Saturday, March 01, 2008

Servant Leadership

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 2008

Servant Leadership

The whole issue of leadership has been on my mind a great deal lately. First of all, as a priest I am supposed to be a leader and so I find myself reflecting on my own skills and actions and wondering about the kind of leadership I can offer to the Church. General Seminary’s mission statement declares that its goal is “to educate and form leaders for the Church in a changing world.” I guess we’ll see how good a job the seminary did in my case!

I have also been thinking about leadership because Bishop Beckwith has appointed me to serve on the Commission on Ministry. In the past the COM has served mostly to assess whether people who hope to be ordained as deacons and priests truly seem called to those ministries. Since I am just through the “process” my memories of all sorts of paperwork, psychological tests, criminal background checks and questions ranging from “What is your favorite psalm?” to “Now that you’re entering midlife do you have greater awareness of your mortality?” are still very fresh in my mind. This is a particularly exciting time to join COM because the Bishop has put a year-long hold on people entering the ordination process and has charged the Commission on Ministry to reflect on its role in discerning leaders for the church – leaders both lay and ordained. It is an important and daunting responsibility.

Like many of you, I have been following the presidential campaign with great interest. It is certainly the most fascinating and exciting race in my lifetime. And regardless of our political beliefs I think we can all agree that in a time of war and economic uncertainty our country is hungry for strong and effective leadership. The media have mostly, as usual, been focusing on polls and personalities, but there has also been at least some talk about leadership itself. What makes a leader a leader? What is good leadership? Is a leader someone who has lengthy experience and offers detailed plans for grappling with our national challenges? Or is a leader someone who offers a grand and compelling vision, inspiring people with the hope of a dramatically changed society? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Finally, I have been thinking about the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. You may have missed it, but February 12th was the 199th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. In Jersey City the Lincoln Association has been faithfully meeting every year since 1866 to honor the Great Emancipator on his birthday. This year the Association asked me to return to my hometown and offer the Benediction at the end of an evening of speeches and toasts. As I thought about what to say – what to pray - I remembered that Jesus had a good deal to say and teach about leadership.

On a recent weekday the lectionary offered us Matthew 20:17-28, the familiar account of the mother of James and John asking Jesus, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” After this bold request causes a dispute to break out among the other disciples, Jesus makes clear that his idea of leadership is very different from the kind of leadership found in the world. He tells his followers, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” In his teaching and in his very life Jesus offers the model of servant leadership. The one who hopes to lead must be the servant of all.

When the world thinks about leadership it rarely focuses on service. Instead the world considers leadership the ability to make people do what you want them to do – the power to get things done. By that standard, of course, Jesus with his little band of frequently confused and disobedient followers was a spectacular failure. In reality, although the leadership celebrated by the world may provide power and glory for a time, it is the servant leadership of Jesus Christ that offers true glory and everlasting life.

Let us all pray that God will raise up for us in the Church and the world true servant leaders. Here is part of the prayer that I offered at the Lincoln Association dinner, incorporating some of Lincoln’s own words:

We ask you to raise up leaders like Abraham Lincoln in our own time. We ask for leaders who offer malice toward none and charity to all.

Loving God, we ask you to raise up in our own time leaders who do not presume that you are on our side.

Instead, give us leaders like Abraham Lincoln who hope always to be on your side.