This is the text of a sermon preached at Cliftonville Moravian Church on 25th September:
Yesterday, I was following the news more closely than I normally do. I can’t say that politics excites me, but I do tune in when there is something vaguely interesting happening.
In that context, many of you will know that Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected as leader of the Labour party, by a substantial margin. The politics, and policies behind it, do not concern me as we gather here today. What has piqued my interest though, is the wider question of how we view leadership.
This question is not merely an abstract point of debate for political anoraks or party activists. It is very much of importance to us all; the course our country will take through the turbulent waters of global economic instability, the shape that Brexit takes and numerous other domestic and international policy decisions, will be determined in the next few months and years. The leader of the opposition will have an influence, at least to some degree, on all of these.
Over the last number of weeks I have heard many commentators say that Mr. Corbyn simply does not have leadership qualities, or that he is not leadership material. I have to say though, that in all honesty, I am not quite sure at all what they mean. What makes for a strong leader? Is there one model that these individuals are referring to? I suspect not. We all approach these questions from our unique perspectives.
Over my career, I have been in several leadership positions in an array of environments ranging from the commercial to the charity sector. I have operated differently in each case, and I have been managed differently in each case; there is no one size that fits all. The context is always different and the personality of the leader makes an enormous difference.
So leadership is very much in our minds. And I almost forgot to mention the leadership contest that is reaching a crescendo of activity, and nastiness, across the Atlantic. Our friends in the US will soon be choosing between two of the most unpopular candidates in US Presidential history. Again, I make no comment on the merits of each individual – that is for each of us to do ourselves – but these events, and the wall-to-wall media coverage certainly do make us think about the wider issues.
And so let us turn our attention to leadership in the Church – and I mean ’Church’ in its widest sense, as the body of believers. Each denomination has its own form of government and organisation. Our own is more egalitarian than most; that means that the responsibilities of leadership are spread widely amongst our membership, and that, in my opinion, is just as it should be. We all play a central role in leading and shaping local congregations and the wider church family. And we do so, not in a vacuum, and not just on the basis of our own talents and ideas, but infused with a will to follow God at all times. Our leadership is based on the premise that, although we will surely make errors in how we go about things, we acknowledge God’s providence; we hold in our hearts those words from Jeremiah 29:11:
‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future!.
Nevertheless, that task, taking hold of leadership, may at first seem daunting. The church faces so many challenges; the need for change and renewal is perhaps greater now than it has ever been. The need for effective and collective leadership is plain for all to see. With the challenges before us it can be tempting to give up……to leave it all to others….to sit back and to think that very little can be done. But as we do so, let us turn our eyes and open our hearts to those magnificent words spoken to Joshua:
Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Joshua had leadership qualities in abundance. Reflecting on his example shows us the way forward. Joshua was a man of humility……he had faith and trust in God in abundance……and he was very much a man of prayer. His lived example of humility, faith and prayer represent the triad of essential ingredients for effective leadership in the spiritual realm.
Yes, Joshua was humble. For forty years he served God through serving Moses; thereafter he continued to serve God, albeit in a more prominent, public role. But throughout he never lost his focus on God. God was always paramount and Joshua never forgot this. Neither did he forget that true leadership is very much about service. As Helena Blavatsky once wrote: ‘the greatest among men is always ready to serve and yet is unconscious of the service’.
Joshua was also a man whose very being was infused with faith in God. He realised that futility of placing his faith in other flawed and fragile human beings; he knew that relying solely on his own innate abilities was no less futile. And so he looked to God and to God alone. His life echoes with the words of the theologian Karl Barth: ‘In God alone there is faithfulness and faith in the trust that we may hold to him, to his promise, to his guidance. To hold to God is to rely on the fact that God is there for me, and to live in this certainty’.
Humility and faith abounded in Joshua. Both of these attributes were enhanced by his prayer life. He prayed frequently, honestly and earnestly. As Carlo Carretto reminds us: ‘the degree of our faith is the degree of our prayer. The strength of our hope is the strength of our prayer. The warmth of our charity is the warmth of our prayer.’
With humility, faith and prayer all things are possible. Joshua is an important reminder of the truth of that statement. In his inner and outer life he reflected the ‘moral’ leadership displayed by a number of Old Testament figures. As Hershey Friedman wrote in his paper entitled ‘Moral Leadership: Ancient Lessons for Modern Times’, published in the Journal of College and Character (2001), ‘careful examination of the lives of several leaders described in the Hebrew Bible indicates that the purpose of leadership is not fame, power, or fortune, but to lead people with truth and righteousness’.
Leadership, however, does not flow from perfection. God uses us, as he did with the plethora of Old and New Testament leaders with all our insecurities and imperfections to advance the cause of his kingdom. He calls on each and every one of us to exercise leadership in our congregations and communities; exactly what that leadership looks like will depend on our own talents and personalities, shaped by God and those we serve. With humility, faith and prayer we can follow his will in our own lives and collectively in this place, and beyond. We do not embark upon this task, or indeed any task, alone. And as God himself reminded Joshua, and by extension reminds us in our modern age:
Joshus 1:5f ‘As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you’.