What We Need
First Sunday After Epiphany • January 13, 2019
Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 1:4-9; Isaiah 6:1-8
(adapted from The Message)
Rev. Jeff Wells
Thank you, Sarah, for bringing these stories alive for us. Anybody who has been worshipping in a Christian or Jewish community for a while knows that Jeremiah and Isaiah are very important figures in the history of the Israelites. Their books are in a section of the Hebrew scriptures referred to as “the Major Prophets.” And these two are the most major of the Major Prophets. They are major dudes! And here, at the very beginning of their prophetic careers, is God calling Jeremiah and Isaiah to show up – calling them to be leaders – to go out on a limb, take a risk, to be courageous. In both cases, their first response is, “No, thank you.” Jeremiah say, “I am just a boy. I don’t know anything and I wouldn’t know what to say!” Isaiah tries to put God off by saying, “I am a man of unclean lips” – in other words, “Really, God, you don’t want me. I am not worthy to take this on.” But God wasn’t having any of it. God said to Jeremiah, “Don’t worry, I will help you grow and I will help you learn the right things to say. Do not be afraid…for I am with you.” To Isaiah, God said, “I have forgiven your sin and wiped away your guilt. Now, who will go for us?” And Isaiah responded, “Well, if you put it that way, here I am. I’ll show up. Send me, God.”
Today we receive and celebrate our new lay leadership for 2019. These are folks who have made the decision to “show up” for leadership in the church. Whether they experienced being called by God or by our nominations committee, God’s message to them is the same: “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” When we are called into leadership, God is with us to help us discover within or find outside of us what we need to carry out the task or fulfill the mission. She puts words in our mouths or gives us someone to speak for us or removes our guilt or helps us develop our gifts and overcome our fears. God tries to put people in our path to mentor us and with whom we can serve as partners in ministry. You see, no matter how long we have been in church leadership, God is our supreme leader. God leads us, inspires us, strengthens us, and loves us for who we are right now.
Moreover, hopefully, all of the leaders we install today received a similar message from our community: “Do not be afraid. You are not doing this alone. We are with you.” Leadership does not occur in a vacuum. We come into leadership and learn how to lead in community with others. We have the privilege of learning to love one another, mutually support and encourage one another, and to pray and work together as uniquely gifted and broken human beings. In the best of circumstances, there is a mutuality of connection, support, and love between leaders and those they are leading.
I am excited to tell you that we have a great leadership team coming in. And, among them, are fifteen persons who are new to their positions or are new to leadership in our church. Expanding our pool of leaders is a very positive development for us. And all of these “new leaders” have had leadership experience in other places and other contexts. We will be blessed by their experience and knowledge and the new perspectives they bring.
I have been encouraging and mentoring lay persons into church leadership for 13 years and I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the echoes of Jeremiah and Isaiah – “Oh Pastor, I’m not worthy” or “I don’t have what it takes” or “I am afraid” or “I couldn’t possibly do that. I have no skills and no experience.” The resistance Jeremiah and Isaiah exhibited is very common among those initially called into leadership or called into a new position or role. Minister Anita has given me permission to share a story from her own experience. When I first asked her to take over welcoming first-time visitors in worship, she was hesitant. She said she really did not like getting up in front of the congregation during worship. I know you would not think so, because she does it so well, but that’s how she felt. But then, after doing it for a while and getting affirmation from so many of you, she had grown into the role. And she said recently, “Pastor Jeff, thank you for believing in me.” That’s sometimes what it takes. Just having someone recognize your gifts and believing in you. But here’s the thing, friends: fear is not something you get over. To lead, we need courage, but as as leadership consultant, Brené Brown, points out, courage does not mean we eliminate fear. We experience courage and fear simultaneously. Leading with courage means we learn to manage our fears so they don’t paralyze us.
Brown, defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”  Let me say, first, that none of us is born to lead. It is so important to have good models and mentors to teach us. I have mentors I will rely on to help me figure things out when I am confronted with unfamiliar and difficult situations. But we also have to recognize that our best teacher is our lived experience of trying to lead and of being challenged, taking risks, failing, and succeeding in real-life situations.
