The problem with ‘leadership’ – which we talk about a lot in the UCA and usually in terms of lament – is that it is too easy, too tempting to lose sight that the most important thing is not in fact, ‘leadership’ but actually ‘followership’, which is hardly even a proper word. Apparently, that’s not obvious these days. A Google search for ‘leadership’ yields 322 million hits in 62 seconds; ‘followership’ on the other hand, yields a mere 773,000 in 53 seconds. This leads me to the conclusion that ‘followership’ is not a familiar or popular notion in the world at large.
There is another word though that captures some of the essence of ‘followership’ and that word is ‘discipleship’ (possibly even less popular in the world at large).
Discipleship is a word that is crystallised in the lives and experiences of the followers of Jesus.
It’s helpful to distinguish between ‘disciples’, those who have taken up the call to follow Jesus and ‘crowds’, those who drift along behind, turn up for any excitement or entertainment and then evaporate. Sometimes, on the discipleship journey, it’s tempting to take time out and hang with the crowds for a bit.
While Jesus had infinite patience with the crowds, he wasn’t interested in collecting spectators or admirers. He wasn’t looking for ‘adherents’ (another good UCA word which always makes me think of barnacles) or worshippers. He was calling disciples to follow him into life and to learn how to be human in God’s image together.
It’s obvious from the Gospels and from the whole sweep of Christian history that would-be followers sometimes find the journey with Jesus perplexing. Sometimes they find it frightening to the point of being life threatening but, step by step, they persevered. Along the way, they discovered among themselves capacities that they may not have known they had for work. They probably never imagined for themselves – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, binding up the broken-hearted, and taking on the forces of darkness and despair.
In the communities that formed around the first disciples they discovered the gifts and abilities that they needed for this work. Soon they found themselves preaching, teaching, organising, managing, leading and collectively contributing to the wellbeing of the world in which they lived.
And that world was changed, all because they were followers first.
Followers live towards and into a vision. The work of our lives is shaped to a large extent by whether it is a vision of light and hope or whether it is dark with foreboding and fear. As the church has contracted and its membership has aged, there’s sometimes a fairly bleak sadness in the way we talk and remember. In some of the lament about leadership it’s possible to hear a longing for someone to take responsibility, solve all the problems and make it all better. This is not a new lament and it’s not peculiar to the Uniting Church. In reality it’s been going on forever.
Lent is a perfect opportunity to take stock and review the discipleship journey, to change unhelpful or unhealthy attitudes and habits and to look for new opportunities to live a Jesus-shaped life. There’s a wonderful poem by Julia Esquival called ‘Threatened with Resurrection’.
It includes these lines:
Accompany us then
on this vigil
and you will know what
it is to dream!
You will then know how marvellous it is
to live threatened
The thing to remember is that we really do have everything we need to be church for the times that we’re in. The question that we all have is, are we bold enough and are we cheeky enough to keep following Jesus and to be part of the church that is being formed for today and tomorrow?
Rev. Jane Fry