December 2016 E-News from the Siburt Institute

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Nuremberg Funnel: Re-envisioning the work of leadership

In their newly published book Teaching and Christian Imagination, authors David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch present a common image that satirically exposes the limitations of mechanical knowledge acquisition.In Europe – particularly in Germany – the image is called the Nuremberg Funnel.

Imagine a funnel stuck into someone’s head. Through it, a teacher stuffs all manner of knowledge so that the knowledge is passively received into the person’s brain. The image is humorous; it points out the severe limitations connected with thinking that somehow knowledge can be acquired by some sort of cognitive download.

The same can be said for leadership.

Certainly there is much to learn. Books are valuable and conferences inspire us. But the healthy practice of leadership is actually rooted in something else altogether. Learning about leadership and practicing leadership are two different things. Maybe you can recall the scene in the film The Matrix, in which the protagonist Neo asks Trinity about whether she can pilot a helicopter. She replies, “Not yet,” but in a few seconds the pilot training manual is loaded into her brain. She is now ready to fly. It may make for good fiction, but piloting a helicopter requires more than knowledge. It requires practice, coaching and the acquisition of skills.

The same can be said for leadership.

How do we avoid the Nuremberg Funnel when we engage in leadership? Perhaps we begin with a different set of metaphors to help us imagine the development of leadership practices. In Teaching and Christian Imagination, the authors suggest three metaphors to help teachers re-envision the work of education: pilgrimage (journey), gardening and building.

The same can be said for leadership.

What might happen if leaders worked with the following assumptions?

  1. All of us are on a journey, and there are always new things to encounter and learn.
  2. The life of a congregation is like a garden; the task of leaders is provide helpful nutrients and resources as well as remove the weedy obstacles that prohibit growth.
  3. Our congregational life is being constructed into something inhabited by the glory of God.

Such a journey is certainly reflected in the words of Ephesians 2:19-21: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (NRSV).

Could the same be said of your leadership?

May God bless you richly this holiday season!


[1] David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch, Teaching and Christian Imagination (Eerdmans, 2016).

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