A few weeks ago I found myself in a consultation with a number of pastors listening to and giving guidance to a pastoral team who were struggling. In the course of the conversation one of the consulting pastors stressed that what was needed was for this pastoral team to display strong leadership. By this was meant casting vision, shaping ministry, taking charge, make things happens – lead!
As I was listening, I realized that this was a very different sense of power than I would support as a Mennonite pastor. One of the pastor’s commented after I made a comment that this is what happens when you invite a Mennonite to be part of the group – they have a very different perspective on power.
My comment about “strong leadership” was different from what had been expressed. I stated that coming from an Anabaptist perspective that I have a very different understanding of what constitutes strong leadership. For me a strong leader is one who is able to come alongside his or her community and help them discern God’s leading in their midst, to see where God is active in their lives and in their communities, to have ears to hear what God is saying, to have eyes to see what God is doing, to encourage the congregation to participate with God in God’s mission. To be strong is not to be above the community, but to walk alongside the community, to be with the community, to be among the community leading them to give attention to God through prayer, engaging Scripture and participating in spiritual conversation. In fact, the strongest leaders in a real sense become invisible in the community because the members of the community are giving their attention to God. A pastor has exercised strength of leading when the pastor is no longer noticed, but God in Christ becomes the primary focus, when the community has the courage to participate with God in God’s redemptive mission in the world. In fact, strong leadership would confess with John the Baptist regarding Jesus: “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30).
A few weeks later I was leading a didactic session for a group of CPE chaplains at a local hospital sharing on the ministry of paraclesis (ministry of walking alongside and with those we are called to serve) and a student mentioned that there is such a strength in this that brings the presence of God into a hospital room while lessening the presence of the chaplain.
I think we need to reframe what we understand by “strong leadership.” God says to Joshua to be “strong and courageous” in the context of being careful to obey and meditate upon the law of God Paul reflects saying, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
When we come across the term “strong” or “strength” we often fill it with what we understand by these terms and engage in exerting the strength of our own character. Too much of leadership has done this and we still are not fully aware of what harm we have caused in the church by leading in this way – we have done violence to those whom God has called us to serve.
Being strong has little to do with our strength and everything to do with the presence and power of God being manifested through us. It is not about us, even as leaders, it is always about what God is doing in our midst, within the community, within God’s people to advance God’s purposes so that in participating with God in God’s mission, we participate in demonstrating the presence of God’s reign in the world.
Therefore, the strongest leaders are not ones who are visible to the community, but those who become invisible as the community becomes more aware of God’s presence with them – where Christ Jesus and his mission become greater, and we become less. When it becomes about us or our strength of character, it has less to do with exalting Jesus Christ and less to do with discerning and participating in God’s mission with God.
So, I encourage us to rethink what strong leadership entails – may we lead in ways which make us invisible and makes God more visible.