Thursday, April 01, 2010

Transformational Leadership

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
Curate’s Corner

Transformational Leadership

I have mentioned before that I have given a good deal of thought to the subject of leadership. What is effective leadership? Is Christian leadership any different from solid leadership in the secular world? Well, during Lent I had two very different experiences which have helped me to clarify my answers to these big questions.

The first experience was “Beyond the Baptismal Covenant: Lay Leadership for the 21st Century,” a three-part program sponsored by the Diocese of Newark, led by Donald Romanik, president of the Episcopal Church Foundation, and held right here at Grace Church. Mr. Romanik suggested that, although the Episcopal Church has enshrined lay leadership since at least the first General Convention in 1785, for much of the Church’s history the clergy were expected to lead and lay people were encouraged to simply follow. He claimed that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer marked a significant shift in our understanding of church leadership. He pointed to this sentence from the Catechism: “The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons” (BCP pg. 855). Mr. Romanik argued that over the past thirty years the lay people of the Church have begun to live into their top billing, but now during a time of rapid change we need to go even further and encourage “transformational leadership” among the laity.

These ideas were rattling around my brain when I had my second experience. I was invited to speak at St. Vincent Academy, an all-girls Roman Catholic high school in Newark, where I had taught history in the early and mid-1990s. For the past 35 years during the week before Holy Week the juniors and seniors are sent out to volunteer at schools, hospitals, day care centers and other places providing social services as part of an a remakable program called “Students in Community.” I was invited to speak at the “Sending Forth” on the Friday before they began this adventure in service.

In my talk I reflected back on my time at SVA and used as my theme a quote I first had heard back then and has stuck with me ever since. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said, “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.” Isn’t that a great line? I suggested to the students that this truth is what they had been learning at St. Vincent’s. To clinch my case I quoted a portion of the school’s wonderful mission statement:

Saint Vincent Academy inspires students to develop lifelong commitments to Christian service and a capacity for hope, compassionate leadership and the desire to transform the world into a more just and peaceful society.

The pieces all came together! The SVA mission statement elegantly links service, leadership and transformation. When I reflected on this I realized what should have been obvious all along: The only truly transformational leadership is servant leadership. The late Bishop of Atlanta, Bennett J. Sims, once wrote, “Servant leadership defines success as giving, and measures achievement by devotion to serving.” I said to students that not only were they going out to offer service but that they were also to be servant leaders.

Imagine the transformation that would take place if all of us aspired to be servant leaders! Actually, we don’t have to imagine because at Grace Church that transformation is already underway thanks to our many servant leaders. Think of the person who sacrifices a week of vacation to take care of a laundry list of odd jobs that needed doing around church. Think of the person who personally visits all of the organizations who receive outreach money from us. Think of the person who faithfully and quietly reaches out to people who are shut in at home or living in a nursing home. Think of the person who offers his expertise to struggling churches in the diocese. Think of the person who anonymously matches the money raised by our children to help the people of Haiti. All of these people and many more are not just offering service but are also acting as servant leaders.

Finally, especially during Eastertide we should look to the greatest of all servant leaders, Jesus of Nazareth. In his life of love and sacrifice, Jesus models for us true greatness and true leadership through service. Each year during Holy Week at the Compline for Kids service we reenact the foot washing done by Jesus at the Last Supper for his closest followers, the people who would take the lead in carrying his message to the world. Deeper than words, this dramatically humble action taught them - and teaches us - that the ultimate transformational leadership is servant leadership.