'Servant Leadership'??

The word “servant” or “serving” needs to be carefully used in relation to Church leadership. As a friend once said, “When I see cleaners, waitresses, and rubbish collectors becoming bishops and priests I’ll believe the Church has servants as leaders.” He has a point. ‘Servant’ has socio-political implications.

What do we mean in the Church by the word ‘serving’? Does it mean that our priest should be on every committee? I would say that reflects an inability to trust others. Does it mean that our priest knows every parishioner’s needs, and where possible attends to them? I think it is the vocation of every Christian to be a good neighbour and care for one another. By expecting the priest to do it we are neglecting our baptismal vocation.

I remember one vicar who for twenty years had a wonderful reputation among his parishioners. He was always there for them, always caring, always available. However in the 20 years he served that parish both his family and his health fell apart. He had succumbed to an uncritical understanding of ‘servant leadership’. There’s little chance that any oppressive government will crucify clergy like him because they’ve already laid down their lives for the Church!

Self-care is not optional. You live what you are. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. If reality is solely your business or your Church then you have failed to understand what spirituality is and the importance of the transformative love called God permeating all of your life and relationships. I think a priest’s job description should be simply “To pray Jesus’ vision into being”. Period. But please don’t think I mean something passive when I use the word ‘pray’.

When you are, like me, a recipient of privilege (and it is a privilege to lead) you have the obligation to use that privilege and its power wisely. This is what ‘serving’ is. ‘Serving’ doesn’t mean necessarily doing the dishes. Often it is harder to make small talk with the dignitaries out front than pick up a tea towel out back. ‘Serving’ is about being conscious of the good fortune and grace bestowed upon you, and treating all others with grace and dignity as equals. The opposite is arrogance, which unfortunately is all too common.

The task of the Christian leader is to articulate a vision and to lead people in the transformation of society in line with that vision. Further, and intimately connected with this, is the ability to live and engender the spirituality that will sustain both the struggle and its outcome. This is how Jesus led. When he died he left others to manage. Thankfully some of them had the courage and tenacity to lead.


Management or Leadership

Two stories, one of good management and one of good leadership:

“An influential British politician kept pestering Disraeli for a baronetcy. The Prime Minister could not see his way to obliging the man but he managed to refuse him without hurting his feelings. He said, “I am sorry I cannot give you a baronetcy, but I can give you something better: you can tell your friends that I offered you the baronetcy and that you turned it down.”

Good management. Now for good leadership:

“Of the great Zen Master Rinzai it was said that each night the last thing he did before he went to bed was let out a great belly laugh that resounded through the corridors and was heard in every building of the monastery grounds. And the first thing he did when he woke at dawn was burst into peals of laughter so loud they woke up every monk no matter how deep his slumber.”

Good leadership. A leader defines reality - both for him/herself and for others. That’s what that laugh was doing. How much laughter is there in your Church or workplace?

[i] De Mello, A. The Prayer Of The Frog, Anand : Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988, p.154
[ii] De Mello, A. The Prayer Of The Frog, p.172.


Jesus not managing contd.

Jesus promoted a political and spiritual vision of an upside down kingdom where the last are first and the first slaves. It is a place where the CEO’s wash the feet of the unemployed. It is a place where the outsiders are in, and the insiders choose to be out. It is a place where the 99 sheep are deserted in order that the lost one is found. It is a place where the despicable find a home.

In this vision Jesus, despite the wishful thinking of many of his followers, will not sit on a throne with his trusted lieutenants beside him, sycophants serving him, and his heavenly army available in the wings. Rather it is a vision that led to the cross. The forces of oppression nailed him. Two thieves were beside him. Roman soldiers took his meagre assets. His only faithful ‘army’ were a few wailing women. Siding with outsiders made Jesus an outsider. He died an outsider’s death. By threatening the powerful Jesus became a threat. There is a terrible cost to ignoring ideological safety.

