Pastoral leaders are future-oriented. That goes without question. “If the children’s program keeps growing what’s our next move?” “If stewardship tanks what will we do?” “If city council approves the plan to revitalize downtown how does that impact our long-term strategy?” Asking these questions is a part of my role. I’m doing what a leader is supposed to do. I rarely -- if ever -- question that.
But then the lectionary drops this on me: “Do not worry about tomorrow,” says Christ, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own” (Matthew 6:34). As a leader -- as one expected “to worry about tomorrow” -- what am I to do with this?
I’ve always treated this passage as mere homespun advice, something suitable for “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” But lately I’ve wondered if the stakes are higher. “Do not worry about tomorrow.” What if this isn’t just helpful advice but a dire warning especially for those who are called to lead in the way of Jesus Christ?
This question occurred to me after reading the highly acclaimed historical novel, “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel. Mantel imagines the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII and all the messy political maneuverings that gave birth to the Church of England. One of Mantel’s more colorful characters, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, is ambitious and greedy, conniving and opportunistic. Before he finds himself on the wrong end of the executioner’s blade, he too is quite future-oriented. Mantel describes him as a master of “floating diplomacy” who “never lives in a single reality but in a shifting shadow-mesh of possibilities.” It seems he invests so much of his attention on what might come -- and how these “possibilities” may impair or enhance his own ambitions -- that he loses his capacity to live the “single reality” of the present day.
Did Jesus have such schemers in mind (and who among us doesn’t scheme?) when he said, “Do not worry about tomorrow”? Was he also speaking to leaders when he called upon us instead to ground our lives in the one reality that truly matters, to “seek first the kingdom of God”?
The task of leadership then is not merely to look to the future but to look for the particular future that God will bring. God’s promises of peace, justice and right relations give us critical leverage over all other socially (and personally) constructed realities.
In a very different context theologian David Bentley Hart describes our task this way: “The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another, one world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror…and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory radiant with the beauty of God in every part.”
This is what Thomas Wolsey -- as Mantel imagines him -- fails to do. It’s not that he tries to live too many realities but that he fails to embrace the one reality that governs all others. His tragic flaw is not that he constantly planned ahead but that he failed to plan with his (and our) true end in mind. As leaders in the way of Christ, we seek another path. We strive to keep God’s “first and ultimate truth” before us. Otherwise our strategic plans become schemes and our schemes become reality. “Our” futures have their end in the future God has for us.
Mark Ralls is senior pastor of Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, N.Y.