A new kind of leadership

Synchroblog: Leadership (full list)

As I think about leadership, a few stories about fig leaves come to mind. Earlier this year I received an email from my friend Ryan, a ministry leader in Northern India. He was more discouraged than I had ever seen him and ready to quit his ministry. So much of his hard work seemed to have come to naught. He wrote:

It is raining and I’m prepared to escape. My frustrations and annoyances have been growing for weeks. Hearing that the men from the village are planning to travel to work on the dangerous, inhospitable road leading over the Natu La to Tibet is the last straw. Most of the last year of my life was devoted to seeing that the men from our village didn’t have to engage in this deadly work. The famine last year drove the men into a position where they would have to do it to ensure their family’s survival. I stopped them from going with a promise to help. First came the Dairy Co-op and then the Rice Program. People began to earn a living and had food to feed their families in the midst of the famine. Then came in May a good pea harvest and in June, a good potato harvest. The villagers are in the best financial position they have ever been in. Despite this, in late June they decide again to go to Natu La to make even more money. This would mean working in a constant downpour at 13,000ft on the side of cliffs with no rain gear or safety equipment…. My thoughts spin. Amal Sir abandons the church. Dinesh dallies on our translation project. Parents refuse to carry firewood for the feeding program and it is temporarily shut down. Dirty local politics slander our work. Prakash decides to go to Natu La while the church is in shambles. Tekke decides to go to Natu La even though we planned to plant winter peas, wheat and beans together on the school land. It was to be his final step out of poverty. Tilak says to me ”I’ve had it helping the poor. They are poor in their minds and won’t ever change.

He later reflected, “I feel as though I am standing naked. I have no stories of success to share with our financial supporters. I am caught without fig leaves – I have nothing to cover my shame and to justify my work here.”

I had coffee with another church leader this morning. She lost her job almost a year ago due to budget cuts at her church. We shared a blueberry scone as she recounted the journey of this last year. She has been unable to find a job. Many churches are tightening their budgets and a children’s pastor is a luxury for most. She will bring in maybe $8000 in income this year and is learning what it means to be dependent on her community. She misses being a voice in ministry, having a place in a leadership group and circles of influence, and making an impact on the church. But then her eyes reflected a soft sadness as she remembered a friend who had lost her job on the church staff a few years earlier. She said, “I was hard on her, thinking she wasn’t trying hard enough to keep her job or to find another one. She was barely scraping by, barely making it. I think we can become so removed from how people really live and how they struggle. I am not in contact with her anymore. I can see how people can just slip away.”

Just a few weeks ago I was teaching seminary students in Mozambique, Africa. I related the story of my friend in India above and then my own story of our church split. They waited, expecting a “but”, an ending of tremendous victory. It didn’t come and they were shocked. They had grown to expect stories of our church leaders covered in full foliage, with leaves that boast of success, progress, production, and triumph. But these stories spoke of leaders stripped of power, position and the proof of production. (all P’s – impressive!) All of us stood stripped of the fig leaves that covered our vulnerabilities, our weakness, and our utter dependence. None of us like to think of leaders this way. None of us like to think of ourselves this way.

But as I reflected on my friends’ stories, it occurred to me that they are the new leaders. They are naked and poor and know intimately the sufferings of their communities. They no longer have big numbers or other “proofs” of their efforts. But right after Ryan wrote of his discouragement and failure, he related the story of his wife’s miscarriage and how the men of the community literally carried her for miles so she could get to a hospital. A leader births love. And then his wife, a midwife herself, endured cruel pain and neglectful care at the hospital and as a result, resolved to return to the women of the village to help them avoid a similar fate. A leader knows real sacrifice. And my coffee friend now speaks the wise language of the broken. She has new eyes for the other and new eyes for the church. A leader brings tender love and humility: the tools which bring down dividing walls. In these leaders the old fig leaves are gone but the fruit of faith, hope and love is deeply rooted and is fully ripe. The fruit is now planted deeply within their communities because it is deeply planted within them. They are out of “position” but are leading beautifully and subversively. Their power is like that of a flowing spring – they pour themselves into hard ground so that new life can come.

Of course this kind of leadership is not truly new. It reflects that astonishing movement of God who let go of all power and prestige to come down to live and identify with us. A true leader in these times is one who can entice us to this journey of descent. They will have shed their fig leaves of shiny success and stand exposed as uneducated fishermen and tax collectors. These leaders will teach us to stand bare, as Jesus did – poor, naked, dying, and rejected with the deep belief that this path will bring about a Kingdom of generosity, safety, life and love. They will teach us a new kind of hope.

