Loving and Relational
By Donnamie K. Ali
Compared to Jesus’ servant leadership, leadership in the church is often more concerned with power than demonstrating love for the marginalized.
The internet and many book collections are littered with articles and books on leadership. John Maxwell, a leadership guru, penned the well-known saying that “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” From a pastoral viewpoint, it seems that if a person is not a strong leader with great measurable results, numbers of congregants, and money raised, one is not successful. However, the pages of the New Testament reveal that, while on earth Jesus only had a few genuine disciples among the many that followed him. Within Christian congregations are numerous examples of both domination and the lack of real care for persons.
People become part of a church fellowship for a variety of reasons: to draw closer to God, to find comfort when hurting, to find a shelter in the figurative storms, to receive help in navigating the maze-like corridors of life, or simply to have caring people to run to when the pressures of life are overwhelming.
A leader who embraces an open and relational God seeks to connect with the people of the congregation and community in loving non-judgmental ways. The God revealed in the bible is uncontrolling; therefore, those who lead the church of Jesus Christ must not seek to control those who come into the sanctuaries with great needs. What does an uncontrolling pastoral servant look like?
Parishioners must never be made to feel that they have to buy God’s pardon for sins committed or favors needed. The poor must be treated as well as the rich. The black as well as the white. The educated as well as the uneducated. The immigrant as well as the citizen. God loves all and sent Jesus into the world to die for all. He forgave the woman taken in adultery and all he asked was that she go and sin no more. He healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter who was persistent in her appeals for his intervention. Jesus, who demonstrated what God was like, embraced the rich Nicodemus, the children seeking him, the scorned lepers and the despised prostitutes.
God deliberately chose a position of vulnerability by taking on human form in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus demonstrated his willingness to mingle with, to touch, and to empathize with the common people. He touched the lepers, raised the widow’s son, and stayed at the house of the tax collector Zacchaeus, who, by virtue of his profession, was a social outcast.
In each of these instances, Jesus demonstrated God’s empowering love: the lepers were cleansed, the widow’s son was brought back to life, and Zacchaeus’s life was revolutionized by the intervention of love. There was never any hint that Jesus considered himself to be above the common people for he was one of them, though King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Some religious leaders cultivate an aura of aloofness and are even accompanied by unofficial foot soldiers! How this must sadden our Lord! Those who know the New Testament portrayal of Jesus and have been touched and transformed by the Holy Spirit as they meditate on his example, strive to be humble amidst impulses to be prideful. Success in ministry leading to elevation is often accompanied by the belief that one is somehow superior to others. While this would hardly be spoken of in Christian circles, the old adage that action speaks louder than words is often true in these instances. The very one that they serve is relational while they confine themselves to mingling only with those they consider to be equals.
It is reasonable to wonder if seating arrangements in the practice of table fellowship do not contribute to this. While people of similar interests may have more to say to each other, surely it would be more Christlike to foster mingling between the spiritual leaders and the general membership as often as possible? When ministers reach the position where they become untouchable, the relational Jesus is no longer exemplified in their Christian walk.
The questioning mind will observe that church leaders of large congregations sometimes do not attend to the spiritual needs of poorer congregants, except for sermons that all hear. These needs are left to the associate or lay ministers. The wealthy, on the other hand, gain the full attention of their spiritual leaders. What would Jesus do in these situations? The relational and humble Jesus had dinner at the wealthy Simon’s home and broke bread with his lowly disciples. In fact, the recorded gospels, in particular Luke, cited many instances of his interaction with society’s marginalized people.
Open theology identifies a God of relational love. God gives and receives love. Christian devotion and willingness to be conformed to what God expects speaks of love. Interaction with all of God’s created beings proclaims such relational love because the essential characteristic of God is love. To be elected or appointed to serve God’s church in a leadership position is a sacred privilege. It is not for self-aggrandizement nor is it for using one’s privilege to fatten one’s material coffers. Sadly, there are too many examples of selfishness among Christian leaders who at times seem to be more concerned with pomp, ceremony, and fine clothing than with reaching out to those they are called to serve.
Leadership that is open and relational will be servant leadership. Christ came to serve not to be served. That is loudly proclaimed when he washed his disciples’ feet. How far leaders sometimes fall from this ideal! People may be simple but they will not be fooled for long. Many walk away from the church because of leaders who exploit people’s ignorance. Leaders at times use the very bible that they draw their sermons from to browbeat the congregation rather than using it to preach grace for their sinfulness. N. Graham Standish in his book Humble Leadership, when talking about choosing leaders, mentioned, “We need to put much more emphasis on assessing their openness to God—and their readiness to let go of their own pride.”
Open and relational leaders will stay tuned to Jesus Christ. It is my opinion that the gospels need to be read regularly and preached from regularly so that both pulpit and pew will be reminded of a loving and relational God whose son Jesus Christ, came into the world. Preachers are leaders of their congregations and loving grace must be evident in their words and actions. When love is present, it is more likely to produce the desired change when rebukes need to be applied. Those who have the authority over pastors must also be servant leaders encouraging and demonstrating what John C. Bowling calls Grace-full Leadership.
Donnamie K. Ali is a devoted Christian who has been actively serving the Lord for the past 42 years. She is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene on the Trinidad and Tobago district and earned a M.Div. from Northwest Nazarene University in 2017. She is married and has been blessed with three children and four grandchildren.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.