Saturday, November 27, 2010

Point to Ponder #4: Deacon as Servant-Leader

A major industry has arisen around the nature and exercise of leadership, including the specific type of leadership known as "servant leadership."  Even one of my own books is subtitled "Servant Leaders in a Servant Church".  So this little reflection cannot hope to contain all of the insights to be found in all of these resources.  However, I still encounter members of the diaconate community who struggle, and sometimes oppose, the notion that they are called to leadership!  "I'm a servant," they say, "not a leader."  However, the history and theology of the church tell a very different story.  Ordination to any order, like it or not, involves leadership responsibility.  I find that reluctance to accept this fact usually flows out of some rather narrow understandings of what leadership actually means within a community.

Here are some things I find important about leadership, especially vis-a-vis deacons:

1) Ordination, to any order, involves the assumption of leadership in and for the church.  A review of scripture, the patristic authors, and the historical theology of the church all agree: the reason for ordination is to set persons in leadership relationship to their community.  A bishop, for example, presides over the worship of the community precisely because he is first the overall leader of that community; the same can be said about a presbyter appointed pastor of a parish.  And a deacon, ordained and appointed by the bishop to extend the bishop's own sphere of leadership, participates in this role as well.  Vatican II, in Lumen gentium #18, as it begins its treatment of the three ordained ministries, describes them all as ministries instituted by Christ to build up the People of God.  "Building up" is a function of leadership, and the willing assumption of such leadership is an important part of the vocational discernment of the deacon.

2) All good leadership is "servant" leadership.  The best leaders in any enterprise are the one who have vision and the ability to communicate that vision to others, inviting and inspiring those others to share in bringing that vision to reality.  The best leaders are the ones who also provide for those with whom they serve.  Even in the Navy, for example, I found that the best leaders took care of their troops so that those troops were free to do what needed to be done.

The expression "servant leadership" has been around since 1970 when Robert Greeleaf wrote his landmark essay "The Servant as Leader", but the reality has been around forever.  Greenleaf wrote:
The servant leader is servant first.  It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  That person is sharply different from one who is leader first. . . . The different manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served.  The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
In a second essay, Greeleaf speaks of leadership within institutions, which seems to have a particular relevance for those involved in ministry:
This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built.  Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions -- often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt.  If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.
I hope and pray that deacons would find those words particularly apt guidance for who we are (servant-first) and what we try to do with and for the People of God!  In a special way, notice how this approach stresses the WHO WE ARE dimension of ministry as PRIOR TO the "what we do" dimension.  What we do in ministry is critically important and we must not minimize that; but we are more than simply the some of our actions.  Our actions flow from who we are, and as deacons, we are servant-first.

3) Leadership is not always tied to a particular position in the organization.  Anyone with any experience whatsoever in parish life knows that the most powerful leader in any parish is usually the parish secretary.  In other ways of life, even something as rank conscious as the military, the most powerful leaders in an institution are often not the ones who hold the highest rank.  General Patton, for example, could not have accomplished anything whatsoever, if there were not sergeants, corporals and privates exercising leadership as well.  Leadership cannot be reduced to position/rank.  Positional leadership is one type of leadership, but it is not the only type of leadership.  In fact, a wonderful little book which every deacon should have in his or her library (I'm hoping deacons of other Christian traditions are reading this!) is called "Leading from the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, and Realizing Your Dreams," by Tom Bonem and Roger Patterson. 

The insights of these authors are very good, and deacons will find much in them that resembles our own pastoral experiences.  And for those who like to complain, "What can I do?  I'm JUST a deacon!"  this book should help change your mind.  And, by the way, "JUST a deacon"?  Are you kidding?  "JUST" a deacon?  Remember that all of the patristic sources who mention deacons, from East to West, ALL of them refer to deacons as bearers of the very ministry of Christ.  Bishops are referred to as representing God the Father, deacons represent Christ, and the presbyters are described as representing the apostles.  While it became commonplace in the second millennium to refer to presbyters as "alteri Christi" -- "other Christs" -- that was a rather novel development.  In the ancient Church such an understanding was more associated with deacons.

4) Leadership exists beyond institutional parameters.  Just as leadership is not restricted to those who hold positions of power and authority from an institution, the human aspects of institutions do not "confine" leadership either.  Now, we believe that the church is not merely a human institution.  That's true.  However, as Vatican II teaches, human institutional elements nonetheless exist within the church, and Christ did not dictate particular forms for these human elements to follow, and they have changed remarkably over the centuries!

Consider this insight from John Gardner:
All too often, on the long road up, young leaders become "servants of what is rather than shapers of what might be."  In the long process of learning how the system works, they are rewarded for playing with the intricate structure of existing rules.  By the time they reach the top, they are very likely to be trained prisoners of that structure.  This is not all bad; every vital system reaffirms itself.  But no system can stay vital for long unless some of its leaders remain sufficiently independent to help it to change and grow.
We can, and must, ask ourselves as deacons: Are we "servants of what is rather than shapers of what might be"?  Are there ways in which we might be a bit of both?  Certainly within the church we are respecters of Tradition (capital "T"), and even hold this, along with Scripture, to be a source of divine revelation.  And yet, as Church, we are always a pilgrim, always changing, always adapting to new needs, new cultural realities in which we are challenged to make a difference.

Cardinal Walter Kasper once described deacons and presbyters as the "two arms of the bishop"; but he continued in that same address to remind deacons (and others) that, once ordained, the deacon -- like the presbyter -- attained a certain autonomy as well.  There will be times, the Cardinal noted, that the deacon will need to exercise his prophetic role even to the bishop who ordained him!  That the "respect and obedience" promised by the deacon at ordination does not relieve the deacon of such a prophetic responsibility even within the structures of the church.

One of the best servant leaders of modern times, in my opinion, was Angelo Roncalli, Blessed pope John XXIII.  During his opening address to the Second Vatican Council, he reminded the world's bishops that while Truth is eternal and unchanging, the ways in which that Truth is communicated to the world can and must change.  Another fine little book for all who are interested in leadership in the Church is "Pope John XXIII: Model and Mentor for Leaders" by Fr. Bob Bonnot, Ph.D.  While you can read any number leadership books using examples from business leaders, this book gleans leadership insights from examining the leadership style of Pope John.

Setting a tone, establishing a purpose, outlining a program, having a strategy, selecting a team, keeping on message, using the media, rationing the time available and deliberately pursuing the goals established are just some of the areas examined by Fr. Bonnot in this book, and they can be very helpful for all involved in ministry.  Once again, the great John XXIII can inspire us in our appreciation of the servant-leadership to which we are called and ordained.

1 comment:

  1. It strikes me that a big downfall for prospective servant-leaders is the Lone Ranger approach to ministry. Too many deacons at ordination seem to me to have the sense that they should be all things to all suffering people, and they soon face discouragement (and/or exhaustion). It seems to me they would do much better to keep in mind the leadership aspect of service in the Church.

    Building up the Church means building up the community, the People of God, where many faithful Catholics already serve in many different ways, some very quietly. As a cleric, the deacon is well positioned to provide some "institutional" backing (or at least stroking) to laypeople who may have received little recognition for the service they render. The deacon is also positioned to help some of those people broaden their network within the parish or diocesan community and perhaps better coordinate their efforts so that nobody has to play Lone Ranger and so that some real human needs are more adequately met.