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"Acts 20: Leadership" by Rev. Andrew Warner - Plymouth Church UCC, September 2, 2018

posted Sep 10, 2018, 11:31 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Growing up, I spent much of my time in the Boy Scouts.  And at every stage I heard the motto, “Be Prepared.” So, I learned to have my emergency kit to start a fire whenever I went camping; to know how to turn clothes into an emergency floatation device.

I thought of that motto when, over the weekend, Dakota texted that he wouldn’t make church today.  I was not prepared. And I heard the advice of my preaching mentor come back to me: always have two sermons ready, one in your back pocket and one on your heart.  Jay knows this too; so when he heard I was going to preach today, he wanted to know which sermon I’d use. ‘Sin Bad’ or ‘Jesus Good’?

Neither.  For they didn’t connect to our lesson from the Book of Acts.  So, I ask you to bear with me as we look at Paul’s words and what they can teach us about leadership.  And whether it’s good or bad, I’ll have at least learned again that a leader ought to always Be Prepared.

Throughout the summer our church studied the Book of Acts, listening to the stories of the first church in order to imagine how God wants us to be church today.  Many of our stories followed the adventures of Paul, who started out as an oppressor of the first church, then became a convert and went on to share the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean.

Our reading this morning comes as Paul prepared to return to Jerusalem; he’s uncertain of what will happen there, imagining that he might die and knowing he’ll probably never return to his friends in Ephesus.  And so, Paul gathered together the elders of the church in Ephesus; our reading comes as the beginning of his farewell speech.

But the farewell also served as a speech to commission new leaders.  In a passage just after our reading, Paul pulled these thoughts together when he said, “keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.”  In Paul’s speech we get a vision of what it means to be a Christian leader.

But before looking at what constitutes Christian leadership, I want us to think about the models of leadership in our country today.  Years ago, people describing leaders borrowed a term from biologists - alpha males. And while there are alpha females across many species, the term really came from observations of male chimpanzees and wolves.  Newt Gingrich actually popularized this metaphor; as Speaker of the House in the 1990’s, he gave freshman congressman copies of the book “Chimpanzee Politics.” He wanted them to be like alpha males.

And men do certainly get themselves into silly competitions for dominance.  I can see it in Donald Trump trying to out shake hands with Emmanuel Macron; but also in moments in my own life.  Years ago, I got a chance - thanks to Heather Ullsvik Loomans - to sit on the stage behind President Obama while he spoke about the Affordable Care Act at a rally in Green Bay.  I arrived early and got a seat behind where the president would stand. I looked at the cameras and knew I was lined up well. And then state Senator John Ehrenbach arrived; and he noticed my seat and the cameras.  So he sat beside me and asked me to scoot down. But I wasn’t moving. As the stands filled in, Senator Ehrenbach kept trying to muscle into my personal space, to move me along the bench. But I wasn't moving. So we engaged in a subtle shoving match until the president arrived.  And then, I ended up in all the photos, just over the left shoulder of Obama while Ehrenbach sat hidden behind his head.

Beyond these absurdities, there is a model of alpha leadership in our country that looks to chimpanzees and wolves as models of how to be dominant; a strutting alpha male who makes other males act subserviently.  And really this meant a leader who beat others up, barked commands, asserted dominance, made everyone know who was boss. Basically, a bully.

And this metaphor of the alpha leader continues to bounce around our culture; lots of books and articles evoke it when talking about leadership.  A recent essay in Forbes did so under the title, “How to Lead Your Team Like an Alpha Wolf.”  It advised readers on the ways to dominate their competition, kill other predators, and organize their hierarchical pack.  This model of leadership is gendered; leadership as a form of masculinity: men get praised for being dominant, women dismissed as domineering.  Which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn the author of the alpha wolf article in Forbes runs a financial services company named “Patriarch Equity.”  (As if the patriarchy needed more equity.)

It seems to me that too often the model of leadership in our culture embodies a hyper-masculinity, a bravado of dominance.

