How Enable Its Re-vision

This chapter appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, DYN self-published, 2020

Ever since observing my parents together decide about business purchases, experiencing pastors who either welcomed or were threatened by members’ strong gifts, or working with committees manipulated or sensitively moved through an agenda, a concept of leadership has been emerging for me. What causes ongoing discontent as a result?

How deep are questions regarding leadership? Did Methodists, with a system of pastor rotation, provide crucial change? What all is involved in my restlessness with one or the same one, whether with congregation, denomination or even religion? Might ecumenical richness—combining loyalty with being open to diversity—be vital to human being? Is need for multiplicity, for change due in part to leadership style, a fundamental value of difference? Did the onset of women in pastoring roles cause true change in leading style, leader ways of relating? Did they, like men before them, presume to stay in that role until retirement age or did they so instill the desire to lead and enable qualities of leadership in others? Did former leaders expect to return to roles of being committed followers in full support of new leaders? Had they gained due insight into creative exchange? Is such exchange essential for faithful leading?

Focus for this paper does not extend to large universities or businesses, broader government or nation. No doubt, larger groups call for distinct patterns. Links here center in my experience—units of family, congregations of up to several hundred members, and small job locations or institutions as for education or income. Basic to my vision is conviction that each person begins life with diverse abilities, admittedly with varied amounts. For given periods of time, parents, relatives, teachers, neighbors, and local leaders then prod gifted individuals to “grow” their talents and hopes. We either bring about or stifle needed change. No one deserves to linger at one pace or stage of development, to sense being limited by another’s determined control. Does this vision as it applies to leading sound too ideal? The invitation to consider it appears.

In 1980 when enrolled in a seminary course titled “The Church,” I wrote two papers, one on leadership the other on ordination. At that time, I was a member of an “Ordination” committee at College Mennonite Church, Goshen, that made plans for group discussion. Two years later I combined those topics for a short article for the May-June Report of the MCC Women’s Concern organization. Regarding those topics, that article included eight New Testament Observations, seven points about Church History, and seven factors useful to reexamine.

Notes from those three sections reflect how topics of leadership and ordination continue to pose issues or questions. Do we avoid relying on mere human authority figures but acknowledge that Jesus relinquished Divine privilege to live among us? Jesus and early church believers blessed individuals, not restricted to leaders or distinct office, through “laying on of hands.” Water baptism signifies Spirit presence for ministry tasks. Later Pastoral epistles refer to leader roles like bishop which patterns Jewish practice, not Jesus’ example. . . Reformation efforts gave lip service to a return to the “priesthood of all,” but it has happened only briefly in history. Three-fold ministry, prominent men, and power in office were reinstituted. . . Authority is in membership. Is servant style compatible with headship? We choose to support cultural and social norms. The creative leader reads broadly, listens with attention, dreams, clarifies and summarizes, responds to feelings, perceives breadth as well as detail, draws from other’s strengths, appreciates differences of opinion and conviction, recognizes biases with which s/he operates, values personal choice and decision-making for all affected by those.

Although seminary trained and when involved as a Teaching Elder with the Campus cluster of Assembly Mennonite Church, I chose not to be ordained. That decision followed close attention to scripture and conviction that Anabaptists are duly ordained to minister within adult baptism. Throughout the course mentioned, professor John Howard Yoder made comments such as:

Leader does not appear with any biblical listing of gifts.”
“Only the body model (not hierarchy) is called ‘good’ in the New Testament.”
“We must start by first believing that each member has a gift.”
“Each task has its own authority.”
“New Testament attention to church tasks speaks to: universality, plurality, and interrelatedness.” “Most tasks (in groups of some size) should not be done by only one person.”
“Nobody ranks as a full member if not doing a definite task (for the membership).”
He further suggested that the term leader (as now often defined) is not helpful. Groups need some sense of organization; to test what results contribute to the process.

