One of my great hesitancies when I first entered the ministry concerned leadership. I was afraid to lead. I had too many doubts. What if I choose wrong? What if I lead my people poorly? What if I make a mistake and it all falls apart?
As I was going through ordination in the United Methodist Church, my mentor suggested I read In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen, and that introduced me to the life of leadership in ministry. And my heart was on fire! Now I love leadership. While there are many, many ways that I need continued growth, leadership is truly life-giving to me.
But at a pastor’s conference a few years back, something happened that caused me to stop and rethink this passion. The speakers kept hammering the theme, “leadership, leadership, leadership!” And I agreed with them in principle – but I turned to my youth pastor and said, “Honest question that I don’t know the answer to: is leadership the chief virtue you want in your pastor?” In the years since I have thought long and hard about that question. Is leadership the chief virtue we desire for our pastors?
As important as leadership is, it cannot be the driving force of ministry. So, then, what is? What is the virtue that we as pastors need to develop in our lives and that our people need from us most of all?
It’s a struggle to find the right word, but the closest thing I can come up with is incarnation. The goal of salvation is the recovery of the image of God that had been corrupted by the fall. Our very salvation is part of the process, whereby the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace, draws us closer to God and we grow deeper in his grace and love. Through that grace, we love God fully and love our neighbor fully. That’s the purpose of all our salvation, and in the end, our ministry.
I think that ministry today must be led out of incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1). Emmanuel, God with us. Through Jesus Christ, the fullness of God was blessed to dwell. He is true God from true God, begotten, not made, as we confess in the Nicene Creed. As we are filled with the Holy Spirit, Christ dwells within us. I think that this notion of ministry, flowing from incarnation, paints a path forward for us, and for the Body of Christ.
With so many pastoral leaders fallen in integrity breakdowns along with what seems to be the current unraveling of power structures within our society, we are beginning to see those without a voice now having a voice to speak truth to the power that has harmed them. When we see this and we see the (often) men at fault, it is easy to say, just stop it! Just stop being a cad, just stop abusing power, just stop.
Those words should and must be said. As a pastor who has been blessed to work with amazing female pastors and leaders, one of my main jobs as a leader is to help create a space where everyone, every voice, feels safe.
But for pastors, our ministry must not only be based upon morality; it must be based upon incarnation. To me, this means a couple of things.
First, to do ministry out of the Incarnation is to see the inherent worth of others. It is so easy for leaders in many fields to see people as existing only to serve whatever purpose they have for that leader. Eugene Peterson makes an analogy in The Contemplative Pastor that compares program-driven ministry to strip-mining the land: using others for our purpose or our goals and then discarding them when we are finished. Yet the Incarnation reminds us that Jesus died for the world: all of the world. And everyone, male, female, young, old, powerful, or powerless, everyone has an inherent worth that comes from being made in the image of God. If we do ministry out of the Incarnation, no one is an “object” to be used by the leader. Everyone is a beloved child whom Christ came to save. We must treat all with the radical love of Christ.
Let me say this again, and say it loudly: everyone has worth. No one is an object, and any ministry or leadership philosophy that leads people to deny that or not to see that inherent worth in others is wrong and not of God.
Second, to do ministry out of the Incarnation allows us to see the source of our strength. One of the things that constantly amazes me is how our society seeks to see spiritual matters through clinical terms. The answer to every ill our society faces is education, or jobs, or other “fixes.” While education, money, and resources are vital to living a life with hope today, they are not the fix. I have heard this quote attributed to C.S. Lewis: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”
Our education or even our values do not stand on their own. While yes, in how we treat each other, we need helpful guidelines that keep us walking together, in the end, we will not treat others with the respect they are due unless we see their worth and allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, changing us, molding us, making us into the people God desires us to be.
Ministry, and life, in general, are not an act of willpower.
Ministry is an act of surrender to the Spirit who lives within us. We are called to live and to lead out of the Incarnation, the spirit of Christ dwelling within us. We are not called to stand up and fight, but to fall to our knees and surrender. The Incarnation reminds us where our strength comes from.
And lastly, to do ministry out of the Incarnation reminds us of the purpose of our faith. Jesus Christ died for the world. That’s why ministers do what we do. He loves all. All can be saved, and as Wesley said, all can be saved to the uttermost. We are not here to build a more efficient organization; we are here to tend to and lead the Body of Christ. The church is not a Fortune 500 company. It is not a corporation. It is a living, breathing body. As Christ fills us, we fill the church, and the church fills the world. We live out that grace and hope. We are the protector of the weak, the widow, the orphan. We love, we serve, we give, all through the power of Christ.
Because that is what we are here for. Not to grow. Not to use people. Not for fame, attention, or power. But to live out the power of Christ within us, the mystery of God.
We have been called into Christ’s ministry. Our world needs the church and Christian leaders to live out of this calling now more than ever.
Note: featured image is “Follow Me, Satan: The Temptation of Jesus Christ” by Ilya Repin.