LEADING BY FOLLOWING
A meditation on the leadership of Jesus from John 21:15-19
Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea,
Day by day his clear voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow me….”
Years ago a priest I worked with had a sign on his door: “There they go. I am their leader. I must follow them.” I remembered this sign when I read these words in the Forward Day by Day pamphlet entitled, “A New Rector, a New Congregation: Realistic Expectations for Each” by the Rev. Francis Wade: “Volumes have been written about leadership, but scant attention has been paid to its companion art of followship (sic)” (p. 6).
Christian leadership is – first, last and always – Christian follow(er)ship. We become spiritual leaders, not by mastering the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or attending the latest leadership seminar, or becoming the most accomplished person in our field. We become leaders, Christian leaders anyway, because we accept with humility the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We lead by following, in other words.
When Jesus said, “Follow me” (John 21:19), he did not mean we should be one down or be less than. After all, he called his disciples friends, not servants. (John 15:15). And true friends work together, in collaboration with each other, trading leadership and followership back and forth. We could imagine this collaboration as a kind of dance, a pas de deux, in which each partner supports and strengthens the other. The hard part, of course, is knowing when to follow and when to lead.
“Follow me,” Jesus says to Simon Peter. As we know, it takes Peter a long time to get this right! For most of the gospel story, Peter is the one out in front, wanting to call the shots, wanting to be the leader. It was only as he becomes willing to own his failures and return to the dance, a chastened follower, that this bumbling, slow-on-the-uptake, clueless disciple becomes the petros, the rock of the Christian Church. Peter became a leader because he learned to be a follower. How? At the very end of John’s Gospel, we find Jesus’ final words to Peter.
Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store;
From each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian love me more….”
Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? That is Jesus’ relentless refrain. It sounds simple enough, but all of us who have tried to love as Jesus commands us to love, know that it is no easy thing. Sometimes we get so discouraged, we forget what it was like to fall in love with the God who is eternally alive in Jesus Christ. “This rejected, unknown, wounded Jesus simply asked, ‘Do you love me, do you really love me?’ He whose only concern,” Henri Nouwen reminds us, “had been to announce the unconditional love of God who had only one question to ask: ‘Do you love me?’” (In the Name of Jesus, p. 37). When we are tired, hurt, and feeling low, we may be inclined to echo Simon Peter’s exasperated response to that question. “Lord, you know that I love you,” as we are thinking, “Lord, I just can’t keep on keeping on right now. I just can’t.”
When I was a brand new priest more than twenty years ago, a woman came to me with a complaint. A lay leader in the parish, she had served faithfully for decades. The rector had just been diagnosed with brain cancer, making him that parish’s second rector in a row to become permanently, totally disabled. I was the new curate, and it felt like too much responsibility had fallen to me and, for that matter, to all the parish leadership. Who, now, was in charge? Whom were we to follow?
This woman said to me, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think I can go on as a leader in this church. Are you telling me,” she demanded, “that we are going to have to pastor to our pastor again?” The answer I did not want to give her, that she did not want to hear, of course was, “Yes, we are.” It is instructive to remember that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, needed and relied upon the companionship of his friends—as he trudged up and down the road between Jerusalem and Galilee, as he went about teaching and healing, as he tangled with the religious authorities determined to stop him, and finally, on that last awful night, when he asked three of his closest friends to go with him to Gethsemane. The shepherd needed the sheep to gather round him, to keep watch as he prayed. (That they were unable to do so is another story for another time.)
“The leadership about which Jesus speaks,” Nouwen said in 1989, “is of a radically different kind from the leadership offered by the world. It is a servant leadership…in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need their leader. From this it is clear that a whole new type of leadership is asked for in the church of tomorrow, a leadership that is not modeled on the power games of the world, but on the servant-leader Jesus” (ibid., pp. 62-63).
It will take a lifetime for us to learn to dance together, to know when to step forward, when to step back, when to lead, when to follow. Doing it together—failing, forgiving, trying again—is what I believe we are here to do. One last hymn stanza . . .
Jesus calls us! By thy mercies, Savior, may we hear thy call;
Give our hearts to thine obedience, serve and love thee best of all….
The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
May 23, 2010
Hymn excerpts in italics from text by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)