Every church, every neighborhood, every committee, every organization of which I have ever participated has had unheralded, unofficial leaders. I can picture them, name them, recount the ways they gathered, cared, expedited, advocated. Sometimes they used official channels and existing processes; other times they created a brand new means to get done whatever needed gotten done. Somehow the unofficial leaders knew things that those of us in official capacities did not. The family under financial stress. The conflict brewing over an issue or between neighbors. The impact of a far-off policy on a nearby community. They also knew who to call, who could talk to whom, when to speak and when to keep quiet, how to discern a tempest in a teapot from a gathering tsunami.
How, I often wondered, do they know how to navigate waters I don’t even see until the currents are so strong they threaten to carry me away? In pondering that question, I have concluded that such leaders possess several characteristics. They don’t abandon people, communities or tasks in tough times. They hang in and hang on. They prioritize relationships over righteousness, and yet principles matter greatly to them — so much so that they imagine those principles should be put into practice. They are connectors, hubs on the wheel of community, who have earned others’ trust enough to bring diverse constituencies together.
Matthew Loftus, writing in Comment magazine, noted: “Every community needs a phalanx of people who take minor leadership roles and simply care for their neighbours. They stand between the established leaders and help mediate what is good and worthwhile to the vulnerable while keeping predators from within and without in check. Without these folks to stand in the middle, though, more people can become vulnerable or predatory.”
A phalanx of people in minor leadership roles, or in other words: hubs on the community wheel who have grit and compassion, who have earned trust because they are trustworthy, who stand in the breach and help heal it. They do so without fanfare or official sanction, because they love their neighbors and doing so is the right thing to do. Do you know those “minor” leaders who make a major impact?
I do and I know that I am not among them. In my experience, pastors rarely are. We move too much, and everyone knows our time among them is temporary. Additionally, our role comes with too much baggage, unearned reverence or distrust, assumed piety, prudishness or political stance, official affiliations and endorsements whether we want them or not. Even in a time of declining institutional influence, I am an official leader, not an embedded one. But, if I am wise, I will recognize the hubs of the wheel in my community and learn from them, listen to them, accept any invitation they extend and seek their guidance early and often.
I have noticed that the disciples are the ones who mistakenly think they are experts. They assume they know best. Jesus doesn’t have time for children. The crowds need to be dispersed so that they can go get something to eat. Hunkering down and staying on the mountain sounds like a plan. But time and time again, Jesus upends the disciples’ inclinations and comes alongside those who know their communities better and can gather them together: Mary and Martha, Levi, Peter’s mother-in-law, Simon the Pharisee. Jesus learns from the Canaanite woman and heeds the cries of those who plead on behalf of others. He does not shun the sinful or scandalous, but instead goes closer because relationship and healing trumps righteousness and ritual cleanliness. He interacts with official leaders, but stands in the breach with the unofficial ones for the sake of the vulnerable.
My hope for the church, as we consider what leadership is and means in our current context, is that we would cease trying to be experts and seek to be learners. My hope is that we would come alongside the hubs on the community wheel and stand in the middle with them, protecting the vulnerable and keeping the predators at bay, putting the principle of loving our neighbors into practice.
Grace and peace,