Which is why Paul’s farewell strikes me as an important, and very different, model of leadership.  A number of phrases stood out to me as I listened to Paul’s words:

  • You yourselves know how I lived among you

  • Serving the Lord with humility and tears

  • Enduring trials

  • Not shrinking from doing anything helpful

  • And now, as a captive to the Spirit

  • Imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me

This is not the vocabulary of dominance.  No business book in America advises CEO’s to anticipate a future of imprisonment and persecutions.  Yet Paul uses this language; he did not speak of his dominance but his captivity: captive to the Spirit.

Jesus spoke of this kind of leadership at the very end of the Gospel of John, where he said to the Apostle Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  Christian leadership doesn’t mean projecting dominance but being led by the Spirit of God.

Interestingly, the word leader echoes this sense of being guided by the Spirit.  Leader comes from an old English word, lithan, which meant “to go.”  A leader is one who goes.  Leadership consultant Robert Dilts observed about this, “It is significant that the root of the word leadership does not have to do with “power,” “command,” “dominance.”  It has to do with going somewhere together with others. It’s not so much about “being number one” as it is about “leading the way” through one’s own actions.”

Paul pointed to his own actions in Ephesus: his leading through humility, tears, and service.  This description of Paul reminded me of something the biologist Frans de Waal pointed out about chimpanzees.  As someone who studied chimps in the wild instead of just using them as a metaphor for CEO bullies, de Waal called attention to all the things alpha males and alpha females actually do among chimps.

Our stereotype of alpha male chimps suggests that they get and keep their position by being the toughest roughest chimp in the pack.  But in reality, even the strongest chimp can be taken down by other chimps working together. Which means strength isn’t key. Instead, alpha male chimps get and hold their position because they demonstrate generosity and empathy to create a stable coalition.  A chimp that wants to become the alpha shares food; everyone gets something.

Even more importantly, the alpha chimp - male or female - demonstrates empathy to more vulnerable members of the group.  Chimps often fight; an alpha will intercede between the two combatants and arbitrate between them, usually deciding for the underdog.  This makes the alpha popular because the chimps know they can get protection. Beyond this, the alpha chimps console distressed members of the group, hugging them just like we humans do.  The alphas actually give more consolation than any other chimp; that is, the alpha chimps demonstrate the highest levels of empathy in the group.

The generosity and empathy of the alpha chimps allows them to form coalitions within their group; coalitions which enable them to become and remain alpha.  The more they engage generosity and empathy, the more stable their leadership of the group will be.

These are the same values Paul pointed to when he spoke of his humility, tears, and service.  How would leadership look different in our society if we focused on generosity and empathy instead of dominance and power?

The full implications of Paul’s vision of leadership come out in the last verse we heard from Paul.  “I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.”

To my ears, Paul has shifted from generosity and empathy as a strategy for winning friends and influencing people to self-sacrificing service as a way of life.  And he spoke to this not only here in Acts but in many of his letters. Such as when he wrote to the Church in Galicia:

I have been crucified with Christ;

and it is no longer I who live,

but it is Christ who lives in me.”

I know he didn’t always succeed at this, but Paul tried to set aside his ego (which he called being “crucified with Christ”) so that he didn’t seek out his own glory, honor, and power.  Imagine how our politics and society might look different if our leaders let go of their egos.

This was Paul’s journey.  Paul had Roman citizenship at a time when everyone around him struggled on as undocumented residents in the Roman Empire.  And this citizenship actually protected Paul when he did get arrested in Jerusalem. Paul held status and wealth and power; but he knew faithful leadership called him to continually let go of his privilege and position.

Not everyone’s path to faithful leadership involves letting go of their ego.  People who have been marginalized and oppressed don’t need to make less of themselves.  Where Paul needed to experience his ego crucified with Christ, others may need to experience themselves resurrected with Jesus.  Some need to let go of their privilege; others need to claim their dignity. Which may be why Jesus said, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

How would leadership in our society look differently if those with privilege and power sought to be crucified with Christ?  And if those marginalized and oppressed sought to be resurrected with Jesus? If we all made a way for Christ to live in us?

Paul raised these questions with the church in Ephesus because he wanted them to become leaders like him.  To excel in generosity. To strengthen their empathy. To make sure Christ lived in them. In short, to be prepared no matter where the Spirit would lead them to be Christian leaders.  Alleluia and Amen.