Leadership for a New Age

Many of you know that I recently completed a term of service as moderator of our regional Presbytery Leader Search Committee. During the course of the search, I had many opportunities to think about the concept of leadership. I read dozens of dossiers, and conducted more than 20 hours of interviews. I had many conversations with presbytery and synod officials, and consulted regularly with the presbytery’s personnel workgroup and leadership team.

One of the most important things I did was to read a book recommended by our presbytery’s design team entitled Recreating the Church: Leadership for a Postmodern Age.[1] The author, like others who write about postmodernism, tells us today there is

  • less agreement about any one truthful way of explaining the world,
  • less agreement about any one correct understanding of an issue,
  • less agreement about any one right path toward solving a problem.

Less agreement about what is true, right, and good necessarily means more conflict about authority, and less confidence in leadership.

To understand postmodernism, it helps, I think, to look at the way television news has evolved.

When I grew up, there were three major networks. You might watch Walter Cronkite on CBS, but you knew about Harry Reasoner at ABC and John Chancellor at NBC. If the reception was poor on channel 2, you might even switch over to channel 4 or 5 for a change of pace. You might have a preference for one news anchor over the others, but you respected all three for the outstanding journalists that they were, and you trusted that the information they gave you was accurate.

Today, there are more TV channels than I can count, many news networks, and news reports take place around the clock. Some news sources put out reports so quickly, or with so much apparent personal bias, that we’ve come to be more suspicious about the truth claims they contain. More voices and more diversity means less shared perspective and less common ground. We tend to trust some news sources and distrust others, to respect some newscasters, and disrespect others.

It takes only a little imagination to see how something similar has happened in other realms, including the realms of the larger Church and local congregations. More voices and more diversity mean less shared perspective and less common ground. We tend to trust some leaders and distrust others, to respect some leaders, and disrespect others.

Some days, I’m tempted to understand the distrust and disrespect of all leaders as a uniquely post-modern problem. But then I read the Bible, and I’m reminded that confusion regarding authority has been around a long time.

Confusion about legitimate authority and leadership was a major issue Jesus faced in his ministry. A case can be made that he deliberately instigated a debate about authoritative leadership with religious power brokers. Jesus had been in the Temple long enough to observe its trading practices. In a well-calculated move, I believe, one morning he entered the outer court, and drove out the buyers and sellers. In particular, Jesus singled out two groups for special disgrace: the money changers and the pigeon merchants. These two groups, acting as agents for the temple leaders, charged exorbitant amounts of money for their services – services required if one was to worship in a manner acceptable to the temple priests.

A day later, upset with the disruption in cash flow, a group of religious leaders marches to the southern end of the temple court. They find Jesus teaching the people among the marble pillars of Solomon’s Portico. There they issue a challenge: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus responds with a story that bases authority not in pedigree or social standing, but rather in faith that leads to action, faith that results in good works.

The first disciples had Jesus physically present to mediate the arguments about authority. But subsequent generations of Christians resumed the struggle, a struggle that continues to this day.

  • Who is the leader who speaks truth? The one who has been selected to stand in a long line of religious leaders, or the one with a fresh interpretation of a particular religious tradition?
  • Who is the leader to be respected? The one who rigidly follows the letter of the law, or the one who is moved to new practices by the winds of the Holy Spirit?

A selection from Paul’s letter to the Philippians accompanies our text from Matthew on today’s lectionary calendar. Sometimes, Christians have neglected this text. But always it has been there as one of the finest standards by which to judge authority. Scholars say that in its earliest form, it wasn’t so much recited as it was sung, one of the earliest Christian hymns: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . .”

If we observe common practice in our society, then we learn that the one with authority often has the greatest control over the lives of others. The more people there are doing things for me, the higher my position in society. But Christianity takes the organizational chart that shows the successful person at the top of the pyramid, and turns it upside down. It tells me that the more I am doing things for others, the more authority I will have. If you’re a busy and overscheduled person, then this message may not seem all that attractive. But the teaching of Jesus and Paul have stood the test of time. They understood that service was a great virtue, that practicing what seems an upside-down logic can have high impact. The servanthood that Jesus and Paul displayed is one reason we are under their influence still.

A person may achieve brief and shining popularity, financial success, or political influence through charm, self-promotion, or manipulation. But long-term success based upon these things is doomed. Eventually someone else comes along with more charisma, energy, or resources.

In contrast, the authority of Christian leaders is rooted in service.

When I was young, Charles Swindoll was a popular pastor, author, and speaker. He offered the following meditative prayer. Years after I first heard it, it still speaks to me, and may speak to you. He writes: “I am like James and John (who wanted choice seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom); I size up other people in terms of what they can do for me. How they can further my program, feed my ego, satisfy my needs, give me strategic advantage. I exploit people, ostensibly for your sake, but really for my own sake. Lord, I turn to you to get the inside track and to get special favors, your direction for my schemes, your power for my projects, your sanction for my ambitions, your blank check for whatever I want. I am like James and John. Change me, Lord. Make me a person who asks of you and of others, ‘What can I do for you?’”[2]

Lord make us all people who ask you and others, “What can I do for you?”

                [1] Richard L. Hamm, Recreating the Church: Leadership for a Postmodern Age, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007.

                [2] Charles Swindoll, Improving Your Serve.

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~ by JohnH1962 on September 28, 2014.

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