A distinction of United Methodism is its polity, which focuses responsibility on the General Conference. The General Conference is an internationally representative body that meets every four years. Most notably, the General Conference possesses the sole authority to speak for the denomination. Yet, to many the results of the last General Conference were largely inconclusive, disappointing, even infuriating. There was much discussion, but little was resolved, contributing to a post–General Conference melancholy.
There is no simple answer to resolving the denomination’s plight, a situation not unique among mainline Protestant traditions. Along with other denominations, we face declining membership and influence within an increasingly pluralistic and postmodern society. However, there is still a need for Christian communities—including General Conference—to lead. Specifically, society needs leadership that is faithful, thoughtful, and respectful, offering a witness to God’s love, justice, and life in covenantal community.
In this article we will reflect on characteristics of Christian communities equipped to lead. We will also consider two case studies: one from Scripture and the other from a recent demonstration of such leadership.
Christian leaders, like Christian disciples, are not formed or commissioned in isolation, but in Christian communities. John Wesley, in his “Sermon on the Mount IV,” urged that authentic spiritual formation could not take place “without society, without living and conversing with [others].”1
Isolation and a lack of community are dangerous dynamics for Christians and their leaders. On the one hand, communities rely upon individual leaders to provide the vision and strategy for their flourishing. On the other, without trust, accountability, and a shared vision within the community, Christian leaders will prove inauthentic and even ineffective. Isolation of leaders often leads not only to loneliness, but also to unrealistic expectations, or worse.
It is vital for Christian leaders to remain connected to their communities of faith. This connection facilitates formation in faith and the building of trust, shared vision, and mutual accountability. Indeed, it is also important for Christian communities to lead in this way.
What components characterize such Christian communities?
A defining characteristic of Christian leaders is vocation. Frederick Buechner described God’s calling upon an individual as “the kind of work (a) that you need most to do, and (b) that the world most needs to have done . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”2 In Scripture, vocation most often refers to (1) a calling to faith in God—a calling we all share by our baptisms through the grace of the Triune God; and (2) a calling to a special task on behalf of God.3 This faith is essential to one’s willingness to be sent by God. As we read in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then . . .” (KJV). Without faith in God’s knowledge, which reaches beyond our own, our motivation for responding to God’s call can be misplaced.
According to Scripture, there are layers to vocation, some shared, some individual, but always in the context of the body of Christ, and always unfolding. Like individuals, Christian communities are called both to faith and for specific tasks on behalf of God, providing Christian leadership for the renewal of the church and the unfolding of God’s reign. This leadership requires faith and courage.
The language of formation, particularly for the purpose of being set apart, is an additional characteristic of communities that lead. The concepts of formation and set apart–ness for ministry rely most on one’s identity in relationship to God and others. The first task for Christians and their communities is to accept being loved by God. Even with the language of task, the effort is not in accomplishing works for the purpose of earning a title or status, but in remembering and receiving one’s identity in Christ. Such a starting place reminds us that God created the world and invited us into relationship. This forms our imagination and identity, setting us apart for God’s ministry in the world.
For Christian communities to sustain their leadership, they often pursue faithful practices, such as piety and mercy. These Christian practices inform both our faith and the specific tasks to which we are called; they also provide motivation in and through which we lead. While “now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12 kjv), these practices help us focus upon and receive knowledge of God’s love as we grow in grace, participating in God’s reign.
In her text To Pray and to Love, Roberta Bondi reminds us of the monastic Dorotheos of Gaza. Once, the brothers in the monastery of Dorotheos of Gaza forgot what they were about in the monastic life. Dorotheos used the following illustration to help reorient the wayward community: “Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference . . . Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings.”4
The analogy follows that to move toward God, individuals move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. As individuals move closer to God, they at the same time find themselves closer to one another. The reverse also occurs. As individuals move farther from God, they also experience distance from one another. When we do not pursue practices of piety and mercy, love of God and neighbor, we can find ourselves at a distance from either or both.
Another characteristic of communities with the capacity to lead is their service to others. These communities do not exist merely to maintain themselves, but are sent in mission to the world. Such communities look outward, beyond themselves, to God’s unfolding reign. Through prayer and discernment, they risk for the opportunity to participate in God’s transformation of the world.
Often Jonah is misunderstood—he is sometimes accused of being unfaithful, particularly to God’s call. It is true Jonah was reluctant to travel to Nineveh and deliver God’s message of doom, fleeing instead to Tarshish. But it was not due to a lack of faith or even a lack of compassion—after all, Jonah sacrificed himself by jumping overboard in the midst of a storm, to save his sailing mates from danger. According to some scholars, the book of Jonah is meant as a prophetic word to a community, the nation of Israel, urging them to reach out to other nations in witness to God’s steadfast love and mercy.
Jonah did not lack faith, but was unwilling to follow God’s call because of his knowledge of and faith in God. To be fair, Jonah did fulfill his “commission,” though ever so reluctantly. After his expulsion from the abdominal cavity of a large fish, Jonah traveled to Nineveh, delivering God’s message of doom. It is only in chapter 4 of Jonah that the narrator revealed what some interpret as a sincere and earnest statement on Jonah’s part: “O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (v. 2).
