1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, 17-20
(Given at the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, Florida, where I am giving a "preaching mission" today and Tuesday.)
I don’t see it so much lately, but, for a while in the middle years of the last decade, a 1999 film called Office Space seemed to be constantly popping up on one TV channel or another. Office Space is a parody of what life is like for those on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder—working in a cubicle doing repetitive tasks that don’t seem to have any bearing on anyone’s real life, dealing with a smug and condescending boss who’s more concerned with getting the paperwork right than with actual productivity, and a pair of rather idiotic “downsizing” consultants who identify the main character, who is in fact a complete slacker who hates his job and everything about it—they identify this guy as prime leadership material, and earmark him for immediate promotion!
Prime leadership material indeed. One might question the wisdom and judgment of those consultants, but this little scene certainly serves to illustrate the critical importance of good leadership in any human community or organization. Now that the baseball season is over, we’re probably going to see some teams that didn’t do as well as they had expected replace their managers—“We need new leadership in the dugout” the front office will say. When I lived in Baton Rouge in the early ‘90s, I learned that they take their football very seriously, and when LSU had a losing season, the coach might well wake up one morning and find a moving van parked in front of his home! When corporate earnings come in below Wall Street expectations, the Board of Directors immediately looks to the CEO—the top leader—for an explanation. Church communities, of course, look to the rector, and the staff, and the vestry, and the heads of parish programs for leadership in carrying out the mission and vision of the congregation. I just presided over my first diocesan convention as a bishop, and I can assure you that the clergy and laity of the Diocese of Springfield are looking intently at their bishop for leadership!
Good leadership can be an elusive quality, and difficult to define. Unfortunately, bad leadership is usually pretty recognizable, and its results quite visible. Today we hear from the Old Testament prophet Micah, who is all worked up about the quality of leadership in his native kingdom of Judah. He has a problem with his fellow prophets who sell their ministry to the highest bidder—telling those who pay for it whatever they want to hear, while castigating those who don’t put any money into their coffers. Micah also has strong words for the…
“…heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong. Its heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money…”
Micah tells them that because of their actions, they “shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.”
Then Jesus himself has some choice words about the religious leadership of his own day:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”
He then goes on from there with a rather scathing bill of particulars that certainly didn’t win him any friends among those whom he was accusing.
Both Micah and Jesus are as lathered up as they are because the consequences of bad leadership are crippling. Bad leadership is demoralizing. The organization has no sense of direction and no enthusiasm for getting where it doesn’t know it’s going! Bad leadership leads to systemic dysfunction. People wear their feelings on their sleeve and engage in turf wars and talk past each other rather than working with each other. Bad leadership ultimately leads to despair—to a sense of hopelessness and eventually to the collapse of the community.
This much is fairly obvious. But what is good leadership? Let me make that more specific: For Christians, for the community of the church, what is good leadership? In other words, what is authentically faithful leadership? What sort of leadership indicates faithfulness and obedience to the leader of leaders, obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, and to God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit?
In the 1980s, a Roman Catholic leader in liturgical renewal wrote a book called Strong, Loving, and Wise, which was about how priests should preside in liturgy, but it seems to me that those three characteristics could also be applied to Christian leadership in general, and not be too far off the mark. Strong, loving, and wise—if all church leaders could live up to those ideals, we would indeed have something to praise God for!
Yet, I might suggest that even leadership that is strong, loving, and wise may still lack the “one thing needful.” I say this because of the challenges that St Paul faced as a leader and because of what he said when he wrote back to the new Christian community he had founded in the city of Thessalonica.
“You remember our labor and toil, brethren; we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you, while we preached to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our behavior to you believers; for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God….”
There is one quality that shines through in this passage. Yes, Paul is a strong leader. Yes, Paul is a loving leader, and he’s also wise. But more fundamentally, Paul is a servant. He is a servant not only of his Lord, but of those whom he leads. His concern was not for his own status. He did not seek the “perks” of leadership—no limousine, no penthouse, no foundation named after him… or whatever the first century equivalent of those things was. He poured out his life in the service of those whose leader he was, and that is what gave the mark of authenticity and faithfulness to the strong, loving, and wise leadership that he exercised.
Faithful leadership is servant leadership. I would suggest that this is true for schools and corporations and cities and counties and states, not to mention families. But it is most certainly true in the church. Of course, I stand before you as a Christian leader, so it stands to reason that I’m preaching to myself, and that this is the standard of leadership to which I aspire, and to which my diocese has a right to hold me accountable. But it is also the standard that applies here at Redeemer, to your most excellent Rector, to the clergy who assist him, to the wardens and vestry, and to all those involved in positions of leadership in this parish. The more we all live into this ideal, the stronger and more authentic will be our witness to the world that Jesus is Lord and the Kingdom of God is breaking in all around us. Faithful leadership is servant leadership. Amen.