Mary Ann Moman, Indiana Annual Conference
The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
Leadership does not depend on being right.
It was the middle of the night, and we were gathered in the hospital room. One of my parishioners was dying. Her family rotated in and out of the room, each taking turns holding her hand and often saying prayers out loud. Her husband of more than fifty years recited Psalm 23. I was their pastor, and I was eight months pregnant. I stood with the family as death was imminent, my belly swollen with new life.
The family stood around her bedside. I prayed for her safe transition to the next life and for comfort for the family. Her breathing became shallower and less labored. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Tears flowed down cheeks. Then one by one, a story was told about mom and grandma. Laughter was interspersed with the tears. It was early morning when she died. It was a peaceful, quiet death. Once more the family circled ’round her bed. This time they sang Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” They knew all four verses. When we got to the fourth verse, we discovered we were singing in four-part harmony. The music echoed around the room and out into the hallway. A nurse came in the room and joined the singing. The nurse who was attending my parishioner stopped her work at the bedside and stood silently until the hymn was finished.
I have often thought of that night and the power that is created during times of transition. Guiding the transitions from life to death and into birth is the work of a leader. Organizations are continually in the midst of transitions: letting go of the old and creating anew. Leaders show up and stay with the processes of transition. These are the times when often there is no road map to show us the way forward.
In the sixth chapter of Micah, we are reminded that God does not want our sacrifices of burnt offerings, calves, rams, oil, or our firstborn. Instead God requires the sacrifice of right living that will bring justice, kindness, and a humble walk with God. This is a much more challenging request. Micah was challenging the unjust economic and social practices of the day. He was calling for leaders who would practice right living with their neighbors, speaking up for the disenfranchised, and sharing of their resources for the common good of the community. [Today,] Micah is calling forth behaviors that will help us move through the transition from a culture of assumed scarcity to one of abundance.
Over the years I have been blessed to work with leaders who understand the importance of Micah’s call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. They have been women and men who have learned to live in between what was and what is yet to be. They have led the way in confusing and troubled times. Robert Greenleaf described leaders as those “who go out ahead and show the way when the way is not clear . . . What distinguished a leader as religious (in its root meaning of religio—to bind or rebind) is the quality of the consequences of her or his leadership. Does it have a healing or civilizing influence? Does it nurture the servant motive in people, favor their growth as persons, and help them distinguish those who serve from those who destroy?” (Robert K. Greenleaf, “The Servant as Religious Leader,” 1983).
It was just a few weeks later that I gave birth to my third child. He came into this world quickly and with gusto. He sucked in his first breaths of air and cried out his dismay at leaving the warmth and safety of the womb. The nurse put him in a warming bed, and I watched as he tested his ability to move every muscle. His discovery of life had begun.
The nurse made observations of my son’s first minutes of life. She gave him his first test and he scored high on the APGAR (Activity, Pulse, Grimace, Appearance, Respiration) scale. This piece of data was the first of many that were used to gauge the health of my newborn son.
Likewise,statistical data is one way to understand the vitality of the church. Worship attendance and membership are indicators of health. Effective leaders are constant observers. They pay attention to their relationships within the organization as well as easily gathered data. Their authority is gained from listening to and talking with the people they work alongside. Authority is sustained during times of transition as leaders stay with their colleagues as new patterns and traditions are developed. I have often heard it said that the sign of a great leader is the affirmation from the group when the task is finished, “We did it ourselves.”
Leaders inspire us to go places and to do things we would not have done on our own. They have a vision of the future. It is impossible to be a leader without a vision of the future. The guiding principal of a leader is hope. Remember the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who crashed his plane in the Libyan Desert in December 1935? He had been told that no one could survive more than nineteen hours in the desert without water. Over a period of three days, he walked 124 miles without water. As the story is told, he was saved by his attention to his surroundings. There was a northwest wind full of moisture. He was able to collect the light dew on his silk parachute and rehydrate his body. He paid attention to those things that were critical for staying alive and let the rest go. He didn’t panic or let the pain and despair overwhelm him. He was found by Bedouins and restored to health. Leaders attempt things that they never thought they could do. He could have given up and waited to die. Instead he found a way forward.
Religious leaders are concerned with changing the situations that keep us imprisoned in systems that are unjust. Food pantries, feeding programs, medical and dental clinics, and shelters deal with immediate problems, but not with systems that allow people to go hungry and remain jobless and sick. Religious leaders are called to address the systemic issues of poverty, not only address the present problems. One indicator of the effectiveness of congregational leadership is the health of the community. Are people hungry? What is the jobless rate? Do all people have access to medical care? Effective leaders pay attention to the health of the whole community; not just the church.
Shortly after being appointed to an urban congregation in the mid-’80s, I was in a conversation with my colleague about the food pantry that the church hosted. He commented on—no, it was more like he lamented—the number of cards in the files. The cards held the names of food pantry recipients, as well as the addresses, phone numbers, number of persons in the family, and when they had received food. Mike’s comment was that this was a file filled with poverty. He emptied the cabinet and instructed the volunteers to begin another file. Each card would have name, address, phone number, number of people in the family, and something the person was good at doing and could teach someone else how to do it. In order to fill out the card, each volunteer had to have a conversation with his or her neighbor. Relationships were built. From those conversations and relationships, a few small businesses were created. Life was affirmed and people’s gifts encouraged.
Religious leaders, especially United Methodist leaders, are called to be people of piety. John Wesley reminded his followers that joining mercy and vital piety is the task of every Christian. Micah calls this “walking humbly with God.” Time spent in prayer and meditation, in conversation and living with the poor, reading Scripture, and worship are all part of the life of a faithful leader. I suppose Mother Teresa is the most famous model of such behavior. Her life of generous love, deep piety, and kindness to “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31–40) reminds us of what is possible when our lives are given to God. Ironically, she once said: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”
I am reminded of the morning ritual that my parents practiced throughout their lives. Each morning they read The Upper Room, the Bible passage from the Uniform Lessons series, and prayed together. They prayed for many people and situations. I am grateful that they prayed for their children. I believe I was carried on those prayers in times when I experienced “deserts of the soul.”
Leadership in the style of Micah is dependent upon relationships within our communities that are built on hope and trust in the future of “God with us.” It is a mystery. Thank God.