Leadership and Letting Go: An Advent Reflection
As part of my new role as Director of Leadership Development for the Minnesota Conference, I’m really enjoying engaging in conversations about leadership, ministry formation, and what resources our churches need right now and in the future. One of my conversation partners is someone I’ve known my whole life: my sister Mary.
Mary lives in western Massachusetts and has a deep and interdisciplinary education in religion, anthropology, education, and social change. Her research and teaching interests include building grassroots leadership, education for social justice, and the interplay between hope, narrative, and empowerment.
As you might imagine, we have a lot to talk about!
We were video chatting a few weeks ago, and I asked her a pretty basic question: “What do you think leadership development is fundamentally about?”
Her response had many parts, but here’s one thing that really snagged my attention: “You know, we talk about leadership so often in terms of starting,” she said. (I was taking notes, furiously. My older sister is really smart!) “Leaders are expected to create, sustain, hold on, keep moving. But I think that a big part of leadership is also making hard choices about when to stop or step away. Or step aside so someone else can step in. To put it another way, leadership can be about knowing when to surrender. When to let go.”
In this season of Advent, I’m reminded of another Mary, a famous one, one that we do not necessarily think of as a leader. No, when we imagine “biblical leaders,” I bet many of us might go instantly to Jesus’ ancestor David (famously name-dropped by Gabriel in the story of the Annunciation).
Proud, ambitious, action-oriented, Jerusalem-conquering, warrior-poet King David. He is most definitely a leader.
And in Mary, we also have an image of leadership, one that is subversive and subtle and grounded (I think) in what my Mary was talking about. You see, upon hearing the outrageous news that she will be the God-bearer, the biblical Mary lets go. “Let it be with me according to your word,” she says (Luke 1:38).
This has to be the ultimate embodiment of the phrase, “Let go, let God.”
But this is not a passive act! I think Mary’s act of letting go is actually an act of taking on, an assumption: an assumption of huge risk, of great responsibility. She’s trusting that God’s promises are real (no easy feat!). She’s trusting that even though it’s her body and her marriage on the line, she won’t be alone; God, Emmanuel, will be with her.
How many leaders forget that promise entirely? How many of us, in moments of great pressure and intensity, buy into the myth that we are all by ourselves, that it’s all up to us, that success or failure hinges on our gifts and talents alone? How many of us assume, when push comes to shove, that if you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself? It’s hard enough to trust other people with important things, let alone the Holy Spirit.
In Mary, I see a reminder that we are called to be co-creators, always. Leadership is not about being the very best or standing solo or creating something out of nothing. Leadership, especially in a faith context, is about bearing God’s love into the world. God’s love exists before us, after us, in spite of us, and through us.
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” That’s what the Angel said to Mary. I wonder: can we trust that we are always in the shadow of God, in all times – joy and sorrow, success and failure, life and death? Can we trust that the Spirit is at work not only in us, but in those around us too? Can we trust that leadership is not only about the power we find in ourselves but also about the power we extend to others?
I leave you with the words of Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic and theologian, which are helpful to me as I think about leading out of my faith:
“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the Divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to [the] Son if I do not also give birth to him in my own life?”
Advent and Christmas blessings to you!
Rev. Abigail Henderson