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Black sheep, reluctant leaders and listening to the Holy Spirit

May those of us who need a nudge have the strength, courage, and clarity to embrace the holy discomfort to step into the spotlight, speak up at the table when we have the least privilege and stand out as our true selves when God calls us.  

Photo by Tatiana Zanon on Unsplash

Several years ago, when I was serving in Rockford, Illinois, I had the honor of being asked to be the ecumenical representative at the service for the installation of the new Lutheran bishop for the Northern Illinois Synod for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). And yes, it was certainly an honor, but it was also not lost on me that it was probably mostly due to my connections with my ELCA female pastor friends! And, I remember feeling kind of funny that day as I dressed in my robe and traditional red stole to celebrate an ordination/installation, but I chalked it up to just being a Presbyterian in a sea of Lutherans. But it turned out to be more than that.

I guess I knew ahead of time that Lutherans traditionally wear white robes, but it did not occur to me that I would be the only clergy dressed in a black robe that Saturday. Among hundreds of clergy, I stuck out like a literal black sheep. As we processed into the church, I almost felt like leaving or hiding. But it was too late. One by one, we were each invited to greet the new bishop with a handshake or a hug. As I made my way up front, I was even more conscious of my black robe. I’m already standing out whether I planned it that way or not (which I didn’t), I thought, why not just be myself? And so, when it came for my turn to greet the bishop, I said to him, “High 10?” raising both my palms and he responded in kind! Everyone laughed and cheered.

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out!” goes the line from Dr. Seuss’ popular book, The Lorax. The follow-up that is missing from this quote, in my opinion, is that we may be born to stand out, but that doesn’t mean we always recognize it or want to stand out. The Bible is full of both somewhat and fully reluctant leaders: Moses, Gideon, David, Isaiah, Paul, Miriam and Esther. But what is most important when it comes to spiritual leadership is not whether we desire to stand out but whether we are willing to do so when God calls us to. Unique to spiritual leadership is the quality of humility. Because a true spiritual leader recognizes the requirement for dependence on Jesus. And it should not be possible to fully depend on Christ and be arrogant at the same time.

I’ve always been the kind of person who needs a bit of a nudge to step into the spotlight. I love to be in the water, but I prefer to ease in than just jump right into the deep end. As a twin, I’m used to following my sister into the “firsts” of life. I’m more than okay not being the first to know a secret (or not at all sometimes). It took me almost a year to discern a call to pastoral ministry because I didn’t want to stand out and I was not confident that God really wanted me. And, while I’m grateful for God’s patience, I’m also grateful for those who pushed me a little bit and recognized God’s plans for me before I could. And so, whether you find yourself a black sheep – disfavored and disregarded by a group of others who you’ve longed to fit in with – or forced to stand out when all you were doing is trying to fit in, I think the holy discomfort is to step into the spotlight and be yourself.

I listened to retired U.S. soccer player Abby Wambach’s commencement address for Loyola Marymount University last night. (I highly recommend it.) In it, she calls for those who have the least privilege to speak up, and for those with the most privilege to shut up. I began this blog with a story of a time when I “spoke up,” but there have been many times where the Holy Spirit has nudged me and I’ve stayed put. Later in her same speech, Wambach asserts that there is no such thing as silent solidarity.

In my first pastoral position, I was able to spend time with Shirley Wooden, who was only the 25th woman to be ordained as a teaching elder in the PC(USA). For a time, she was my mentor and guide, and I was so grateful to learn from a person who was not silent when she had the least amount of privilege. Even though I sometimes don’t want to believe it, I know God calls all of us to participate fully in the gospel, and this often means stepping into the spotlight as the unique leader we are when we expected to be on the outside or prefer to remain a faithful follower. Looking back, I give thanks for that moment as a somewhat literal black sheep because standing out forced me to stand up and be myself.

May those of us who need a nudge have the strength, courage, and clarity to embrace the holy discomfort to step into the spotlight, speak up at the table when we have the least privilege and stand out as our true selves when God calls us.