The leadership of Jesus demanded something of his followers, and demands something of us. It demands commitment to making his vision a reality in our lives. As Ghandi said, “We must become the change we want to see.” It demands a commitment to stand with outsiders and both criticise and seek to dismantle the structures that keep them there. When you stand with outsiders in time you become one.

Most of what is called leadership today in the Church is a blend of management and leadership. We need both. The worry is that, firstly, in the order to maintain ‘productivity’ we will nurture risk-adverse strategies. ‘Keep doing the same things but just do them better!’ And secondly we will encourage our clergy to be managers more than leaders. Despite rhetoric to the contrary the Church employs pastors who primarily serve its institutional needs.


Embracing Life

To embrace and enjoy life is a holy act. Here are a few ideas about how we might do that.

Firstly, make time to stop. There is a child’s road safety maxim to be recited on the kerbside: “Stop, look, and listen.” This saying could equally be applied to those on a spiritual journey. We need to stop when the pressure of life says go. We need to look when we are told to act. And we need to listen when we are being exhorted to speak.

Cycling around the waterfront in the morning, as I often do - penance for all those pastries - it only takes a few moments to stop, dismount, look, breath deeply, listen, say “Gee, its good to be alive”, and then remount and cycle off.

In this busy, noisy world we need the courage to pause and give time to our soul.

Secondly, make time for the earth. Remember the days when most rural towns had a bend in the road when metallic debris was discarded. There was a belief that rubbish would decompose or rust away. The earth would cleanse and renew itself.

That belief is now dead and gone. We now know that we must care for the earth like we care for our aging parents. We can’t presume that the earth will always be able to do what it once did. To be faithful to life requires faithfulness to that which nurtures life’s plants, animals, water, and climate.

Thirdly, make time for outsiders. There are numerous people who feel themselves to be outside of the boundaries of ‘normal’. Whether it is due to wealth, health, sexuality, race, or circumstance, they experience life very differently and often oppressively.

We need to nurture the kindness that steps over or around barriers. ‘Normal’ is a word we need to be wary of. Kindness is a word we need to put into practice. Smiling at people, saying ‘Hi’, communicates that they matter. It also conveys the hope that we all will become better more hospitable neighbours to each other.

Lastly, make time for humour. Absurd and ludicrous things happen every day. We just need to pause and let that tickle touch our funny bone.

I remember once receiving a letter from a misguided environmentalist concerned about the impact of burying bodies in a cemetery. Being the curator of a cemetery at the time I responded in a somewhat warped fashion commenting upon the spirituality of worms. Imagine my amazement when I received an additional letter from the lady taking worm religion very seriously. I hope, and like to believe, that she was smiling when she wrote it.

Make time to laugh.

So let us enjoy and embrace life by remembering what is faithfully worth preserving: our soul, our earth, our hospitality, and our humour.


Jesus didn't manage

“Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing.”

Jesus was a leader, not a manager.

Good management is essential in any organization. People need to be heard and understood. Good processes, protocols, and safety provisions need to be in place. Conflict needs to be mediated and resolved. Employees and clients’ hopes and expectations need to be taken seriously. Good management usually leads to increased productivity and profit. This is what many people understand to be leadership.

There is no evidence in the biblical texts that Jesus was a manager. There are few stories of him patiently mediating in conflicts between the disciples; or emphatically caring for those who gave up their jobs and businesses to follow him; or sitting down and listening to the hopes and fears of his followers. Commentators who believe Jesus pastorally coached his disciples are largely arguing from what is unsaid in the texts rather than what is said.

However there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus lived and preached a vision, and challenged others to follow him.

I think the Church has a bad habit of trying to domesticate Jesus. It paints him as meek, mild, and obedient, a kindly shepherd unifying the sheep, always ready to listen and comfort. It tries to portray him as apolitical, as if that was possible in 1st century Palestine! Similarly the Church has wanted its leaders to be meek, mild, and obedient, always ready to apolitically pacify and console. ‘Servant leadership’ is the term.

