Yesterday I started a series of posts in which I hope to set out a few reflections on ways that leaders might learn from Jesus. My starting reflection has to do with Jesus’ relationship with his Father, and the starting point is the Father’s voice at his baptism.
Near my desk I have a little piece of calligraphy (see the photo) that presents these words from Henri Nouwen:
Listen to the voice that calls you the beloved.
Nouwen is drawing his language from the start of Jesus’ ministry (see Mark 1:9-11) when Jesus has just been baptised by John the Baptist (a somewhat confused John the Baptist who thought Jesus should be baptising him, not vice versa) and the Father speaks words of acceptance and affirmation.
You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
I must admit to some ambivalence to Nouwen’s application of the language. After all, there is a uniqueness to Jesus’ sonship: none of the rest of us can lay claim to God’s fatherhood in exactly the same way as Jesus. If we get that wrong, we’re into all kinds of trinitarian confusion!
On the other hand I think all of us – leaders or not – have a deep longing to hear this kind of voice. As Nouwen suggests there are all kinds of voices that speak to us with messages about our identity. There are the nagging voices that tell us we are desperate failures or hypocrites, that we will never amount to much, that we are wasting our time, or that at best God tolerates us but probably doesn’t like us and if he loves us, it’s not with any degree of affection!
With all that going on, we need to hear the voice that tells us we are loved!
One of the things that has most struck me int he past few years as I have talked with a range of Christian leaders, initially in the context of my doctoral work and more recently in my Leadership Journey series of podcasts, has been the recurring theme of God’s love. Here is an example from a leader who recalled a quite remarkable encounter with God:
The one thing that he did reassure me, more than anything else, was that he loved me, he loved me … It was just a total assurance of his love. If ever there was a life-changing thing that was it.
Another called about a time when he ‘felt soaked in the mercy of God … [It was] a really, really important engagement with God in my life. I think my ministry changed … it was as though the Lord reenergised my ministry at that particular point.’
Lest some of you accuse me of sliding into uncontrolled subjectivity at this point (!), let me offer Paul’s second major prayer in Ephesians in which he prays that the Ephesian believers (not just their leaders) would be able ‘to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’.
In their excellent book on resilience in Christian ministry, Bob Burns and his colleagues make this observation:
Pastors often slip into the trap of building their identities around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Pastors need to pursue growth in their understanding of and feelings concerning God’s acceptance.
There is something odd about the fact that many grew up singing ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’, yet it can take a while for a deep assurance of that love to sink into our subjective experience. I have often recounted the story that Philip Yancey tells about someone who challenged him with these words:
“Philip, do you ever just let God love you?” she said, “It’s pretty important, I think.”
I think it’s a great challenge for any leader. The challenges of leadership and the complexities of ministry in the current crisis could drive all of us to distraction. Add those negative voices that tells us that we will never amount to much (so we’d better try even harder) or that our work is a waste of time (again, try harder to prove the voice wrong, or just give up), and the still, small voice of the Father is drowned out.
Leaders: you need to lead from a place that is quiet enough to hear the Father’s voice.