by Madeleine Wichert
What makes a good leader? A brainstorm on this question often yields an impressive list of ideals, qualities, and characteristics. Even if we feel that we ourselves don’t match up to our own standards of a leader, we hope there are some out there who do, and who we may look to and trust as our leaders. I think most of us know that we hold others to very high standards, especially when it comes to leadership. Those who are responsible should, many would argue, be held to higher standards of morality and conduct. In many ways, our brainstorm on what makes a good leader is important in discerning who will lead well. In other ways, this same list of aspirations and ideals can become a measuring stick which is put against people, and a rubric of evaluation by which we judge whether someone is passing or failing. How can we be good stewards of our language, the words we use and the expectations we convey regarding leadership? How can our language be a constructive rather than destructive tool in discussions of transition?
Throughout EVI’s work, and particularly our workshop tour, leadership was one of the themes which came up regularly. It was even in one of our guiding questions for discussion: “what do you want the leaders of Mennonite Church Canada to know?” A wealth of different thoughts, feelings, and perspectives emerged in the responses to this question. There was a concern and push for more youth leadership, which Katrina’s blog post talks about. There were comments about who is the future of the Church, explored in our tour summary reflection. Discussions of diversity came up, addressed by Anneli. And of course, there was much discussion around the formal structural leadership within Mennonite Church Canada, as it currently stands as well as visions and fears for the future. This element of the leadership question is usually what people are referring to when they talk about “our leaders,” and will be the focus of the rest of this post.
This particular area of leadership bears the tension of many hopes, expectations, frustrations, disappointments, and trust. The language used in talking about “our leaders,” or, “the leadership of MC Canada” throughout our workshops certainly conveyed this tension, which I will attempt, in turn, to convey here. We heard—in every place we visited—a deep gratitude for the energy, care, and work of our leaders, often alongside a sense of frustration. We heard a desire for leaders who can make decisions and lead the way, and a desire for collective participation in those decisions so that they feel truly representative. We heard a hope for leaders who are grounded, as well as a need for leaders to be flexible and creative. We heard people’s comfort in having a designated official leadership, in tension with the call for shared responsibility within a priesthood of all believers. We heard the anticipation and hope people have for the potential of the Future Directions transition, and we heard a lot of fear. And we heard, quite often, the tension between the trust people have in our leaders, and a sense of mistrust and call for greater transparency. Overall, it seemed the answers to the question of what people want our leadership to know had more to do with what makes a good leader, and the kind of leaders the Church needs, than anything else.
I wonder whether an important question to be asking now is, “what do we expect of our leaders? What exactly is their role in this thing we call Church?” Perhaps this is an obvious question with self-evident answers, since I just spent the last three paragraphs talking about it. But you may recall that the feedback and themes I summarized were responses to a different question. I opened with the question, “What makes a good leader?” That’s a good question, not unrelated, but a slightly different perspective. Our language and discussions often seem to convey our expectations of who our leaders should be—the whole vast list of them—without actually addressing the question of what their (and our) roles are within the body of Christ.
Once we shift the angle and focus of the question, a new discussion emerges. At the centre of all the conflicting, important, fruitful, dialectic, and overwhelming expectations, what is the role of the Church’s leadership, whoever may fall into that category? At risk of over-simplification, I would like to propose, based on everything I’ve heard on tour and in conversations since then, that a leader’s role is this: relationship. Connecting with all the different “levels” or areas of Church, facilitating connections across the country, communication, transparency, humble and open listening, praying with and for each other, trust-building. Is it possible for much else to really be accomplished if there is not first the foundation of relationship from which to interact and work? (For another perspective on the conversation of relationship, have a look at Laura’s blog post.)
The above may sound like a rhetorical question. Taken as such, it certainly portrays my own biases, from which I write. For those with different biases, however, they are genuine questions. I hope we can all be open to listening to each other’s collective wisdom. I personally have come to understand the centrality of relationship- and trust-building to be true in many areas of leadership. If the leaders of a congregation are those with pastoral roles, with the primary role being relationship, then doesn’t it make sense for it to also be so on the national level? Through relationship, the work, challenge, and joy that it brings, all the tensions described earlier can somehow be held together.
I will close here by reiterating the immense gratitude there is for the leaders of our Church, national, regional, and congregational. You have answered a calling which not many would wish to take on. Please continue to work in the vulnerability of relationship. For the rest of us, may we remember to show our care as well as our expectations, in our words and actions, and remember that we are all the Church together.
This is the fifth in our in-depth tour reflection series. Click here for a summary of all the topics we’re exploring.
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