WHEN A KEY LEADERSHIP TRAIT IS GENUINE RELUCTANCE TO TAKE THE JOB
Address as diocesan children and youth workers are commissioned to their role
Unlike Edith Piaff, most of us have regrets in life. At the shallow end, this might include a blind date, a dinner invite we should have declined or an uncoordinated dance at the office party uploaded to YouTube. But some carry more serious regrets: one drink too many on the way home; the relationship not put right in time; the lie that altered a life.
It is a relief then, in reading 1 Samuel, that God himself has regrets; specifically, the choice of Saul to be king over Israel. What are we to make of this very human description of God? Sometimes we tie ourselves in knots over questions we can’t answer, so perhaps we should let it lie there. We are not pawns on a divine chess board. There is genuine freedom to our actions which God respects. Saul could have been a good choice, but he turned out not to be because he allowed vanity and insecurity to take over.
This is the background to the anointing of David as king over Israel. God runs an eccentric recruitment agency. I’m sure you’ve all clocked that. He chose Moses, clueless at public speaking, to stand up to Pharaoh. He picked Joseph, a spoilt egomaniac, to run Egypt. And he selected Gideon, who we’d diagnose with anxiety disorder, to command the army. God has all the resources imaginable at his disposal. Imagine Manchester City, with all their money, choosing a side made of free transfers, loan players and dodgy misfits! God could choose the brightest and fittest in life, but he usually surprises us with his line-up. And in 1 Corinthians he justifies his team selection by saying he has chosen ‘what is weak in the world to shame the strong…so that no-one might boast in the presence of God’.
If you feel just a little uncomfortable today, it may be a very good sign, for you are God’s person. As the author Sam Walker has noted: ‘we’ve failed to appreciate that one of the key leadership traits is genuine reluctance to take the job’. The Bible is full of such leaders. And the Church should be too.
The calling of David was a covert process. Samuel, a lone head-hunter, invites the family of Jesse to join him at a sacrifice so he can assess which of his sons is to be anointed as king. Samuel had clearly not completed his unconscious bias training, because he fixes on tall and handsome Eliab as the one. God is quick to offer him the right training, saying he should look at the heart, not his height. At his character, not his appearance.
We soon discover that Jesse, the father of these boys, has his own biases to contend with. When Samuel asks him if all his sons are present, Jesse mentions David almost in passing, dismissing him with the words: ‘…but he is keeping the sheep’. Let’s put that another way. The young person has been excluded from the feast and from meeting Samuel. Assumptions have been made about who needed to be there and who didn’t. And a poor excuse is offered for why the youngest is not present: he’s minding the sheep. As if a neighbour couldn’t be found for a few hours while the family was honoured by Israel’s leading figure.
When David is called and Samuel has the chance to assess him, God makes his choice. The Bible says David was a man after God’s own heart, but hasn’t made it easy for preachers since, because it turns out David was as handsome as they come, with piercing eyes and a perfect complexion. Some kind of youthful bronze age Brad Pitt. If God wants us to look on the inside, he had a funny way of showing it here.
Today, the magnetic appeal of human looks has distorted the moral compass by which we need to view the world. Studies routinely show that looks lead to bigger salaries and wider opportunities. In some professions like acting and singing, it is almost an entry level requirement, though we rarely stop to ask why it must be so. But the Church makes its own miscalculations. One of the images it struggles with is of the awkward teenager whose frontal lobe has not fully developed. If we are to say something prophetic to our culture about the curse of image perfection, we need to be honest about our own failings. Young people are wanted in church, but all too often on older people’s terms.
The key thing about David was his untapped potential. He was a young person when anointed to lead a big nation, but he was not ready for it then. There was a huge amount of maturing still to be done. Life experience and the mentoring of others would play a role. It was a slow, painful and unusually perilous journey. There was an early sign of his greatness, which is often true of people in life who show something of what they will become before their time. For David, it was his epic encounter with Goliath. And despite the scale of his impending role, there was plenty of family squabbling to cut him down to size in the meantime. His brothers clearly saw him as a chancer wanting to upstage his place in the family, rather like Joseph before him. Many people with big roles to play in life remain the youngest to those they grow up with.
As you are commissioned today, let me conclude with some principles you know very well, but which it may encourage you to hear again. You may be the youth worker, but youth work is not down to you. Churches cannot contract out their youth work. It remains an integral part of what they are and each person has a role to play, however tangential, in developing a culture of welcoming and love.
The conversion of a younger generation is not up to you, either. You have a role to play, but it is Jesus who brings people to himself and every Christian should signpost his love and grace. Young people are looking for authenticity and they need to find it in more than their youth worker.
Making disciples of young people does not – and probably won’t, given the circumstances – translate into sitting in pews week after week on a Sunday morning. If older generations in our wider community have given up on this, why do we think younger people will see it differently, especially when what is offered has not evolved in any way?
Be innovative and experimental in your work. It takes time to find things that work, but it’s worth the effort when we do. We are about friendship – with God in Jesus, and with one another. Owning more stuff fades into insignificance when compared to the surpassing value of knowing God – and knowing those who love him. And let this love spill over into the community. Younger people, reacting against the atheism and complacency of older generations, are hungry for God and for making a practical difference in this world.
And remember you are playing a long ball game, as Samuel was with David. This calls for patience and prayer. There are disappointments along the way, for few people mature in a predictable way that we can plot on a graph. Never give up on someone.
David remained a fugitive from Saul for the rest of Samuel’s life, so Samuel never got to see the young person he anointed become king. This is true of much of our ministry with young people. We do not always see the people they become, living in a mobile world. There was an advert some years ago about how people never forget the teachers they were educated by.
The same is true of youth workers. You will not be forgotten. And you will shape the lives of many, sometimes in ways you won’t see, until the last day, when you will be filled with praise and wonder at what God has done through you.
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