Leading has always come fairly easily to me. When I was growing up, I was never the smartest or most talented of my peers yet, when we were on a team or in a group, others turned to me for direction. So I was captain of this and president of that. Early in my adult years I went to seminary and since then I’ve been rector of this and chairman of that. Usually I have a sense of where a group could potentially go and how to get us there.
Following, however, has always been much harder. When I was interviewing with the commission of the church which decided who went to seminary and who did not, I was asked why I wanted to be a priest. The answer was simple for me: “I want to lead a church and I have to be ordained to do that.” Probably not the answer they were expecting but certainly a practical approach. One member of that commission asked me how I might handle working for someone else and following their lead. “If that person is incompetent, I’ll have a real problem,” I confessed. “Yes,” he surmised, “you sure will.”
Following an incompetent lead isn’t a good thing. But what about following in general? Anyone who cannot ever follow would qualify as arrogant, self-centered, immature, and probably very insecure. Someone who always has to be in charge isn’t much fun to be around. And, if enough time is spent with such a person, it will be discovered that he is carrying some mighty heavy burdens. The lesson such a person must learn is to let go of some of those burdens and develop a lighter sense of trust.
“Come, follow me,” Jesus says as he calls his disciples. “Come, follow me,” Jesus says to us in our spiritual pilgrimage. Setting aside my own will and learning to discern and follow the will of the Lord is the goal, and the measure, of faith. Uh, oh. We may have a real problem there. The first problem is discernment. How do I learn the will of the Lord? It’s not always written clearly. It’s usually found more in retrospect. The second problem is setting aside my will and actually trusting and following. Stepping ahead into the unknown isn’t exactly light and easy. We resist it. Even when we have ample evidence that the unknown is where transformation and grace are revealed. Even when we realize that most everything of value in life begins with stepping into the unknown.
I’m still learning about following. In my family and work relationships, following someone else’s lead is occasionally so necessary that I just have to go along with something. I can’t always be in charge. Even though leading comes pretty easily, I don’t even really want to be in charge all the time. And, most definitely, I’ve learned much more in the times when I have had to follow than when I have led. I’ve even learned that leading, at its best, is following. The leader has to trust an inspiration and then the group’s ability to adjust the inspiration on the fly. That’s actually the exciting part, as the leader lets go of the need to control the outcome and participates in the unfolding of the event. Good leading is good following.
How do you resist following? How well do you go with the flow? Do you always have to be in charge? Can you never see that someone else may have a good idea? How well do you trust your church to lead you? Do you always think the Bishop or some council of the church is out to force some fickle innovation down your throat? Do you trust your leaders to be inspired and faithful? Refusing to follow incompetence may be a good thing. Refusing to follow anyone is to resist communal wisdom. Such a refusal hinders salvation and wholeness.
Following is not just about me and God. I don’t just go to my little mountain and find God’s little messages and then take them to the world to convince others what should be done. I’ve got to do a lot of following in order to live fully. Following means acknowledging that the community is really wiser than we are as individuals. Following is the exciting part of faith where we get to see things unfold in surprising fashion. There we discover the leadings of the Holy Spirit. There we see that outcomes are not of our design and making. Outcomes are gifts of faith and following because we find that, no matter the outcome of any one particular event, nothing is lost on God.
Follow Jesus. Follow the church as one place where Jesus is revealed. Don’t swallow everything hook, line, and sinker. But follow. That’s how our relationship with our savior is formed.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.