Sarah Howell: Peek-a-boo and other lessons in leadership

Where did the playfulness in leadership go?

I currently have the job every recent seminary grad dreams of landing after toiling away for three years with Barth, St. Teresa, Schleiermacher, the theological implications of Vatican II, form criticism, deontological ethics, and Henry VIII’s ecclesial legacy.

I nanny a 4-month-old boy.

My first full day of work was an education in the hermeneutics, not of scripture, but of spit up. As I cleaned up his third projectile of the morning, I had a thought: I bet baby Jesus spit up on Mary and Joseph all the time.

Babies are messy. They poop and spit up and drool.

And God came to us as a baby. I think there’s a lesson here for leadership.

First, a confession: I don't want to think about Jesus as a pooping, spitting up, drooling infant. It's uncomfortable to imagine just how bodily and therefore messy the incarnation really was. I'd rather think of a clean, bright, haloed baby Jesus than a colicky child retching through the night. Surely our savior came in neater packaging than we other human beings do.

But in the back of my mind, I hear Gregory of Nazianzus say, "What is not assumed is not redeemed." God took on flesh in whole, not in part—for our salvation. That includes all the gross things about being human—and isn't it our messiness that's most in need of redemption?

As an infant, even Jesus couldn't clean up his own mess. He depended on Mary and Joseph. Jesus "emptied himself" (Philippians 2:7), laid down all the divine power, and became a baby who could obtain nothing without it being given to him, who could go nowhere without being carried.

A lot of talk about leadership in the church today makes me think we've forgotten this. Words like "power" and "drive" and "effective" dominate conversation. If we are imitating Christ, we seem to think that Jesus materialized at age 30, walking, talking and leading -- and in a manner more CEO-like than lamb-like.

Ministry and leadership could stand to be a little more playful.

The child I’m caring for recently learned how to play peek-a-boo. When I first discovered this, we spent the better part of an hour with him propped up on my lap, me covering his eyes and then removing my hand to reveal that I had moved my head a foot to the left -- which he would slowly discover with delight, surprise and giggling.

How many hours must Mary and Joseph have spent in the dirt playing with Jesus? Caring for a child isn’t all about efficiency and productivity -- yes, they need to have their diapers changed and to be fed and eventually to be taught their ABCs, but most of the time I spend with the baby would seem, by many standards, to be time wasted. Staring at a colorful mobile with him for 30 minutes is not exactly the measure of productivity.

I just completed my Master’s of Divinity. I’m supposed to be establishing myself as a young leader in the church. Instead, I’m changing diapers and playing peek-a-boo. But I suspect I’m learning some things about ministry and leadership that I never could have learned in the classroom. I never got spit up on in Church History or changed a diaper in Christian Ethics or played peek-a-boo in Preaching -- and maybe there could have been something profound about that if I had.

I suspect a body of Christ that's not afraid to drool, to play, to make a mess, is also one that can admit it needs others, that sometimes it needs to be carried and fed and wiped -- and, perhaps more importantly -- is willing to do the same for other people.

The question for leaders (young and old) is how we cultivate Christian communities and institutions that embody this.

The nanny gig is just a summer job. I'm about to go into the ministry for the first time. I have a lot to learn. But as I change diapers and clean spit up and play peek-a-boo, I hope I'm finding out a little of what it means to carry and to be carried, to feed and to be fed -- and yes, even to wipe and to be wiped.

Sarah Howell is a recent graduate of Duke Divinity School. She begins her first appointment as Associate Minister for Worship and Young Adults at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC this fall.