In Jonah 4:1 the text says that God’s change of mind was displeasing to Jonah—Jonah was angry. Knowing God as he did, he was angry knowing also that once he delivered God’s message of judgment, God would relent, prove gracious, and therefore place Jonah in a difficult spot by making him appear to be a false prophet, thus undermining Jonah’s social position.
Jonah had faith in God and understood the responsibilities arising from that faith. Instead of immediately responding, he was reluctant to obey a particular divine command, seeing in advance the difficulties to which such obedience would subject him. Jonah assumed his understanding was complete and did not heed with approval that reality to which Paul referred in his letter to the Corinthians, “Now we see through a glass, darkly . . .” (1 Cor. 13:12 kjv). That said, he was still willing to bravely throw himself overboard (Jon. 1:12) when his fellow sailors feared for their lives in the midst of a torrential storm. After Jonah cast himself overboard, the sailors were converted by this rogue prophet—ironically revealing Jonah’s selectivity of service. In spite of his selectivity, and though Jonah lacked obedience initially, for the most part he ultimately fulfilled God’s calling to a specific task.
While many Christian leaders possess less faith than did Jonah, Christian communities with both more faith and less refuse God’s callings to specific tasks, assuming they know God’s mind and will. They settle for a selectivity of service or mere maintenance of their existence in self-preservation.
As we consider faithful and effective leadership practices in and through Christian communities, a story of a young Kenyan woman named Peninah is instructive. Like so many children in Africa, Peninah was orphaned at an early age. At twelve, she was left with the responsibility to care for even younger siblings. As if these circumstances were not desperate enough, an uncle quickly absconded with the prime piece of land left to Peninah by her parents. This land would have been a source of sustenance for her and her siblings.
Hungry, bereaved, and isolated, Peninah’s brother was starving. With no options, Peninah reluctantly took an offer for the equivalent of eight dollars and a small portion of bread. As a result, she found herself pregnant, eventually giving birth to a little girl. Still hungry, her now-expanded family was in even more dire need. At this time Peninah was introduced to the ZOE Ministry, an empowerment program utilizing indigenous staff and a United Methodist Advance Special. Within months her family was food secure; trained in skills such as farming and hygiene; and given access to grants and low-interest loans to build revenue-generating projects. Peninah and her family were also surrounded by a Christian community of other orphans working together not just to survive, but to flourish as beloved children of God, despite the desperate and life-threatening circumstances they faced.
Over the years Peninah had attempted to reclaim her parents’ land, stolen from her at their deaths. She had approached leaders within her village, petitioning for the right to reclaim the land of her parents, but with no success. After all, she was a young, orphaned woman.
When Peninah’s ZOE community learned of the stolen land, this community—of other orphans, the most marginalized of society—approached the local chief en masse. They numbered almost eighty. The community literally stood behind Peninah in solidarity as she confidently petitioned the chief to allow the reclamation of her family’s land, soil that would provide nourishment and economic support for dozens. The witness of this community—a community of orphans standing in solidarity with their sister in Christ—persuaded the chief. He granted Peninah’s petition. Peninah soon obtained a goat and a $100 micro-grant for supplies to establish a farm on her newly reclaimed land through the ZOE empowerment program. Joined by other orphans in her community, she and they cultivated five acres of the land together.
Peninah, supported by other ZOE Ministry participants, is part of a community willing and able to lead. This community witnesses to a hope beyond this world, yet works for the reclamation of life and justice in this one. At age 16, Peninah, a successful farmer, with two cows, 10 goats, numerous chickens, and her own seamstress business, is completely self-reliant. Eager to share this life with others in need, Peninah along with every other family group within the ZOE Ministry program, which totals more than 20,000 participants in four countries, continues to lead as a Christian community. This leadership takes the form of adopting orphans into their fold. Taking initiative beyond the organization’s momentum. Peninah and her community have opened their hearts and homes to those suffering around them, empowering them to receive God’s love and claiming their lives as beloved children of God.
Peninah’s story is a wonderful inspiration. While The United Methodist Church, particularly in the United States, does not face the same circumstances, there is wisdom to glean. Peninah and her community must focus on the essentials of life for survival—and to thrive, they need one another. As the denomination considers its present and future, how might we focus on the essentials? How may we claim our faith in the triune God, seek out relationship with others, and humbly accept God’s sending us for specific tasks as we participate in God’s reign? How do we, like Jonah, refuse to allow our assumptions and knowledge of God to misguide? More important, how do we focus on our relationships with God and neighbor as we pursue practices of piety and mercy as those set apart to be sent in mission to God’s world?
1. John Wesley, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse IV,” John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 195–97.5. Informed by Stephen B. Chapman and Laceye C. Warner, “Rethinking Evangelism and the Old Testament: Jonah and the Imitation of God,” Journal of Theological Interpretation (Spring 2008): 43–69.6. Informed by ZOE Ministry Sermon Starters. For more information see their website: www.zoeministry.org.
Women’s Leadership Style