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to walk fast or to walk far

October 20, 2011

"If you want to travel fast, walk alone. If you want to travel far, walk together."

When I heard this proverb in a recent gathering, upon the occasion of the installation of a very promising leader in an equally crucial and challenging role in the church, I sensed a profound truth. I have come to realize that we ignore this truth at our peril, and we embrace it to our benefit. 

The theory of the "great man (or woman)" as leader is rooted in our belief that the intellectual life is a solitary endeavor (and this is in fact the way we are trained and evaluated) and the spiritual life is a personal experience (and this is deeply embedded in our popular piety). Thus the individual studies, prays, reflects and assimilates information toward the purpose of action; if he or she is in a leadership role, all of this is shared with or imposed upon a group of people. Such an experience is efficient, it is "fast" and on the odd and random occasion it may even produce a constructive outcome.

There is, however, a shadow side to traveling fast and walking alone: it creates spectators and not fellow-travelers; it is marked by over-functioning (of the leader) and under-functioning (among those not in leadership) and it does not build community or capacity.

To travel together is move in step with others: we may perceive ourselves to be more intelligent, more spiritual or more committed than those around us, and at times some of this may be true. And yet in walking together our eyes are opened to the gifts of others. These gifts lead us to insights that may not have been possible given our naturally limited experiences, and they can become, in time, sources of hope and inspiration.

The people who walk with us, and we might even say that this is primary way that God walks with us, help us to travel "far". They help us to live a sustainable life, which is, in Eugene Peterson's memorable phrase, "a long obedience in the same direction".

Finally, the walk with God and each other leads to a shared vision. The leader walks with his or her people and, in coming to know them, senses the hopes and dreams that God has placed in their hearts. In the best of all worlds, the leader is moved by these very same hopes and dreams, and when this occurs it will often be said that the leader loves the people. And when this happens---and, to be sure, it is a gift---the journey is not tiring at all: indeed, as the prophet promised, they mount up with wings like eagles, they run and are not weary, they walk and do not faint.

If you want to travel fast, walk alone. If you want to travel far, walk together.


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