Leading & the Kingdom of God
Leading in Christian schools is a deeply satisfying and challenging venture which has two central aspects—coordinating the activities of the organization and coordinating those activities in a specific direction. Leading, in general, often focuses on the first aspect, solving problems, taking care of all the large and small tasks that need to be attended to in schools. Often, those school leaders who take care of these details and run a tight ship are respected. But that second aspect, leading in a specific direction may be more fundamental. Because of the Christian nature of the school, that second aspect is seen as serving the Kingdom of God. I frame serving the Kingdom of God in contrast or in opposition to serving the status quo.
By the status quo, I mean the state of affairs in which existing power relations, social structures, and economic affairs are preserved. I can imagine working as a politician, or newspaper editor, or banker, or businessman, or educator to strengthen the existing institutions: schools, churches, businesses, and the media, that maintain social and economic structures. Most of the leadership that I see today falls in that category. Frequently, if not always, those social and economic structures benefit someone or some group, and what should be of concern, is that they harm others, marginalizing some individuals or groups, disadvantaging them, standing in the way of them being who God meant them to be. This makes leadership that works toward maintaining the status quo problematic.
An example of what I am calling the status quo was in the news in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I live. There is a practice in lower-income communities all over the U.S. of offering what are called payday loans. These are short-term loans that people can get to deal with problems they are facing. Community service agencies report that the payday loan practice sucks the economic life out of poor communities by taking a significant portion of the money that should be flowing through the community out of circulation, channelling it to the financial centers of the country. There are numerous storefront companies offering such service, and one of the regulatory failures in the U. S. is not passing laws to limit the effects of these loans. At some level, it is understandable that these outlets exist. If they are not illegal, or even if they are, someone is going to offer this source of money. What troubles me is that major banks in the U. S. have also been participating in this practice, offering easy access to cash and charging interest rates that are effectively between 100-200%.
Those interest rates are not legal for banks to charge, so they have been calling the charges they assess for these loans fees rather than interest. This practice, which ultimately hurts customers and communities, makes sense in an environment that focuses on providing the best return for the bank’s shareholders. To be fair, recently some of the major banks have decided to get out of the payday loan business as a result of pressure from community groups. But I wondered what caused business leaders in the banking industry, many professing to be Christians, to think that this practice was acceptable?
I think the answer is that status quo thinking, protecting the interests of the powerful, is so pervasive and enmeshed in organizational and leadership practice that it is hard to think about that work in other ways. Actions that support the status quo become invisible, normal, or of seemingly neutral character. Theologian Emilie Townes observed these are “not individual acts of sin, but . . . systemic evil like anti-Semitism, classism, racism, sexism and more . . . the ways in which a society can produce misery and suffering in relentlessly systematic and structural ways” (2017, p. 27). I am framing this status quo approach as opposition to the Kingdom of God.
But what do we mean by the Kingdom of God? The idea of the Kingdom of God is widely used in Christian literature. The Kingdom of God is an idea that permeates the teaching of Jesus, particularly the first three gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. When I first began exploring the Kingdom of God in a more formal way, it was surprising to me that the Bible does not define the Kingdom of God. We are given similes, metaphors and illustrative stories. But we do not find a set of propositions that gives us its characteristics and rules. The Kingdom of God is not about rules, or behaviours, but rather the direction of one’s heart with respect to God. Not that rules and behaviours are not involved, but entering the Kingdom of God begins with a relationship with God, with loving God.
One of the most powerful ways that we come to understand what Jesus was trying to enact in the breaking in of His Kingdom was through the parables that he told. These parables present aspects of the Kingdom of God that are difficult to comprehend, are shocking, and likely to fall on deaf ears.
Jesus uses parables to perplex and provoke, and ultimately to open the message of the Kingdom. To accomplish this purpose the parables of Jesus frequently have three parts: a common scene, a surprising twist, and a shocking truth about the Kingdom or about the God of the Kingdom (Johnson, 2013).
For example, we recognize a regular occurrence when a landowner goes out in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard described in Matthew 20. Since the crop is not coming in fast enough, he hires more workers. This is repeated until just an hour before quitting time. But then the surprising twist: he pays them all the same, starting with the last ones hired, prompting those who worked longest to complain. The landowner responds, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matt 20:13-16). In this parable Jesus reverses our normal understanding of merit and our assumption of the scarcity of resources. Jesus is communicating that the Kingdom of God has limitless resources, and receiving them is not based on merit. This challenges the status quo view of the world that shapes our thinking and acting.
While keeping things organized is an important aspect of leading, another one is seeking first the Kingdom of God by challenging the status quo, acting on behalf of the least privileged ones in the community, the marginalized. Robert Greenleaf, who first articulated the servant approach to leadership asked, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves?”
Dr. Albert Boerema, Professor of Educational Leadership, Calvin University, Grand Rapids, MI
1 Greenleaf. R. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press. Johnson, D. (2013). Ears to hear, eyes to see: Introduction to the series: Parables of Jesus: Posing the scandal of his good news. Sermon preached at First Baptist Church Vancouver. Retrieved from http://969burrard.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/2013-09-29-Ears-to-Hear.pdf
2 Townes, E. (2017). A gift to the world: New collaborative seeks national conversation on public theology and racial justice. Vanderbilt Magazine, Spring 2017, p. 27.