Over the past year I have become interested in the topic of “Christian leadership.” People who are in a leadership position in the Christian community — whether clergy, consecrated religious, or lay leaders — who are they? What makes them leaders? Where do Christian leaders take the rest of us? How do we identify a “good” leader? That sort of thing.
It’s an interesting question, because the mark of a “good leader” in a religious sense is in many ways at odds with how leadership is understood in the secular worlds of business, politics, education, and the military.
The model for Christian leadership, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth. In some ways he fits the “worldly” models of leadership: he is confident, an effective communicator, and even his critics acknowledge he feared no one. But in other ways, he seems entirely at odds with conventional notions of leadership. He promotes nonviolence and reconciliation; he prefers people with little or no social standing to those in positions of power or prestige, and chooses parody and theater as ways to criticize earthly power (for example, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was his way of both lauding the common people and satirizing those who display their leadership in more ostentatious ways).
In other words, Jesus as a leader turns leadership on its head. “The first shall be last, and the last first,” he proclaims, insisting that humility matters more than power, love more than force, forgiveness more than dominance.
Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, Jesus’s followers have had a rather spotty record in terms of living up to his subversive style of leadership. For every saint there are far too many sinners. Some priests and other ministers selflessly give everything to a life of service and compassion; others defile their position through sexual malfeasance, financial misconduct and narcissistic power-tripping. The worst Christian “leaders” are people like Fred Phelps or Charles Coughlin, who use their position to promote hate-filled agendas such as anti-semitism or homophobia. Just because someone is both a Christian and a leader does not guarantee that he (or she) is a Christian leader.
So what does make a Christian leader?
Henri Nouwen, in his classic book In the Name of Jesus, considers the ways that Jesus was tempted in the desert as emblematic of the kinds of temptations that can derail ministers and other leaders. Specifically, Jesus was tempted to be powerful, to be popular, and to be relevant. By rejecting these temptations, he embraced a spirituality grounded in prayer, in service, and in humility. For Nouwen, these are the marks of an authentic Christian leadership — even though such values are often dismissed, even by Christians themselves.
In the Name of Jesus is a short little book, and I commend it to anyone, not just people in leadership positions, who want a simple yet profound reflection on what constitutes the true heart of Christian discipleship.
I’d like to focus one something Nouwen says toward the end of the book, which I think is a profoundly important insight — not only into Christian leadership, but indeed in Christian spirituality in general. Nouwen says that Christian leaders need to recognize that “even the smallest event of human history” is “an opportunity to be led deeper into the heart of Christ.”
This reminds me of Julian of Norwich, who said “The fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” Perhaps the heart of Christian spirituality is not about what we think, or what dogmas or propositions we believe, or how we have managed to modify or restrict our behavior. All of those things may be important and good, but they are not the heart of spirituality. Perhaps the heart of Christianity really is recognition. I first got this idea from Cynthia Bourgeault, who writes about “Jesus as a Recognition Event” (in The Wisdom Jesus). Jesus calls us to recognize the presence of God — within him, of course, but truly within all of us (image and likeness of God, temple of the Holy Spirit). Along these same lines, Richard Rohr subtitled his book The Naked Now this way: “Learning to See as the Mystics See.”
So spirituality is about a new way of seeing. What Anglican contemplative Maggie Ross, following Julian of Norwich and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, calls “beholding.” The fullness of joy is to behold God in all. We seek a new level of consciousness (“metanoia”) which enables us to see as the mystics see, to recognize Christ in all things and all events, and to begin to discern how every event of life — whether “good” or “bad,” significant or insignificant, political or homely — how every event offers us a way to be led deeper into the heart of Christ.
Notice Nouwen’s use of the passive voice. The Christian leader is one who allows herself or himself to be led. Really, there is only one leader within Christianity: the Holy Spirit. We are all in this together, seeking to be led by the Spirit of God. To be led deeper into the heart of Christ, deeper into that place of recognition, of beholding, of seeing the God who is always present, but who so often seems hidden (“mystical”) to us as we conduct our day-to-day lives.
Christian spirituality, contemplation, mysticism — it’s just an invitation, to a new way of seeing, to beholding, to recognizing what is already there, but we so often fail to notice: that God is not elsewhere, God is present, right here, right now, bathing us with love and grace and mercy, forgiving us, calling us to be conduits for God’s love and mercy and forgiveness to a world that so desperately needs it, even while it often resists that very love.
If you want to grow spiritually, take time to pray, to serve others, to focus more on where Christ is leading you rather than on how you can lead others. Learn to pay attention to the subtle ways you can discern God’s presence in your life. The goal is to begin to recognize that Divine presence in every corner of your life — not in order to retreat from your life into some sort of pious withdrawal, but rather so that you may live your life fully, unreservedly, filled with hope and love and the desire to serve. Pray with your eyes open, for prayer is a schooling in this new way of seeing. Expect to have to make some tough decisions, but always with a beautiful goal in mind: to be led ever more deeply into the heart of Christ.
Do all this, and you will become a Christian leader. Even if you never get ordained or ever take on an “official” role. And even if the last thing you want to be is a leader. In fact, not wanting to be a leader might be the most important qualification of all for a true Christian leader. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what you take the time to see.