A Spirituality of Leadership

September 06, 2018

by Rev. B. Parker Haynes, Pastor of St. Timothy's (Brevard) 

Less than a week into my new appointment I heard these words almost half a dozen times, “Pastor, I’m ready to step down from my leadership role.” My hopes for this new and exciting beginning in ministry where we could faithfully live out our calling as the Body of Christ landed with a thud. I didn’t think ministry would be easy, but I guess I didn’t really know how difficult, stressful and time-consuming living out a call to word, order, sacrament, and service would be. I had just finished reading Eugene Peterson’s stirring and profound memoir The Pastor before starting at my new appointment and I was set on emulating his refusal to “run this damn church.”
 
Then these words. Maybe if Eugene was the pastor of this church he wouldn’t have been able to get away with it.
 
Our people had a point. They were tired. Many had been leading in different ways for decades. It was time for younger, newer leadership with fresh legs and energy. I would have to find a new chairperson for Church Council, Staff-Parish, Trustees, and Witness, and a treasurer. I would have to run this church.
 
Too often when we think or talk about leadership in context of the church, our language deteriorates into something akin to a get-rich-quick scheme: five steps to grow your church without picking up your cross and following Jesus. Definitions of leadership seem to center around running the church. Church leadership today is equivalent to best business practices, whatever works, efficiency and effectiveness. Aspects of the spiritual life are marginal at best. Some leadership books mention prayer, but only as a tool to help you stay focused and energized or so others will see how spiritual you are and will want to come to your church. Prayer, meditation, scripture, even faith itself, seem to be marketing strategies to further your church’s brand with yourself at the center.
 
Henri Nouwen’s classic In the Name of Jesus rebuffs this understanding of Christian leadership and examines Jesus’s ability to resist the three temptations from the devil: to be relevant, to be spectacular and to be powerful. Pastors want to be relevant because we have low self-esteem and we are afraid of failing and not making an impact. Instead, Nouwen writes, the leader of the future “will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.”

Relevance, popularity and power are profound temptations to Christian leaders, but ultimately, they are not the way of Christ’s leadership. It’s true that Jesus spoke in ways that astounded crowds and drew people to him and that he exercises a kind of power through his lordship over creation. But as Eugene Peterson reminded the young pastor seeking a bigger, better church where he could “multiply his effectiveness,” one of the primary ways Christian leaders try to find transcendence apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus is “through ecstasy of crowds.” Our egos are what drive us to desire leading a larger and larger crowd, yet he reminds us of Kierkegaard’s warning, “the more people, the less truth.”
 
I find Kierkegaard’s words stunning especially in a day and age, similar to the Christendom of his Denmark, when our church is grasping for every inch of power as it loses ground in North America. While it’s true that Jesus’s preaching and action attracted people, made disciples and started the church that continues today, we cannot forget how quickly we will wander from his leadership when given the chance. Many of the same crowds that showed up to hear his sermons were at Calvary approving of his crucifixion. Even the twelve fled after Jesus’s death and only the Marys and Salome had enough faith to visit the tomb on the morning after the Sabbath. To practice the kind of leadership Jesus exemplified is to renounce the kind of relevance, popularity and power that may attract crowds, but will not make disciples.
 
Contrary to most modern forms of leadership, Jesus’s leadership was manifested through offering his presence to us. Every aspect of his presence embodied the humble and sacrificial nature of his leadership. He became present through the incarnation, an event of vulnerability and defenselessness. He expressed his presence in being with the sick, the marginalized and the oppressed. Ultimately, his final offering of his presence was the cross, his own body and blood. There was nothing he did not give to us.
 
We want to offer something else, something apart from us, something people can use or consume. So we devise plans for new “worship experiences,” fresh expressions or alternative leadership board models. We do not want to offer ourselves because we fear we are not enough and if we become vulnerable and reveal our true selves to others they will be disappointed in who we really are. So we offer unending pastoral care to our parishioners so they will love us, dedicated study and scholarship through Bible studies and sermons, and vision and mission statements to bring the church into the future. We offer our time, our talent, and our leadership, but rarely do we offer ourselves.
 
Jesus was able to fully offer himself because he knew his identity as Emmanuel and his understanding of being God with us allowed him to practice a leadership of powerlessness and humility. We are less comfortable with our identity, to say the least. While we want to project a confidence and strength in our calling as leaders of God’s people, quietly we question that calling and withhold ourselves so as to not risk Jesus’ fate. But in doing so, we also withhold ourselves from resurrection. Unless we empty ourselves and offer everything we have to God and God’s people, we will not be transformed.
 
Leadership in the church is not about offering more of our time or energy or finding more efficient ways to run our church. It is not about doing things for the church that they won’t do for themselves. Offering ourselves as Christ offered himself to us is about authentic presence in which we become a sacrament and a channel of God’s grace. As Christian leaders, we are representatives of God to God’s people. Just as Christ is present with us through the preached Word and the Sacraments rightly administered, our presence can be a kind of sacrament as well. Offering our presence does not require us to figure out the perfect committee leadership or which building campaign is most urgent. Offering our presence is a practice of spiritual leadership that is rooted in the powerlessness and humility of Jesus’s own ministry and allows for vulnerability, death, and hopefully even resurrection.
 
Follow Jesus. Make Disciples. Transform the World.