I can tell you from long personal experience that it has taken me my whole life to become the leader I am today and I continue to learn and grow as a leader all the time. I have been a leader in school settings, at work, in a political organization, in seminary, and in local churches and in our denomination. And in every one of those contexts, I have learned and grown. Hundreds of individual experiences of exercising leadership contributed to what I am able to do today as a leader. So, if you have ever thought you were not worthy to lead, my answer is, “No one is prepared to be a leader until they start trying to lead.” And I have no qualms about admitting that I have made many mistakes – some whoppers – over the decades. I have experienced many failures. You cannot be a leader without going through mistakes and failures. Being a leader is not about being the “expert” who knows it all and tells everyone else what to do. Leadership requires being willing to “dare greatly” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. Leaders rely on the abilities and knowledge of other leaders and of those they are leading. In fact, leadership is mainly about discovering and developing the gifts and capacities of those one is leading. It is about serving those you are leading. And, we need to lead from the heart. We need to love those we are leading. That’s a very New Testament model. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did with his closest followers?
Taking on leadership requires the willingness to take risks and to fail and to admit our failures. And then, to get back up, analyze the causes of the failure, make corrections, take the necessary steps to repair any damage done, and come up with a new plan to move ahead. I could not possibly continue to be a pastor if I was not willing to fail repeatedly.
There are no perfect leaders. But the good news is we don’t need perfection. We need courage and the willingness to dare greatly. We also have to let go of scarcity thinking – thinking that we don’t have enough – enough members, enough money, enough time, enough love, enough grace, enough Jesus, enough God. The truth is, we do. We do have enough. Collectively, we are enough. What we need is here.
It is so important to understand that church leadership is not static. It is always changing, with people leaving and coming into leadership. Not everyone is called to lead. On the other hand, you can lead without being on a committee or in an elected position. The Church of the Village has many members who are “ministers without portfolio” – leaders who do not have elected leadership positions. I am thinking of Carlton English, who leads a street clothing ministry for homeless persons and mentors others in how to do that. I think of Maurice White, who is a leader in counseling and mentoring people who come to use the services of GMHC. And, I think of Isaiah Du Pree, who is a leader in a wide range of advocacy work and in our church’s collaboration with the Black & Pink organization to support LGBTQ and HIV-positive prisoners. And I am sure I don’t know all of the ways that each of you acts as a leader at work or in your family or in some other arena. And if you don’t see yourself as a leader anywhere yet, well, don’t be surprised if you get a call from God. I am sure we have some undiscovered and unrecognized leaders among us.
Leadership is not primarily about doing tasks or getting others to do things. It is about cultivating relationships and affirming those we are leading so that they can discover and develop the gifts and potential they have within them for their own benefit and to share with our community. It’s a goal and a necessity for our community that we discover, recognize, and develop the gifts and abilities that are present in our midst. What we need is here.
I hope that the Leadership Development and Discernment Committee (our fancy name for the Nominations committee) will provide opportunities for leadership growth and development this year. I am going to propose that we begin with a study of a new book by Brené Brown titled, Dare to Lead. I recommend it to anyone who is a leader or who wants to become a leader in any context or capacity.
I am so grateful that we have a strong leadership team for 2019 – all of these persons who, in spite of their fears, in spite of their sense of being unworthy or unprepared, have made the commitment to show up. This is a crucial time in the life the Church of the Village and in the history of the United Methodist Church. We are facing a possible schism in the denomination and we are at a critical tipping point in the history of our congregation, potentially poised to grow significantly. We need church leaders who will dare greatly. And we desperately need progressive, radically inclusive, and anti-racist congregations like COTV to stand as a counterweight to those wings of Christianity that want to provide a cover for regressive patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy.
In our community, everybody has a calling and a role. For those who don’t feel called to lead, you have an important role and responsibility to challenge our leaders to greatness. You are called to be honest with them when they are doing something that is causing a rift or making you uncomfortable, and doing do from a position of support, love, and grace.
Both leaders and led must be willing to invest their energies in the fostering a congregation’s success. We must be willing to take risks and to make mistakes (and admit to our mistakes), and we must have compassion and love for one another – even when we are upset with each other. None of us can accomplish alone the formidable tasks that God has set before our church. That is why God called us to be in community, to work together for our own transformation and for the healing of the world. God calls us to weave our individual uniqueness into the common ministry of Jesus Christ. God created each of you and called each of you to make a special contribution to this beloved community. Remember God’s words to Jeremiah. “Do not be afraid. I am with you.” God is with us. What we need is here, friends. What we need is here.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.
 Brown, Brené, Dare to Lead (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2018).