A Sermon for the Mothers' Union Leadership Conference
It is a great pleasure and a privilege to be here with you today. I am a proud member of the Mothers’ Union, and what convinced me to join was the work you have done on Bye Buy Childhood. Thank you for that, and for the many different acts of service that you do, individually and collectively. I would welcome you to the Diocese of Derby, but since most of you are about to go home, let me instead bring you greetings from the Diocese of Derby, where you have been for the past few days, and especially greetings from Derby Cathedral where I serve as Canon Chancellor.
Some words from the first reading: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.” “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.” It is truly wonderful that you have spent this time learning about servant leadership. I have enjoyed following some of the conference on twitter. I particularly noted the tweet about a ‘workshop on Inspiring the Clergy to work with us’. Although I can’t help wondering if it wasn’t the clergy that were more in need of that particular workshop.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.” So here’s the thing. It’s not enough to talk about the gifts you have, especially the gifts of leadership – you have to use them. Learning to lead is like learning to pray – you learn by doing it. Prayer is, I have learned from hard experience, not about technique. Nor is it something to be ‘good at’. Sometimes I find prayer easier than at other times. I would never say that I am ‘good at’ it. It is a struggle, one that it is important to keep going through. Techniques can be helpful in prayer – posture, silence, particular times, disciplines, other people’s prayers. All of these have helped me to learn to pray. I have learned about prayer from books, talks, stories from history, spiritual directors and so on. But you can’t learn about prayer without praying. All of this learning and these techniques have to be used and tried out. If something works, then I keep it. If it doesn’t then I try it in a new way or I ditch it. You can only learn about prayer by praying.
I think there is something here about leadership. I’m not convinced that there’s a great technique that will solve everything. When I come across leaders of all sorts, they do it very differently, with different qualities and abilities. Some are deliberate, some are instinctive. And there is much that can be learned from books, conferences, historical figures and contemporary guides. But you can’t learn to lead without leading. Let me encourage you to learn all you can about leadership. Read the books, go to the workshops, listen to the talks. And then try it out. Take the risk, and lead. It is the only way to become a leader. Or as the letter of Peter puts it, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”
So let me suggest three things that I have learned from learning to pray that have helped me to learn to lead. The first is this: lead as you can, not as you can’t. That is don’t try to lead like someone else, however good them might be. You’ll only fail. Lead as you, as the person God made you to be. If God had wanted someone else, he’d have made someone else. Lead as the person who you are, uniquely. That is leadership that no one else can offer. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”
So lead as you can, not as you can’t. And second, just as my life of prayer is supported by disciplines so my leadership is supported by disciplines too. What are the disciplines that support and enable you as a leader? For me they include honesty, which is especially hard when I have to tell someone a difficult truth. Listening, actively and carefully checking out that I have heard and understood someone or a situation correctly. And saying no, because there are boundaries and limits to my abilities and time. Find the disciplines that will support your leadership and use them. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”
Lead as you can, not as you can’t. Find the disciplines that support you in being a leader. And the third thing about leadership that I have learned from prayer is that is all about relationship. It is all about relationship. Get to know the people you are leading. Learn what makes them tick, how they need to be supported and challenged, where they excel and where they need help. Get to know them, care for them. Leadership without relationship is the vanity of an armchair general. It is not the servant leadership of Jesus. And the relationship that is most often pushed out, but is most important to preserve is your relationship with God. There is always something that seems more important than praying or reading the Bible or writing your journal. There is always someone whose need is urgent and can flatter us that we are the person they need. Leadership is all about relationship – relationship with the people we lead, and relationship with God who leads us.
So lead as you can, not as you can’t. Be yourself in leadership. Find the disciplines that support you in leadership, they will be vital when it gets difficult. And remember that it is all about relationship – relationship with other people and with God. You can only learn to lead by leading. Take the risk, try it out. Lead in the name of the servant leader. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”
First given at the Mothers' Union Leadership Conference, The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, 11th May, 2016.