Like many proud United Methodists I watched the Rev. Adam Hamilton give the sermon at the National Prayer Service last Tuesday. The service was in the historic National Cathedral and celebrated our religious diversity in America. To have a United Methodist pastor give the sermon for such an event is a pretty big deal, so I made sure to tune into the live online feed.
I think most would agree that Adam did a fantastic job. The sermon was well-crafted with great flow and a powerful call to action at the end. Somewhere around the halfway point, it occurred to me that much of what he was saying about leadership applies to leaders at all levels of the United Methodist Church. The call to action for the President and leaders in Washington also serves as a summons to lead faithfully in our church – even if it means getting over some of our personal issues in the process.
Adam offered three ideas for leadership that we all could heed as we serve in our local churches, annual conferences, and denomination.
Idea #1: “At our best, we are a humble people. And we remember the call to have compassion for the least of these.”
Part of what makes humility so hard to locate in ourselves is that it requires that we do not boast about how humble we are. Being a humble leader means we faithfully lead in such a way that others can say that about us. It means we approach leadership as a means of service and not a grasp for power. No one “owes” us power – we are called to an authority that recognizes the greatest among us will be those who are willing to serve others.
This is tough when our church is designed around a democratic process that invites political maneuvering and manipulation. We learn far too early that those who “win” are those who know how to use their power to fix the game. It’s no wonder we find ourselves living in a deep fog of distrust of one another. Instead of engaging those who hold different opinions, we would rather surround ourselves with like-minded people who parrot each other’s opinions. Instead of giving up our platitudes and stands in humility for the common good, we would rather exercise power and win at any cost. Trust is at the core of what it means to be connectional and our lack of humility is a major reason why we cannot seem to trust each other.
We also need what Adam calls, “a courageous compassion for the marginalized.” It’s time we stop giving out of charity and start giving of our time, money, and efforts out of a missional calling. It’s easy to give out of a sense of liberal guilt – giving a little to others because it makes us feel better for having so much. If we are to be the church, then we are to go to the margins of society and live there with the people. We need to learn to speak with those who have no voice, not because we somehow know what is best for them, but because we have shared a story, broken bread, and lived with those who live on the margins. Only then will we reclaim our prophetic voice as a missional church.
Idea #2: ”…the importance of having a vision.”
Adam notes that Harvard Business School professor, John Kotter, said: “two of the most important tasks of any leader are to cast a compelling vision for the future and then motivate and inspire people to pursue it.” This applies to leaders whether we are working in the local church, annual conference, or denominational level. It is the act of articulating a clear and compelling vision of where we want to go, our preferred picture of the future.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls this the prophetic imagination. Essentially we are called as the Church to tell the truth about the world as it is, and cast a vision for the world as God intends it. This vision is lived out through worship, community, preaching, prayer, and sharing in the sacraments. I would dare to say the greatest challenge we face in our local churches, annual conferences and denomination is we lack a faithful and prophetic imagination. No matter what context we live in, there is an alternative vision God would have us live into. Transformation is a hallmark of our Wesleyan tradition and the task of leaders at all levels is to help us all live into the world as God sees it. Casting a compelling vision that inspires others means telling the honest and hard truth about where we are while also articulating the possibilities of where God would have us to go. It is probably the single most difficult challenge of leadership at all levels.
Idea #3: “To be a leader is to invite criticism”
This is the word of hope and challenge for all leaders. Effective leadership means getting past the idea that somehow we can please everyone in the process. We need humility to undertake this challenge. But we also need the support of each other to make the tough decisions, take the unpopular stands and speak the convicting words of change. This also means we have to be humble enough to take the criticism. No one person has all the answers and much of what we are facing will require we move forward in faith trusting that God will reveal answers as we go. But we need to learn to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves while having Teflon skin in the process.
We like to say the mission of the church is to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.” I would reword that a little. The real mission we’re trying to live into is the idea that a life of discipleship can change us into the sort of people who will help welcome the Kingdom of God. This requires us to be a people who daily seek to “knock holes in the darkness” (borrowing again from the Hamilton sermon, which in turn borrowed from a Robert Louis Stevenson story) with humility and a courageous compassion for the marginalized as we cast and follow a clear vision of the world as God intends it to be, no matter the criticism we invite along the way.
No one said leadership would be easy. Heck, no one said discipleship would be easy. But with God’s help, let us begin the long and difficult journey together.
This post originally ran on the website for The United Methodist Reporter on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013