I sometimes joke that God called me to be a pastor to a group that can’t make its peace with pastoral ministry, to be an Old Testament scholar among a people that is ambivalent about the Bible, and to be a leader within a group that really doesn’t want to be led. One has to be willing to “swim upstream” to find joy in those types of calling. Still, I’ve gladly said “yes” to each of these opportunities and relish the challenges they bring.
The latter call, that of leadership, is very much on my mind these days. From personal, institutional, and communal perspectives, it begs for attention. While it is true that leadership can be a troubling concept for Friends, I have come to believe that we should move beyond our old hesitations. We would benefit from fussing less about the things that can go wrong, instead investing time reflecting upon the topic and developing an understanding of leadership that can function well in our context.
At its most basic level, I have come to hold that leadership is stepping forward in answer to the leading of the Spirit, offering the gifts and skills with which one has been equipped. For that to be a legitimate understanding of leadership, it must grow out of one’s ongoing dialogue with God. This means leadership is very much integrated with one’s spirituality, even though most theories of leadership leave no room for spirituality. It also means many of us, perhaps all of us, have moments of moving into and out of leadership roles when, for some duration of time, we have the right offerings to meet the needs of the moment. From this perspective, leading is a form of faithfulness shared by virtually everyone.
Having said this, I would distance myself from the position of “everyone is a leader” which at some point devolves to mean, “no one is a leader.” I am willing to say that while all people have opportunities to lead, and all leadership is valuable, not all leadership is equal and some is more permanent than others. That statement may not gain wide acceptance among Friends. However, I believe that spiritual equality before God does not translate into positional equality within an organization or topical equality on every subject to be discussed or decided. There are topics I know little or nothing about, and even if a Quaker context means I can contribute to the discussion, and even though it is possible God may speak through me, I do not enter some discussions expecting to carry any weight.
Leadership as a response to call differs from leadership as raw talent in at least two crucial ways: first, its authority is rooted in God’s calling and equipping, not in charisma or skill; and second, it asks early and often, “for what purpose am I leading?” This question helps the leader to remember that the purpose for leading has God’s call and the community’s well being in mind. It is less about imposing one’s own vision on the group or satisfying ego, and more a matter of helping the group discern and respond to its own call as defined by its mission. With that said, leadership is offered in the hope that it contributes to God’s work, as well as to the life and health of the group receiving the leadership.
Leadership almost always presents an opportunity to influence the group that receives it. I could have easily said “an opportunity to serve the group.” There is a service capacity to good leadership, but I am careful about the use of “servant” with regard to leadership among Friends. Friends employ the term often, usually without having ever read Greenleaf’s work on servant leadership. I believe Friends in general have not yet matured enough in our thinking about leadership to use the term “servant” without qualification.
I am aware that the idea of one person influencing another makes some Friends uneasy, but the idea that all influence is bad or that we can live a life not influenced by others is indefensible. At the core are worries about power and authority that seem to be embedded in Quaker DNA. If Friends are to make progress thinking about how leadership can flourish among us, we are going to have to speak the truth to ourselves about terms like those. It is not that Friends do not have authorities and powers among us. Rather, our tendency is to camouflage them, or perhaps simply fail to recognize them because they we are so immersed in our own assumptions.
I know that I am going to be influenced by others, and many times will even be unaware of those influences. Given that, I’d prefer to be influenced by those who lead with clear objectives and right motives.
Jay Marshall is Dean of Earlham School of Religion and a native of North Carolina. Before beginning his service at ESR, he was a pastor in Western Yearly Meeting.