I read a fascinating conversation on Facebook this week. It was in a closed group—mostly ministers, and predominately female. A woman went to the group to ask for advice—or possibly to complain, I’m not sure which. She said that she was a new associate pastor serving in a wealthy congregation. The members of the church are accustomed to having hired help in the household and she felt they were treating her like the hired help instead of a minister. According to her, they did not want to do any of the work on a particular project themselves, but instead expected her to do it all—and then told her how. She complained to the senior pastor, saying, “I’m not their servant to boss around!” His response was, “Yes, we are.” Her question to the group was whether there was a difference between servant and slave, and were we as ministers really supposed to be either to the church?
Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that this associate pastor went onto a group with 6000 members to complain about her boss! The responses from the women in the group were interesting. Only one person implied agreement with the senior pastor. Most said that we are servants or slaves of Christ, but not the church—we are shepherd and pastor to the people, and we are to equip the saints for ministry, not do all the work for them. Others said we are to be servants of one another—not just minister to congregants, but back again.
Then someone directed us to a book called No Longer Servants, But Friends: A Theology of Ordained Ministry, where I found some interesting ideas around metaphors for the pastoral relationship. The author specifically took on the theory of “servant leadership.” It’s a concept that is familiar to me, as it was one my father favored, and he gave me some books on the subject. The idea is that, as pastors, we lead best through an attitude of service, even servanthood, while still being the visionary leader. It’s a system that works really well . . . for white men. White men almost automatically have authority in the pastoral role, so it’s possible to take on a lower role, and lead through that attitude. It doesn’t work so well for women, who are still overcoming the service stereotypes of our gender.
Shortly after I came here, I called my dad to ask for advice on dealing with a situation. I don’t even remember now what it was, but at the time I felt like I knew what needed to happen, but I wasn’t sure how what I had to say was going to be received. My father suggested that I needed to let the church leaders name this difficult path. He said, “Go into the Council meeting, lay out the situation for them, and then say, ‘I don’t know what to do with this—what do you think?’” I said, “Dad, that would work great for you. You are 6’3” tall, embody everybody’s image of what a pastor should look like, and you ooze authority out of every pore. You can say ‘I don’t know how to handle this’ and people respect you for being humble and inclusive. I’m new, and I’m a woman—the first woman to be senior pastor here. If I go into Council and say, ‘I don’t know what to do with this situation,’ the first response will be, ‘I knew she was in over her head.’” There was a long pause on the phone and my father said, “Wow, you’re right. You cannot do that!”
I’ve been here long enough now that I can do that very thing—I can admit to leaders when I’m uncertain, and I trust them and our relationship. But right off the bat, women are not given enough authority that we can play the servant leader role. It doesn’t work for women. And it doesn’t work at all for black clergy of any gender. You want to tell African-American ministers in this country that they have to be a servant or slave to the church? Our nation’s history of slavery is far too dreadful—and the effects far too current—for that to be a workable metaphor.
I found this whole conversation interesting because of this week’s scripture lesson in the lectionary. According to our story, Jesus says to the disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.” In the Greek it might have been harsher—I do not call you slaves any longer. All week long I’ve been trying to figure out how the disciples would have reacted to that statement. Unfortunately for me, none of the commentaries I read seem the least bit interested in this question. I just keep imagining the disciples’ response. Some of them, I think, would have realized the honor that was involved: He called us friends. The Messiah, the Son of God, called us friends!
But did they all react this way? Or were some of them thinking, “Wait a minute, Jesus. ‘I do not call you servants (or slaves) any longer?’ So you used to call us servants or slaves? That’s not what I agreed to. You can call us students, yes. Followers, sure. Disciples, absolutely. But servants? Slaves? I am nobody’s slave.”
Surely there was at least one disciple who felt that way—maybe one of those who was used to having authority, one whose privilege had taught him that he never needed to grovel. He had given up plenty to follow Jesus. But give up his pride, too? His status? No way.
See why I’ve struggled all week? I don’t know how the disciples would have responded, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond, either. Am I a servant of Christ—even a slave of Christ—or am I Jesus’ friend? What was Jesus trying to say—to them and to us? Was he demeaning them by saying he had ever thought of them as servants? Or was he trying to honor them by calling them now friends? I have to wonder if maybe it was both. Jesus’ story was one of reversal from the very beginning. Heavenly royalty born to peasants and laid in a manger. Birth announcements to lowly shepherds. A great prophet coming from the backwater town of Nazareth. All of this was about the reversal of power. And then there were his teachings. Those who want to follow must first humble themselves. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It’s a message that we need to hear, even if we don’t like it. Most of us in this room have a fair amount of power. We are free to make our own decisions. Even the poorest among us has more than many people in the world. Most of us are white, and with our skin color comes unwarranted privilege. We are given the benefit of the doubt. Our presence in our own neighborhood is not suspect. I recently got locked out of my house, and as I was trying windows and even trying to break the door, I chuckled as I thought, “I hope nobody calls the police!” And then I remembered that such a thought would not be a laughing matter for people of color. I have privilege.
If the last shall be first and the first shall be last, then I need to be aware of when I need to step up and when I need to step down. When I am confronted by homophobia or heterosexism, I need to speak up. But as a cisgender woman, I need to step down in conversations about transgender issues, so that the voices of those who are transgender can be heard. In conversations about racism, I as a white woman need to shut up and listen to what my dark-skinned friends have to say about their experiences. When they say, “We are afraid for our lives,” I don’t get to say they’re over-reacting. When they say, “Black lives matter,” I don’t get to say “All lives matter.” Of course all lives matter, but all lives aren’t in danger. I have to shut up and listen.
I think this is part of what Jesus’ great plan of reversal means. We voluntarily give up our positions of power so that others can be lifted up. Of course, to go back to what I was saying earlier about women in ministry, we have to possess power before we can give it up. I’m not asking anyone who is powerless to be a doormat. I’m asking those who stand in the door not to block it.
We also remember that no status is permanent. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, which must occasionally shift, plus most of us are in the middle, and we are constantly moving up and down. We must be aware of where we are in relation to other people in order to treat them like siblings in Christ.
All of this is how we get to the love that our passage proclaims. This is how we get to be friends of Christ—not by demanding equality for ourselves but by offering it to others. Jesus modeled this for us. We can sing “What a friend we have in Jesus” because Jesus gave up some of his power to allow us to be friends. The hardest question is not whether Jesus is our friend, but whether we act like Jesus’ friend. Friends talk to one another—and not just when they’re in need. Friends listen—do we listen to Christ or do we tell Christ what to do and how to work?
My son has been trying to figure out my role in relation to the church. He announced one Sunday morning as we walked through the building, “My mama is the boss around her!” I rushed to correct him before anybody else heard him! I told him I was one of the leaders, but I wasn’t the boss. He couldn’t understand that. “Then who’s the boss?” he wanted to know. To keep it simple, I said, “Well, the church members, together, are the boss.” He puffed out his chest and announced, “I’m the boss around here!” Oh, no, little man, you are definitely not the boss around here! And neither am I. And neither is any one of you.
I don’t like to think of myself as a servant, and certainly not as a slave. It’s just not a metaphor that works for me as a woman. But being a friend—I know how to do that. We know how to do that. We know how to listen. We know how to encourage. We know how to sit beside our friend when he or she is in pain. We know how to put another’s needs before our own. We know how to care. We know how to love.
We love become God first loved us. And so we must love the way God loves us—unconditionally, without regard to status, without expectation of reciprocity. We love. It’s the best we can do.