Follow the leader?

May 26, 2014 by

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With our communal theology, North American Anabaptists have had a pretty strong preference to treat each other as equals. Yet we expected leaders to set direction. Certainly that was true until about 1960. Individual leaders carried tremendous influence.

Showalter

Showalter

In the second half of the century, leadership styles changed dramatically. We began to understand leadership as more facilitating than setting direction. Those who lifted their heads to set direction sometimes lost them. A good facilitator could still exercise influence, but it had to be done conversationally, bringing people together. Effective leadership was to be low-profile, inconspicuous.

We became more democratic. “Servant leadership” was our watchword.

Leaders, some thought, would be most effective if their views were not known or held too strongly, especially in times of controversy. Neutrality, objectivity and leadership ability went together. With this triad securely in place, a leader could stay in “power,” though not with the same degree of authority that leaders used to have.

Yet times are changing again. Facilitative leadership fails to inspire. We grow restive with leaders who chart direction with moistened fingers in the wind. “Is the church a democracy?” we ask.

What is the way forward? How can we receive and set spiritual direction rather than facilitating ourselves into oblivion or chasing after strong leaders?

Outside North America and Europe, Anabaptist leaders wrestle more with growth and are quicker to ask simple questions like, “What does the Bible say?” Once that is clear, they go with it, setting direction without fear. If previous followers fall away, that’s the price of faithfulness. When I recently asked an African leader about direction for the church, his reply began with twin questions: “Do we believe the Bible is the Word of God? Do we believe there is such a thing as sin?”

Or, again from outside the West: “What is the Holy Spirit saying? Let’s fast and pray together until we know. Then let’s go with it.” There’s life in shared, passionate vision that leads to action.

In the West, people are less sure of what the Bible says. “We have different interpretations, so let’s agree to disagree in love.”

Disagreement does not inspire or galvanize to action, even when it is amicable. We’re wary of too much dependence on the Spirit, lest some untested spirit from beyond our discerning community gets us off track. Yet if we are not somehow hearing from God together, Christianity loses both its power and attractiveness.

Taking our cues from other parts of the world is no panacea. Neither is the answer to adopt some new leadership style. Yet we must be open to both as we reassess and realize how to hear from God together in every part of the global Anabaptist community.

Strong leaders can launch passionate appeals for action, but unless “the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1). And spiritual strength does not come from disagreement, no matter how peaceful it is. “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matt. 12:25).

Surely we will never agree on every question. Yet if there is a gospel we hold together in passionate faith and obedience, knowing that we have heard from God, hell itself will give way to a unity forged in heaven. This is as true in the West as it is in the South and East.

Let’s go there whatever the cost, letting the pieces fall where they may.

Richard Showalter, of Landisville, Pa., is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission.


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  • When an Anabaptist leader from outside North America asks “What does the Bible say?”, such a statement sounds virtuous on its face. But what if that leader’s Bible tells them that gay persons are to be condemned and excluded, that gays are possessed by evil spirits which must be cast out before they can be included in the community — well, that sort of takes the virtue out of their professed reliance on the Bible. Doesn’t it?

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