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Leading with Humility

A bishop in the United Methodist Church describes the importance of learning to embrace questions as part of faithful leadership

I want to know what pastors know,” I remember thinking when I applied to Duke Divinity School. Decades later, as a bishop of the United Methodist Church, my desire has changed. Instead of knowledge, I now seek inquiry. I want to ask what pastors ask.

My path into Duke University and later Duke Divinity School was neither linear nor focused. As a child of the middle of the last century, I meandered in the stereotypical fashion of so many of us in that generation. I was curious, with no long-term plan. As an undergraduate, I explored the wide range of liberal arts, hoping at various times to become a political scientist, a historian, an archaeologist, an English teacher, or a lay person who knows what pastors know.

My calling in ministry unfolded, and I continued to learn in the community of Duke Divinity School. I was first a student, and then a small-group facilitator, field education supervising pastor, reflection group leader, occasional lecturer, less occasional preacher, encourager of applicants, financial supporter, member of the Board of Visitors and Alumni Council, and also trustee. Duke has been a hub in my personal and professional life for four decades.

Seasoned now, with years of learning and experience behind me, I know what I do not know. Paradoxically, this posture feels like maturing confidence, which arises from deep awareness of the power and providence of God and my own humble capacities in comparison. I have learned that being willing to ask questions—which reveals our lack of knowledge—is to embody the good hope of God’s wonderful reversals: the humble are exalted, the last are first, the least are greatest, and the weak are strong.

My learning through years of connection with Duke Divinity School continues to prompt me to the biblical practice of inquiry as I seek to lead as a bishop. I am in local, conference, regional, and global settings where I have the opportunity to hear the kinds of questions that people ask of the Bible, of God, of themselves, of one another, and of the world. Those of us who seek to lead the church do well to embody humility in this changing universe we inhabit.

I have discovered that pastors in our time are asking important questions: How might we create ancient/new expressions of Christian community and mission? How can we engage a more diverse and expansive host of people? How might we align resources toward the mission? How can we use vast human and material resources toward a new future God is giving? How might we recreate systems for church governance and leadership development and church planting? How can we build a culture of peer learning and partnership? How can we create new synergies in our patterns of connection and conferencing?

I find these sorts of questions to be faithful and encouraging. Long lists of questions have biblical precedent. For example, the texts that move us through Lent toward Easter are filled with a myriad of questions. How can we be born again when we are old? How can we understand? Why do you ask me? Where do I get this living water? How were your eyes opened? What do you say about this? Would you teach us? Do you believe? Why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? Do you believe because you have seen? Do you have any fish? Do you love me? Is it I? What is that to you?

Responses to these questions are found within the story of Jesus, a story that shapes our imagination with wonderful images: wind, water, light, life, bread, and fish. We mine this inexhaustible imagery all our days, even as it illuminates our way. These images arise from Jesus even as they lead us to Jesus.

Recently I have engaged with the leadership team of the North Carolina Conference in a learning covenant. We agreed to focus anew on our Wesleyan heritage and to invite faculty from Duke Divinity School to help us explore the newly articulated role of the district superintendent, the theological grounding of our polity, and the fascination and focus of John Wesley on ministries both of health and wellness and of engagement with the poor. We have discovered that we have many questions: What does it mean for district superintendents to be “chief mission strategists”? How can we teach and embody the polity of our church with scriptural grounding, authenticity, and effectiveness? What practices in leadership will turn our churches faithfully toward reaching young people? How can we follow Bishop Francis Asbury’s exhortation to take the resources to the edge, engaging people who are poor or excluded? How can we embrace the gift of holistic salvation—body, mind, spirit, and relationship?

Scholar Ronald Heifeitz teaches that effective leaders will be courageous enough to lead with questions. Forward movement in community emerges from the lives of leaders who are spiritually attuned, awake, humble, and curious. We are called to be a community with others who ask questions, who wonder, and who hope. The conference’s leadership team has discovered within the faculty of Duke Divinity School crucial resources for framing our questions well as we seek faithful and inventive ways forward.

The art of Christian ministry requires the embodiment of Christ’s life in individuals and in community. In this time, when we face an array of challenges, the church needs more examples of leaders who model the humble courage and courageous humility of Jesus. Congregational passivity is often the fruit of pastoral timidity that parades as certainty. Laity have learned to ask pastors questions, and pastors feel the burden of providing an authoritative answer. Rather than expecting pastors to have the answers, we will be better served to allow them to join the community of those who seek wisdom from the resources of Scripture, the work of the Spirit, and rich tradition.

We know that our journey together through questions and queries will lead us through thickets of complexity. We also know that on the other side of these tangles and thickets lies simplicity. We discover powerful insights as we move through this complexity, devoting studious and prayerful energy to engage with texts, contexts, and circumstances. “What then shall we do?” The biblical question, posed in the church by a grounded and trusted pastor as spiritual leader, can evoke wisdom. In the pastoral context, wisdom is given by God as people are convened, chairs are set in a circle, and questions are asked by a prepared and brave leader.

Schools of theological education would be wise to lead with questions such as these: What do leaders need to experience in theological education in order to lead the church in this new age? How can we inform the will along with the intellect? What are the connections between academic success and pastoral effectiveness? How can we form spiritual leaders who will listen, learn, and lead effectively? How can we engage technology to serve the church and the world? How can students gain expansive experience as global citizens who anticipate the reign of Jesus Christ over all people and all creation?

Duke Divinity School is embedded in the literal, historical, and figurative heart of Duke University, and it is a place that is asking many good questions. The university is enriched by this particular community of faithful scholarship and inquiry. At the heart of all scholarship, research, teaching, and learning is the sense that there is more to be grasped and known and explored. At the heart of the Divinity School is the particular vocation of humility and awe and reverence that should follow from any serious study of theology—the study of God. This spiritual vocation is the context for rigorous academic engagement, attention to personal and corporate spiritual life, and prophetic engagement for justice, reconciliation, and peace.

As the first graduate school founded within Duke University, Duke Divinity School has a particular vocation: the bearing of humble confidence that the truth of the gospel lies at the heart of the university’s continuing search for knowledge and truth. Erudito et Religio is inscribed in the university ethos. By definition, religious life is filled with awareness of the expansive reality of One beyond full definition or description or understanding. The life of spirituality is essentially the life of awe and humility, lived in wonder and appreciative of mystery. By definition, academic life is the search for wisdom, using artistry of language to express what is learned through the process of the search.

As Duke Divinity School and the church continue to partner in the mission of training leaders, we need to be brave to ask the right questions. One of the best gifts we can offer new pastors is space to think creatively and to explore spaces that are murky and unclear. We need to discern wise ways to engage this world while we remain faithful to the One who is ever new. As we ask good questions, we do so in the light of Jesus Christ, who was asked many questions and who remains our example of humility and courage for leadership. We who live and learn in the extended community of Duke Divinity School recognize the grace that washes over our lives and sustains our work together. In profound gratitude to God, we will continue to learn together, drawing from the rich resources of our life in Christ, our life in learning community, and our life in mission to the world.