Follow the leader

Photo: shelbyasteward, Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo: shelbyasteward, Flickr via Creative Commons

Leadership is a weird, goofy thing. We look to certain individuals or groups who have traits or experience or access to things we value, and voluntarily surrender some measure of self-governance in deference. We seek leaders in our civil, professional, and familial lives. Opinions about good and bad leadership abound, and philosophical movements have been developed to grapple with the individual’s and societies’ relationships to their leaders.

Enter Christian church culture and leadership can take on whole new dimensions (not to mention teeth). What authority do leaders have to speak into and even dictate the lives of the people following? What character traits should a leader possess, and which character flaws disqualify someone from leading? How many leaders can, or should, a local faith community follow? There are structures and elections and codes of ethics and pledges happening in churches all over the world that seek to define for each group gathering what their relationship will be to their leaders.

My understanding of leadership as a new Christian was fairly twisted. Take a large helping of daddy issues, toss in a generous portion of low self-esteem, shake in some general codependent desires for approval, and you end up with a pretty sick concoction of leader worship. In an environment where leadership was a strict hierarchy full of appeals for submission, I quickly lost any sense of personal ownership over my decisions independent from the guidance (or as I understood them to be, mandates) of my leaders.

On the other hand, I was “leading” as a Christian before I even really knew what I’d signed up for. At the risk of sounding falsely humble, I never did (and still do not) understand why I always ended up being asked to speak, or pray, or counsel, or organize, or lead. The times I’ve been in an “official” leadership position, I’ve completely caved under the pressure and expectation I laid upon myself.

These days we see the title “leader” seems more vague than ever. Disentangling from all my confusion about how to approach leaders in my life and the responsibilities of my own leadership, I’ve begun to strongly appreciate a group of people I’ll call my “elders.” Most of them are around my age, and many of them have been walking the spiritual path right alongside me. However, they are the strangers I look to for wisdom, counsel, and guidance. C. S. Lewis, Rob Bell, Donald Miller, Laura Winner. Wayne Grudem, Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey. Richard Foster, Max Lucado, Nadia Boltz-Weber. These are the folks I’ve been reading, processing, and in many ways following as I’ve continued to navigate my own path.

There’s something comforting about the space between us. There’s no relational pressure, no fear of rejection if I disagree. They are trusted elders in the Church, and I’m glad to live in an age where I am able to follow them even digitally.

This isn’t to negate the extreme value of the leaders in my real and current life. My understanding of leadership is much healthier these days, and I am so very grateful for the real life people I can look to when I need hard truths, gentle grace, clarifying guidance, or just reassurance that I haven’t gone off the edge. These people, though, I tend to think of more in terms of friendship. They are my friends, friends in whom I see traits or experiences or access to something I value but is missing from my life. Away from the hierarchy, apart from the structures. They lead me by loving me. They remind me of Jesus. They are Jesus to me, so very often.

I pray we all are able to name those leaders we can follow, both out in the larger Church context and in our very real and personal lives. And I pray we are able to take seriously the reality that we are all called to lead as well as to follow, carrying the Kingdom of God into the world for the sake of all of us who have lost our way.

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