Such statements make sense; on some I will elaborate in an effort to define leadership. I am not convinced that a unit as small as a nuclear family or committee of three to six members needs a designated leader, toward whom the others cater. Creativity can be stifled if shared opportunity for growth through leading is denied. The more that each member reflects trust, values diversity, and acknowledges personal security when another also achieves, learns, and succeeds in leading, the more enabled become mutual relating and leadership. Larger units benefit from some structure. But patriarchal and hierarchal structures—locked in systems and dualistic categories of leader-follower or clergy-laity—that balk at change need new vision.

Leadership that enforces difference in ability rather than constructive effort toward greater ease of opportunity and responsibility only hinders. The articulate leader revels not in how inferior another can be made to feel by comparison but in observing and commending increased confidence in that other. The helpful leader, who values her or his own ability, retains scope both to learn from and teach others. The Creative leader reads broadly, listens with attention, dreams, clarifies and summarizes, responds to feelings, perceives breadth as well as detail, prompts and draws from others’ strengths, appreciates difference of opinion and conviction, recognizes biases with which s/he operates, values personal choice and decision-making for all affected. That leader keeps agenda moving, responds organizationally and intuitively. Moreover, the authentic leader presumes that other members (of committee or congregation) possess and desire to exercise that range of qualities and capacities too! To assure balance, s/he avoids disproportionate leading experience, expecting others to share duty. As a result, anyone can leave the group and it will continue to function with minimal interruption.

Leadership understanding and procedure gains insight through basic experience within family structure. How people function in that small unit reveals itself elsewhere. No one need feel superior to others or painfully inadequate; no one insists on privilege over others. Attitudes penetrate through other human relationships. Authentic servants avoid being irresponsible or exclusively opportune. One avoids developing at the expense of another. Those who accept discrepancy in justice need seriously to analyze obvious or subtle motivations for preferring, tolerating or promoting value difference. Granted, personal interests will vary, but stereotypes or false assumptions should not determine those interests rather than fair choice and opportunity.

Wherever societal assumption blesses, expects, or educates for difference based on categories not chosen—of sex, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation—cooperation is affected. Assigning names or labels may be useful on unique occasions for the sake of “order”—as with the initial human creature’s designating the animals. Beyond such occasions, “to name” or label means “to have power over.” Risk for value judgment may follow. More creative ways to defy chaos can be pursued.

As servants/slaves of Christ, Christians claim wholeness. Supposedly committed to Jesus’ model of denouncing priority rights (Phil. 2) or cautiously alert to Jesus’ model of fullness through suffering and self-sacrifice, we continue to sanction leader-follower categories pregnant with discrimination. We bless division. We justify barriers. We destroy the unity for which Christ offers life. And then we call the end result order! Or whatever not so ordered, chaos. We unhelpfully conclude: the family without a clearly defined or operating “head” must be chaotic; it cannot exist. The committee or church staff without a labeled, functioning “leader” will not have coherence or direction. The church gathered without “officially” commissioned/ordained leadership presumes disarray, panic, perhaps even the absence of God. How misinformed people can be!

The task remains to propose an alternative understanding. Being a responsible member—of family, committee, congregation—remains central to my proposal. Each individual’s being responsible avoids chaos. Failure to be personally accountable or reliable can cause chaos. For example, partners in Christian marriage have choices. Either may demean the self or the other through labels—one to give personal power, the other to receive it. God intended human relationships to be reciprocal, unified, interdependent. Partners therefore choose to comparably value themselves and each other. Committed to the priority of fully realizing the reign of God (rather than rule by one of them), they recognize that labeling one as head detracts from vesting complete authority in the Divine alone. Headship counters shared feelings, joint action, internal determination.

Church committee or staff members also choose to either be fully responsible or expect another to lead, to be more responsible. The latter stance diminishes or weakens commitment. Unwillingness and over willingness foster chaos, releasing potential for failure. Not the inherent fault of leadership, failure stems from distorted perception of responsibility. “Leaders” either discourage co-members’ taking responsibility (often in order to feel more secure or purposeful themselves) or co-members, unwilling to assume their share of tasks, avoid opportunity and diminish personal commitment.

