Lallene J. Rector, President, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
“The theology of clergywomen in vital leadership”: this was the phrase used in describing the focus for this theological reflection. Note that this does not explicitly suggest attention to “clergywomen leading vital congregations,” the specific theme of this issue. I do not know if a deliberate distinction was intended, but I think the difference is an important one. While we recognize that United Methodist work dedicated to developing and supporting vital congregations relies heavily on external and quantitative measures to assess vitality, we also believe at least some of these measures directly pertain to the nature of leadership. I am confident that vital leadership results in vital congregations—whatever the numbers! So, how do we think theologically about clergywomen in vital leadership?
A quick investigation of the meaning of vital, led me to the related Latin word, vitalis meaning “of life” and “essential.” We are familiar with the concept of vital signs, those indicators that let us know physical life is still present (for example, a pulse and respiration). But simply having a heartbeat and breathing do not fully capture the sense of real aliveness that vital implies. Vital suggests a flourishing kind of life-giving leadership—leadership that has an essential quality to it and that is compelling from both the inside, to the leader, and the outside, to those who receive that leadership.
Congregations do not accidentally become vital and essential in the life of the people and communities they serve. Nor do clergywomen accidentally become vital in their leadership, though they may not always be aware of the sources of vitality at work within them. The words of Paul call us to a certain kind of intentionality about how we are living our lives not only as Christians but also as Christian female leaders with specific responsibilities and accountabilities. The guiding text for this journal issue comes from Romans 12:2 (NRSV, emphasis added):
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This text suggests at least three things to consider about vitality in leadership, each of which require attention to our spiritual lives and to our relationship with God: 1) We are called to discern the will of God; 2) We are called to be countercultural; and 3) We are called to change for the good by the renewal of our minds.
Being able to discern God’s will for our vocational commitments in life and then being able to courageously claim that call are foundational for vital leadership. As women, this experience has unique features since the world we live in continues to discriminate against women. To be sure, those of us who live in the United States have enjoyed progress in this realm, and there are many strong female role models, clergy and lay. These pioneering women encourage us, and we should turn to them for mentoring and support. Also, we should not underestimate the power of a female peer group. However, women continue to be socialized in a society that can easily dismiss our leadership or respond to it in undermining and questioning ways that would never be so prevalent in the experience of male leaders. Our socialization of women in this climate means it is imperative to remember our creation in God’s image and to really trust the goodness of that creation.
There are so many questions we ask: how as leaders do we gain confidence about discerning God’s will for the vocation of leadership? How do we foster confidence in the call to step up, to claim the authority of the office? How do we dare to make an impact in the sphere of our leadership? From whence does our vision come? By virtue of being Christian, we are all functioning as leaders, some of us more quietly than others, but leading nonetheless. Clergywomen who are vital leaders must be faithful to personal spiritual practices and must listen carefully to trusted others and to the community of which we are part. These persons are also instruments of God’s communication with us, God’s way of helping us to discern “the good and acceptable and perfect.” Vital leaders are called to inspire with a vision that is God’s vision, to be sure; but our expression of God’s vision must be discerned for this time and for this particular place. These spiritual and theological underpinnings are the basis for engaging vital leadership.
Christian leadership is necessarily countercultural. We are to be in the world, but not “of” the world. “Do not be conformed to this world.” We are to challenge the moral failings of humanity in the world, for we know the ways of the world are not primarily infused and informed by a “love thy neighbor” ethic. Tragically, a reading of any daily newspaper on any given day provides heartbreaking evidence of this: local violence, greed, unending war and the associated ills of poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, needless deaths of children, and so on. Being Christian carries an inherent assumption that change is required, “since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 NRSV). And to be a Christian leader means we have responsibility to help effect that change within ourselves and in others. So the transformation (or change) of which Paul speaks must target our more fallen human inclinations and be in the direction of the countercultural. As leaders called to help bring new life and vitality to our contexts and to those living in those contexts, we have to embody compassionate leadership, loving the least of these. And we need to lead with a prophetic sensibility that cries out for justice, calling others to love the least of these. Vital leadership needs to be grounded in closeness to God and informed by the deep wisdom of the scriptures—all the while praying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 NRSV).
Earlier in the book of Romans (7:15-23), Paul presents his own obsessive-compulsive kind of struggle with the difficulty of effecting personal change. As leaders, we are also familiar with the struggle to make changes in our leadership styles and the challenge of leading change in our congregations and agencies. I liberally paraphrase this familiar passage: “I don’t do what I want to do; I do what I do not want to do; the thing I want to do I do not do; I do the thing I hate. . . .” While Paul understands this as a war between the law of his mind and the “law of sin” in his flesh, we today can both critique Paul’s mind/body, spirit/flesh dichotomy and claim his experience as so very reflective of our contemporary efforts to change. We may full well know the right thing to do, and we may desire to do it with most all of our heart; and yet, the knowing of it does not necessarily translate into the doing of it.
The renewing of our minds is for the purpose of being able to discern God’s will, and in this instance, to discern God’s will in leadership as female clergy. But how shall we actually be transformed by the renewing of our minds? We get a few theological clues from Paul as to what may be involved if we look at the rest of chapter 12. We are to seek the fruits of renewal by not thinking too highly of ourselves, thinking soberly and not distorting the truth; recognizing we are one body with many functions. It seems that the fruit of a renewed mind may also be the means of transformation, for if we offer genuine love, hold to the good, love one another, rejoice in hope, serve our neighbors, and persevere in prayer, we cannot help but be transformed. We must be open to where renewal of mind will take us and to what the renewal of mind requires. In part, it means staying close to God, being immersed in the scriptures and searching them for the wisdom leadership requires. It means being teachable and learning from our mistakes. And perhaps most important, it means being empathetic and gracious with ourselves when we fail. Do we really believe God’s grace abounds? Even for us?
Vital leadership requires ongoing participation in Christian community and disciplining our minds to focus on the higher things that are good, perfect, and acceptable to God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23 NRSV). Our work is, finally, for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ who will join in helping to heal a broken world and to bring God’s reign on earth. I have no doubt that the leadership of clergywomen will be vital if we can resist conforming to this world, if we can discern the will of God in our lives for our vocational commitments, and if we can be faithful to those spiritual practices that lead to transformation through the renewing of our minds. Leadership with this the kind of vitality inspires genuine hope for the flourishing of the church.