I returned recently from Week-long Leadership Training, the Gamaliel Foundation’s grueling crash course in psychology, economics, Christian ethics, American politics, and "the Path to Power."
Although "power" is, to some, a dirty word (because others have wielded it without compassion or responsibility, or have guarded their power jealously instead of sharing it), in the interest of becoming effective leaders, Gamaliel encouraged us to want power and influence: power to be heard, power to take on a righteous cause and to effect change, and power to get our own needs met in addition to the community's. And we were instructed not to be shy about seeking power that would enable our success.
A key part of this curriculum was training leaders to build power by establishing individual relationships with people through conversations that go way past sports and weather, in the pursuit of understanding what they care about and why, and then to challenge those individuals to accomplish the things they say they value. When interviewing others out of a sincere regard and curiosity to know them, these conversations often uncover mutual ambitions, and the organization’s goals are advanced as its members get activated to be passionate, bold and productive in pursuit of their vision. So at training we practiced these one-to-one interview skills on each other and we were pressed to name that "self-interest" that could drive us to make things happen. For some, it was righting an old wrong, overcoming some kind of oppression. For others, it was a personal ambition or need, like "I want the system to work so that my daughter has access to health care."
Although most of my Gamaliel classmates were attending as part of community action groups that are combatting economic injustice and seeking to influence public policy, a few of us represented congregations that are not yet formally aligned with a coalition such as ISAIAH, the Twin Cities organization of 100-some churches. Like the 10 Gethsemane leaders who attended a previous training last August, we struggled at times to apply Gamaliel’s leadership lessons to our areas of ministry, and to overcome our Midwestern Lutheran patterns of personal modesty, politeness and patience when facing some conflict or obstacle to our own self-interests. I will continue wrestling with how I use this training in my ministry to and with GLC teens. But since I do believe the Christian church is called to serve the whole community, I’m ready and eager to see Gethsemane step into that arena, address real needs of our neighbors, and be an advocate for healthy change. "Faith is personal but it should be public, not private." Speaking up about our values is appropriate and Biblical. I look forward to finding out where we can grab on and help pull that plow forward… because the need is great indeed. Membership in ISAIAH is a good first step.
The component of training that was the biggest stretch for some of us was the concept of "agitating" (challenging) another person to honor the importance of his/her commitments and values by confronting and pushing him/her to live up to them. My biggest insight of the week, though, was the teaching that we agitate others as an "act of love." We want to see them live up to their potential, succeed, grow, and be good stewards of their God-given gifts. We seek to help them get out of their own way, overcome self-doubts, not take the easy way out, and not cheat themselves out of the opportunities before them. And if we take that responsibility seriously, we take some calculated risks to shake people out of their complacency.
Jesus Christ modeled “loving our neighbor” by treating widows and lepers with compassion and respect but also by boldly calling out the rich and powerful, holding them accountable for hypocritical teaching and for failing to live righteously. (As Pr. Laurie pointed out recently, that’s how he got himself killed!) He spoke truth to power, not to be mean but to be faithful to his mission: to draw his people back to God. And he didn’t have time to be polite about it. Like the prophets who came before him, Jesus said things that were hard to hear but necessary. Martin Luther continued this tradition later, out of love for the church.
At other times, Jesus needed to confront his friends, like Peter ("Get thee behind me, Satan!"). But he did this within the context of a relationship which they could trust as true and loving. Later, Paul’s letters to the early church leaders very often challenged them to remember Jesus’ words, insisted they not fall away or lose courage, and exhorted them to hold each other accountable to lead godly lives and continue to spread the Gospel. Paul never said, “Okay, I think you guys are doing it well enough. Go ahead and coast…” He used his relationships with them to coach them onward to grow the church and to never be satisfied.
I’m out of space but when I write again in May, I’ll let you know where I think we need to go with our youth ministry. In the meantime, I will practice being more bold, and maybe less polite…