The Church wants to be safe. It wants leaders who will make people feel safe. It asks its leaders to faithfully adhere to the traditions and understandings of the past in the mistaken belief that repetition will bring security. It asks its leaders to care for the members. It asks its leaders to coach and equip the members in caring. And it asks its leaders to care for outsiders - but not at the cost of neglecting the members. Like a well-run club the wellbeing of members is paramount because the highest value in the Church is continuity. Is it accidental then that we appoint people into positions of authority who have highly developed managerial skills?

Jesus wouldn’t have got a job in the Church, and if he had he would have turned it down. The Bible portrays him as confrontational, challenging, and disturbing. He was rude to those in authority. He disregarded the rules. He spent more time with the unfaithful than he did with the faithful. He got into heated arguments and said outlandish things. He had grandiose ideas that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. He was impractical. The bottom line was: Jesus served no one but God. An employee of the club needs to serve the needs of the club.


Guy and the Sheik

Guy Fawkes Day is fundamentally not about fireworks, family, and frightened animals. It is about religious dissent. It asks what are appropriate expressions and responses to religious dissent, and whether even today diverse beliefs can coexist in the same society.

Guy Fawkes was born in Yorkshire in 1570 into an upper middle class family. At age 23 he joined the Spanish Army and spent ten years serving on the continent. It was during this time he converted to Roman Catholicism. Upon returning to England he was subjected, like all Catholics, to the repressive decrees instituted by Elizabeth and continued by her successor James I. One decree passed in 1604, for example, imposed heavy fines on Catholics and confiscated their property.

The prevailing 17th century orthodoxy was that England was Anglican and all other expressions of faith were evidence of allegiance to foreign powers and the doorway to treason. Monarchy, nationalism, race, and religion were blended into one. Plurality was not tolerated, and where difference existed it was persecuted.

When Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters failed with their explosive plan they were hung, drawn, and quartered. Not content to punish just a few the authorities rounded up thousands of innocent Catholics and imprisoned them too. In the paranoiac traditions of religious scapegoating Guy was called the “Great Devil”, and for centuries his stuffed effigy was annually burnt on November 5th. Only in recent years has ‘burning the Guy’ gone out of fashion.

The delineation of the world into goodies and baddies, and good and bad religion, is unfortunately all too common. Fed by the surety of conviction, and satisfying the simple-minded with the promise of security, it has led to the justification of all manner of violence towards those who believe differently. Persecuting religious dissent is a symptom of a weak society, unsure of itself and thus defensive.

Sheikh Alhilali is a close-to-home example of religious dissent. His views to the sensibilities of most are repugnant. ‘Misogynist’, ‘anti-Semitic’, and ‘supporter of Islamic insurgents’ are all labels that have been stuck on him, and not without some justification. He and his supporters protest that he is misunderstood. Most Australians and New Zealanders though can recognise bigotry in religious drag. Anglicans know plenty of examples from our religious past and present!

In the deservedly strong response to the Sheikh’s comments there is a significant number who want to gag him. If the Muslim community to which he is accountable want to censor him that is one thing. When politicians however suggest revoking the Sheikh’s permanent residency status and deporting him that is something else. We need to ask whether we believe in a society where strong and offensive viewpoints can be exchanged.

I don’t want to live in a homogenized society where viewpoints are always sanitized before publication. Bigotry will always be among us. When expressed it is ugly. Yet it won’t go away by muting or banning it. Bigotry needs to be confronted by the reason and experience of others.

Religious history is peppered with the repression of minorities. Some groups within these minorities occasionally responded with violence, like the Gunpowder Plotters. No civil society can tolerate that. However civil society can treat minorities equally before the law and allow minority views to be aired – even the obnoxious ones. It can also then share one of the great gifts of a secular democracy by criticising those obnoxious beliefs to hell.