Reluctant Leadership


This past week I led a leadership retreat for a group of denominational executive leaders. We used the theme of narratives to explore the shape of leadership they are providing in this difficult chapter of Church life. I loved hearing them share their stories of call and vocation. On the opening night of the retreat many of them shared the stories of how they were drawn to their current positions of leadership. I was struck by the number of stories that were presented under the genre of “reluctant leadership”. As I listened I became aware of how often I heard some version of this story. “I didn’t really want this job, but apparently God wanted me to do it, because the job just kept coming after me.”

As I was discerning my own call into ministry I remember my family pastor telling me, “If you can do anything else in life and be content with it, do the other thing. Ministry is only something that you go into, if you can’t not do it.”  He was cautioning me that ministry is hard work, and often unrewarding; something that you only do if God pursues you relentlessly, like the Hound of Heaven. That’s how you know if you are really called.

Since that night of storytelling with the executive leaders, I’ve been thinking more and more about this particular kind of storyline. I hear it a lot in my work, and I’m trying to figure out why so many church leaders are drawn towards telling their stories from the humble, reluctant leader perspective. I suppose it’s entirely possible that the “reluctant leader” is the primary person that God does target to lead God’s church. But, I’m suspicious. Certainly we have the biblical examples of reluctant leaders we can reference. Moses resisted his calling several times before God simply told him to get over it. Most of the disciples were humble fisherman before being called out to become ministers. Still I wonder. There are other strong biblical leadership stories to draw from. What about Nehemiah? Here’s a leader with a strong dream and no visible system of support for getting it done. Nehemiah had to undertake incredible initiatives to claim the vision that God had given him, to get people to come on board with his plan. He was not a reluctant leader. He was a strong leader with a heart, mind and passion for his work. Paul was passionate and persistent about his work, both before and after God’s call on his life.

Why are so many of us drawn towards the image of the humble &reluctant leader, and not drawn to the image of the inspired, impassioned leader with a dream?  I’m aware that my own vocational story can be told from either perspective, and I most often choose to relay it through the lens of humble reluctance.  Does this say something about me as an individual, about our culture, or about the times that we find ourselves in?

Here’s the bottom line. If I am a humble, reluctant leader then the primary means by which people will measure my ministry is through my faithfulness. They will admire the fact that I gave up an easier path in my determination to be faithful to God’s call on my life. They won’t really expect much from me, other than my faithfulness. On the other hand, if I tell my story through the lens of the gifted and called, passionate leader with a vision for something more for the Church and the determination to pursue that call, then I had better be prepared to deliver something substantive. It’s a lot safer to be reluctant and humble in our leadership narratives, than it is to be bold, passionate and persistent.

Would it make a difference, in this chapter of church life, if we reexamined our vocational stories and more carefully told the part of the story that focused on our pursuit and passion for ministry?  Might we energize our congregations in some different ways? I wonder.

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6 Responses to “Reluctant Leadership”

  1. Christine Robinson Says:

    I think you are on to something here.
    I think we tell our Jonah stories in part because we want to be humble, in part to protect ourselves from failure, in part because there is so much allergy to power in our midst. But really…it’s not a very strong story!

    Last week there was a major article in the NYT about clergy burnout that gave the statistics of misery about our profession, and blamed our illness, ill health, and short lifespans on overwork. And some no doubt are very overworked, or overwork themselves…possibly because that seems an appropriate response to God. But I think our very story (I didn’t really want to do this and I don’t really feel prepared and I won’t really be rewarded except by God…) that can be a pretty thin story in the thick of things.

  2. Susan Says:

    Jonah is a great example of the narrative genre! I do wonder how much of our own ill health and unhappiness is a result of the narrative spin we create for ourselves around our roles. Not just the reluctant leader narrative, but other aspects of the story line about self sacrifice, being spread too thin, etc.

  3. Matt Mardis-LeCroy Says:

    Susan,

    This is a wonderful, and wonderfully thought-provoking post. Two thoughts:

    1.) I think most congregational and denominational cultures would not know what to do with an openly self-confident religious leader. Humility is an ingrained expectation.

    2.) I also think “reluctant call narratives” may serve to bolster ministerial authority in an ironic way. It goes back to something I remember Jim Kay saying to my preaching class at Princeton Seminary -there is a paradoxical character to pastoral authority. The more the pastor protests her high status (“Oh, no. Please don’t call me Rev. Beaumont. It’s Susan”), the higher her status becomes in the congregation (“Isn’t Rev. Beaumont wonderful? She wants us to call her ‘Susan’!”) I think a lot of us use the “reluctant call narrative” as an indirect way to increase our status and authority. Maybe now some people will start to catch on…

  4. Susan Says:

    Matt: I think you’re right about the authority piece, but there’s probably another angle to it. If God chased me, in spite of my reluctance, I must REALLY be the right person for the job…so don’t mess with me. It appears to be humble on the surface but is actually quitea power play, isn’t it.

  5. Would you follow a faithful, reluctant leader or an inspired, impassioned leader? (via Suan Reluctant @ Inside the Large Congregation) | Passion in Partnership Says:

    […] Would it make a difference, in this chapter of church life, if we reexamined our vocational stories and more carefully told the part of the story that focused on our pursuit and passion for ministry?  Might we energize our congregations in some different ways? I wonder. via insidethelargecongregation.com […]

  6. Would you follow a faithful, reluctant leader or an inspired, impassioned leader? (via Susan Beaumont @ Inside the Large Congregation) | Reflections Says:

    […] Would it make a difference, in this chapter of church life, if we reexamined our vocational stories and more carefully told the part of the story that focused on our pursuit and passion for ministry?  Might we energize our congregations in some different ways? I wonder. via insidethelargecongregation.com […]

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