James Howell: You can’t conjure up leadership

It is good to regularize the calling and equipping to lead. But it’s still God’s work primarily, and far beyond our control.

This is my year for out-of-the-ordinary ordinations.

I flew to Haiti to preach at the ordination of a young man in a community where our church has a school, granary, and clinic. I think I actually ordained him (with no ecclesiastical authority whatsoever). After intense questioning in Creole, to which the candidate responded “Oui,” I was asked to lay my hand on his head and pray. I said “I’m not a bishop,” but in the out of the way place, I was probably the closest thing.

I flew to Liberia to preach at their conference’s ordination service. Ninety ordinands, and a higher number of degrees on the thermometer. Immense zeal and a palpable humility were on every face. I felt a bit ashamed of the rock star status they afforded me. My annual salary may well exceed that of the entire bunch of 90.

I flew to Urbana, Illinois, to a service where my colleague was being ordained -- along with dozens of others.

I am in awe that in today’s milieu of cynicism and anti-institutional bias, people still put on heavy robes in the heat and line up to get hands laid on them. Each one of these people, in a moment of profound faith or quirky delusion, said “Yes” to a call from God. Not one of them sized up the market, assessed their test results, and thought, “This is a clever way to prosper in today’s world.” They underwent education and interrogation, and then got sent to places not as famous as Timbuktu to struggle, to try to pray and teach, to lay hands on the sick -- who quite often die despite the prayers. They go to people who yawn, who can be petty, who believe fitfully, if at all. And then you get old and die doing this?

I am also struck of how little consonance there is between what I have witnessed and the kinds of things we talk about on websites like faithandleadership.com. I’m constantly invited to something or another where we can be sharper, smoother, more successful, to grow the church, to glisten with administrative acumen, to raise endowments and corral postmodern people into church buildings equipped with snazzy technology.

But this kind of leadership talk often runs on a different track from real ecclesiastical processes and the way people actually answer God’s call. When I said, “Yes, I will give pastoring a try,” no one had spoken to me about books like “Good to Great,” and I would have laughed if someone had. I was swept up in a frenzy of faith, and wanted nothing more than to go be with hurting people and pray for them, and to have the privilege of standing up and talking about amazing things I’d read in the Bible. At ordination, none -- none! -- of the questions are about leadership, or entrepeneurship, or visionary strategies.

I do not know what this dissonance means. I do recall an evaluation session of my congregation’s personnel committee, weighing the work of their clergy. They were laboring over the “needs improvement in . . . ” box. It is not normally hard for laity to hatch such a list. But one woman felt a bit ruffled by this: “Look, these people could have done most anything else for a living, and had an easier life for more money. Ministry looks really hard. We should consider the fact that God called them, and they said ‘Yes.’ We should thank them for doing so, and for being here with us.”

Now, that is no substitute for the real, necessary work of evaluation and professional improvement. But in Haiti, and Liberia and Urbana, I watched people of all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds walk slowly forward, kneel, have hands laid on their heads, and rise with smiles, or tears, with family beaming in curious pride, trudging away into the most uncertain future imaginable. Do they know the craft of leadership? Will they master Heifetz or Maxwell and become wizards of ministry? I find myself uninterested in the answer to that question.

I’m in some awe. A bunch of people whose faces I saw, and on whose heads I laid my feeble hands, had said “Oui” to whatever questions were asked of them -- by the church, but more importantly by God. I think all that is left to me is to thank them, or to thank God.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.