Through the “Lord and Servant Parable” revelation, which incorporates all of the other revelations, Julian conveys two themes: the nature of God and the Trinity and the human-divine relationship. This paper addresses the latter.
Julian parallels the two characters in the parable as God (lord) and Christ (servant), as well as Christ (lord) and humanity (servant). This paper explores the further use of Julian’s parable as a template for leadership/followership principles in a church context.
The “Lord and Servant Parable” itself is quite simple. It describes a basic workplace situation and relationship: The lord is seated; the servant is standing. The lord sends the servant on a task. The servant responds immediately but runs into trouble. The lord goes to the servant’s aid, helps him and then rewards him.
What Julian describes in detail, however, is a relationship of “mutual regard,” an environment where there is a genuine shared loyalty, concern and kindness, a willingness of both lord (leader) and servant (follower) to go out of their way and to give generously of themselves without concern for their own welfare in order to benefit the other. This mutual regard co-exists symbiotically with mutual dignity: the leader has it naturally because of his position, character and God’s grace, and the servant has it because of his own sense of duty and self-worth, character, God’s grace, and because the leader affords him dignity. The value of such an environment and relationship is exemplified by the follower’s experience of calamity and how both the leader and follower respond to the threat or challenge that such unexpected events can pose.
As Julian relates, the follower is stunned by the calamity — a typical follower response when one has been blindsided or makes an error. He does what he can but is unable to help himself. Ashamed and disappointed, he is unable to look to the leader for help, and so he remains stuck in his misfortune and misery. The leader’s response is one of grace: gently and kindly, he goes to his follower’s aid out of concern for the follower’s well-being. Recognizing his own state of good fortune and his follower’s role in helping attain and maintain it, the leader not only helps his follower but also gives him a lasting reward.
The lessons this 14th century mystic has for leaders and followers of today are clear.
Lessons for leaders
First, an environment and attitude of genuine mutual regard and mutual dignity are essential to give root to other positive behaviors: concern for each other’s well-being and for the success of everyone involved, a willingness to sacrifice, mutual generosity, forgiveness, personal growth and loyalty. A secure foundational relationship of mutual regard with followers is a leader’s top priority, and all other lessons hinge on this one.
Second, this secure foundation resists threat even when others become insecure, and a calamity becomes an opportunity instead of a problem.
Third, the leader gracefully bears responsibility for himself and the follower. Significantly, the leader becomes a servant in order to help the follower and rejoices in the opportunity to do so.
Fourth, the leader’s reaction is to focus on the positive, how to help, how to resolve the problem, and he does so with a genuine concern for the follower, and without concern for whatever negative impact there might be on his own state of affairs.
Fifth, the leader knows, as all leaders know, that the follower depends on him for guidance and a livelihood. The follower isn’t able to help himself, feels shame and responsibility for what has happened, and is unable to ask for help. This is where mutual regard and mutual dignity are crucial. The leader knows the situation is his own responsibility and so doesn’t blame, punish, criticize or demean the follower, which allows the follower to retain his dignity. Any other action would diminish the leader’s dignity as well. Like any manager or leader, the leader here has a choice: He can allow the relationship to prosper or destroy it. He chooses the former because he values the relationship and the follower.
Finally, the leader turns the calamity into an opportunity to reward the servant for his effort and suffering. And he goes one step further. The leader gives him a significant and lasting reward beyond remuneration. Why? Because he can and because he wants to. He aims to be a glad giver, just as the follower is a glad giver of excellent service. This joy of giving strengthens the relationship.
Lessons for followers
The revelation of this parable to Julian also holds some lessons for followers.
Much of what the follower experiences here is natural to any underling. Followers generally desire to please their leaders and they may or may not be aware of potential calamities and how to deal with them. However, followers are less likely to be inspired to perform well for a leader who cares only about his own welfare and future. Followership, then, whether as a paid worker or volunteer, consists mostly of choices.
The first lesson for followers, then, is to recognize those choices. The follower in the parable made a number of them: to offer genuine regard, to be reverent and eager (a glad giver) and to perform without delay. One can choose to follow and never earn a reward, or one can choose to follow and earn a lasting reward.
Second, it’s important for the follower to try to think and act like a leader particularly in times of crisis, and in turn adopt the leadership behaviors as listed above: retaining regard for the relationship, keeping positive, focusing on problem-solving, and so on. In contrast, the follower here “paid no attention to his own senses,” that is, he was “weak and foolish” and his “reason was blinded.”
Third, followership is a choice, but it is also a privilege, as much of a privilege as leadership. A follower must value his own sense of service and duty, and place confidence in the service provided, as the servant in the parable does. And the follower must decide whether going beyond the status quo (placing value on the relationship of mutual regard and dignity) is worth the effort or not.
Lessons for both
Significant for both leaders and followers is that ultimately the relationship encompasses and yet is greater than everything else — greater than the work, circumstances, loss or reward. This is the key to the human-to-divine relationship.
Practical application today of these concepts is possible in myriad ways.
Finally, giving priority to the concept of valuing the human-to-divine relationship in our congregations and denominations can make a difference in day-to-day work and relationships, and it can help us re-evaluate church policy and practices in terms of marginalized populations, helping us to consider first each person’s value in their relationship with Christ Jesus.
As authors Henry & Richard Blackaby assert, the pastor’s primary function is to move followers from where they are to where God wants them to be. The “Servant and Leader” revelation given to Julian of Norwich provides a model for doing so by placing priority on the human-to-divine relationships that God has with all people and thus providing an environment of mutual regard and dignity. It is a model that easily illustrates the teachings of Christ and serves as a reminder to focus on what is truly important: considering first each person’s value in their relationship with Christ Jesus.
DONNA KONIAS is a half-time seminarian (MDiv) at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Point Park University and a master’s degree in management from Seton Hill University.