Paula Dempsey is director of partner relations of the Alliance of Baptists.
Paula, tell us about your early years. How has your family background influenced the way that you lead?
Growing up the only daughter of a farming family provided me a grounding and a beginning that has shaped and formed my way of being and leading. Living and working closely with the land, the seasons of planting, growing and harvesting, along with the challenges of extreme weather, all helped prepare me for the challenges of life and leading. Being the only daughter with three brothers taught me how to navigate in a man’s world–which is what I encountered in the church when I was ordained nearly forty years ago.
Learning music in my early years provided me a framework with metaphors for leading. The farm, school, and church filled my life as a child, with my earliest leadership opportunities occurring at church, where I became the church pianist when I was still wearing bobby socks. I was serving as a worship leader while a pre-teen. And through Girls Auxiliary the women in leadership pushed me to learn, grow, and develop my knowledge, speaking, and writing skills.
Upon attending a women’s college, leadership opportunities opened to me in ways I had not previously experienced. I was exposed to the college’s alumnae who were pastors in traditions other than Baptist. As a student leader I assisted in hosting Carter Heyward’s visit to campus during the time her ordination was deemed “irregular” in the Episcopal Church. She and pastoral theologian Peggy Way and biblical scholar Phyllis Trible became, for me, models to emulate—leaders who would push the envelope—who were not confined by the limits of those maintaining the status quo.
What qualities have you observed in other leaders that you have incorporated into your own leadership style?
Opportunities for me to develop and grow as a leader began in childhood at my local church, continued through college and seminary service-learning settings, and into professional settings as a pastor, Christian social minister, campus minister, hospice chaplain, spirituality center director, and currently as one of the directors of the Alliance of Baptists. In each setting where I have served, I have sought out others who understood the context and the challenges of the context for knowledge, collegiality and encouragement. Collegial clergy communities sustained me in the early years of serving as a pastor. College and seminary professors listened and listened more, helping me navigate challenges and overcome obstacles. Spiritual friends have spent time with me in prayer and on long walks processing the next conundrum. When needed, I have benefited from professional coaches and consultants when way would not seem to open. With gratitude, many have walked alongside me so that I’ve never felt alone.
How would you describe your leadership style?
The leadership styles that speak to me, and which I seek to embody, are ones that acknowledge the collaborative nature of leadership necessary for organizations whose ministry seeks to be creative and transformational. One of these models for leadership we find in the Biblical text, servant leadership, is a collaborative, “power with” instead of “power over” model of leadership where the needs of others are prioritized and collective decision making is utilized.
Often when introduced as the head of the Alliance of Baptists, I quickly amend the introduction to affirm that I am one of the “directors” of the Alliance. The gifts and skills all of us bring to our collective work and ministry are vital for visioning and implementation of the vision. My big-picture perspective needs the balance of the detail orientation of my colleagues. My resistance to conflict is balanced by a colleague’s comfortableness with confrontation. Acknowledging the giftedness and limitations of all team members, instilling and building confidence, holding each other accountable, and providing a trusting space—along with the resources needed for creativity—are all components of leadership reflected in the servant leadership model referred to by Robert Greenleaf as “first among equals.”
What words of wisdom would you share with recent seminary graduates as they move into new leadership roles?
Leadership in our day and time can be exhausting requiring self-awareness, grounding, and centeredness. The anxiety in our culture as well as today’s church culture that pushes for a quick fix, fuels reactivity, blames and herds into camps, must be met with long-term solutions, reasoned responses, willingness to take responsibility, and collaboration. Leadership requires courage, and courage is one of my gifts.
Early in my tenure with the Alliance, I proposed a metaphor from shape-note singing that illustrates how I lead. Positioned in the middle of those gathered for shape-note singing stands the conductor who selects the song, sets the pitch and the tempo. The role of the conductor is a shared role; everyone gets an opportunity to conduct. Off to the side of the gathered singers is the arranger who orders the sequence of conductors keeping in mind each persons’ musical skill and ability, positioning conductors so that the singers remain engaged and motivated. Occasionally the arranger takes his or her turn in the center conducting. I serve the Alliance of Baptists as the arranger. Sometimes I lead standing in the center; more often I am supporting and holding a space for others gifts and abilities to shine.
Recently as I was attending a choir rehearsal, the director invited everyone to “listen louder.” This invitation is one I share with those moving into leadership roles. Listen—and listen again. Learn to ”listen louder” for the movement of the Spirit of God as it flows in and among the community of faith with which you serve. When we “listen louder” we know when to initiate and when to respond. When we listen louder, we make space for other people’s power to flow. And when we listen and discern the voice of God, there is opportunity to find where God is at work in the world, and join God in that work, thereby sharing in God’s power. Leadership that collaborates with others and with God is leadership that nourishes the shalom for which we all yearn.