Core Value 6 Shared, Servant Leadership Philemon June 6, 2010
This is the sixth sermon in a series of 8 that have to do with the core values of this congregation.
If you’re visiting us for the first time this morning, or if you need a little bit of history about this; in 2005, this congregation adopted 8 core values that are meant to inspire our ministry and activities.
These core values are kind of a snapshot of who we want to be as a community of faith; not necessarily who we are, but who we want to be. It might be helpful to think of these core values as something like a tomato cage, or a trellis on a patio. They’re not the most interesting or valuable thing by themselves, but they play a vital role in helping this church ‘plant’ produce fruit and keep it from rotting on the ground.
So, the sixth core value that this congregation identified in 2005 as foundational to who we want to be reads like this: (it’s in your bulletin and it’s on our church website if you want it for yourself).
We believe in shared leadership. !!
And for some people; that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe for some of us here today, it’s a little difficult to understand a concept like ‘shared’ leadership. I have to admit I’m not entirely clear myself on what shared leadership always looks like.
See, we’re used to thinking about leadership in terms of one person taking charge, telling people what to do. I might argue that we’re used to thinking about leadership from an employer-employee perspective, where it’s clear who’s the boss.
It’s clear where the buck stops.
Maybe a good example of this mindset is in our government. One person—Barack Obama—he is the guy who’s in charge. He’s the President. The buck stops with him.
It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t share his leadership; but it does mean that everyone is clear about the chain of command. He’s the one who’s in charge; and no matter how much power he shares, it’s still mostly his power, to do with as he sees fit.
He can give some of his power to people he knows and trusts to do a good job in different areas of government; and he can take that power away from people who don’t perform like he thought they would; by firing them.
This is one way of sharing leadership; but I don’t think it’s what this church had in mind when you wrote this core value.
So you didn’t leave it there. The core value goes on to say
We encourage a variety of persons to serve in the leadership roles of our group and we respect those who have accepted a role as a servant leader among us.
Once again, some of this language might be a little hard to understand for some of us.
What’s a servant leader? How is that different from a more “presidential” leader?
We could talk about Jesus teaching that the first shall be last and the last first, or the time he put himself in a servants position, washing his disciples’ feet, commanding them to do for each other what he had done for them.
Or we could talk about the early church, how the disciples assigned deacons to serve the people in a leadership role so that they could continue preaching and teaching as they were doing.
Shared, Servant leadership is indeed close to the heart of scripture in our Anabaptist understanding.
If you guys (I say “you guys” because I wasn’t part of this process) if you guys would have stopped there, this sermon might look very different. I would have had some clear passages to draw on, and my choice of scripture might have been easier to make.
But you didn’t stop there! You went on in this same core value, saying
We endeavor to use group processes that promote cooperation and dialogue. We realize that listening is more important than speaking and that prayer and openness to the Spirit moving among us must be the foundation for our decision making.
This sixth core value is packed!
The way I see it, this isn’t just one of 8 core values. It’s actually six or seven core values rolled into one!
In a mere four sentences, you’ve managed to capture the essence of my well-rounded, 4 year education in the field of social work!
You’ve hit it all—group process, systems theory, human behavior in the social environment, the importance of listening and demonstrating empathy while being clear about your own motives and expectations—it’s all there!
So picking a scripture for this morning became pretty difficult.
I needed something that talked about how a servant leader looks and how the church should share it’s leadership among a variety of people. I needed a passage that emphasized the act of listening; both to each other and God through the Holy Spirit. I needed a scripture that talked about a process for reaching a level of cooperation in a group of people, along with creating a place where all voices could be heard and valued without stalling the momentum these people were gaining.
It was kind of a hard thing to do!
So I took the easy way out, and instead of just picking a passage—I picked a whole book!
Philemon is easy to overlook, I think mainly because it’s short. It’s only 25 verses long.
But don’t let that fool you as to what’s in it!
Philemon was a believer as well as a slave-owner who lived in the town of Colosse.
One of his slaves, named Onesimus had stolen something from him and ran away.
This was an offense which was punishable by death under Roman law.
So Onesimus ran away from Philemon, who was his master and who was a Christian.
At some point on his journey, Onesimus met Paul and also became a Christian.
It appears that over time, and in connection to Paul’s ministry, Onesimus grew in his faith and eventually came to the conviction that he should return to his master, probably to make things right between them and to take responsibility for what he had done.
So, Paul (who was in prison at the time) wrote a letter to Philemon, explaining the situation and asking Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his house not just as a slave, but as a brother in the faith.
That letter is the book of Philemon.
