By Dr. Terri Martinson Elton, Director of the Center for First Third Ministry at Luther Seminary
Each year our country takes a day to “honor” past presidents. Mostly we honor them by getting the day off from school, or work if we are lucky, giving little or no attention to presidents at all. But on this president’s day I got thinking about presidents and leadership. Every four years we, the people, offer our voice regarding who should be the leader of our country. We do this based on many variables, among the top are issues we want the leadership of our country to address. We, the people, have expectations of leaders, so much so that four years later each president’s “era” is judged by what has been accomplished in their term. And so the cycle goes.
As one who is fascinated by leadership, I wonder about the wisdom of such an approach to leadership. Yes, we Americans tend to be overly pragmatic, focused on what works and accomplished within a small window of time. We want leaders to lead complex communities toward high and lofty goals, but prefer simple solutions and not much change in our lives. Yes, we want systems, but also feel restrained by them and find excuses to avoid them as much as possible. And, ironically, the contextual realities of our 21st century world are not only multi-faceted, they are more complicated than ever. Yet, we, the people, feel free to critique leadership for not doing their job, and simply vote one person out and another in, hoping for different results.
Leading in the church often follows similar patterns. Increase worship attendance, in a society less religiously affiliated; create partnership between congregations and homes, in a time when homes are under stress from all sides; and be an effective communicator, when cultural patterns and norms are experiencing huge change…pastor, youth worker, or council member! And, by the way, we want to see results by the end of the year! Hands off, we the people, stand back and watch leadership be attentive to these goals, but as we experience change, loss, and maybe even despair, we are left disappointed and ready to vote in another leader.
I’m becoming more convinced that leadership cannot be judged in four year intervals. Perhaps this is always true, but given the complexities of our day, the impact leadership has on communities will only be known decades later. For example, leading my city requires having a long-term vision; a vision which involves education, business, the medical community, government, and transportation with an eye toward all people, old and young, of various economic situations. This means leaders will make unpopular decisions in the short-term, but for the good of the community long-term. Good, wise, leaders know this, and lead by listening to the people and keeping an eye toward the long-term vision.
So, today, I wonder if it’s time to take our eyes off the leader, at least for a moment, and focus on we, the people. Perhaps the leadership lesson for today is its time to rethink followership. Are you willing to come alongside the leaders in your life? Can you let go of the urgency you feel and attempt to see the vision of the leader? Will you stop asking for simplistic answers and be open to learning about the deeper complexities? And are you able to put off your judgment for weeks, months or even years?
Today…honor the wisdom of great leaders by rethinking what it means to follow.
Join the conversation on Facebook.com/FirstThird!
Terri Elton is passionate about young people and their families, and loves the church. No really! She’s our Associate Professor and teaches with an eye toward developing leaders and leading change.
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