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The path to leadership

In the run-up to Pentecost, Paul Valentin, international director at Christian Aid, examines two powerful readings with an important message about how leaders are made. 

Christian Aid's international director Paul Valentin Easter is now behind us and in the Christian calendar we find ourselves in that somewhat strange period of ‘suspended action’, coming after the death and the resurrection of Christ. The question lingers: 'So what is next?'

Of course we know what follows is the Ascension and subsequently the coming of the spirit at Pentecost, but Jesus’ disciples did not know that.

It must have been a strange time of dashed hopes, of reorientation, of taking stock.

This is vividly illustrated in a reading from the Acts of the Apostles – Acts 9, 1-6 – which is chronologically slightly ahead of the story. Saul, '…breathing threats and murder against the disciples' (the early Christians) and on his way to Damascus to capture followers of Jesus, is struck down as if by lightning.

'He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"' To which his response was: 'Who are you Lord?' And the reply came: 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.'

We all know what followed; Saul became Paul and helped build and sustain the early church.

  • Saul recognised his wrongdoing and was prepared to take an unknown path'

Another reading from the Gospel of St John – John 21, 1-19 – is a kind of postscript to the gospel. The evangelist closes his book by explaining '…all these things have truly happened so that you may believe…' and then follows chapter 21 of Jesus’ appearance to the seven disciples.

Forgive the comparison, but if this were Downton Abbey or Eastenders, chapter 21 would be telling the reader: 'Stay tuned, there is more to come and this is a little foretaste.'

John 21 is the story of Jesus appearing to seven apostles out fishing on Lake Tiberias - except they didn’t immediately recognise the man standing on the shore.

After the apostles had spent the night fishing in vain, he told them to cast their net on the other side of the boat, which led to a phenomenal catch they could barely haul on board.

It was only then that they realised the man preparing his breakfast was the resurrected Jesus.

What follows is an intriguing conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter. Just weeks earlier, the apostle had claimed he was prepared to go to prison with and to die for Jesus. But after Jesus’ arrest, Simon Peter thrice denied his association with him.

This is what transpires in the chill of the morning mist on the lake shore:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’

A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’

He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.

'But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’

(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

Both readings are about leadership and followership.

In the case of Saul it was a drastic case of conversion, a recognition of the error of his ways. A case of a poacher turned gamekeeper? A government soldier joining the underground rebel army? A philanderer preaching abstinence?

Whatever happened, Saul recognised his wrongdoing and was prepared to take an unknown path - 'you will be told what to do' - a complete submission to the force he was trying to fight only hours or minutes earlier.

For most of us, our leadership role may not come out of such an extreme form of being woken up, of being jolted into action. But dramatic, life-changing events are often at the root of people committing themselves to the cause of serving others.

In South Africa last March I was reminded of Dr Beyers Naude, an Afrikaner theologian.

He was part of Afrikaner Broederbond, a white-supremacist organisation, before having his own ‘road to Damascus’ moment and ending up fighting against apartheid. He paid a heavy price for it, but by doing so became a true leader.

Last week in Egypt I met an old woman who stood up in a meeting of quarry workers. She told us how she had been feared in the community because she used to carry out female circumcision on young girls in the village.

Late in life, just a few years ago, she discovered that the Koran did not prescribe female circumcision. She had her moment of awakening: to lead the village in the fight against this evil practice.

Not a Christian conversion, but certainly a case of an ordinary person who had her own ‘Damascus moment’.

  • It is not leadership bestowed as an honour but leadership taken on as a burden.'

But let’s return to poor Simon Peter. His loyalty to the cause seems a foregone conclusion: 'you know Lord that I love you'.

But does he? Perhaps their fishing expedition was a serious case of ‘displacement behaviour’, the ultimate statement that they should forget about all this foolishness of the past few years.

After all, they’d been travelling around Galilee and Judea, then ended up in Jerusalem with such high hopes, only for all those hopes to be dashed. You can imagine them thinking: 'We might as well go back to fishing; at least that is something we know!'

And then the three questions, the affirming answers, almost to the point of desperation: 'Yes Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'

In all three instances Jesus continues with the words: 'take care of my lambs…', '…take care of my sheep…' and '…feed my sheep'.

This is not a case of lightning striking and an instant conversion, but a clear case of: 'Do you know what you are committing to? Do you know what you are asking for? Do you know what the consequences may be?'

It is not leadership bestowed as an honour but leadership taken on as a burden, as a huge responsibility: 'You don’t have to do it, but if you do it you have to take it on "warts and all".'

Rereading Mary Benson’s biography of Nelson Mandela, a book written when Mandela was still in prison, you are reminded that his leadership did not come out of a ‘Damascus moment’. It was the result of a seemingly endless and tireless series of efforts to confront the establishment.

You come to realise that the mantle of leadership was not necessarily something Mandela wanted or that it was a foregone conclusion, yet his life choices took him that way and he was prepared to face the consequences.

I am sure we can think of other examples, and not all of them lived to tell the story.

  • Some become leaders through a dramatic moment of ‘conversion’, others almost through circumstance'

In our work we encounter great examples of men and women who, when faced with massive challenges and injustice, decide to fight back.

They tackle the issues and in the process become leaders; some through a dramatic moment of ‘conversion’, others almost through circumstance, after long battles and then only reluctantly so.

What sets them all apart is the belief in a cause that is greater than themselves.

What makes working for Christian Aid such a privilege is encountering exactly this kind of extraordinary men and women on the front line of fighting poverty in the many countries where we work. I’ve met many Mandelas, Sauls or Peters (and their female equivalents!).

The community meetings in Egypt the other week introduced me to some of those remarkable people.

They often come to see the world through new eyes (because of literacy efforts or simple community mobilisation) and many of them go on to lead. They are ‘evangelical’ about their cause.

I met a fisherman I’d watched address a government minister in an earlier video. Like the village midwife he had found his voice – calling the minister by his name, telling him what was wrong and holding him to account.

But I guess I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps those are stories for a few weeks from now: the sequel, the next instalment. Those are the stories of the Pentecost!

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