Revelation in Relationship: Leadership as Affirmation and Spiritual Formation

By Bruce Epperly

Open and relational theologies prize the interplay of relationship, reciprocity, and revelation, and this encourages healthy and affirmative relational styles.

Theology matters. Our theological viewpoints can be a matter of life and death, health and illness, and positive and negative approaches to leadership. Our images of God, God’s relationship to the world, and our relationships with one another can be factors in promoting authoritarian or collaborative leadership styles. Open and relational theologies prize the interplay of relationship, reciprocity, and revelation, and this encourages healthy and affirmative relational styles.

Open and relational theologies affirm the statement: “God in all things and all things in God.” The affirmation “God in all things,” the divine ubiquity, has profound implications for interpersonal and institutional relationships. From this perspective, regardless of our awareness, God’s Spirit speaks within each of us “in sighs too deep for words,” providing possibilities for immediate and direct insight as well as more nuanced unconscious inspiration and synchronicity. (Romans 8:26) There are no God-free or Godless zones nor is any creature bereft of divine guidance. Unlike traditional Calvinist theologies which separate the world in terms of saved and damned, elect and reprobate, and by implication, god-inspired and godforsaken, the ubiquity of divine revelation makes each encounter and every individual a potential revealer of divine wisdom. This insight can significantly shape our professional and personal relationships. Wise leaders recognize that those with whom they work are influenced by God and, thus, may become sources of institutional, congregational, and workplace insight. Moreover, revelation inspires reception and reciprocity, the willingness to be transformed by others’ experiences, whether at the divine or human levels of experience.

In over nearly forty years of institutional, classroom, and congregational leadership, I have tried to approach leadership in terms of God’s ubiquitous revelation and the importance of being shaped by others’ insights. While my leadership role gives me primary responsibility for maintaining the right blend of order and novelty, and structure and freedom, in any given institutional setting, my perception of this “democracy of revelation,” grounded in divine ubiquity, has encouraged me to look for truth and guidance from others in every relational setting. I have discovered that healthy leadership provides a “playing field” that promotes mutuality and creativity. As an academic, congregational, or classroom leader, I seek to look beneath the surface of those whom I teach and supervise to experience and support their deeper holiness and divinity as well as spiritual and scholarly initiative. From this perspective, every person and every encounter can be a medium of revelation for those whose senses are trained toward divinity.

This democracy of revelation invites leaders to be on the lookout for wisdom and insight wherever it is found, often in the most unlikely places. The universality of revelation grounded in the vision of a relational God transforms our understanding of power dynamics. Bernard Loomer, with whom I studied at Claremont Graduate School, described two kinds of power, unilateral and relational. These two power dynamics relate to God-world as well as interpersonal relationships.

These two approaches to power reflect radically different understandings of revelation. Unilateral power, grounded in authoritarian understandings of the relationship of God and the world and, accordingly, promoting authoritarian understandings of the relationship of leaders and followers, sees revelation as limited and binary in nature. Those in authority “know” what’s right and divide the world into the informed and uninformed, competent and incompetent, and saved and lost. They don’t need, and can’t be bothered with, alternative viewpoints, which, by definition, have nothing of value to offer. From the perspective of unilateral power, knowledge and insight is understood as finite and zero-sum in nature. Accordingly, the knowledge and viewpoints of “inferiors” are always a threat to those in authority. “My way or the highway” is an appropriate leadership style if leadership is seen as unilateral in character. If others have insights—and in a binary world this is unlikely—then it is possible that I (the leader) may be wrong or, more charitably, need to learn from those whose credentials I perceive as inferior to my own. If they are permitted to be knowledge bearers or have a role in shaping the classroom, organization, or congregation I lead, then my monopoly on knowledge and power is put at risk. Their self-affirmation and self-expression threaten my understanding of leadership.

In contrast, relational power and knowledge is based on a perception of inspirational abundance which welcomes diverse viewpoints and multiple intelligences and ways of knowing as contributing to a growing body of knowledge, power, and effectiveness. In an open and evolving universe, we are always in process and growing. This is even the case for Jesus of Nazareth, who “grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and humankind.” (Luke 2:52) Relational knowledge and leadership is always incomplete, subject to change, and communal in spirit. In an affirmative community, the gifts and gains of one member positively impact the totality and promote greater creativity and achievement. (I Corinthians 12:7-30, especially 12:26)

Revelation leads to reciprocity as leaders are transformed by their relationships. Bernard Loomer, who coined the term process-relational theology, asserts that “size” or “stature” is fundamental to spiritual growth and healthy relatedness. According to Loomer:

By size I mean the stature of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness.1

Leaders of stature, such as Abraham Lincoln who gathered a “team of rivals” to be his cabinet in the darkest days of the United States Civil War, welcome diverse and creative viewpoints, including those that critique and challenge. They see differing viewpoints, shared civilly and for the well-being of the community, as aesthetic contrasts rather than win-lose oppositions. Large-spirited leaders are cosmopolitan in outlook, seeking to go beyond their own parochial viewpoint to embrace wider and wider circles of concern. As Mahatmas on the job, these leaders encourage wholeness and collaboration in the contexts where they lead. They recognize that professional, classroom, and workplace well-being and growth are contingent on appreciation and affirmation, of supporting as much creativity and freedom as possible given the overall needs of the specific context.

In my own approach to leadership, whether in congregation, classroom, or seminary, I am guided by the following theological and spiritual affirmations. I make these evident to colleagues and students by my words and actions:

  • There are many ways and many possible “right” answers to life’s most important questions. (Sometimes the “right” answer depends on our perspective or the dynamics of institutional, congregational, or classroom life, as well as the realities of change.)
  • Each person has inner wisdom that can be shared for the well-being of the classroom, congregation, or community.
  • Our workplace, congregation, or classroom is a laboratory for recognizing your gifts and cultivating your voice for leadership.
  • Our workplace, congregation, or classroom is a laboratory for recognizing your limitations and fallibility and cultivating your need to hear other voices.
  • Expressing gratitude and appreciation encourages partnership and creativity.
  • Leadership involves looking for insight and guidance in unexpected places. (For example, listen to the children of the congregation; pay attention to the quiet members of the group; heed the helpful comments of “naysayers” as well as “positive thinkers.”)
  • Speak your truth, but share it with humility and love, recognizing others’ different perspectives and need for self-esteem.
  • Accept the insights of others and let them widen your perspective and practice as a community and in your leadership role.
  • In an open and relational world, there is no final answer. We are constantly in process and are at our best when we initiate novel responses to the novelties of our environment.

Theology makes a difference. Prizing relatedness and possibility makes leadership the art of spiritual midwifery for leaders, colleagues, students, and institutions. With the poet Rumi, I believe that there are (at least) a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground. Accordingly, entertaining a variety of perspectives, coming from various members of a team or class, brings forth new perspectives, expands ownership and commitment, and opens the door to new possibilities. This is the way God works in the world, nurturing creativity in our world, receiving our creative contributions, and inviting us to be partners in healing an unfinished world.

1Bernard Loomer, “S-I-Z-E is the Measure,” Harry James Cargas and Bernard Lee, Religious Experience and Process Theology, 70.

Bruce Epperly is Senior Pastor and Teacher, South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, and professor in the areas of theology, spirituality, and ministry in the D.Min. Program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of over fifty books, including The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World; Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims; and Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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