[Re-posted every year since 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 not driven 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 tending to 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; about their needs and problems. They always manage to turn the conversation back on themselves, their interests, 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 His church. Should feel 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 their own.
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 ecclesial 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 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. To complain. Look, I’ve got plenty of my own baggage and issues, 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. As 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 to their own ends, use the Kingdom for personal gain, employ God as their excuse to extract sympathy from others or 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. 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 justice and mercy that supports the fallen, heals the broken, confronts lies and sins. It should make you uncomfortable, knock the chip off your shoulder, end the pity party, cancel the ego fest.
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. For others. 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 — Jesus — increase.
Tom, it’s like you as a father, right? Think about it. Your role is not to make your children like you, make you feel good 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 or need those things from them. Your role is always much bigger than you. For a father, the needs of his children trump all his personal needs. You’re 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, apathy. You live to embody your paternal mission, to give them love, to offer them 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, slowly]: 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.