Edwin Friedman, in his book A Failure of Nerve, makes this observation regarding a pervasive problem in contemporary American institutional leadership.
There is a regressive, counter-evolutionary trend in which the most dependent members of any organization set the agenda and where adaptation is constantly toward weakness rather than strength, thus leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution rather than toward the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated.
When I first read this quote by Friedman I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. It makes great sense if you are leading a company or organization, but I lead a church. To me, it didn’t seem like this idea had any place within congregational leadership. After all, Jesus described what he came to do by telling the story of the shepherd who left the 99 sheep to go after the one. Or there is Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 that we should be mindful of the weaker brother or sister and not do anything that would cause them to stumble. With this in mind, I assumed it unloving (and therefore poor leadership) to do something that would leave a brother or sister behind.
For example, I have been pushing our congregation to become more involved in discipleship and mission. Becoming involved with these things requires a lot of change, commitment and sacrifice. At one point a member of the congregation came up to me and said, “What you say, and what you are asking of us, makes me uncomfortable. I don’t believe God wants me to be uncomfortable.” Everything in me disagrees with their idea that God doesn’t want us to be uncomfortable, at least in how they were defining comfort. If God didn’t want us to be uncomfortable he wouldn’t have had Moses go stand before Pharaoh, or the Israelite’s wander in the desert for forty years, or make the disciples take the lunch of a small boy to feed five thousand people. I think God is less interested in our comfort and more interested in our continued growth into the image of his son, Jesus Christ.
But I didn’t say this to the person standing in front of me.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but what I said was in effort to make them feel better and to calm their fears about the church moving in a direction that would make them uncomfortable. Why did do this? Because, in my mind, this was a more loving thing to do.
Friedman states I am not alone here. The trend he noticed in American leadership is leaders won’t move or make decisions unless the most anxious, the most unwilling to move, are willing to go with them. In an institution that values consensus, like a church, this sounds like good leadership. The problem in catering to the demands and fears of the least motivated is that the most motivated individuals are demotivated. In the long wrong, the institution suffers, movement/change is minimal, and the potential impact of the leader is sabotaged.
So what do we do with the idea that Jesus goes out of his way for the one, and instructs us to look out for the weak?
First, I think having concern for the weaker brother or sister in light of Romans 14 as a basis for institutional leadership is bad exegesis. But I won’t get into that here.
Second, and more importantly, God doesn’t want the weak to stay weak. Together Psalm 139 and Ephesians 2:10 tell us God uniquely wired us and gifted us according to his plan, to do good works which he prepared for us to do in advance. That doesn’t sound like a God who wants the weak to stay weak.
Nor is it loving to let the weak stay weak. What parent doesn’t want their child to grow in independence and confidence and ability and courage? Is it not loving for a parent to give their children opportunities to grow? Is it not loving for a parent to call those traits out of their children? Of course it is. So why don’t we do this for children of our heavenly Father?
This isn’t just about leadership in the church. This is about discipleship. Leadership in the church is simply disciples making disciples. In the church, leadership isn’t about learning a new technique to cast vision. It isn’t about learning how to gain consensus for a new program. It isn’t about learning new language for conflict resolution. It is about discipleship. And discipleship is about teaching people to live like Jesus. Discipleship isn’t about teaching people more information about Jesus (although that’s part of it). It isn’t about teaching people new behaviors (although that’s part of it). Discipleship is about calling people to live bigger than they currently are. Think of it, who were Jesus disciples? Fisherman. Fisherman who changed the world. That sounds like a bigger life than most would have guessed out of fisherman.
Leadership in the church isn’t about letting the weak stay weak, it is about giving grace to the weak so that, through discipleship, they can be strong.
Which means they aren’t catered to, but they are called.
And often uncomfortable.