Kelly Johnson: Francis’s founding an order was another way of dying to self

St. Francis’s calling to humility meant he had to be a leader, both within his order and for the many people who asked for his guidance.

In the ancient church, a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba, may I have a word?' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. The letter to which Kelly Johnson replies is here.

Dear Tom Arthur,

Thanks for your letter and for news about your church and order. I wish I could meet the grandmother who started it all!

I sympathize with your question and I think it’s important. But before I respond to it as best I can, I have to say that I don’t think it is the same thing I’m writing about in my critique of stewardship. I argued that stewardship evades questions about where wealth comes from, reinforces individual ownership and removes questions of property from the church. I also argue, and this is more the part you are thinking about, that it makes renunciation appear to be irresponsible. Humility and penance, at least as St. Francis practiced them, seem self-indulgent in comparison with “responsible stewardship.”

Is that problem in the use of property really parallel to the problem of how you practice your office as pastor? In the case of financial stewardship, I want people to pay attention to whether the “blessings” they’ve “received from God” actually are blessings, and whether God had much to do with their getting them. But your office is not like that. You were called by the church and given a position of authority, rooted in the work of the Spirit. “Stewardship” thinking lumps ‘time, talent, and treasure’ together as though they are the same. But they aren’t! (Time, in particular, is not in fact money… but you can look back at the section on Peter Maurin for that bit!).

I think your question is really about humility and authority. If good Christian leaders are to be humble, then it seems they can’t be leaders but have to be lowly and deferential, self-effacing. They have to renounce power. Therefore “good Christian leader” is a contradiction in terms. It’s a problem we saw the early Franciscans struggling with and it’s an argument that was used to justify the dissolution of England’s monasteries. It’s an easy claim to invoke anytime you want to make a pastor feel guilty for holding an office of authority.

But humility is not about refusing to act for the common good. It’s about knowing that your life and calling matter, and that therefore you have die to yourself. Because you are important, you pour yourself out completely in love.

Francis took his life very seriously, and therefore gave it all up, breaking with his family and shocking his peers. His calling to humility also meant he had to be a leader, both within his order and for the many people who asked for his guidance. He designed rules of life, he corrected his friars when they failed, he designated other leaders under him, he called on political leaders to make peace. All of it began and ended in his complete gift of himself in joy to God, taking the risk to do something that made him utterly vulnerable. Being founder of an order didn’t make him less humble; it became another part of his dying to himself. Peter Maurin’s role as teacher is another great example for you.

What about friendship, then? In my book, I talked about friendship as a contrast to the presumption that when it comes to economics we are all strangers to each other. I meant it as a way to refuse to accept that there is no place for love in economic matters.

In your case, the problem is whether friendship and pastoral authority go together. As pastor working with this team, you will have many opportunities to cultivate and coordinate the gifts of others, and to encourage people to take up their own roles for the well-being of all. You will also consult with your team as respected co-workers who have insights you need to learn from. If you’re really blessed, you’ll get to admit your faults and accept correction from them. And sometimes you may make calls that others don’t agree with. To be faithful even when others do not agree, to live patiently and compassionately in an argument with your brothers and sisters, are acts of great love and humility.

Can relationships like that be considered ‘friendship’? Aristotle wouldn’t like it, but I hope so. Jesus called his apostles ‘friends,’ though even in the great day of fulfillment they will not be exactly his equals -- and the difference between you and your team is rather less than that. I pray that as you live and pray and work with your church, both your team and your congregation, you’ll discover the kind of mutuality that can flourish even though (or rather, precisely because) we have different offices and different gifts. We are one body in the one Lord.

Peace back to you,

Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson teaches theology and ethics at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. She is author of "The Fear of Beggars" (Eerdmans).