The Vulnerable Leader
I spent a a few days last week teaching a wonderful group of Doctor of Ministry students at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. The class was called The Vulnerable Leader, and as part of our work I asked my colleagues in the class to choose a passage of scripture that illustrates vulnerable leadership as we had come to define it, then write a short homily to deliver to the class.
Here’s the definition of a vulnerable leader, we decided: A vulnerable leader is an accessible, compelling figure who dares to embrace the diverse reality of the human experience, casts a vision for the future with conviction, creates a shared community that adapts to dynamic situations, and courageously risks authenticity.
And here are two meditations, shared with permission.
When he had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, which if you tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” They reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all hold John as a prophet.” They answered Jesus, and said, “We don’t know.” He also said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
By what authority?
If Jesus ever had an excuse to run and hide, this was it.
He came into the Temple to teach, but before he knew it, he was surrounded by the chief priests and the elders, the ones who had made a living of calling people on the carpet. They knew their stuff, forward and backward, and they knew that Jesus was not a real teacher. He had not been trained the way that real teachers are. Had not been chosen by a rabbi to become his apprentice. Had not followed him around, learning his every idea and thought, until he was prepared to teach himself. Had not received the blessing of any rabbi or synagogue or…anybody but a bunch of ragged fisherman nobodies and…”is that a tax collector with him?!?”
By what authority?
How many of us have felt called on the carpet before? By someone who really knows their stuff, forwards and backwards, and knows that you aren’t a real teacher. Or preacher. Or Christian. You can’t do that…you’re a woman. You can’t say that…you don’t have the right degree. You can’t lead them…you don’t have the right experience.
By what authority?
If ever Jesus had an excuse to run and hide, this was it. He could have crawled back into his Nazareth hole and gone back to the safe life of a carpenter. He could have listened to the voices that said he wasn’t experienced enough, cultured enough, smart enough, and gone back home.
But when they confronted him in the Temple, Jesus just smiled. And took a risk. He was vulnerable. He told them that it was they who didn’t have the authority. They who couldn’t name where their power came from. It was they who ended up looking like a bumbling bunch of wanna-be’s, not sure what to tell Jesus when he turned the tables on them. “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things,” he said.
But he implied so much more: “But that doesn’t mean I don’t have it, or don’t know I have it, or won’t keep on healing and teaching and preaching and bringing hope to the hopeless. Because I don’t do what I do because you tell me I can or I cannot. I do it because the power of the Holy Spirit of God rests on me and that is my authority.” And sisters and brothers, that is our authority, as well.
Angela Barker Johnson:
I have a confession to make. I love Jesus, but I struggle with Paul. I enjoy preaching the gospels, but I tend to shy away from Paul’s letters. So, as I began to consider vulnerable leadership, I never dreamed that I would land anywhere outside the gospels. The strangest thing happened, though; when I did a search of the text using the word “lead,” I happened upon one of Paul’s letters that really spoke to my heart. In this one letter which I read with fresh eyes, I’ve found a remarkable treatise on leadership and what I believe is a flagship verse for all who profess to follow Christ.
Within the pages of the 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul both demonstrates in himself and encourages in others several qualities of an effective leader. He expresses thanksgiving for the people he is called to shepherd. He leads by example and calls others to live lives worthy of imitation. He is painfully honest about his own suffering and hard work, relating to their shared experience of persecution. He affirms the faith and works of the congregation, and he reminds them that they’ve been called into the kingdom of God. Through this reminder, he seems to want them to adapt to the situation they are in with hope. He admits to what he does not know, but at the same time shares a vision of the future with conviction that comes from faith. And if these weren’t enough, Paul takes a risk by declaring a deep, transformative love for this congregation. He embraces and expresses Love – with a capital L.
He writes, in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 (NRSV), “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
Now, I know I’ve read this verse before, but it has never spoken to me in this way. Just in a matter of the overnight hours, I sense this verse changing me. I want to live and love like this.
This is why God called you and called me. This is the message the world desperately needs to hear. This is what our churches are mandated by Jesus. This is vulnerable leadership. This is authentic church membership. This is good news.
We love you so deeply that we are determined to share not only the gospel of God but also ourselves. Thanks be to God.
Angela Barker Jackson serves the Gage Park Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, as well at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.