Leadership is a very elastic concept. It can refer to those who have been entrusted with uniting the church community around a plan for mission (in our tradition we look to wardens, vestries and clergy for this). But leadership is also about the authority that attaches itself to any member of the body who takes initiative and succeeds in getting other people on board with the plan.
There has always been a tension between these two kinds of leadership. From earliest times, the church struggled to balance the claims of duly authorized leadership with the presence of prophets and innovators who claimed independent authorization by the Holy Spirit. At its best, our own tradition honors both sources of leadership, inasmuch as both are grounded in the one baptism in which we all share. Thus, whether “official” or “unofficial,” authentic Christian leadership always unites the people of God by helping them to embrace their union with Christ in his death and resurrection.
Not everyone is called to be a leader, if we think of a leader as someone who goes ahead and blazes a trail that others may safely follow, or as someone who holds the community together so others may go about their ministry and business peacefully. But I don’t think we can identify good leaders or support them well if we have not tasted leadership ourselves. Opportunities for leadership are more frequent than we might think. Leadership is about authority, and there is no greater authority in the church than the authority conferred in baptism. In baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive sins and free people up to receive God’s love. Whenever we exercise this authority, we are exercising leadership in Christ’s name.
In fact, the church has never functioned or thrived without this kind of grassroots initiative. In practical terms, our authority as baptized persons plays out in making our relationship with Jesus part of our relationship with everyone we meet. This doesn’t mean proselyting the unchurched. But it does mean treating each conversation as an opportunity to offer kindness and hope in the face of fear or grief, and gentle correction in the face of prejudice or hatred. The relationships that are built in this way are the life-blood of the church, not as an institution to be buoyed by new pledges, but as a living body ministering Christ’s mercy to the world.
To be a leader is always to be a bridge
Jesus calls us to engage with our neighbors. This is not a theoretical proposition. Every local congregation has neighbors: other faith communities, neighborhood associations, town councils, the school system, the police, the trustees of the township, the prison, and so on. Our leadership as Episcopalians begins as we engage these potential partners in the name of Christ.
We are, in fact, at our best when we devote ourselves to connection with whatever is around us. Our tradition is grounded in the conviction that the church is public, open, and committed to the common good. However large or small we are, our future lies in fidelity to that conviction.
Such fidelity requires a willingness to lead, since relating to our neighbors takes initiative, and such initiatives are always trailblazing. I am thinking of some of our churches that have done “prayer walks” through their local neighborhoods, offering to pray with local residents and shopkeepers. They report great openness – people want us to connect with them if we don’t demand that they join up with us. But that’s all right, since the church is ultimately not about those who adhere to it as an institution, but about those who receive God’s mercy and pass it on. Our viability as an institution rests in our subordination and service to this non-institutional goal.
So, to return to the theme of leadership: how are we as baptized Christians to exercise leadership in an environment that is both institutional and non-institutional? I was recently in Wales, and came across this striking motto: Bin ben, bin bont: Be a leader, be a bridge. To be a leader is always to be a bridge, a connecter. That sums up the Christian notion of leadership. It’s all about the embrace of connection, however challenging that may be.
There are four basic questions each of us must answer, individually and as congregations, if we want to embrace connection: (1) Who are we? (2) Where are we? (3) Why are we? (4) What do we have?
The first question is about identity, both good and bad. Without honesty about ourselves, we cannot repent our sins or rejoice in our gifts. The second question is about our neighborhood, however we define that. Our relation to our neighborhood is the key to renewed energy for mission. The third question is about God’s intention for us. How can we as individuals and as congregations bring the reign of God closer – or, as our Jewish brothers and sisters would say, how can we “repair the world”? The fourth question is about the assets, material, relational and spiritual that we already possess to get the job done. (Conversely, what stands in the way that we need to let go?)
True leadership begins in asking these questions seriously and courageously, and then building bridges that link our strengths (and perhaps also our needs) to what surrounds us. Bin ben, bin bont.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal is the Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.