In this letter to the church in Philippi, the Apostle Paul provides some sound instruction for approaching leadership. Be clear on the ultimate purpose of God’s calling. Disregard the unimportant matters. Do not get cemented in the past. Press forward to the purposes of God. However, make sure to live up to what you have already attained.
It is this instruction I now want to embrace by sharing four important things I have learned about leadership.
You are only as good as your shadow. I have long realized that people can have a distorted view of effective leadership. Assumptions and evaluations are made based on achievements and accomplishments. However such appraisals overlook the important aspect of the leader’s shadow. Every leader has people in the shadows that are as responsible for achievements as the leader is.
I have been supported and upheld by many people. And many are here today. I am particularly grateful to my wife Lois, and my sons Matthew and Chris – without whom I would not be here today. They, along with others at Community Mennonite and World Vision have been the shadow I need.
As stated, I have been supported and upheld by many people. Staff, who through their commitment and expertise have made me look better than I am – friends, who by their unwavering solidarity have made me appear more confident than I am, - and a family, who by their untiring and unwavering support, have made me look stronger than I am. Truth is told without these people whom God has graciously surrounded me with, I could not be a leader. It is their brilliance that casts a long shadow.
You are only as effective as your followers. Leadership is only realized when there are people willing to follow – and this is not something that can be taken for granted. A willingness to follow makes a leader look good. And a refusal to follow brings a swift end to leadership. The relationship between a community and their leader is one of mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual affirmation.
As a Mennonite people we have often focused on the role of the leader in this community-leadership relationship. We have defined the kind of leadership that is characterized by Anabaptist principles. “Mennonite leaders must be servant leaders,” we say. Authoritarian leaders are abandoned.
We must be careful however not to distort basic leadership responsibilities as being authoritarian. Confident leaders can be servant leaders. Visionary leaders can be servant leaders. Servant leadership is more about the attitude of the heart than the style of leadership exercised on behalf of the community. I sometimes wonder if our emphasis on avoiding authoritarian leaders can create authoritarian followers – individuals who focus more on their personal preferences than on the health and vitality of the community. The strong voice of one can immobilize the community. This is inappropriate for leaders and inappropriate for followers as well. Neither part of the community/leadership relationship should display authoritarian tendencies.
That is why I am so thankful for Community Mennonite Fellowship. As a congregation you accepted a young and inexperienced leader to follow. Despite mistakes and blunders, you still followed. You provided me assurance so that confidence could be developed. You assumed abilities which in turn elicited undeveloped gifts. You affirmed. You nurtured. You are the type of followers that make a leader look good and make others want to follow as well. You have been a gift.
It’s not about you. Leadership is not about making a mark or leaving your imprint. It is not even about being a success. I think in North America this is one of the most common traps for leaders. In a world that reveres achievements, leaders are drawn to dream of great accomplishments. If not careful these dreams can deteriorate and become focused on individual pursuits. Soon, the vision of the leader is more about their own achievement than the health of the community of faith.
I want to thank my pastor, Dave Thiessen who models this lesson so well. Not only has he accepted the presence of the former leader in his congregation, but has served our family as a loving pastor and has held the health of the community close to his heart.
Leadership is a response of submission. It is a posture of obedience to God and the community of faith. As Anabaptists, we discern the will of God through the gathered community of faith. Leadership gifts are given by God, affirmed within the individual and confirmed by the community of faith. Like all gifts from God, they are to be exercised for the glory of God and for the building up of the Church. Leadership gifts are not a privately owned commodity – they belong to God – they are a resource for the Church.
This is true for all gifts given by God, whether teachers, theologians, entrepreneurs, mentors, pastors or academics. Because these gifts have been given by God, those who hold the gifts are happiest when they are exercised for God.
I acknowledge that my experiences and skill set is a gift of God and the community of faith. The community of faith has invested in me. Mentors have helped shaped me, elders expressed solidarity. These investments have been costly. Ultimately it was the investment of others that compelled me to accept this responsibility for this time. I only wish they could all have been here to see the return for their sacrifices.
This investment began at an early age. I grew up in the small congregation of Glen Allen Mennonite Church. I have often wondered if my leadership gifts would have been developed had I have been a part of a larger congregation with a wealth of skills and gifts. I was actually a shy young boy, so was ready to let others do what needed to be done.
But already by age 13 I was teaching a children’s Sunday school class, because there was no one else to do it and we all needed to do our part for the church. A gentle older man by the name of Tobias Brubacher not only affirmed my budding gifts but also initiated the joyful posture of humble obedience. God has given, so that in glad obedience we do our joyful duty of service.
We are a people of investment. Within our congregational life: our pastors, Sunday School teachers, and youth leaders are all helping nurture future leaders. That task of investment is shared by our camps and schools – and is then further developed by our Bible Colleges and University Colleges. All these efforts assure that the Church will continue to call forth and develop gifts that will serve the church and be a witness within broader society.
It is not up to you.This is a very real temptation for leadership, especially for leadership in the context of the church, where passion quickly enlivens conversations. It is an easy mistake for leaders to try and shoulder the full responsibility of the health of the Church. When tensions, disagreements or misunderstandings develop this can feel particularly oppressive.
I want to stand in the example of some other great church leaders. The story is told of Pope John the 23rd, who was responsible for initiating the 2nd Vatican Council in 1962. As you may be aware this was a time of intense debate and discussions as the Catholic Church discerned needed change. Emotions ran high. To many it no doubt felt like the Church was coming apart. Someone asked the Pope how he prevented himself from being crushed under the weight of the tensions. He was said to have responded by saying: “Well, at night, after my evening prayers for the Church, I walk over to the bedroom wall, place my hand on the light switch, look up to the heavens and say; “Lord, it’s your church ... I’m going to bed.”
This confidence has also been modelled for me by our own Jack Suderman. Of the many notable things he has said and written one of the illustrations in particular has soaked into my being. I recall him reminding us all – that “there is only One God who presides over the universe. And it isn’t me, it isn’t you, and it isn’t your church. And that God has sent a Saviour to redeem and reconcile the world, and it isn’t me. It isn’t you and it isn’t your church. And that Saviour has sent the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin and draw them to faith in God, and it isn’t me. It isn’t you and it isn’t your church. “
It is good from time to time to be reminded of what we are not, so that we can better function as who we are. Jack reminded me of this again following the public announcement of my acceptance as the next General Secretary. In email conversation, he wished me God’s strength and blessing. I replied by saying that I have been trying to broaden and enlarge my feet so that I can more adequately fill his shoes. His response was immediate: “You need only fill the shoes you wear to the best of your ability. The Church can ask for no more and God requires nothing more.
You are only as good as your shadow. You are only as effective as your followers. It is not about you. It is not up to you. These are four lessons I have learned about leadership – so far. I am sure that you will teach me many more lessons about leadership, in the years to come.
The apostle Paul was clear in his letter to the church in Philippi. We have not obtained everything that we are striving for. And so we must continue to press forward. However, God has already done a work in us – so let us live up to what we have already attained.
It is in this spirit that I share these four lessons on leadership. I share them as a confession. These are things I have learned – and as you know, we learn best through our mistakes.
I also share these lessons as a matter of accountability. If I start to stray away from these lessons, you have permission to remind me. You can say to me; “You know better, you have already been taught these lessons.”
I offer you my gifts and call upon you to exercise your gifts as well. I am convinced, that across Canada, together, God has given us everything we need to be the Church God wants us to be. I look forward to working together, so that as a National Church, Area Church, congregations and individuals, we may all press on toward the goal and purpose that God has called us heavenward.