(This post was originally published with Rethink Bishop, a fantastic conversation space for church innovators focused around the idea that "Holy Scriptures are filled with leaders who were young and inexperienced, but God used them in miraculous ways to help lead God’s people. Why can’t the same thing happen in the United Methodist Church?" Go give them a follow or check them out on Facebook.)
On March 25, Justin Halbersma published a great post on leadership, “I Don’t Want To Be Led.” Part of the problem with leadership in the United Methodist Church, Justin argues, is not the lack of leadership, but the absence of willingness and humbleness on the part of the rest of the denomination. He courageously begins with naming the golden calf in the hearts of leaders like us who must be willing to submit to the intentionally downward motion of Christ..
To this picture, I would like to add a few more details that spread the responsibility a bit further. While it is clearly important to get the dynamics of leadership and follower-ship right in order to move any substantive change forward, it is crucial that we first define what leadership is. And all too often, we miss Christ’s radical redefining of leadership and too quickly expect a 21st-century Western business model of leader. What follows logically in this model is a chain of leaders and followers, each higher position claiming more responsibility than the one just lower.
Henri Nouwen, in In the Name of Jesus, uses Christ’s three temptations in the wilderness as a model for Christian leadership. Without using this space to write a full review of the book, it is certainly worth taking a look at Nouwen’s analysis.
In the first temptation, Satan asks Jesus to turn the stones into bread, encouraging him to be relevant. Christ refuses, a move Nouwen names as a shift to contemplative prayer. Our leaders try very hard in the UMC to be relevant: hipper music in worship, a tighter social media strategy, a more experienced staff. However, the move towards relevance is always aiming at a moving target. While our denomination could do much towards being more in touch with contemporary culture, relevance asks questions that would not be out of place in a heavily consumerist culture like ours. We would do well to be vigilant against such questions. They perpetuate a system of producers and consumers wherein we feel ashamed for not being led. “We produce because we are the trained leaders. You consume.”
The second temptation is Satan’s request that Christ ask the angels to save him from falling to certain death. Christ refuses, claiming that it is not right to tempt God. This, Nouwen claims, can be seen as a move from popularity to ministry. We American Protestants are infatuated with popularity. We even yearn to have our own Methodist claim on popular figures in the culture. And Christ says this is all for naught. Where is the fruit, He asks? Do we want to be led because we have been taught to always follow? Or do we want to be led because our leaders are creating ministries that are hastening the Kingdom, and we can’t help but be magnetized to it?
The final temptation is Satan’s offer of all earthly kingdoms if Jesus will simply bow down and worship him. Christ’s reply that we should have no other god before God gets back to Justin’s concern that more of us need to be willing to be led, and to move away from wanting to lead.
I’ve been thinking more and more these days about Christian leadership in terms of imagery, and I’ve always loved the picture of a round table. What if we stopped thinking in terms of leaders and followers (a hierarchical structure), and simply in terms of different parts of the body of the Church? What if we all came to the communal table bowing down so low before each other that the only leader left standing was our Christ, who showed us what true leadership looks like by being an anti-leader? What if we stopped focusing on rearranging the big agencies of the denomination and started addressing the fact that we close local churches on a daily basis? What if we all saw ourselves as followers and leaders of each other in community, with no leader but the One, each leader/follower claiming the gifts s/he has been given?
I guess I’m sort of tired of being led, and I don’t feel bad about that fact that I’m ready to lead. And I need to be far more attentive to figuring out how I can allow everyone around me to lead and to follow at the same time. So, I’m ready to lead, Church. Where are we going?