Traditionally, humility is understood as a virtue. And humility is a Christian virtue because, like all other virtues, the practice of humility opens us to Christ’s presence; or more specifically, it enables us to pay attention to Christ’s presence and guidance. Humility orients us more toward the spiritual so that we can live a life of Spirit. Another way to understand humility is to view it as a state of being in which we become radically open to God throughout our lives. Humility is a way of life in which we become consumed with seeking God’s direction rather than living purely according to our instincts, conditioning, and insights. For the Christian, humility integrates our spiritual and human natures in a way that allows us to become united with Christ.
So what is the nature of humble leadership? It is leadership that is radically open to God—in which we lead from faith rather than fear, from a willingness to let God’s will flow through us rather than willfully insisting that our own will be done, from hope rather than cynicism, from love rather than selfishness, and from God’s power rather than our own power. When we lead with an openness to God, we allow God’s power and grace to flow through us. We make prayer and discernment a foundation of our leadership, always seeking first what God wants and then leading others in that direction by inviting them to the same kind of humble prayer and discernment.
This is not an easy path, because it feels ambiguous and uncertain. There are no guarantees when we choose to lead with openness. Why? Because it’s leadership that arises from discerning God’s path, and discernment is never easy. When we are open to God, we run the risk of traveling through deserts and valleys of shadows. The vision may not be clear, and not everyone will follow us. When we close ourselves off to God and follow tried-and-true paths, vision and programs seem much clearer and easier because we follow where others have already trod. Becoming open to God and leading with openness can be troubling. What if we follow in this direction and we don’t get great results right away? What if we trust God and good things don’t happen? What if we lead people in a direction we believe to be God-inspired, and they won’t follow?
This kind of leadership is scary and anxiety-producing because it has a real potential for failure. Why? Because this way of leadership depends upon seeking God’s path—a path that may not be completely clear to us—and not upon following the safe paths of human convention. For example, as pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church, I’ve been trying my best to lead us in God’s direction by encouraging other lay leaders to make discernment of God’s will a passion. In a practical sense, this approach sometimes means that I don’t exactly know where we are going, but I try to keep people calm, faithful, and ready for opportunities that God presents to us. I’ve learned that becoming open to God means following wherever God leads even if the way is obscured, for as the Bible shows, God often calls leaders to lead people to promised lands that can’t be seen until the very end.
Imagine that you were one of the original apostles. I can imagine that they wanted nothing more than to live out safe lives cloistered in Jerusalem, tending to the already converted. Instead, according to Christian tradition, God led all of them out of Jerusalem to places like Damascus, Antioch, Ephesus, Rome, Spain, Armenia, Persia, India, and Ethiopia. They were led to spread the gospel throughout the world, sometimes experiencing great success and at other times being beaten, tortured, and imprisoned. All but John were killed violently because of their leadership. There is danger in following God, in being open to God: we might get sent to places of conflict where the people don’t necessarily want what we offer, where they make a habit of running off those carrying God’s Word.
The danger entailed in being open to God as a leader is especially evident with some pastors. As a spiritual director I’ve worked with many pastors in conflicted situations. I used to believe that if we were ministering and leading properly, the congregations we serve should always be places of peace and harmony. What I’ve learned is that there are some congregations that even the best pastor cannot turn around. Yet God still calls leaders to these churches. And sometimes we are called to be leaders in congregations that don’t want our leadership. If we are open to God’s guidance, we have to be open to the possibility of being sent to these churches. We have to consider the possibility that our being in a place of conflict doesn’t mean that God made a mistake. As the apostles showed, God sends humble leaders to places that may be painful and troubled. But we’re still called. And just like the apostles, we’re called to lead these churches, even if we don’t know what the destination will be.
There may be real danger in becoming radically open to God, but there is also great freedom. The freedom comes in the ability to be creative. What I mean is that the more we lead churches to become what they have always been, the more we lead the church to do what it has always done. Humble leaders discover that they have the freedom to choose alternatives, to choose to do ministry in their congregations in ways that are creative and unique to their churches.
The more we lead in a spirit of openness to God, the more God increases our freedom of choice by offering creative alternatives to what we had already been doing. We become freed from convention. We become more creative, seeing more possibilities. And we are able to help others see these possibilities, too. At Calvin Church we’ve discovered that as we try to create worship grounded in what we sense God is calling us to do rather than in what the church has always done, we become more creative. At the same time, we become more sensitive to the needs of both those in our church and those potentially interested in our church. We are open to finding ways to reach out to both groups in worship. And we become more sensitive to different generations, finding ways to reach out to all of them rather than targeting just one, whether it is the youngest or oldest.
In our congregation, we attempt to integrate different elements into worship with one intent: seeking what God is calling us to do so that our worship can help people encounter Christ. As much as possible, our worship team—pastors, music directors, musicians, and choir—tries to be open to what we sense is right for us. We don’t follow a formula. Instead, we follow our hearts in trying to create an experience that integrates all sorts of different elements.
For instance, a few years ago, we realized that the printed calls to worship featuring leader/congregation responses seemed stilted and artificial. It’s sad to hear a congregation read without any emotion, as many congregations do, “We worship you today in joy!” These calls may be part of our Presbyterian tradition, but they didn’t seem to open people to God in worship effectively. So we sensed a need to begin our worship in a way that quieted people and opened them to God’s presence. Our solution was to center people with a chant, offer them a short time for quiet prayer, and bless them with a prayer asking God to open them to God’s presence. The effect was to create a more centered opening to worship.
When we become more open to God as leaders, we are freed to find creative ways to lead people more fruitfully to God. Humble leaders try to ground their leadership in openness to God, aware of how easy it is to close ourselves to God and to lead out of fear, willfulness, cynicism, selfishness, pride, and a sense of our own power. Leading from radical openness allows us to lead by following God’s lead. And this way makes all the difference between leading a congregation to regard God as an idea or thought, and leading a congregation to a spiritual place where God is enc
ountered and experienced.
Adapted fromHumble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to our permissions form.
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