On a larger scale, a similar phenomenon operates within congregations. When leaders depend on a self-definition of being distinct from others rather than genuine co-laborers or when members refuse being true co-laborers to bring God’s full reign to reality, chaos surfaces. Orderliness collapses but not due to leadership alone. Confusion, unnecessary duplication, or neglect happen when each does less or more than one person’s due portion of the task. Doing less disrespects others who must do more; doing more disrespects those careless about doing less. Commitment to responsible membership in a corporate Christian body entails just that—solid, purposeful, intentional loyalty. Working at that task calls into question both leadership and membership.

Each member is invested with gifts and authority to contribute to the cause of groups (family, committee, or congregation). Robert Half’s statement surfaces: “There is something more scarce or rarer than ability. It is the ability to recognize ability.” Leaders will note and encourage membership development. Together, they determine who for a given period of time will utilize certain gifts. Then, as leaders enable members to replace them, they in turn support newly defined leaders. Not being that extraordinary, no special status or value needs to bless (ordain) difference among members. Healthy leadership gets dispersed or shared among members. When only elite ones repeatedly lead for extended periods of time, few others develop conviction about their latent gifts for leadership.

A strength of Anabaptist heritage was its early experience with frequent leadership turnover. Not that such replacement occurred due to vision! Turnover resulted from radical commitment to restoring the essential of being church, of belonging. Commitment antagonized opponent observers to persecute, destroy, or spread out leaders. As a result, more and more members emerged and were validated by believers to the ongoing task of leading. As groups settled due to being less radical, when a three-fold ministry pattern emerged and the “priesthood of all” no longer prompted belief or practice, an aspect of our heritage diminished. So today, a dependency pattern follows. Leaders depend on member’s being dependent on them. Authority becomes vested in select human beings at the expense of others, even perhaps of God’s complete authority. Hierarchy proves its ingrown quality.

We need not panic over “loss of authority.” Nor is “loss of authority” in church or society remedied by mere “father figures,” by “middle roaders” who “keep everybody happy,” by those ready to excuse the majority from being responsible. I advocate a renewed sense of personal authority. God’s authority or power comes vested in each believer. As we intentionally choose to be radical, we more likely will be. God’s reign depends on “the priesthood of all.” Leaders coordinate the combining of members’ tasks to extend God’s care to others and creation, God’s call to belief. Leaders model the how of seeing through tasks from vision to fulfillment or readiness for re-vision. Effectiveness emerges in part by being replaced, in readiness to learn and work as others newly convinced of their skills model leading.

Responsible members in relationships—of family, committee/staff, or congregation—plan in advance, enable the corporate process, and accept follow-up segments of tasks. Authentic leaders influence, expect, and accomplish entering into all three dimensions. They: suggest to a member planning a sermon useful biblical resources, phone a committee member to commend him/her for a creative process suggestion, consult spouse or housemate about their relating to a neighbor’s depression. Such thoughts anticipate further resources.

Ever-looking for breadth or depth, note briefly a cluster of diverse sources. A Glossary of leadership qualities and traits appears in Karol Brown’s small book about the noted conductor of the Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman.1 Her alphabetical list: accountability, advocate, assertiveness, character, charismatic, collaborator, determination, humility, influence, inspirational, integrity, legacy, mentor, people skills, responsible, self-esteem, and visionary.

In a chapter titled “Leadership,” J. Heinrich Arnold gathers ideas from Hutterite Brethren to convey the depth of complete dedication in a book titled Discipleship.2 Several phrases from this male-led group: “A leader promotes close cooperation with all members. . . No one is higher or lower, since all members are of one body. . . Not with authority over others, humility marks the leader. . . Readiness for admonition, especially in the event of misusing authority. . . Speak the truth and avoid the trivial. . . Honor only Christ, not human greatness.”

Robert Greenleaf wrote about Servant Leadership. Greenleaf’s focus centers in church structure, its dynamics of relationship. He admits that “serve and lead are overused words with negative connotations.”3 Intent on prioritizing stance, he explains how leader-first and servant-first types differ. Qualities that he links with servanthood include listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, foresight and stewardship. Reflecting a positive understanding of leadership, he could have more convincingly clarified the servant stance and how it directly enables another.

