The website for Amazon lists 60,000 books on “leadership.” It is a hot topic these days. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what makes for a good leader and what leaders are supposed to do.
During these days in which our local church has just ordained eight new priests and 23 new deacons, we should take a moment and reflect on the leadership qualities that are expected of those who lead us. Obvious ones come to mind. A servant-leader should be selfless, patient, collaborative, decisive, hardworking, visionary. Most books list those and other qualities.
But one quality for leadership that is specific to church life, dating back to the earliest days in our tradition, is often overlooked: Leaders in the church are first of all to be “witnesses of the Resurrection.”
That is what we learn in reading the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. There Peter identifies the criteria for selecting a replacement for Judas. In addition to being with Jesus throughout his earthly life, hearing his words and seeing his many deeds, the candidate to be named as one of the 12 also had to be “a witness to his resurrection.”
Surely one who leads in the church must know and witness to Jesus, who lived 2,000 years ago as recounted in the Scriptures and tradition. Getting to know Jesus, especially through the Gospels, must be at the center of all ministry formation.
But that must include not only Jesus who walked along the shores of Galilee and lived in Palestine 2,000 years ago. Ministers in the church must also bear witness to the Risen Lord, as one who is present and active in the world today.
By making one’s witness to the Risen Lord the priority, church leaders keep ever fresh in their minds that Jesus is the one taking the lead, not them. Their job is to discern and point out where he is leading us. Such an approach to ministry distinguishes leadership in the church in a number of ways.
First, it eases the burdens of leadership, as Jesus told his first disciples: “take my yoke upon your shoulders, for my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11:30). Instead of being burdened with the task of taking the initiative, mapping out a way forward and defining goals, servant leaders in the church are confident that everything for the salvation of the world, as St. Paul often reminds the early Christians, does not depend on our works but is proceeding according to God’s own design (cf., 2 Tm 1).
This is a warning to church leaders not to take themselves too seriously, as if everything rises and falls on them. They should always remember that it is the Lord who takes the initiative and they are called to be attentive to all that he is doing.
Pursuing leadership in this way also has a calming effect in moments of great challenge and even crisis. I always like what St. John XXIII recounts in his memoirs. After a very heavy day, filled with the many seemingly intractable problems he faced as pope, he would simply say to Jesus, “It’s your church, Lord; I am going to bed.” This great pope was able to remain serene and composed as he carried out his ministry, because he knew that the Risen Lord was once again in the boat with him as Peter’s successor.
Finally, servant-leaders, for whom witnessing to the Risen Lord is the priority, are able to provide a hopeful vision, for they remind the community that Christ is always doing something new. No challenge is too daunting, no crisis too overwhelming. The future is not intimidating, nor is the past confining, for Christ is the Lord of history, who is moving all of creation forward by his plan and design.
Surely, servant-leaders in the church must have the skill set to respond to the everyday needs of the community living in this temporal world. They must have integrity, know how to consult, collaborate, give direction and take hard decisions. More is required for those who serve as leaders in a church that recognizes that Jesus is alive and at work in ways that are ever new and that need to be discerned.
It is up to servant-leaders in the church to be attentive to all that the Risen Lord Jesus is doing, for it is their witness to it that inspires and gives direction to the pilgrim people of God as they march through time until all things promised are fulfilled.