October 28, 2011

Servant Leadership

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary,Legacy,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 4:31 pm

I love the readings we have been having in these last few weeks, these wonderful stories of leadership, community building, and the imperfection of God’s people. It makes me think that business school was worth it after all!

First, there’s Joshua, a hero-leader: His leading the people over the Jordan reinforces his image as the heir of Moses. The crossing is proof that God is with Joshua just as surely as God was with Moses. Joshua now has credibility as the God-appointed leader of the Israelites.

Written after the fact, his conquest of Canaan is portrayed by the Deuteronomic author as swift and sure, again giving Israel the hero myth it needed in those early days, when it was establishing itself as a settled national and a regional power.

In Paul we have the suffering leader. Nobody works as hard as Paul in the service of the community and of the Gospel—and he inevitably ends up feeling ill-used. I’ve said it before: I don’t think anyone will ever appreciate Paul to Paul’s own satisfaction.

Nonetheless, Paul has indeed poured his heart and soul into planting this new church at Thessalonica. His theology of community is one of solidarity, so wherever one is persecuted, all are persecuted; wherever one faces hardship on behalf of the Gospel, all suffer. There is a lot at stake and his mind and heart suffer for them.

Jesus, the cheeky monkey that he is, holds up a mirror to those who purport to lead by example, yet their hypocrisy shows them to be false leaders. Jesus speaks to a truth that somehow, in the intervening millennia, the heirs of Moses have watered down their legacy. They have diluted the life of hard work and tough decisions to a symbolic life of privilege and regard.

Then Jesus does something radical. (There’s a surprise.) He rejects all of these images—the hero, the suffering servant, and the public image-makers—in favor of the upside-down notion of servant leadership. And Jesus isn’t just talking the talk. Though his hearers don’t know what’s about to happen, we, with the advantage of history, know that we will soon enter again into that wrenching and achingly beautiful liturgical cycle that leads ultimately to his walking the walk.

I had the privilege of maturing as a manager under a Quaker dean. Servanthood was not his leadership style; it was his way of being in the world. For me this was both formative and life-giving.

It was also somewhat bewildering. I only knew the culture of hierarchy. “Privilege comes with rank” was a common phrase when I was growing up. It took me a while to understand that servant leadership didn’t put the animals in charge of the zoo. But once I got it, once I experienced its beauty, its dignity, and its honoring of all gifts…I loved it.

And why did it take so long for me to get it? Well, because I wasn’t Episcopalian at that time.

Episcopalians have an advantage. Our deep understanding of the gifts of God, expressed through the ministries of the people of God, give us a completely different perspective on leadership, and on stewardship.

The five vows of the Baptismal Covenant engage us as servant leaders in two very important ways.

First, we proclaim our covenant in dialogue.

As each of the five covenants is presented, our response is, “I will, with God’s help.”

We say “I will” because, as the grammar hounds among us know, the first-person use of will is not a reference to the future, but a statement of determination or consent. We do not agree to carry out the vow at some point in the future, or when we’re in the mood, or on days that it’s convenient. We commit ourselves without reservation.

And then we add “with God’s help” precisely because it is a dialogue. We are a people of a living covenant, not a people of static, one-time promises.

Second, the Baptismal Covenant is, in effect, a Rule of Life. And like any Rule of Life, it is at the same time clear and bewildering, simple and overwhelming, easy…and costly.

That is why the very first covenant that we make is with one another. We commit to continue in the fellowship, and in the breaking of the bread because we need to be at this table together. We need to take strength and reassurance from the gathered community.

I will tell you honestly that the single hardest thing for me in living abroad was being separated from parish life; to live outside the rhythm of liturgical seasons; to wake up some mornings physically hungering for the Eucharist.

We need one another.

It is equally striking that the second vow of the covenant is to persevere. Like Moses, we are going to muddle through as imperfect stewards of God’s call. We will at times fall short. There will always be things done, and things left undone. We admit it…and get on with it.

These first two vows equip and free us to move into a place from which our very energy ripples outward to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace. We become stewards of the Gospel…in all that we do…with all that we have.

Each of us is in a different place on this stewardship journey. What’s important is that we are here, ready to hold each other up, wrestle together with the questions of how we will lead, and how we will serve. Just by showing up, you have already made the commitment to grow from wherever you are, to wherever the next step for you will be.

You may be growing into proportional giving, or into the tithe. You may be considering an offering from your abundance that is beyond the tithe. You may be frightened or nervous at the thought of pledging when you don’t know what the year ahead has in store. Perhaps you are discerning the right use of your time, your education and experience, or your natural gifts; perhaps you are attending to the care of yourself and your loved ones at the end of life.

These are all parts of the stewardship journey. And they all manifest themselves differently to each of us. And so I leave you with the simple reminder that discernment is a dialogue. It’s a part of the conversation that began—and continues—through our baptism.

In the coming week, as you are moved to respond to the invitation to prayer and discernment that the Stewardship Committee has offered, remember that when you sign your pledge card, embedded within that act of your signature lies the unspoken reaffirmation, “I will, with God’s help.”


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