No gift without its corresponding service
Where is the gift of Leadership in the Uniting Church and how does it relate to discipleship?
The Uniting Church is unique. It is a member-driven, member-based organisation that self-organises its life through its councils in a process called discernment (aligning to the mission of God in Christ). It doesn’t relate to others through hierarchy, line and command, but through its member-based participation with other councils in which different councils share in different responsibilities. It is an inter-conciliar shaped Church.
This discernment seeks consensus around a shared mission, vision, and purpose aligned to the continuing and eschatological (coming Kin(g)dom) focus of the work, ministry, and mission of Christ in the world, the mission of God. Leadership encourages and enables the local community to move towards action, living into this discerned mission of God. This mission shapes and informs the life and activity of the worship, witness and service of both individuals in discipleship and collectively in ministry and mission.
How is this Leadership expressed?
By affirming the discernment in council, there is a particular expression of leadership enabled in our ministry agents. Anecdotally, I have observed the following concepts of leadership among some of our ministry agents, both lay and ordained:
- To be a change agent
- To be a vision caster; calling the community back to the mission
- To facilitate a good process;
- To be the strategic thinker; exploring and evaluating possibilities in direction
- To be an educator; bringing deeper understanding of the faith to inform discipleship, ministry and mission.
These may all be valid expressions of leadership, but I see leadership being expressed in an even greater variety of ways.
While leadership is an art, and there are more books discussing the nuance of this art than almost any other discipline, a definition that works for me in a Uniting Church context is that:
Leadership “discerns Jesus/Trinity inspired missional direction and mobilises around this for collective action, activity and service”.
For many, this happens as a communal, committee or council venture, calling on all the gifts of those involved. Now the gifts of the members will express different elements of leadership.
One member may offer future focused thinking, while another may analyse current capacity and legacy issues strategically. Another may offer networking and organising capacity, and some will seek opportunities for the development of others. Some will inspire those around them. Thankfully there will always be some who are keen to get on and do what we need to do! All these reflect amazing gifts in each member. To be aligned as one body around the mission of God is powerful, this is truly the body of Christ in action.
Something amazing is possible when we move beyond our individual agendas to the agenda of God discerned together. It is here that some experience the Holy Sprit moving, bring clarity around participation in the transformative mission of God. This is the gift of God in being the church, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-14). It calls for maintaining an openness to God and the gift of God in each other, with a commitment to bring one’s whole self to the table, to offer gifts, learn and grow. Yet it takes time and hard work. Defaulting to the competition of individual egos and agendas above this shared discernment of the wisdom of God is a challenge that needs to be addressed. This is where discipleship is vital in leadership.
The discerned vision and mission of any congregation or group will become a call to discipleship. To commit to this Jesus-way we live into this call. Discipleship is the discipline of life embodied in covenant community. Martin Luther King Jr saw the essential need for discipleship for a commitment, or rule of life, that every volunteer was required to sign. It states;
“I hereby pledge myself—my person and body—to the nonviolent movement. Therefore, I will keep the following commandments.” The list included, “Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.” “WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.” “Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.”
In medieval times discipleship was known also as following a rule of life. For Benedictine, Franciscan or Jesuit discipleship communities, the rule of life was focused on spiritual practices that kept people connected to Christ and Christ’s mission. For some it was stability and a commitment to the local and the particular (Benedictine), for others it was the whole of creation (Franciscan), and yet others focused on the call to go as the need arose for the greater glory of God (Jesuit). Within the historical churches of the Uniting Church, we see forms of discipleship with; Methodists in their discipline of class meetings, Presbyterians in their eldership and Congregational churches self-organised around confessional statements. All informed by Scripture.
In one of my previous placements, a small group of church members exhausted a number of studies and were keen to move into intentional discipleship as a gathered community. I facilitated a year of discernment and at the end we held a public commitment to name what this discipleship looks like to the whole congregation, with a commitment to live this until the next lent. The discernment after a year of trying different things out was to Hospitality, Spiritual practice, Study and Compassion beyond the horizons of our experience. What that mobilised within the community was a weekly meal hosted by the group, offered to anyone in the wider community. It was a time simple Christian song and prayer, scripture with reflection, and a practical commitment to work with refugee families through friendship and support. This was the Jesus shaped discipleship of that community, and the ministry and mission that developed from that space was beyond what we could have imagined.
This discipleship was affirmed at Easter each year, and didn’t change for a number of years. Anyone could join in at any point, it was never exclusive. A number of people walked in for the meal, or seeking prayer, looking for community or seeking meaningful connection. This Christian community grew. More than that, the intentionality to be neighbourly beyond our own bubbles transformed us.
What I also discovered was that around the rule of life, the different gits and strengths of each individual was affirmed, and new forms of awareness of gifts and graces emerged.
In my current role I have become accomplished in strength-based leadership development. Upon reflection I have realised this form of church community was just that, a place in which we could get to know each other around a number of disciplines, in which we could affirm our individual and collective strengths in mission and ministry. No longer was the main focus of congregational life business-as-usual, in a state of steady decline, which required so much energy.
These days I have become an advocate for a strength-based approach in ministry and discipleship, seeking to move beyond a deficit-based approach. It is about building capacity. Gallup global research suggests that if 80 percent of our time is used to work with our natural strengths (and God given gifts), and 20 percent of our time used to manage blind spots and challenges (being open and transparent, confess often), then wellbeing, productivity and meaning and purpose grows from three to seven times beyond the base line, depending on the matrix.
When this is applied in leadership practice we can clearly articulate some of our natural talents and gifts with each other and hear, respect and work with the talents of others, that is to discerns direction and mobilise for collective action. Amazing things can happen. I can assist any group with this work in my current role.
We are in remarkable times. COVID-19, online worship services and the end of strong cultural currency for dominant Christian support (the end of Christendom) are shifting fundamental foundations. Across many denominations, good faithful leaders are leaving. The old crafts of Preaching, Liturgical Preparation, Community Engagement, Pastoral Care and Administration use to be the main stay of ministry agents. They are all still vital, but our contexts are seeing so much change, that the call of Christian Leadership, Christian community building and Discipleship are going to have to be more creative and adaptive than in previous eras. No longer can any Christian leadership default to appeals to old behaviours or quick fixes relying on the legacy behind them to carry forward with new generations.
Christian Leadership will also know that change, and transformation is costly, group anxieties will kick back, and sometimes very hard. Without solid discipleship, grounding in the way of Christ, with spiritual disciplines, the call to return to Egypt and worship golden calf can become overwhelming. Listening to God will always be essential.
God and Moses did not give up (there was a change of mind in the biblical text), the ten commandments were given, a new discipline, a way of discipleship, so they could continue on to the land of promise from the house of slavery. God still cared and provided despite the kick back of the people, but this kickback never become the main agenda. If we believe in a God of transformation, then in the example of Christ we see a commitment to the mission of God through suffering, rejection and death. As we know, it doesn’t end there. There is also a new day, a new way, a new creation in the hope of Resurrection in Christ.
The remarkable thing in the Uniting Church, is that we all need to encourage one another in our discipleship, offering in leadership the gifts and strengths we have to offer. This offering of leadership is individual and collective. Because in the Uniting Church, we boldly affirm in the Basis of Union that there is no gift without its corresponding service, including the gift of leadership grounded in discipleship.
Rev. Ben Gilmour is the Director of Vital Leadership Pathways