Above: On the road to Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Photo by Jul Medenblik
I am writing this article from Wittenberg, Germany, on a Reformation Tour with supporters of Calvin College and Seminary. I just walked (and almost tripped) over some of the same cobblestones where Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon walked. Would 1517 qualify as a difficult time for leading? I think so. No matter what your opinion of some of the writings and actions of Martin Luther, the 500th Anniversary Commemoration of the Protestant Reformation also recalls the times—the difficult times – in which Luther and others found themselves. The lens of history helps us realize that every age have their difficult contours and conversations. We tell our students that if you are leading, you should have an understanding that difficult circumstances are either present or just around the corner. Leadership is always difficult. Here are a few principles for navigating these challenges.
Leadership is about the journey. I know too many people in the church who want everything “settled.” Many people have a destination perspective about life and even the Christian life. As a result, they miss the journey that God is placing before them and the growing in faith and discipleship that comes from being attentive to the journey. People with a destination desire can sound like children on a long-car ride who keep asking—“Are we there yet?” This destination desire can lead to fatigue in engaging questions like the relationship of faith and science. The exercise of leadership can sometimes parallel the leadership of a coach on a sports team where the coach exhorts those on the field to keep going and not give up. In the present age, I see that the cultural milieu on expedience has led to a bumper sticker, microwave mentality where we want a few words to settle any issue—now. We live in an age of slogans rather than engagement. We live in a time where long-conversations on deep topics rarely occur, but leaders still need to help people take the journey.
The leadership journey is a marathon. For you and me to be sustained in the journey, we need others. At Calvin Seminary, our students engage in formation in group settings. That exposure and experience is something that we hope becomes part of a life-long pattern. If you and I are to flourish in ministry, we need to be like marathon runners who find a group of other runners and pace ourselves to run the race—together. A key African proverb that has guided me is—“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” The truth of this proverb is evident in Wittenberg as well. Martin Luther would not have been able to be Luther without his wife, Katherine; his colleague, Melanchthon; his protector, Elector Frederick the Wise; the painter, Lucas Cranach; and the list goes on. There is a leadership myth of the “one” person who leads. Once you get up close to a person, you will find the “many” who are integral to the story. As leaders—and followers–do not forget that you are in a marathon and find your “cohort of colleagues” to run the race well!
Leadership is first about listening. Listening is part of a spiritual discipline and practice of being attentive to what God is doing already before you even show up. In our Church Renewal Lab, the journey of renewal opens with the caution to “dwell.” Many people want to “do something—now.” The Church Renewal Lab asks the church to first “dwell” before “do.” Dwelling in this context means listen. Listen to God, listen to one another and listen to the community with a grounding trust that God will speak.
Finally, leadership is also about giving voice to those whose voices we do not always hear. As a church planter, I monthly met with our church leadership team. As we prayed and planned, we also placed this proverb before us—“Remember those who are not in this room.” That proverb reminded us that there were people who did not come to New Life Church and we needed to keep them in mind in our prayers and plans—if we really wanted to reach out to them and bring them into a community of faith.
I find this same perspective is vital for any arena of leadership. Leadership is about listening to people from different cultures and experiences and then helping those voices be heard. What does that mean for me? As a white male; I need to keep before me the need (if I am going to be a good leader) to seek out the voices of others who will bring wisdom and insights that I would miss—if I am not deliberate to listen and learn from them. If we really see value in a chorus of witnesses, we need to be willing to seek those voices out to be part of that choir. For me, this mean that I must seek the counsel of women, Canadians, African Americans, Brazilians, Chinese, Koreans, Latinos/Latinas and the list goes on. (I have a lot to learn.)
What about you? What voices do you need to seek out? Remember—it is a journey! Blessings on your next steps as a leader, or a follower who journeys alongside one!
A version of this article will soon appear in the Calvin Seminary student publication, the Kerux, in an issue on the topic of Christian leadership in difficult times