and frequently in worship planning for The Table.

The Leader in Conflict
Sara describes a “steep learning curve” in her experience with conflict and how to deal with it, connecting this with her natural tendency toward introversion, even offering family-of-origin parallels early in our interview. She also related an experience from her time as registrar or assistant dean, working with George as dean, in a conflict situation with a student at EMS. Thinking herself to have properly diagnosed the situation and coming up with a solution, she inserted herself in the situation and was surprised to find that she had only made matters worse. Through many more conflict experiences, Sara now describes her conflict style as having a “sense of principled groundedness, moving away from an anxiety-based response that wants to quickly run in and fix it, to a more non-anxious, somewhat differentiated response, what's going on and what role can I play that will be most helpful without taking it over or moving toward a quick fix?” Sara also describes working very intentionally at faculty interrelationships over the years she's been at EMS, working through conflictual situations in that circle.

Views of Organizational Systems
It is clear from Sara's reflections about conflict that she has been influenced by Bowen family systems theory or something like it. The notion of being a non-anxious presence, being differentiated, not rushing into conflict, and a focus on roles and process reflects an awareness of the emotional, living nature of organizations.

Leading in Faith
A discussion of Sara's leadership that left out any sort of theological reflection would be sorely lacking, and so we now turn our focus there. But rather than paraphrasing Sara's reflections from our interview, I am intentionally going to place an extended quote from her final statements. My last question was: “How has your faith shaped your leadership, and vice-versa: How has your leadership shaped your faith?”  She answers so eloquently that any rephrasing would diminish its beauty: are gifted by God, what do you do with those gifts? What are the gifts and in what arena can you offer them? ...even if you have only one talent, you are called to do your best with that one talent for the Kingdom.

I'm not driven by duty, I'm not driven by a huge sense of “should.” I am, primarily, motivated by love and passion and joy and intrigue and a poetic imagination about the possible. I love it when my energies are aligned with the energies of the community, the energy of what I feel like God is calling me toward. I work to keep my energy aligned with God's purposes.

I think the church is called to have much more imagination, to have a lot more fun, passion, and solidarity in pain than we manage. So whatever it is that keeps generating this, “Yeah, let's try something new, let's go for this, let's move out and take a new risk,” I'm not sure where all that comes from. I will not respond if it is a sense a duty or compulsion or “You need to do this,” and our church can be very dutiful and that doesn't do it for me. I do respond to a sense of call and do want my life to line up with God's larger purposes, so I look at scriptures, take Esther, for instance... There was a lot going on in God's purposes, it wasn't just about a person stepping up. There's this whole orchestration of things going on that made her move significant and timely and appropriate.

So I live within the Biblical narrative to a certain extent, but I do it in a way that isn't driven or feels compelled out of some sense of obligation or duty. I do it more as a poet, as someone who's eager to have more of an adventure with this God thing, that God is beyond what we can imagine. And so we keep living into possibilities, taking risks, without taking ourselves too seriously in the process. [laughs] We're pretty incidental to this whole thing, but we also are part of a drama, which is amazing and exciting. When we can stay rooted and grounded in love and not get bent out of shape or get anxious about it. “Our deep gladness meets the world's deep need,” responding at that point of interface where it comes most alive for us. That will have a spiritual character to it, it will be satisfying, fulfilling, it will also be a gift to wherever we are, because it comes out of that place of aliveness and genuineness in our own spirits. So it's all about faith for me. It's an adventure of faith. I moved from being a very careful, tidy, timid, quiet, and somewhat fearful person in this new culture, to being more of a risk-taker for the sake of love and purposes of God. Because it really is not about me, it's about God, and God's purposes in the world and getting on board with that, and helping other people to get on board with that. That's exciting stuff.

This “careful, tidy, timid, quiet, and somewhat fearful person” has helped me catch a vision in my own life, in ways that I could not imagine before coming to EMU. Sara has helped me see leadership being done in new ways. She has helped me see church and worship being done in new and invigorating ways. Her servant-leader posture is inextricably linked to her deep Christian faith, which she articulates with startling clarity and imagination.

In her transition into the president's role at AMBS, I am losing close contact with my associate dean, academic advisor, internship supervisor, mentor, teaching elder, and fellow worship planner. The deep and nuanced relationships that formed so quickly are just as quickly diminishing. But that loss – both mine and this community's – is another institution's and another community's profound gain. I picture a time in the coming years when my family can visit with Sara and Gerald and catch up on the exciting work that everyone is sure to be thoroughly engaged in. I am thankful for all that I have experienced and learned under the leadership and tutelage of Sara Wenger Shenk, this poetic adventurer after God's purposes.

In closing, I recall my interview with George Brunk III back in June. He happened to be in Harrisonburg while performing his role as interm president at AMBS in Indiana. The presidential search there was underway, and Sara had been contacted as a potential candidate. George knew this. My last question to him was, essentially: “What does the future hold for Sara?” With a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, his answer was this: “We will see some developments, I'm sure, in Sara's leadership in the church, and it will be exciting to see where that goes.”  Indeed, it was.

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