Insignificant Greatness

What does a person have to do to become an insignificant leader? Why don't we ever hear people say, "You are destined to be really insignificant!" Perhaps it is because many of us are socially wired to aspire to become great leaders. But what if greatness looks totally different to God than our aspirations and practices of greatness?

These are the questions that I have been wrestling with for quite some time.  However, they are not my questions alone. They are the questions the disciples are grappling with in our story. They are the questions of the conscientious church leaders and young people who are trying to make sense of their one precious life in service to God. While we all have a deep longing to discover the answers to these questions, the more important question is: Will we muster the courage to live into the answers? This is the question that was placed before me earlier this summer in a way that I could not escape.  

It happened when I went with a group of FTE Ministry Fellows to visit Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., a model for leadership and congregational life that is very different. And we were privileged to sit "in the house" with Gordon Cosby, the ninety-two year old founder of this intentional Christian community formed around the call of every person. In a simple circle, there we sat with this frail little man with a gentle voice turning our ideas of church and ministry upside down. 

He warned us at the outset that he would respond to our questions--that are very much alive in him--in ways that we were not accustomed to. We were not prepared for what he said.  To be called, he said, is a calling to be a new creature in Christ; to be a new being. So the vocation question for him is, "Will you become who you are intended to be?"  

Cosby's focus is on the being of leadership--the who of leadership--and not the doing. "Doing is easier," he said. There are some questions to be asked regarding this becoming: Are you holding on to control--can you relinquish control? Do you feel safe enough to let go--are you fearless? Are you enlarging the family--are you welcoming strangers and little children? Are you deepening those relationships? Then he told us, contemplative prayer, practicing letting Jesus into our lives, is the way to prepare for a life in these questions. He said nothing about most things that we think about to prepare for greatness, leadership or ministry. His responses were counter-intuitive to what are deeply internal, yet perennial, questions about what greatness is in ministry and church leadership. 

Our society suffers from a debilitating addiction to a "greatness" understanding of leadership. Families feed this addiction to their children. And an addiction to being the best or greatest in ministry, whether it is about leadership or building institutions, is a pandemic virus in the church. The earliest strand of this deadly addiction can be traced back to the church's origin. It is the very question the disciples are arguing about in this text.

Fortunately, Jesus has a response: he provides some answers about how we might break free from our addiction to unhealthy forms of greatness by re-imagining church leadership. This re-imagining is a necessary revolution, an insurrection, a rebellion, an uprising against our traditional understandings of greatness.  It is a revolution that invites us to embrace counter-intuitive forms of leadership and practices that we find modeled in the life of Jesus. And what is at stake is our alienation and access to the presence of God in our individual and communal lives. 

In our lesson, we find Jesus schooling the disciples on what greatness looks like in his ministry. He says to the disciples, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all." Notice, he does not say do, but be, which raises two questions regarding identity. Who must we be as a result of our participation in Jesus' ministry? Jesus says that we must be last. How do we live deeply into this collective identity of being last of all? Perhaps the answer requires us to wrestle with a familiar saying--saving the best for last--that has less to do with one's position or station in life. Being last has more to do with the idea that we have an opportunity to learn from those who have gone before us in hopes of building upon their efforts and perfecting our collective efforts over time. In Jesus' ministry, the community of disciples practices greatness by being observant learners of all. 

Jesus then tells his disciples, "Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all." Notice that he does not say servant to all, but servant of all, which suggests that the disciples are called to be servant leaders regardless of what other people seek to be. Servant leaders practice greatness by being givers who serve together through shared leadership, responsibility and accountability. 

Jesus then models what leadership looks like for the disciples. He summons a young child to come to him. Children symbolize God's blessing. Children, especially boys, symbolize the continuance of their family's salvation and inheritance into the future. In the Gospels, children also symbolize the character a person must possess to enter the city of God (Mark 10:15). In spite of the symbolic status children hold, we find their voices silent for the most part throughout the Bible. I want to suggest that children symbolize the voiceless, those at the margin of the community.

Jesus welcomes the child to the center of the community and wraps his arm around her--the voiceless one--and suggests that if we want to be great, then we must practice welcoming the voiceless to the very center of the community. Expand the community's center to include those people at the margins. Make the margins the new center of the community because this is where the welcoming presence of God dwells. Otherwise, we alienate ourselves from the very presence of Jesus and the One who sent him.  This is what greatness looks like in Jesus' ministry. It is an insignificant greatness.

So what does this mean for us? We who love our churches, denominational bodies and traditions, must re-imagine our ambitions and concepts of greatness. We must adopt new practices of insignificant greatness. We must cultivate the next generation of church leaders to exhibit these practices. Why? Because, ultimately, what is at stake is the church's future, its witness and its relevance in the world. A church that fails to be the welcoming presence of God ceases to be the church.

We hear the call to re-imagine greatness all across the land in the face of our current economic, denominational and church leadership crises. We hear the call to be leaders of insignificant greatness in hopes that the church might escape from society's seductive grasp. Some have answered the call. Some have left positions of status. Others have been chided by their ministry colleagues. But these leaders of insignificant greatness represent a grassroots movement of those who long to help the church live deeply into its vocation to be a transformative agent of God's peace and healing in the world. While they may appear to be insignificant in the eyes of society, the significance of their prophetic imagination and practices of greatness do not go unnoticed. This movement is growing and now invites you to join it. 

So this is an invitation to you to re-imagine what the practices of greatness look like in your church. It is an invitation to re-imagine the kind of church leadership that cares about the ongoing formation and practices of the next generation of church leaders. This is also an invitation to imagine practices that cultivate your capacity to develop a community of disciples who share authentic leadership.

  • To create a safe space for Christians to explore their vocation in the world.
  • To spend more time asking provocative questions rather than giving patent answers.
  • To model what greatness really looks like in Jesus' ministry.
  • To welcome the voices and the vocations of young people in the community.
  • To expand your community's center to include the voiceless.
  • And to make the margins of the community the new centers of congregational and denominational life.

These are the practices of insignificantly great leaders.

This invitation is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those who are concerned with being popular. There might even be some economic reprisal if you join this movement. Some of you might face a social crucifixion. Some of you will undercut your upward mobility into the priestly class and denominational leadership. However, what is at stake is our alienation from the presence of God, a divided and unhealthy life and a community of gifted people who will continue to be underutilized in God's grand vision for the church in service to the world if we disregard this invitation and do nothing.

This is the invitation to re-imagine greatness; it is the call of the Gospel. So how in this world do we muster the courage to join this movement and become who we are intended to be? 

Let us pray[1].

Gracious God, we long to know your Presence, 

To feel the movement of your spirit.

Lead us, O God, into practices from which our spirits shrink

because the demand is so great.

Give to us quiet confidence, just a simple trust.

Let us be true to that which you have entrusted to our keeping,

The integrity of our own soul. For us, God, this is enough.



[1] Prayer adapted from Howard Thurman, Temptations of Jesus, Friends United Press, Richmond, IN, 1962.