What It Means to Be a Leader

By Simon Cuff

Leadership is important. Christian discourse at the moment is full of talk of leadership. What does it mean to be a leader? is a question that fuels courses and workshops, retreats and study days throughout the Church in this country and beyond.

What does it mean to be a leader?

The feast of Christ the King, which we celebrate today, raises questions for any Christian understanding of leadership. What does it mean for Christ to be our king?

What does it mean to be a leader? The feast we celebrate today subverts our instinctive worldly notions of what it means to lead.

What does it mean to be a leader?

Our first reading recounted for us the story of the priest Mattathias. Mattathias refuses to abandon the Jewish law in the face of terrible persecution. When the king’s officers arrive to enforce the ban on following this way of life, they seek Mattathias out because he is a leader. “Be the first to do what the king commands,” they tell him.

“You are a leader,” the king’s officers say to Mattathias, because “you are honored and great in this town, and supported by many sons and brothers.”

The king’s officers suggest two possible qualities of leadership. Leaders are those who are honored, and those who have the support of many. The king’s officers go to Mattathias because he has both. He is a priest. He has a position of honor and respect. And he has a following. He has the support of many brothers and sons around him.

Too often, when it comes to our relations with those in authority, we focus too much on the honor due to this or that public official, and we forget the support of others on which they rely.

We’ve learned to be polite and to defer to those in positions of authority over us. We think because they have a position of authority they’ll have our best interests at heart. We misunderstand what Christ meant when he said, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.”

We forget that Caesar, and all earthly rulers, have nothing in their own right, but all belongs to God, who created everything that is, and has put all things under Christ’s feet.

We forget that earthly leaders have no automatic right to honor or to deference. We forget that all leaders are accountable to those whom they serve, to those who support them in occupying the office or position that has been given them by society.

When we do this, we make the mistake of the king’s officers. We think someone should be supported because they are honored, when really they deserve honor only insofar as they support the community on whose behalf they serve.

All in positions of earthly authority are accountable to the community at large. And through that community they, like all of us, are accountable to the only one who has any authority in the created order, Christ, to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.

The authority Christ has over all earthly rulers is at the heart of today’s feast. We’re reminded of it by our second reading. Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

We often miss the connection between this authority and our discipleship. We overlook the force of the “therefore” in the following verse. Christ says all authority has been given to him, and “therefore” we’re sent out.

Christ’s authority doesn’t render us powerless; it places a call on our lives. It doesn’t make us passive recipients of God’s grace; it calls us to be active in response. Christ has the authority. Therefore we go.

Where do we go?

Or better to whom?

We know from elsewhere in Scripture the answer to this question. We go to the one to whom all authority has been given. We go to Christ.

We seek Christ out, here in Church, through the Eucharist. We meet Christ in the faces of the poor and the outcast, the prisoner and the refugee. And we find Christ in those outside the Church to whom we are called to preach the good news, as we make disciples of all nations. We’re sent by Christ in the Eucharist, to encounter Christ in the poor and all those on the margins of whatever divide society has made for itself.

What does it mean to be a leader? A leader is someone who has the support and following of those nearby. A leader is someone who is accountable to the community at large. A leader is someone who prioritizes good relationships with another, above the honor of position or office. This is what the feast of Christ the King reminds us.

What does it mean to be a leader? All of us have it in our power to be a leader, because all of us have it in our power to improve the quality of relationships in our community. All of us can have those cups of coffee and conversations which is what it means to be community, to be church in our neighborhood.

All of us have it in our power to serve those around us. To listen, through those conversations to the needs and concerns of our community, and to plan together about how best to respond to those needs. And if we do this, if we truly serve those around us, those around us will recognize the presence of Christ in us, and give him, through us, the honor that is his due.

Leadership and authority are not something to be held onto, or to be passively honored. Leadership is something to be shared, across our community.

A leader is one who gives herself for those around her, who follows the example of Christ’s leadership we celebrate today, who though rich made himself poor.

A leader is not one who “leads,” after all, but one who follows.

A leader is one who follows Christ, by putting service and support of neighbor at the heart of his life.

A leader is one who recognizes this paradox at the heart of the Christian life, that in supporting others we are supported. And in that support, in our relation with one another, we find that we share in the honor that is afforded only to Christ, because we share in none other than Christ the King himself.

“You are a leader,” the king’s officers say to Mattathias, because “you are honored and great in this town, and supported by many sons and brothers.”

“You are a leader,” Christ says to us, “because you support and are supported by many brothers and sisters; you are honored, because you are my body, in this place, and throughout the world.”

The Rev. Simon Cuff is vicar of St. Peter De Beauvoir Town in London.


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