On Leadership

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
September 5, 2018
Numbers 27:1-11; Philippians 2:1–11; John 13:12–15; Qur’an 3:104–105, 159; 4:58 and from the Hadith


Years ago, I read a series of science fiction novels in which one alien race was so xenophobic and risk-averse that their only contact with other species was done by members of society considered “insane.” This fearfulness extended to the leadership of their society who were referred to as “those who lead from behind.” This was not quite the same thing as the strategic leadership from behind the scenes known as “leadership from behind” which speaks to the creation of the impression of being uninvolved while still exercising leadership, this was actually from behind. Such that their ruler was called “the Hindmost.”

That’s not usually how we understand what it means to be a leader.

Nor is an understanding of leadership the version of leadership seen in the Woody Allen movie Love and Death. As a soldier in the Russian army during the War of 1812, Woody notes that the battle looks different down on the field than it does to the generals on the hill, at which the perspective shifts and from the hilltop the battle appears to be a flock of sheep running headlong into slaughter.

Leadership, then is not something we understand as far behind those being led nor indifferently off to the side. But neither is leadership too far ahead of those being led. Plenty of war movies have the overeager officer who jumps ahead of his troops into battle only to be cut down leading his troops without their leader.

II. Leadership

Leadership is one of those problematic issues both within communities of faith and without. It seems that most of the conflicts in religious history, both as found in the scriptures and in the life of the people of faith, have to do on some level with leadership and authority.

No sooner has Moses led his people out of bondage in Egypt than they began to grumble when the journey took too long and when they despaired of the hardships (or the food selection) in the wilderness. Korah even led a rebellion against Moses seeking leadership in his stead.

The establishment of the Israelite monarchy changed fundamentally the leadership dynamic of ancient Israel, from one with charismatic authority in which people rose to leadership through the demonstration of God-given gifts for leadership to one of institutional authority, vested in a hereditary line of kings.

The question of whether that same line of kings would be responsive to the demands of the northern tribes led to the split of the Israelite kingdom after the death of Solomon.

In the early Christian period, Paul had to justify his bona fides to be a leader in the church, even though he lacked the experience of the disciples and was thought by some not to have the right authority to do so.

In the Islamic tradition, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the community was riven by a question of succession of leadership—would it be Abu Bakr, chosen by the community, or would it fall to Muhammad’s heir Ali. This division resulted in the Sunni-Shi’ite split that remains with us to this day.

In the Christian church of the 11th Century, questions of authority and leadership—did the Bishop of Rome exercise a primary leadership role or was he one among a number of equals?—led to the split between what we now call the Catholic and Orthodox churches. A few centuries later, another group of Western Christians engaged in a fierce debate about questions of leadership and authority that rent the church even further into Catholic and Protestant.

So, it is not as if religious traditions have this question all figured out. Questions of leadership remain some of the most challenging and vexing questions faced by communities of faith in addition to other major institutions: cultural, political, social, economic…

Consider the ambivalence with which we regard the word leader. “Leader” itself is a term fraught with problems. We cherish leadership, and praise leaders in industry and government, but at the same time, the term “Leader” can evoke some of the worst examples of leadership. The German word Führer, after all, simply means “leader.” All manner of petty dictatorships are run by individuals styling themselves the “Dear Leader.” And it’s hard not to shake the image that a leader might frequently be trying to lead us around by the nose.

And so leadership has to be more than the position itself. It has to be a quality of the way the position is exercised.

III. Faithful Leadership

Now, it may be the case that the communities of faith have not always figure out who should be in charge, but they have often figured out in what manner someone should be in charge.

That is, there is a quality to leadership that often emerges that helps us to define leadership

A. Humility

Leadership is humble, not self-aggrandizing:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3–4 NRSV) “but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” (Philippians 2:7 NRSV)

B. Self-Sacrifice

Leadership is willing to put the interests of others, of the whole community, ahead of one’s own interest, often engaging in self-sacrificial acts:

“he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8 NRSV)

It is not ambitious or self-serving:

“We do not appoint this matter (leadership) to whosoever asks for it or whosoever is covetous of it.” (Hadith)

C. Service

The passage from John 13:12–15 in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, demonstrates a kind of leadership of service rather than of privilege. It is echoed by other passages like: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 NRSV)