EDIT: This is a part of a monthly Synchro-blog. There is a link above to Misseo Dei – Jonathan Brink where all of the posts are listed, but here is a full list for your convenience.

Jonathan Brink – Letter To The President

Adam Gonnerman – Aspiring to the Episcopate

Kai – Leadership – Is Servant Leadership a Broken Model?

Sally Coleman – In the world but not of it- servant leadership for the 21st Century Church

Alan Knox – Submission is given not taken

Joe Miller – Elders Lead a Healthy Family: The Future

Cobus van Wyngaard – Empowering leadership

Steve Hayes – Servant leadership

Geoff Matheson – Leadership

John Smulo – Australian Leadership Lessons

Helen Mildenhall – Leadership

Tyler Savage – Moral Leadership – Is it what we need?

Bryan Riley – Leading is to Listen and Obey

Susan Barnes – Give someone else a turn!

Liz Dyer – A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Polls…

Lionel Woods – Why Diverse leadership Is Good For America

Julie Clawson – Leadership Expectations

Steve Bradley – Leading or Lording?

Adam Myers – Two Types of Leadership

Bethany Stedman – A Leadership Mosaic

Kathy Escobar – I’m pretty sure this book on leadership won’t make it on the bestseller list

Fuzzy Orthodoxy – Self Leadership

Sonja Andrews – Leadership in an Age of Cholera

Tara Hull – Leadership and Being a Single Mom

Bill Ellis – Church and Spiritual leadership

Matt Stone – Converting Leadership

Glen Hager – Election Day Ponderings on Leadership

Beth Patterson – Leadership: being the river

Joe Speranzella Leadership: This Election and Social Justice 



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Showing 23 comments
  • ben

    Great stuff. Thanks.

  • Bethany

    The path to the type of leadership that you describe is much more painful, but I think much more beautiful in the end as well. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  • Jerald

    Wonderful post Ellen. Very thought provoking. I can’t wait to read more of your writing.

  • Jocelyn

    It’s not pretty but it’s so powerful… but I want to be pretty, or do I?!

  • J. R. Miller

    My own journey these past few years is closely connected with this post. I love the imagery and the message.

  • Bryan Riley

    This is excellent. Thank you for maintaining a focus on love, sacrifice, honesty, openness, humility and unity!

  • Beth Patterson

    Hello Ellen–
    I really loved this expression of the topic. Fresh leadership as ‘ naked and poor and know intimately the sufferings of their communities was wo haeart-warming.

    Thanks for telling the stories of your friends who are struggling with the world that they have choen to engage with.


  • kathyescobar

    ellen, whoa, sooooo beautiful! i am so glad you participated in this synchroblog. i love these: a leader births love. a leader knows real sacrifice. a leader brings humility & love, the tools that bring down dividing walls. a true leader in these times is one who can entice us down to this journey of descent. you painted a beautiful picture of the new kind of leader to bring healing & hope…talk to you soon!

  • Barb Dokter

    Thanks for being a beautiful voice, Ellen.

    I sometimes wonder about the importance of leading Lectio times at our church once a week with 2-5 women showing up. Is it worth it? Of course the answer is “yes” even though there are no big numbers or “sucesses” to report. Hearts are expanded, relationships are grown and intimacy with Him occurs.

    Then asking a group of prayer leaders to get together and pray and listen once a week and getting four to respond to the invitation. I understand, though. I myself didn’t always step into those kind of opportunies when they were presented. But, we’ll pray as four or two or…and God will be present and all is well. But, I desire more. I desire a community with hearts aflame with a yearning to seek His ways.

    I need to sit with Him each day to remember that what we most need is more of HIM.

    Thanks again, friend.
    Love ya.

  • Steve Bradley

    Just found this post via the synchroblog links — such great stories you tell here, along with thoughful reflections. I love the notion of enticing folks towards a “journey of descent.”

    How many of us think of following God’s lead only as a successful journey upward, reaching towards a mountain peak or beautiful vista? Easy to miss, isn’t it, how God’s path for us can lead us through valleys of fear, doubt, and death, where we’re stripped of all that hinders us from relying on him and seeing things from his perspective?

  • see-through faith


    I can see how people can just slip away.” makes me sad too.

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