An influential source for women in church leadership is Letty M. Russell’s Church in the Round.4 Whenever the paradigm of reality shifts, as with women studying and leading in a field formerly led by men, “everything has to be thought through from a new perspective.” Key ideas from Russell that I value include to: live out “responsible care for” instead of dominion over; value connection, teams, and shared partnership; commend baptism to mark all members for ministry, rather than ordination for a few; enable authentic service; exercise Spiritual gifts for others’ good (empowerment); balance leading (standing with) and power; and affirm that ministry involves sharing authority in community—authority of purpose rather than of position, being crucial.

Kerry Strayer reports on experience of three Mennonite women leaders in higher education.5 Shirley Showalter, at the time President of Goshen College (IN), refers to family encouragement as well as high school teachers who nudged her to pursue leadership. Her criteria for deciding whether to guide a change in general education asked: “Does it seem interesting? Would I enjoy it? Would I grow as a result of it?” Mentoring by other college presidents helped her to “think institutionally.” Lee Snyder discovered her skills with administrative tasks through twelve years as Dean at Eastern Mennonite University (VA) before accepting the President role at Bluffton University (OH). She wishes for future leaders: “that women in the church get equal opportunity and respect, that they feel empowered to explore their leadership gifts, and that they don’t feel that they have to do it all.” Sara Wenger Shenk “loved her work as president” for nine years at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (IN). There, she “took a progressive stance of advocating for women’s education.” With her seminary administrative skills mentored in Virginia, she valued the move from “internal work of policy and pedagogy to building the public case for theological education.”

Among noted theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s books is one titled Discipleship of Equals.6 She engages with the dilemma for Christians who wish to be leaders while dealing directly with the male-dominated focus of ancient biblical content plus the dominance of male-oriented translating and interpreting of scripture as men gave shape to leadership through the centuries.

Since early Christian communities and authors lived in a predominantly patriarchal world and participated in its mentality, it is likely that the scarcity of much of the information about women was conditioned by the androcentric (male-oriented) traditioning and redaction of the early Christian authors. This applies especially to the gospels and Acts since these were written toward the end of the first century.7

A basic problem for centuries is: maleness being established as norm while femaleness was defined as deviation from that norm; male leaders defined women as relative to themselves, intent to retain their advantage through language, stereotypes, and value. Even so, noteworthy women leaders practiced through time. That fact remains undeniable even if they reflect a mostly hidden minority. Complaints about “not having mentors” can reflect either a dominance of men or failure to search them out.

Schussler Fiorenza calls for a discipleship of equals. Discipleship for early Christians meant “doing what Jesus did” including to suffer in living out ethical rightness, as related to oppressed folk. For all people to be equals emphasizes being human, not primarily men. Since “women do not ‘fit’ into a male-typed theological discipline,” women, when inclined toward church leading need forthrightly to counter patriarchy (“dependence on and control by men in power.”) Such effort can lead toward appointing “compliant token women.”8 Discipleship of equals or leadership that challenges traditional authority involves “enabling, energizing, creative effort” toward others, not having dominion over them.

Several other quotes from Schussler Fiorenza convey Wisdom:

A final resource to commend comes from Eboo Patel titled: Interfaith Leadership A Primer.10 I especially value how interfaith activity enables or defines leadership more broadly. According to Patel, the leader will have skills with both individuals and communities and knows how to be inclusive. S/he, organizes toward cooperation, engages people in ways that receive difference and conflict while moving toward consensus or oneness in community. A skilled leader pays attention, feels with others, and anticipates; s/he is informed, appreciates, and has empathy toward distinct and diverse traditions involved. S/he builds relationships among those who differ. Above all, skill is needed to “ask the right questions.” Good questions involve a range of perspectives, guide conversation in a useful direction, “evoke stories rather than opinions, build connections across lines of difference” and above all “help people deepen their relationship with their own tradition (view) and their relation with others at the same time.”11


This paper combines writing about Leadership from course work done decades ago with more current reference to experience. Distinct qualities of leadership have been noted along with vision for practice of it not yet materialized. One might be both grateful that more women now share tasks with men along with awareness of ongoing need to dream of additional ways to enhance and express it. Opportunity prevails for readers to “go from here” to apply their hopes for the future as wise leaders