This article was originally published by The Mennonite

The courage to lead

Leadership: A word from Mennonite Church USA leaders

I am serving on Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board. As a board we are called to listen to our constituency and make wise decisions for the larger church body, which is no small task. This body is not a homogeneous one; it has diverse opinions on sexuality, political involvement and even whether we should hold our 2013 convention in Phoenix. Yet I care for this body and believe that as a board we have an important mandate to accomplish.

Soto_ElizabethOne of our board’s guiding principles for 2009-11—to support our vision of healing and hope— is “to listen well and lead with courage.” As we are confronted with many hard issues, it becomes mandatory for us to learn to lead with courage. This type of talk makes some Mennonites feel nervous; it is not passive language, and I have observed a tendency among ethnic Mennonites to feel tension around “having or exercising power.” However, there are increasingly more “Menno­nites by choice” who are leaders in the church and do not fear the concept of exercising power.

We do not want to abuse our power, yet as board members we cannot avoid our mandate to make decisions. When consultant David Brubaker of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., who has studied change and conflict in religious organizations, gave a presentation to the board in February, he encouraged us to learn to stay at the center and hold all the parts together without falling into any of the extremes. Is that what it means to lead with courage?

Ever since I was appointed to serve on this board a year ago, I have played with a metaphor that from my perspective illustrates the dynamics between board members/leaders, staff/leaders and general church leaders: the Amish horse and buggy.
It is a simple illustration of the interdependence of power among the parts. For me, the driver of the buggy represents the board members, the horsepower moving the buggy represents the staff, and the buggy represents the church. The buggy holds our precious belief systems, our congregations and their leaders. In our biennial assemblies, the church appoints board members representing various perspectives—race, gender, rural/urban, pastoral, business/corporate, conference, among others—to lead in offering directions on key issues that affect the whole church. The leaders/staff on the national/conference level enable the buggy to move, to go places. We need to listen carefully to the occupants of the buggy—the church—to hear where they want us to go as well. I acknowledge that this is a simplistic way of viewing the complexity of the church and the power dynamic; this is just an image, not without its faults and limitations.

In this time of many changes, you have entrusted us as board members to take the lead, and we wish to do so with courage—not foolish courage but Spirit-led courage. I am reminded of Ezra and Nehemiah being called to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and of the people of Israel losing their identity in the exile period. The Israelites had assimilated the cultures around them and needed redirection. It took not one but two strong leaders to have the courage to lead. They succeeded because they exercised the will of God.

I pray that as board members and humble leaders of Mennonite Church USA, we can listen carefully and not be afraid to lead with courage. On occasions we will be criticized for decisions we make, but I hope we can set the correct direction. Can you trust us? After all, this is our church, and we are all part of the buggy/body of Christ.

Elizabeth Soto Albrecht is a member of Laurel Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., and a member of the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA.

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