Over the summer, I was privileged to meet privately with a bishop from up North and speak with him about various areas of church life. We each shared our perspective on what we think needs the most attention in the U.S. church. He said a number of things I found really striking, many of which I wrote down in my journal later. Let me share with you one line of thought we followed. These are some of his words as I wrote them down in my journal later:
Too often, I find, those who seek out leadership positions in the church, whether they’re lay or ordained, are driven not be a sense of mission to serve others and build them up, but by the desire to fill their own personal needs or act out of their own unresolved issues. Good leaders have to be defined by mission and not by personal needs. We have to set ourselves aside for the sake of God’s people. If you’re consumed by your own issues all the time, you can’t make the church’s mission your own. I can tell right away when I’m with a needy minister, because when I’m with them I walk away thinking mostly about them and their needs and problems. The worst thing I could hear someone say about me is, “Poor thing. So sad.” Leaders in the church who are mission-driven should always leave people thinking about Jesus and the church. Feeling built up. They should want to be a better person after working with you, or feel that they’ve been brought closer to God after speaking with you; or feel more impassioned about their own life-mission. The point is that you have to point away from yourself.
It’s why the church says holiness in church ministers is imperative. Holiness always takes you out of yourself and gets you wrapped up in the mission of Jesus. You stop seeking adulation, stop dragging along with you all your clanging baggage. People should walk away from you lighter, more hopeful and encouraged, more joyful and on fire with the mission. The goal of a leader in the church is to be totally forgettable. Not for false humility or because they’re just drab and dreary, but because they always point away from themselves toward the people they serve, toward the church, toward the Lord. Like Pope Francis says it, good leaders are mediators not managers. Mediators convey and communicate mission and grace and the Kingdom, but managers convey thesmelves, their agenda, and try to exploit the church to their own advantage. I always tell my seminarians that it’s really a good thing when they experience opposition and conflict in their leadership work, because it keeps them cognizant of the fact that it’s not about them at all, but about the mission of Jesus. If you’re keeping to the mission, and some people hate the mission, you’re going to feel that. Feel the rub. You can’t change the mission to make sure it works for you. You work for it. And the mission of Jesus is mercy that lifts up the fallen and confronts people’s lies and sins and brokenness. Yours and theirs. So it’s going to grind on you now and again. But good leaders rejoice in the grind and rub because they want the mission to succeed more than anything else.
Tom, it’s like you as a father. Think about it. Your role is not to make your children like you or make life easy for them or for yourself. Your mission is to help them become good people, good citizens, saints. That’s your role, and your role is always much bigger than you. If you’re a good father, a good leader, fathering trumps all your personal needs and issues. The mission is about them, not you. You die to yourself to embody the role, to embody your mission. That’s holiness for you as a dad, right? That’s what we need in the church. The saint is one in whom the person and their mission become one. The Great Commission [Matthew 28:16-20] means [he spoke loudly]: It’s not about you, Tom! It’s the mission, the mission, the mission. I can never say that often enough.
He mentioned Pope Francis’ 2013 interview with America magazine and how insightful he found it to be. Here’s the part I think he especially appreciated:
How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.