Leaders eat last

Student reflections on leadership in North America

“How would you compare your experiences of ‘secular’ leadership on campus with leadership in the fellowship?” This is the question I asked eight student leaders from the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship (IV Grad) at Stanford University in the United States. Most of them were PhD candidates, and many have extensive leadership experience in their academic departments and in student housing. This year on our annual retreat, our student president, Jonathan, and I wanted to address our leaders’ worry about our inadequacy for the task. For the size of our fellowship, we are a small team, and as their staff worker, I am in transition into another role. As our text, we chose Mark 6:6b –13, 30–44, where Jesus sends out the disciples two by two without money or spare cloak to preach and heal, and then feeds the five thousand. After studying and meditating on the passage, I asked them how their experiences of leadership on campus differed from leadership in the fellowship. With their permission, here is a brief synopsis of our discussion.

Methods

The students observed that Christian and secular spheres of leadership have borrowed methods from one another. In both cases, a group of people come together with a common goal, and a leader’s job is to get them to that goal. The question is, how does a leader do this? What methods can a leader employ to rally the team?

One of our most experienced leaders explained that campus leadership training focuses on self-knowledge. If you know yourself well enough — your style, center and purpose — and similarly, if you know these things about those on your team well enough, then successful leadership is about reconciling and leveraging these similarities and differences. All the better if you have a good dose of charisma to inspire people.

In Christian circles, we do the same thing. We use Myers-Briggs personality tests and SWOT analysis tools. In our own retreat, we had done a Spiritual Gifts Assessment, and we likened this to taking inventory. The disciples at Jesus’ command identified five loaves and two fishes. We had eight people, mostly introverts, with a blend of the gifts of helps, leadership, administration and evangelism. How could we leverage these assets to achieve the optimal result?

The exchange of methods worked both ways, however. The students reported that “servant leadership” in campus training is a common phrase, as is “leaders eat last.”

Whose goal?

The key difference between secular leadership and Christian leadership was about whose goal leaders seek. On campus, the perfectly acceptable motivation for these leadership practices is to achieve your goal. It’s a transactional paradigm. As one leader put it, there is talk about sacrificial leadership, but you do it so that you can meet your goal. Everything is focused on productivity and the goal.

Fresh from soaking in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, we reflected that in Christian leadership, we don’t ever get to see the whole goal. The glory of God’s Kingdom is beyond our comprehension. As disciples, the only thing that’s clear is Jesus handing us our allotment of bread and fish and handing it on to the group he’s assigned us to. Through our time in this Scripture, we had a sense of the overwhelming vastness of the vision, and simultaneously of needing to focus on the given task and the people at hand. We felt tension in that, but we also saw potential.

For a moment we glimpsed how Christians could be called to very different things — handing out bread and fish to very different groups of people — and still unified in Christ. We realized there is great freedom in this to be faithful to what we’re each called to do, and at the same time, to cheer on others who are doing what they’re faithful to.

We concluded that the difference between Christian and secular leadership is the recognized presence and Lordship of Christ. Thus, we said, our unity is in Christ rather than in a task or goal. It helped us to begin to make sense of the different Christian groups on campus, and closer to home, those graduate students who chose not to join us but to join a church small group or some other fellowship.

Power and weakness

It was not a big step then for us to see that Christ leads us to notions of power and weakness that are radically different to what we might learn and experience in settings governed by secular priorities. We were struck by how not ready the disciples were when Jesus sent them out. And we were equally struck by how, at the end of the day, the disciples had to take inventory, organize the people into groups, and clean up afterwards. Not exactly rocket science! Yet the people were fed and were satisfied. As people called to faithfulness and obedience rather than ability or skill, we realized we needed to be people who would let go of power and embrace dependence. This is not an easy thing for graduate students at a prestigious American university, where filling up your resume with impressive credentials is the primary goal.

The ideal and the real

But we also all acknowledged the gap between the ideal we saw in our passage of Scripture and the realities we experienced and lived out on campus, both within our Christian fellowship and outside of it. In the context of our fellowships, we talked about the issue of a sense of entitlement to leadership. On campus, all students are allowed, indeed encouraged, to lead. At public universities in the United States, student clubs are governed by an “all comers” policy: clubs have to permit all students access not only to membership but also to leadership. A club cannot restrict access to leadership based on a list of qualifications.

On campus, particularly in the undergraduate context, a leadership role in a student club is all at once an addition to your resume, a signal you’ve reached some sort of pinnacle in your student experience, and access to an intensity of community experience that comes from being deeply involved. Leadership is something that a student can access as a right. In contrast, our meditation on our passage told us something very different about leadership. In Mark 6 to lead is to step into scary places ill-prepared, to run the risk of rejection, to continue serving when you’re tired, and most of all, to obey Jesus.

But even in our Christian fellowships, the secular paradigms can reign. One student talked about his great surprise when one of our leaders voluntarily stepped down from leadership in the absence of scandal because she felt called to other things. This just didn’t happen in the first student’s previous experience in his campus fellowship. Rather, when you got to be a leader, you stayed there at the top. And all of us confessed to certain privileges we felt entitled to because we’d served as leaders — gratitude, recognition, seeing results due to their leadership. And which of us haven’t felt these things?

Conclusion

To lead as followers of Christ is indeed to lead differently. It is to lead in dependence, handing on bread passed to us by Jesus to the people he brings to our attention, whether we feel ready or not, and whether it produces results or not. For these student leaders, the challenge will be to lean on Christ not just now, but all year, leading morally, relationally, and technically both in IV Grad and in their labs, departments, and other campus settings.

Discussion questions

Read Mark 6:6b–13, 30–44.

  • What is your source of strength, power or influence in your leadership
  • How do you define success in your leadership?
  • Read the passage and prayerfully imagine either the scene of the disciples going out, or of the feeding of the five thousand. Imagine the scene in detail — the weather, the light, sights, sounds, smells, people. Where is Jesus in the scene? Where are you in the scene? Bring these two realizations to God in prayer.

Further reading

  • Nouwen, Henri J. M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989.
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