Ministers on Mission

Running up the stairs on 9/11

Re-post from 2015

Over the summer while I was in Omaha, I was privileged to meet privately with a Bishop and speak with him about all things ecclesiastical. For almost 90 minutes. Actually, it was quite jarring. I was asked one day to meet with this Bishop who was in town, and I didn’t know why he wanted to meet with me After we sat down together and finished the pleasantries, he said: “I want you to tell me what you think about us bishops, about how we handle the church, vocations. Be honest. And don’t blow smoke at me.”

I felt a shiver go up my spine at the prospect of having to offer critical thoughts about bishops to a Bishop whom I did not even know. But the man was so genuine and sincere — and humble — I felt able to candidly share my thoughts on his questions.

After I finished, he said a number of things to me that I found really striking, many of which I wrote down in my journal later. Let me share with you one line of thought he followed. He gave me permission to share his general observations, so here you go. It’s all in his voice:

All too often, Tom, 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 in the name of Christ and His church. Instead, these are driven by a desire to fill their own personal needs or act out of their own unresolved issues. Good leaders have to be defined by mission and service, 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 own the church’s mission.

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. They always manage to turn the conversation back on themselves and their interests or their woes. 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, encouraged, lighter. People should want to be better after working with you, or feel they’ve been brought closer to God after speaking with you. Or feel more impassioned about their own life’s mission, because that IS your mission: to help them fall in love with theirs.

The point is that you have to point away from yourself, to lose yourself in the will of God. Have you noticed that when an “I” finally falls prostrate, it becomes the first letter of humility? [I was so captivated by that image, I created one!]

It’s why the church says holiness in church ministers is imperative. Holiness is always other-focused because holiness is about love. Love takes you out of yourself, gets you wrapped up in others and in God. You stop living for adulation and approval, stop dragging along with you all your attention-getting clanging baggage. Save that for your spiritual director or your counselor or your peer support group. Don’t use the people you serve to soothe or feed your malnourished ego. Look, I’ve got plenty of mine own baggage, believe me, but I know I can’t use the people I serve to fix them.

As I said, people should walk away from you lighter, more hopeful and encouraged, more joyful and on fire with their personal mission. The goal of a leader in the church is to be totally forgettable. Not with false humility, or because you’re just drab and dreary, but because you always point away from yourself toward the people you serve, toward the church, toward the Lord. Like Pope Francis says it, good leaders are mediators not managers. Mediators convey and communicate grace and the Kingdom, help others discover God’s dream for them. But managers manipulate grace and the Kingdom for personal gain, use God as their excuse to control, impose their own agenda or exploit the faithful to their own advantage.

I always tell our seminarians that it’s really a good thing when they experience opposition and conflict in their leadership work. It keeps them humble and grounded and cognizant of the fact that it’s not all about them at all. It’s about the mission of Jesus. The Beatitudes are clear: if you’re keeping to Jesus’ mission, and people hate the mission, you’re going to feel the heat. 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 supports the fallen, heals the broken and confronts lies and sins. It should make you uncomfortable, knock the chip off your shoulder, end the pity party. I also tell our seminarians, the same spirit that inspired the firefighters to run up the stairs in the burning towers on 9/11 should inspire you to get up again every day to be faithful. To give your life.

In the New Testament good leaders, Beatitude-driven leaders rejoice in hardship only because they want the mission to succeed more than anything else. They’re happy to pay a price, to decrease to make others, and Jesus, increase.

Tom, it’s like you as a father, right? Think about it. Your role is not to make your children like you, or to make life easy for yourself. Your mission is to help them become good people, good citizens, saints. To provide for them. When you demand they honor you or thank you or say please, it’s because you want them to become the kind of people who show honor, gratitude, courtesy; not because you yourself want those things from them. Your role is always much bigger than you. For a father, the needs of their children trump all personal needs. Your a father for them, they’re not sons and daughters for you. And if they reject you or oppose you as you try to love them into greatness, all the better for your fatherhood! You die to whatever in yourself is unworthy of fatherhood — pride, laziness, anger, selfishness. You live to embody your paternal mission to give them love and the opportunity to be virtuous men and women.

That’s what holiness is. The saint is one in whom person and mission become one. Jesus says as much when He says “my food is the will of my Father, my raison d’être is the mission He sent me on” [cf John 4:34; 6:38]. We talk about the cross as an act of spousal love, but the crucifixion is also a very fatherly act. I know you know that! [laughter]

The Great Commission [Matthew 28:16-20] means [he spoke loudly]: It’s simply not about me or about you, Tom! It’s about the mission, the mission, the mission.

I can never say that often enough to other leaders. Or to myself.

Yeah, that.

2 comments on “Ministers on Mission

  1. Jennifer says:

    Dear Tom,
    I so needed to read this today…Coupled with your previous post about sins of omission. Both posts speak to my heart about my own vanity; that lack of trust in Him that makes the temptation to take the shortcut of seeking ‘easy’ acceptance and accolades from others all too frequently irresistible. Believing the lie that proving my competence as a leader, teacher, whatever, matters at all is not dissimilar to the lie of believing it acceptable to go under the radar rather than speak up against wrong when it risks offending those deemed esteemed. Mea culpa!

    I had this on my heart all day. It came after a painfully humiliating week in which I found myself begging Him for reprieve from myself, greatful for this humiliation that was so needed to tear away another layer of skin. Your posts gave words to help me to reorient my day in a number of ways; encouraged me to leap with trust into abandonment to Him without the selfish desire to use others stroke my own ego, manipulating their opinions of me for my own sake, rather to freely and joyfully seek only their good. I was pondering the story of the man born blind whose parents stopped short of testifying to Jesus’ role in the healing of their son because they didn’t want to be kicked out of the synagogue. Those parents must have already experienced so much shame for the questionably sinful origins of their son’s condition…. I imagine for them, more than for others, the fear of ostracization must have felt too much to bear -even for the truth. How insiduously moral relativism creeps into my heart too.
    Passio Christi, conforta me!

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