D. Solidarity and Equality

A leader should not be seen as separate and apart from the people, but should be engaged in a relationship of mutual love and caring: “The best of your leaders are those whom you love and who love you, who pray for you and you pray for them. The worst of your leaders are those whom you hate and who hate you; you send curses on them and they send curses on you.” (Hadith)

E. Justice

And leaders must not be afraid of speaking out for what is just. The women in the story from Numbers 27:1–11 demonstrate their willingness to challenge established social convention for what is equitable. In the same way, the Qur’an instructs leaders to ground their rulings in justice:

(Qur'an 4:58) God commands you to deliver trusts to those worthy of them; and when you judge between people, to judge with justice.

So, our religious traditions have plenty to offer in the ways of guidance for leadership. But what about leadership for this campus?

IV. Leadership for our campus

A year or so ago, Dr. Fanta Aw asked me to go through the Statement of Common Purpose—a document from the 90’s that was for many years served as a kind of mission statement for the University. She asked me to take a look at it and determine what it had to say about our university values.

So I went through it and I highlighted every term that had a value attached to it. Having identified them, I examined them and found that they fell into three general groups: excellence in the academic arena, commitment to leadership that is engaged in service and justice, and inclusiveness of all people. I summarized those as open and honest inquiry, servant leadership, and affirming the human dignity of all.

And right there, we have AU’s definition of leadership. Open, honest, affirming of all people, and servant leadership.

This is a tough campus and a tough town to be in servant leadership. The lure of power is always present. The proximity to power is one of the ways that we are judged and judge one another in this town. The staple question at D.C. parties and gatherings—“What do you do?”—gets varying degrees of satisfaction depending on how close the response is to the halls of power. “I’m the chief of staff to Senator So-and-so,” will be met with approval and further conversation as your interlocutor will seek to take advantage of this newfound connection with political influence. “I’m a United Methodist minister…” not so much.

And so it’s easy for us on this campus, in D.C. and hearing the siren song of political power all the time, not to get sucked into it. I’m sure I’ve told you before of my first encounter with campus politics back in 2000, when one of my students was supporting a candidate for the presidency of the then-Student Confederation so that he might land a sweet cabinet post (KPU director), I remember thinking, “Where am I?” My college’s political campaigns had generally consisted of who could come up with the best puns, such as when a candidate named Hecht ran a campaign around “What the Hecht?”

So here on this campus, it’s harder for us.

But at the same time, we have a foundation of those deep values, established at our founding, of openness, service, justice, and inclusion. Of a model of servant leadership drawn from the deep well-springs of our faith traditions and all that makes leadership noble and just.


Leadership is a challenge. In our world today, we see a lot of self-interest, but not a lot of self-sacrifice.  Servant leadership isn’t easy—it’s a challenge to resist the temptations of name-seeking and glory-making. A former boss of mine used to say, “It’s better that the work get done than that we get the credit for it.” There are a lot of people who’d rather get the credit for non-achievements than actually get the work done anonymously. It’s easier that way, I guess.

But what we find, as leaders on our campus, is that when we commit to the deeper principles of leadership—not in hiding at the rear while others do the work and take the risk, and not in dragging others along behind us but in walking side by side with those we would lead, in compassion, mercy, justice, and solidarity; serving others and giving of ourselves for the sake of others—we find leadership that is not only more effective, more inspiring, and more meaningful, but that is itself closer to the heart of God.

Word cloud of sermon text

This sermon was given at our First Wednesdays in the Chapel interfaith service on March 6, 2019 by our University Chaplain, Rev. Mark Schaefer

