The church was falling apart, the youth ministry and youth choir included.
A young, bull-in-the-china-shop senior pastor had wreaked havoc upon the community of faith for more than three years, dividing and conquering at every possible turn. A 33-year-old (we were often reminded that Jesus was the same age when he was crucified) who claimed full authority over the church, he was never, ever, wrong. Staff and laity were viewed through the lens of being either 100% behind him or 100% opposed to him; middle ground was not allowed. Sermons often highlighted Old Testament heroes of faith who stood down the enemies of God and won dramatic showdowns on behalf of the Almighty. It goes without saying that he, without exception, identified himself with the stand-alone heroes, so that left the rest of us … well, you know.
At the worst part of the mayhem, near the end of it, I desperately traveled across the city to visit one of the key leaders of the church, a 50-something named Joyce. This amazing woman had been to hell and back in her personal life, but it only seemed to make her more kind, Christ-like, compassionate, and resilient.
In my early thirties, I pled with Joyce for direction and wisdom. “What does our faith community expect from me at this point, Joyce?” I asked, nearly in tears.
“Strong leadership. Strong, unwavering leadership.”
“But what does that mean?” I begged. “What action does that require?”
“You’ll know when the time comes. Be brave, be kind, be gentle, and always tell the truth. We need strong, strong leadership from you.”
The storm did pass, the church survived, and so did my family, my career, and my vocation.
Joyce never gave me any concrete suggestions for specific action. She simply encouraged me to be a good leader. Now, over thirty years later, I realize that Joyce was brilliantly communicating with me the following:
Always tell the truth.
Work to unify.
Don’t divide the flock; avoid like the plague creating lines in the sand.
Genuinely care about everyone.
Love is something we do, even when we do not feel it.
Do not hit, and do not hit back. Turning the other cheek is not just pie in the sky. It needs to be reality on the ground, while we’re still in the dirt.
Neither invoke fear in others nor succumb to fear in yourself.
Be compassionate and gentle.
So … what do the teenagers in our student choirs need from us? What do our colleagues and teammates need? What is needed in our church?
In a world where so much, including civility itself, seems to be falling apart, this is what we need.
Strong, strong leadership.
In the name of the one who taught us to lead with his love … always.