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Practical Advice on the Challenges of Prophetic Leadership

As the long-serving pastor of Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts co-founded the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which has created $600 million in affordable housing, businesses and schools in Harlem since the late 1980s. He also serves as president of the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Old Westbury. In an interview with Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School for faith community leaders, the Rev. Butts was asked how he has managed to stimulate so much innovation in and through one of the most venerable institutions of the African American community — after all, institutions are known for being more traditional than innovative. The Rev. Butts pointed to Abyssinian’s long history of following a vision and accepting challenges.

Beginning in the 1920s, Abyssinian became the then-largest Baptist congregation in the world under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell Sr., continued to achieve milestones under Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who also became a U.S. representative and helped create the Great Society program of President Lyndon Johnson. Abyssinian embraced further innovation under the leadership of Dr. Samuel Proctor. 

“I was blessed,” Rev. Butts said, “to come to a congregation where people were used to challenges and they were used to following leadership and they were used to … following a vision and building something new.” In other words, the tradition at Abyssinian was to innovate and create. “For congregations where those kinds of traditions don’t exist and it’s more staid, I think it’s the ability of the leader to make the ear into an eye,” Rev. Butts said. “The preacher has to present the word of God so forcefully and dramatically that people can see it. You’ve really got to invest in helping people to see what can happen.”

At Abyssinian, that initial visionary role was played by the Rev. Powell Sr., who had a vision for the church that involved convincing it to move from midtown Manhattan to Harlem, then so vividly presenting a vision of what the church could be in its new setting that it became the first mega-church.

Visionary leaders face a range of challenges, however. Rev. Butts noted the challenge of scaling up the size of a ministry and the need to have sufficient human resources able to take responsibility for aspects of a growing program. “I learned that the hard way,” he said. 

A ministry has to have either the people who can provide proper leadership and guidance or the finances to hire those people. The visionary leader also has to understand the other parties who will become stakeholders in a large or public project: the various levels of government who must sign off, the needs and interests of philanthropies, the concerns of private and business investors, the expectations of unions and other advocacy groups, etc. 

“I had to negotiate my role as a prophet with my role as a statesperson,” he said. “I had to take more seriously the delicate position in terms of the exposure of the faith-based organization … to potential attacks from the world. In other words, I had to increase the whole armor of God.” For more on essential leadership skills for today’s religious leaders, read our feature article, “Ten Essential Skills the Next Generation of Religious Leaders will Need.” For more on the challenges of leading in distinctly Christian ways, including help in clarifying your own sense of the work, mission and goals of leading a faith community, see “Resources on Christian Leadership,” also from the Faith & Leadership website. For more information on the range of resources Faith & Leadership offers, read our feature article, “Leadership Magazine Provides Tools for Clergy.” For more on the state of Christian leadership at the beginning of the 21st century, read our article, “A Reflection on the State of Pastoral Leadership.”

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