This famous quote, generally attributed to Thomas Paine, but used (and abused!) by many has inspired leaders for a long time. “Leadership” and its exercise, especially in the Church, is something that concerns us all in one way or another. Some years ago, I reflected on ecclesial leadership while working on my doctoral dissertation, which dealt with the theological and canonical issues related to governance and deacons. Although my degree is in Theology, not Canon Law, there was no way to address this issue without consulting extensively with canonists, and, in particular, the late and great American canonist, Fr. James H. Provost. Jim became a good friend before his death, and his loss is still being felt by all who knew him.
I recently came across some notes I made from an article Jim wrote entitled,“Canonical Reflection on Selected Issues in Diocesan Governance” (in The Ministry of Governance, James K. Mallett, ed.). I offer the following list, taken and adapted from Jim’s article, as a reflection on traits essential to servant-leadership in the Church today. Jim wrote them specifically for his fellow canon lawyers, but I believe they have relevance for all pastoral ministers. The categories are Jim’s; the brief commentary is mine.
1) Be always vigilant for the spiritual purpose.
As we serve the People of God, this vigilance should be at the forefront. Regardless of the issue we are helping people with, what is the ultimate spiritual purpose behind it? Without this focus, ministry might become little more than social work. Obviously, this is not to suggest that social work is a bad thing! For the minister, however, we go beyond that task. As canon law itself reminds us, “The salvation of souls is the highest law” (salus animarum suprema lex). Keeping this principle in mind will help us keep our priorities straight.
2) Think with the Church.
As Pope Francis has recently reminded us, to “think with the Church” does not simply mean knowing the teachings of the Church, as important as that is, but to have a sense of what all members of the Church are thinking, and what their needs are. In other words, the Church — as People of God, Mystical Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit — is not simply the hierarchy, nor is the “mind of the Church” (mens ecclesiae) reducible to a collection of dogmas and doctrines: it involves active and caring listening to all, attempting to discern the will of God, and then acting accordingly. In short, when we consider this maxim, Pope Francis would remind us, “Think with the WHOLE Church.”
3) Serve if you would lead.
Anyone who has ever led others quickly realizes the profound truth that “a good leader is first a good follower.” However, it is equally true that the best leadership style is a servant-leadership, one that cares for the people serving with the leader. This is true, no matter what the venue. After leaving the seminary after eight years, I joined the Navy and wound up serving on active duty for twenty-two years, first as an enlisted linguist, and then — for the bulk of my career — as an officer. I served for many leaders, and had the privilege of serving in leadership as well: and the BEST leaders were always servant leaders. Such a leader was always concerned first with the needs of those he or she is leading so that they are then free to carry out the mission, whatever that happens to be. If this is true even in ways of life outside the Church, how much more profoundly is it true of those who serve in leadership in the Church. Servant leaders put others first, dream dreams, have visions, and inspire others to greatness in the eyes of God.
4) Use the power you have.
Power is not a bad word, despite the negative connotations often associated with it. Power is the first of the divine attributes, and power is imparted to us through the sacraments. Power is the ability to act, to serve, to provide care: all of this is good. Often people, even those who serve in ministry, will bemoan the apparent fact that they “don’t have the power to change” something. Still, all of us, through the grace of sacramental initiation and, for some, ordination, have a measure of “power” which must be used in service of others. Instead of worrying about what we cannot do, we need to focus on what we can do!
5) Empower the Church.
Speaking of power, it is meant to be shared. When Christ heals Peter’s mother-in-law, she immediately gets up to serve. That’s a good lesson for us in ministry: We are called not only to help others, we are called to help them UP. We are to give them the power they need to serve others and continue that mission. Power is meant to be used and shared.
6) Promote and protect rights.
The theology of the Church, as expressed through the law of the Church, focuses not only the responsibilities we have under the law, but on the rights we have: rights that come from God, and rights that are extended through the ministry and authority of the Church. Jim’s advice here, to focus on rights, puts the correct emphasis on ministries. The responsibilities we have flow from those rights: the responsibility for parents to be the prime educators of their children in faith, for example, flows first from their RIGHT to do so! In other words, we are encouraged not only to react to our responsibilities but to act first out of our rights; to be ACTIVE, not merely REACTIVE.
7) Consult when making decisions.
Fr. Provost was reminding canonists that the law often requires prior consultation in decision-making, but his advice is helpful to all of us. The Church, from its earliest days, has valued collegiality, collaboration and consultation. Consider, as just one example, the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” when Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet (confront?) the other leaders of the Church over the issue of Gentile converts. After talking together, those early leaders wrote a letter to the converts which acknowledged their dependence on the Holy Spirit who then informed their decision. Although we often hear from some folks that “the Church is not a democracy,” this is simply too simplistic and ignores the evidence of history, which suggests widespread models of collegiality and consultation, and we ignore that to our peril.
8) Interpret the law as it is meant to be interpreted.
This is a tricky one, but critical! For those of us who are not lawyers, it might be tempting to “read the black” and assume we know precisely what it means! Language, however, is symbol, and symbols always “contain” more than appears at first sight. When serving in ministry, do we make the proper attempts to find out how specific laws are to be interpreted? Consider point #1 again: How am I to interpret this law in light of the overall spiritual purpose of the situation? I am not suggesting that we find ways around our laws; merely that they will need to be interpreted as the law itself expects. For that, consultation may be required (see #7)!
9) Be generous.
One principle of the interpretation of Church law involves the very “generosity” of the law. The law exists for the spiritual good of people, and that involves being as generous as possible with the benefits of the Church. For example, do we seek out ways to provide the sacraments to people? We saw this recently when Pope Francis baptized the infants in the Sistine Chapel, including a child of a couple not yet married in the eyes of the Church. The situation of the parents, while of concern to us of course, need not cause us to be stingy with the benefits of baptism for the child as well as her parents. All of us in ministry can think of countless other examples: we need to think with our arms open.
10) Be consistent.
Every pastoral situation is unique, as we all know full well. And yet, justice obliges us to be consistent in our interpretation and application of law, while still appreciating the unique demands of each situation. I think the caution here also involves the dangers of parochialism or favoritism for some people, and a narrow interpretation for those we may not know — or like! — as well! This gives us a needed balance of pastoral approach. It also conveys a sense of positive predictability: we are trying to be even-handed with all because all are equal in the sight of God.
11) Be timely.
Is this one ever important! Remember, again, that Jim was writing this to fellow canon lawyers, reminding them that “justice delayed is justice denied.” That applies across the whole spectrum of pastoral ministry. Are we as responsive as we should be to the questions, requests, concerns that come our way, or do we procrastinate or even ignore certain things? The people we serve have a right to a timely response, whatever their need is. How do we feel when it seems someone is ignoring or discounting us and our concerns?
12) Be forthright.
Many of us struggle with this one. As ministers, we don’t want to hurt others. Sometimes, however, we are the bearers of bad news or difficult decisions. Jim’s reminder is that, despite the difficulties which we may encounter in doing so, we need to be honest and direct with those we serve. This does not mean that we are insensitive or nasty about things; it simply means that we all have to be honest with each other.
I, for one, continue to struggle with these principles. Still, they are a good “checklist” for servant-leadership, and can serve as a fine reflective tool when we’re on retreat, for example! Perhaps it is better to say that they can form part of a ministerial examination of conscience as we grow in service to others. There are times when each and every one of us is asked to “lead.” At other times we are all called to “follow”, and still other times when we just need to “get out of the way”!