In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus has some rather pointed things to say to Christian leaders. "Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:45
I think it’s easy growing up in India to think that an authoritarian style is what is expected of anyone who has to take on the mantle of leadership. (Authoritarian: favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom.) People have been under such leaders, served their time, and by the time they reach that position, without examining whether it is effective or right, they start doing the same thing.
I haven’t had to lead many people, but I have been in various positions of leadership of small groups of people over the years. I thought I was a pretty good leader, or at least doing okay until I received a couple of talks about leadership from my organization.
To my shock, I realized I was doing everything wrong, because I didn’t really know what was expected of me as a leader. In my mind, a leader makes sure everyone know what they’re supposed to be doing, keeps everything running smoothly, organizes schedules and structures, and if necessary corrects or reminds people if they are failing in their duties.
This is what I found after listening to those talks, and observing my own leaders, and making plenty of mistakes of my own:
1. A good Christian leader’s first responsibility is to his or her team members, even ahead of getting things done, being productive or successful. People before tasks. I am not running a machine or a business, but I have PEOPLE who have been entrusted to me. That means their needs and feelings and thoughts and problems are more important than even ‘the good of the community’. A community is made up of individual people. They are not just cogs in a wheel, or projects to be fixed so they fit better into a structure or a plan.
2. It’s my job to KNOW and LOVE those people. Even if they are very different from me, I need to know what makes them tick, what blesses them, what they’re good at, what their love language is, what their struggles are, where they need healing and mercy. The point is not to make best use of them, but to make sure they know they are loved and known. You can’t love what you do not know. You can't use people as resources.
3. It’s my job to ‘waste time’ with these people. I love how my leaders are constantly kidding around with us, finding something to joke about. I’m sure they have enough things on their mind to keep it strictly to business, but they deliberately choose to set those things aside for a while.
4. It is my job to SERVE my team! That means not just letting them know what they need to be doing, but going out of my way to do little tasks to bless them:
- Cheerfully going the extra mile, or picking up the slack in menial tasks, washing dishes, sweeping floors, mopping up spills
- Being quick to jump up and serve everyone including children and the poor and people under me
- Being quick to respond to any request for help even if it’s inconvenient, not just serving when and how I prefer
- Getting up and going to the next room when someone says something from there and I can’t hear what they said
- Offering to make food, tea or whatever people need even if it’s not technically my job
5. I need to be their greatest encourager and cheerleader. I’ve failed miserably at this one. Not just on birthdays or special occasions, I need to make sure they know I believe in them, I value them, I think they’re pretty awesome, and that I’m blessed to be serving alongside them. There have been so many times that my leaders have just looked around the room and with sincerity (and sometimes with tears in their eyes) said “I am SO privileged to be serving with such sacrificial, holy men and women!” This also means when they come up with a new idea or try something new, I need to be the person saying, “I believe in you! You can do this!”, not primarily being a critic or a naysayer. Of course some words of guidance or prudence are often needed, but they should not be the only things I say.
6. I need to be very careful while exerting my authority: In the Gospel, Jesus said "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you.” Mark 10: 42-42 Authority is important, but it is so easy to misuse. The primary relationship between a leader and anyone under them should be one of love and encouragement. Exerting authority or asking for obedience should only happen in important matters, it should not be the norm in the way they relate. It should never be used just to make a point, or in matters that are my personal opinion or not my decision to make. There are times though when I do need to exert that authority, but I should do so kindly and in a way that is easy to swallow.
7. I am in charge of setting the tone: A leader needs to be joyful, holy and sacrificial because usually they are the ones setting the standard. If I’m not praying every day, it is quite likely my community members will not think it’s that big a deal if they don’t. If I walk around with a long face, being grumbly and downcast (been there, done that), that mood is sure to spread. But if I am cheerful, upbeat, if I jump into prayer and song regardless of others’ long faces, that spreads too! I also need to be willing to be vulnerable, admit my fault, and share my struggles, because people need to know that it’s okay to struggle as long as we keep returning to Jesus, the only perfect one.
8. I need to pray for them and remember God is in charge: It can be easy to feel like I am the primary shepherd of this person… but I am not! God is, and He is able to heal, restore, love, guide and shape this person far better than I am. I have no need to be anxious or irritated if they are not where I feel they should be, but regularly pray for them and entrust them to His care.
9. If I set high standards, I need to help them meet them, and be merciful if and when they fail. They need to know they can come to me and tell me they are struggling. They should know I am not inflexible or unsympathetic, but merciful like Jesus. 'For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.' Heb 4:15-16
I have failed very often as a leader. But I am trying to do better. I am helped by seeing models of what I want to be, and of course by following Jesus, with His extremely counter-cultural leadership style. Actually this list is good for not only leaders of teams or ministries or communities, but for parents, teachers, priests and sisters, anyone who has people in their care. If we are good leaders, we are forming not just good disciples but also people who themselves will be good leaders one day.
Here’s a quick list to print if you want to do a regular check (check yo’self before you wreck yo’self):
Have I encouraged or praised the people in my care today?
Have I really listened to their thoughts and feelings or dismissed them?
Have I prayed for them today?
Have I ‘wasted time’ with them today – chatted, asked how their day is going, played a prank, made a joke?
Have I given in when possible, or insisted on my way when it was not necessary?
Have I encouraged them in their own ventures and interests and efforts even if those were not my idea?
Have I been a joyful presence?
Have I been gentle when giving correction?
Have I told them how blessed I am to be their leader/parent/teacher?
Have I found out their love languages and tried to use them?
Have I served them with my hands today?
Have I asked them questions about their likes, dislikes, thoughts, feelings and opinions?
Have I set aside my other tasks when I noticed they needed a listening ear?
Have I been humble and open about my own faults, struggles and weaknesses?
Have I asked their forgiveness when I have lost my temper, been over critical or distracted or impatient, or failed them in any other way?
Have I said and done things the way I would prefer to have them said and done to me?
Have I been sympathetic when they shared their struggles or failures?