Read More Meditations

Words of Sacred Tradition

Texts Used in the Chapel Service

Numbers 27:1-11 NRSV • וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָ֗ד בֶּן־חֵ֤פֶר בֶּן־גִּלְעָד֙ בֶּן־מָכִ֣יר בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁ֔ה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹ֖ת מְנַשֶּׁ֣ה בֶן־יוֹסֵ֑ף וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ שְׁמ֣וֹת בְּנֹתָ֔יו מַחְלָ֣ה נֹעָ֔ה וְחָגְלָ֥ה וּמִלְכָּ֖ה וְתִרְצָֽה׃וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֜דְנָה לִפְנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֗ה וְלִפְנֵי֙ אֶלְעָזָ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלִפְנֵ֥י הַנְּשִׂיאִ֖ם וְכָל־הָעֵדָ֑ה פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃אָבִינוּ֮ מֵ֣ת בַּמִּדְבָּר֒ וְה֨וּא לֹא־הָיָ֜ה בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעֵדָ֗ה הַנּוֹעָדִ֛ים עַל־יְהוָ֖ה בַּעֲדַת־קֹ֑רַח כִּֽי־בְחֶטְא֣וֹ מֵ֔ת וּבָנִ֖ים לֹא־הָ֥יוּ לֽוֹ׃לָ֣מָּה יִגָּרַ֤ע שֵׁם־אָבִ֙ינוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֔וֹ כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ בֵּ֑ן תְּנָה־לָּ֣נוּ אֲחֻזָּ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֥י אָבִֽינוּ׃וַיַּקְרֵ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטָ֖ן לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ סוַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃וְאֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ כִּֽי־יָמ֗וּת וּבֵן֙ אֵ֣ין ל֔וֹ וְהַֽעֲבַרְתֶּ֥ם אֶת־נַחֲלָת֖וֹ לְבִתּֽוֹ׃וְאִם־אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ בַּ֑ת וּנְתַתֶּ֥ם אֶת־נַחֲלָת֖וֹ לְאֶחָיו׃וְאִם־אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ אַחִ֑ים וּנְתַתֶּ֥ם אֶת־נַחֲלָת֖וֹ לַאֲחֵ֥י אָבִֽיו׃וְאִם־אֵ֣ין אַחִים֮ לְאָבִיו֒ וּנְתַתֶּ֣ם אֶת־נַחֲלָת֗וֹ לִשְׁאֵר֞וֹ הַקָּרֹ֥ב אֵלָ֛יו מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ וְיָרַ֣שׁ אֹתָ֑הּ וְֽהָ֨יְתָ֜ה לִבְנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לְחֻקַּ֣ת מִשְׁפָּ֔ט כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃ ס

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” Moses brought their case before the LORD. And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the LORD commanded Moses.”

Philippians 2:1-11 NRSV • If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Qur'an 3:104-105 • 

وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ ۚ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ وَلَا تَكُونُوا كَالَّذِينَ تَفَرَّقُوا وَاخْتَلَفُوا مِن بَعْدِ مَا جَاءَهُمُ الْبَيِّنَاتُ ۚ وَأُولَٰئِكَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ

And let there be [arising] from you a nation inviting to [all that is] good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and those will be the successful. And do not be like the ones who became divided and differed after the clear proofs had come to them. And those will have a great punishment.


فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍ مِّنَ اللَّهِ لِنتَ لَهُمْ ۖ وَلَوْ كُنتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لَانفَضُّوا مِنْ حَوْلِكَ ۖ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الْأَمْرِ ۖ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ

It was thanks to God's mercy that you were gentle to them. Had you been rough, hard-hearted, they would surely have scattered away from you. So pardon them, and pray for their forgiveness, and take counsel from them in matters of importance. And when you are resolved on a course of action place your trust in God; surely God loves those who put their trust (in Him).


۞ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَن تُؤَدُّوا الْأَمَانَاتِ إِلَىٰ أَهْلِهَا وَإِذَا حَكَمْتُم بَيْنَ النَّاسِ أَن تَحْكُمُوا بِالْعَدْلِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ نِعِمَّا يَعِظُكُم بِهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ سَمِيعًا بَصِيرًا

God commands you to deliver trusts to those worthy of them; and when you judge between people, to judge with justice.  Excellent is the admonition God gives you. God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.

Hadith (Sahih Muslim): “The best of your leaders are those whom you love and who love you, who pray for you and you pray for them. The worst of your leaders are those whom you hate and who hate you; you send curses on them and they send curses on you.” Sahih Muslim.

Hadith (Bukhari and Muslim): On the authority of Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari: I entered upon The Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) with two other men from my tribe. One of the men said, “Give us leadership o Messenger of Allah,” and the other said the same. So The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “We do not appoint this matter to whosoever asks for it or whosoever is covetous of it.”