ELCA Fund For Leaders Essay

The following was submitted as part of the application for the ELCA’s Fund For Leaders scholarship. The prompt was one of those generic “what does ‘leadership’ mean to you?”-type questions. (Incidentally, I just got word that I received a full-tuition scholarship from this fund, so.)

Within the context of Christianity, “leadership” should be an entirely horizontal concept. A leader in the church is not one who exerts dominion over others, or who perpetuates the power dynamics of the broader culture, but rather one who uplifts those whom they are called to serve, in order that those people might serve in the world. A leader is not the person at the top of an org chart, but one who sees herself as among, not above, those whom she leads. The church has not always fostered this form of leadership, and individuals have likewise failed to uphold it. As a result, the church as an institution is suffering a crisis of confidence that springs from promising fulfillment through vertical leadership, and being unable to deliver it. Over the last 50 years, trust in the institution has been shaken, and the church is on its heels, unsure how to react.

But make no mistake, this is good thing; exciting, even. Once the oppressive model of leadership dies, a different model can rise.

This renewed expression of leadership is not new; Luther’s priesthood of all believers and Paul’s image of the Body of Christ both call the church to renounce vertical organization and embrace the radical equality of community wherein all members are affirmed in their gifts and called to use them for the betterment of all those within and outside that community. A leader in such a context is someone specially trained to identify these gifts in others, matching them with the needs of the church and the world. Whose vocation it is to think seriously, theologically, and at length about issues of justice and equality, and then to see how the church can address those issues. Their role here is basically highly trained triage: connecter of the dots; seer of the big picture; servant of the servants.

From my own experience, this definition is refreshing, liberating, and emboldening. Were I held to the broader culture’s understanding of vertical leadership, there is just no way I could live up to it. If by “leader” we mean someone akin to a corporate officer or executive, I am not qualified in any way to be a leader. If, however, we define “leader” as one walking alongside and among a group of people trying their best to live out the gospel, then I believe I can be (and indeed have been) a leader.

The primary experience that induced this sense of leadership in me has been failure. To be sure, I tried with the best of them to prove myself through academic and professional achievement. It was through repeated and spectacular failure that I came to see hierarchy-for-hierarchy’s-sake as the empty promise it is. The achievement-based rat race fosters looking to self for affirmation and fulfillment, and failing in that regard was the best education in what leadership could look like. It disabused me of my notions of climbing any kind of organizational ladder, and reinstilled in me my dependence on God as source and ground of liberation and justification. I certainly wasn’t getting there on my own, and once I gave up the idea of self-justification as prerequisite for leadership(!), I became aware of another way.

The challenges facing the church are very real, not going away, and at this point only half-known. The vertically oriented leadership which gave rise to these issues will not cure them; for that, a different voice must speak up, emboldened by the spirit. I am here to raise my voice, and to actively create the space where those heretofore unheard may also give voice.


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