“Where have all the leaders gone?” This is the title of a chapter in Leah Gunning Francis’ book, “Ferguson & Faith.” Francis notes that this was the question many asked in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Francis answers the question: “What emerged from the ground up was an eclectic group of people, many of them young, and most of them black women. The leaders in this new school of thought were too often unrecognizable because many in our society rarely conceive of them as leaders.”
The leaders where there, but people didn’t see them because the leaders did not look, sound or act as others expected.
What does a leader look like?
For many of us it is a lone, charismatic person of a particular gender or color or age. Have you had the experience of walking down the hall of a church with a wall of former pastors staring at you from their framed portraits? What do they look like? Rarely do they look like me. The same is true at seminaries, colleges, courthouses and city halls.
This is not to disparage the contributions of those very similar looking folk enshrined in paint, print and stone. This is, however, to caution us not to imagine that because leaders have looked mostly one way, those characteristics are what make a leader. There is a dangerous categorical syllogism at work when we do so. And, let’s confess, we do so.
We ask: Where have all the leaders gone? Instead, we should be asking: Why are we dismissing the leadership of so many?
In “The Unnecessary Pastor,” Eugene Peterson writes, “We would do well not to be enamored by the kind of leadership that is so prized by politicians and CEOs, the kind that is conspicuous and as we say, ‘effective.’” He notes that Paul, in looking for Christian leaders, “is looking not for someone who can do something spectacular but for someone who is something regardless of whether anyone notices.”
Where have all the leaders gone? Well, where are we looking and what do we want to find?
Perhaps the leaders aren’t our usual suspects. Maybe they aren’t in the places we’ve come to expect leaders to be. Is it possible that the issue isn’t where the leaders are, but why don’t we recognize them?
I went to see a new exhibit, “#1960Now: The Photographic Vision of Sheila Pree Bright.” The exhibit included video footage of Black Lives Matter protests from around the country. There were scenes of chants, marches and speeches. In one clip a young, African-American woman spoke with passion and asked repeatedly, “Where were the leaders to stand with us?” She asked, “Where were the political leaders?” She asked, “Where were the clergy?”
She, too, wanted to know: Where have all the leaders gone?
Peterson writes, “It is almost always a mistake to recruit exceptional people for leadership; look for ordinary Christians — that is mostly what you have anyway. But prize them, value them and appoint them as leaders.”
Francis recounts in “Faith and Ferguson” the work of Dietra Wise Baker, a chaplain for the St. Louis County juvenile detention center and pastor of Liberation Christian Church. She mobilized pastors to join her in Ferguson. Dietra said, “I kept challenging when things were really, really hot. I said, ‘Just get on the streets. Come be on the streets. Come at least once. … I’m telling you you’re going to meet Jesus there. Jesus on the street and you’re going to be transformed if you come to the street. You can’t be transformed in the safety of the pew and at the church.’”
Where have all the leaders gone? Get on the streets. Find the leaders there, the ordinary ones that should be prized and valued, the ones that God may well have appointed. Get on the streets. Be the leaders others are looking to have come stand beside them.
To put it another way: Go to Galilee and meet Jesus. He is the protester. He is the police officer. He is the peacemaker. He is the justice giver. He is the reconciler. He is the leader we need to follow — and now, as then, he isn’t often who or where or what we expect.
Grace and peace,