And I picked it for this morning because it’s more show than tell, do you know what I mean? Rather than telling us about this core value; I think it shows us what it looks like in action!
Onesimus had really messed up according to Roman law. Philemon would have had every right under Roman law to have this guy put to death for what he had done.
But Onesimus was now bound like a brother to Philemon, to Paul, and to the rest of the Christian community.
And you might be wondering how any of that connects to this core value.
Well, as in any of Paul’s letters, the first couple of verses say a lot.
He always addresses the church (singular) that meets in the town or in this case, in Philemon’s home.
This particular church was the Colossian church, (it’s interesting to read Philemon and Colossians together, since both letters were probably carried by Tychicus and this slave Onesimus from Paul’s jail cell (probably in Rome) to the Colossian church that met in Philemon’s home).
The point is that Paul consistently addresses ‘the church’ in his letters, or ‘the fellowship’, indicating that these places had one unified body of believers who organized themselves something like any individual church organizes itself today.
But it’s just as interesting that just as often as Paul refers to the singular church in a given location, he goes on to address a group of leaders in that church. In Philemon, it’s Apphia and Archippus. In Colossians it’s the ‘Saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ’. In Philippians, it’s ‘to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.’
So it seems that these earliest churches were governed not by one strong presidential-type personality, but rather a group of people working together to lead this movement.
But that’s not all that we can get from Philemon.
See, I’m going to make an assumption that Philemon was in leadership at the Colossian church. If nothing else, at least the church met in his house, which I think says a lot about who Philemon was.
And since he owned slaves, I’m also assuming he was pretty well-off, considering that he had enough work for the slaves to do and enough means to keep them sheltered and fed well enough to do his work. That’s not a justification for slavery—It’s just me trying to get a picture of Philemon based on what we know.
And we also know that this was a letter addressing a very specific concern with a very specific individual. And we know it was sent along with another, more general letter to the broader church at Colosse, and that both would have been presented and probably read out loud in the presence of the gathered body, with the runaway slave and another witness from Paul standing right there, maybe even reading the letters themselves.
See, this is sharing leadership. It’s allowing the people who are most directly involved in a situation to have a voice, and to see what’s going on.
Paul, from prison, creates a situation where the people involved in this dispute are free to confront each other; and he makes sure it’s done in a setting where love and accountability will rule the day.
It’s a tactic for conflict resolution, really. It’s a situation that’s ripe for what we call ‘dialogue’ in the presence of people who have the most to gain or lose from the outcome.
But it’s anything but passive.
Paul has no interest in assigning equal value or authority or ‘weight’ to the various voices that might be heard. Nowhere in this letter does Paul say “Philemon, here is Onesimus; the two of you should just hash things out and let me know what you decide about his future”.
He stacks the deck, so to speak. Reading Philemon, I’m impressed over and over with how graciously Paul makes his case. You almost have to wipe his tears off of the page at points! He skillfully presses Philemon to do what is right, even if it verges on a guilt trip now and then.
Verse 12 is a good example: “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.”
He goes on later to say something even more important “if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me…I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ”.
The kind of Leadership Paul is giving in this situation is the kind that binds himself to the outcome and the people involved. It’s not a power play, even though he could have stripped the situation down and made threats and even ordered Philemon to do this or risk some kind of consequence.
Instead, he speaks from where he is. He shares his heart even from the jail cell, and he binds himself to everyone involved.
A failure to receive Onesimus with grace and love and forgiveness would be a failure for the whole community, not just Philemon.
And Paul isn’t keeping a respectable or even professional distance from the outcome.
He’s binding himself to it. He has a lot invested in how these believers act towards one another and how the church moves forward; even as he was sitting in jail.
The lesson for us is to somehow do the same.
It’s a temptation to detach when it comes to church. It’s a temptation to let the responsibilities of leadership rest on the paid staff, or those who are elders or council members.
And don’t get me wrong—there is a lot to be said for respecting our leaders, trusting them and letting them lead.
But I would suggest that it’s never a good thing to participate only from a distance.
Shared leadership means we share the responsibility so that we all might joyfully share in the outcome.
Shared servant leadership is about the relationship! (just like the book of Philemon shows).
So, how might this look at Millersburg Mennonite?
Maybe slavery isn’t our issue—so what is?
What is it that keeps you from fully engaging in this church? In the work that God is doing right here?
My hunch is, that most often it has to do with a relationship that’s been broken in some way. So how can you stack the deck in favor of that relationship?
Maybe it starts where Paul starts this letter to Philemon.
We always thank my God as we remember you in our prayers, because we hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. We pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given us great joy and encouragement, because you have refreshed the hearts of the saints.