Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

Leadership and Submission

Today a question: If it is almost universally agreed that we should all be submissive to one another (Ephesians 5:21, one would have to be fairly obtuse to object to that directive from the apostle Paul), what happens when a person is placed in a position of authority? How can one submit to those he (or she) is actually given authority over? How can you lead from below?

I hate it when I ask myself these questions. I ask better than I answer. But here goes anyway –

First of all, leadership is not inimical to submission. If it was, Jesus was the worst leader of all time. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the answer to the question how to lead from below and that would be the end of it, but then what would become of the rest of this post?

Leading from below involves certain behaviors that come from certain traits of character. First, leadership from below involves listening – not just hearing but actual active listening that forces one to accept and to process what the other is saying. Active listening itself comes from a trait of compassion and caring. The first thing you learn about someone who cannot listen is that they really do not care very much, either.

Second, leadership from below involves participation in the lives of those being led. In more bucolic terms, the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep. The best managers of an assembly plant are those who understand from the bottom up what it feels like to work on the line. If you are going to lead an elementary school, you had better know what it feels like to get down on your hands and knees with the kindergarteners. The best boss I ever worked for in my secular work life actually climbed in our planes and flew them occasionally. That let me know he trusted our mechanics, and it was kind of nice to see him on the flight line, too.

If you listen carefully and participate fully, then that means that occasionally leadership from below means suffering. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and that means leaders as well. Perhaps less bucolic, but certainly no less colorful, is the illustration that was impressed upon me a long time ago: the higher you climb up the flag pole, the more people are going to see your rear end. When the water boy makes a mistake, no one in the stadium will know. When the head coach calls a time-out that he does not have, or when the quarterback throws an interception to end the game, everyone knows. Leadership from below means that we accept our frailty, and also accept that our mistakes are going to be more visible, and potentially more critical, than the mistakes of our followers. Leaders have to stand up and absorb the shots – and have the ability to grow from them.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that leadership from below also involves a great amount of joy. I simply cannot express the joy I felt when I saw a student return from his/her check-ride and realize that there was a new pilot, a new instrument rated pilot, or a new commercial pilot, or a new flight instructor in the world. Of course I was responsible for teaching them (and a failure meant the FAA would be looking at my teaching skills), but the student had to study, to practice, to actually pass the exam. It is nothing but pure joy to see the “light bulb” come on and see a new babe in Christ emerge from the waters of baptism. So, not all is doom and gloom in terms of leading from below.

I guess it goes without saying that the opposite of these traits pretty much describes bullies and autocrats. They don’t listen, they do not help or participate in the lives of those being led, they certainly do not suffer, and I would suggest they are the most joyless individuals in the world. And the church is full of autocratic bullies. Heaven help the congregation that is led by a man (or men, or women) who refuse to listen, who never get their hands dirty doing ministry or teaching the kindergartners, who are too hoity-toity to even expose themselves to suffering, and whose faces would break if they smiled. God has a message to those who lead from the ivory tower, who dictate but never participate, who “bind heavy burdens on those who seek to obey, but do not lift a finger to help:”

He wants His church back.

Listening, participating, suffering, joy – what else would you add to the list in terms of “leadership from below?” I know my list is not exhaustive, probably not even comprehensive. But, I do hope that I have laid a foundation for the concept that leadership and submission are not mutually exclusive; indeed – they have to be inter-related on a very fundamental level.

Let us learn to lead from below!

That’s Why We Call Them “Elders”

Over the past several months I have come to appreciate certain things more deeply: health, a strong marriage, the love of a child. Our life’s circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, and very rarely for the better. All too often we lose something, or have something taken away from us, and all we have left are some memories and a bunch of questions.

In regard to the church, I have also come to realize, and appreciate, the simple wisdom of something that many take to be a relic of history, just a curiosity of a bygone era that needs to be erased as well. That “relic” is the practice of having churches overseen by a plurality of senior disciples called “elders.” For so many that is a quaint but no longer useful tradition that is more harmful than helpful. For me, it is becoming just one more example of the immeasurable wisdom of our creator God.

I am growing impatient, and even somewhat disgusted, with individuals who heap endless praise on the generation that is just now coming of age, calling them the most spiritual and mature generation to grace the face of the earth. I saw it in a comment just this past week. “This generation is just so much in love with Jesus!” the speaker said. Hidden within the comment was a dagger – no other generation in recent memory has ever loved Jesus like this group!

Oh. Spare. Me.

I was born into a generation that really loved Jesus. My parents’ generation really loved Jesus. My grandparents generation really loved Jesus. I can look back in history and identify generations whose love for Jesus makes this coming generation look like a bunch of wallowing sycophants. Spare me the generational comparisons – at least until this generation has had enough time to prove themselves.

One thing my generation did accomplish – or shall I say destroy – was to separate our “love for Jesus” from a love for his church and those who were tasked with leading it. I was born at the tail end of the “Jesus people” generation, the ones who screamed “Jesus yes, church no” at the top of our voices. We were taught not to trust anyone over 40. What this coming generation has been able to accomplish is to lower that age down to 30. Or, maybe 20. They have taken the Boomer’s disdain for the church and raised it exponentially. I note with a genuine degree of fear that, especially within the church, the disdain for age and seniority has reached Promethean heights. The term “elder” has lost all meaningful significance.

There are just some things that cannot be obtained without the passage of time: the capacity for maturity, depth of wisdom, the skill to raise multiple children through the stormy waters of adolescence, the ability to maintain and to deepen a strong marriage, the tact and strength to deal with aging and declining parents. There is more than just a poetic reason why white hair is the crown of a life well lived.

The thought occurred to me the other day that twenty-somethings know all the answers to all the questions. Persons over the age of 65 have experienced the questions – they have seen it, felt it, heard it, lived it, cried over it, had their hearts broken over it, conquered it, been almost destroyed by it, and somehow have managed to survive it. Twenty-somethings walk with a strut. Seniors walk with a limp – for a good reason.

I am not discounting book smarts. I think I did some of my best work in the first years of my ministry. I also left behind some wrecks. And I am not suggesting that mere age is some guarantor of wisdom. There are a lot of seniors who never matured out of adolescence. The fruit of the poisonous tree of the “Me Generation” will be around for a long time.

But, as simply and as passionately as I can put it, there is a reason for 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  There is a wisdom and a maturity that those who have reached their sixth decade and beyond own that those who have only lived for two or two-and-a-half just cannot have. The practice of having a congregation overseen by senior disciples is not just a quaint artifact of a bygone era. It is rooted in the deepest wisdom of God. Congregations are hurting themselves – and possibly poisoning their future – by rejecting this divinely mandated practice.

There is a reason we call them elders. If we are wise, we will honor them, respect them, we will pay attention to and learn from their wisdom, and we will submit to their leadership.