Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. – John 12:24-26 ESV
If truth were told, the opportunity to follow Christ’s path to the cross and subsequent humiliation and death comes frequently, on a spiritual level, to those of us tasked to lead. For many believers today, the risk is literal and the danger of physical suffering and death a constant reality. For now, the danger of bodily harm resulting from my daily work is minimal. However, almost daily I stand at the intersection of a choice and often take the pragmatic or popular road that protects position within the prevailing power structure.
Upon reflection, opportunities to follow Christ’s example in the everydayness of leadership abound—not only in the needful, yet more obvious, call to put others before self, but in the frequent interchanges with colleagues where words are glibly traded and truth, often avoided. To head into the rocky terrain of potential confrontation and conflict in pursuit of shared meaning is risky and bears a cost all its own. For those whose rapid-fire words are always engaged, the damage is real and often devastating. For others, their much needed probing questions and keen analysis are often stillborn, never bringing life and insight into critical discussion because of fear and disregard.
In her book, Caring for Words In a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, argues compellingly for the ”stewardship of words.” According to McEntyre, “caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another.” I believe this is true both on a personal and corporate level.
As steward leaders we must be committed to truth telling, knowing well that truth is many-sided, refracting light of understanding in a myriad of rays. This is daunting, not only because we like the safety of our own truth positions, but because untruth is so common and comes in many disguises: “innocuous imprecision, socially accepted slippage, hyperbole masquerading as enthusiasm, or well-placed propaganda.” Add to that authority structures within the workplace, and the ability to achieve shared meaning in pursuit of mission can be radically compromised.
So let’s get practical. As a leader, I can easily use words to manipulate, obfuscate, and control situations in ways that protect and preserve my honor. As I engage donors and volunteers around mission, I can distort and embellish in pursuit of quotas. As one being led, I can default to an instinctive response of attack or withdrawal. Rather, I can strive for a precision of language that calls things as I see them and invite others to do the same. And in the exchange of speaking and listening, truth is pursued and imperfectly achieved.
Why does this process seem to involve such risk? Perhaps, it is because truly stewarding my words as a Christ follower takes me out myself and my primal need to self-protect or self-promote. Although my carefully weighed words may not be understood or received, they may—just may—serve the Kingdom and be honored one day by the Father.
Janet L. Stump, MA CFRE is the Executive Director of the ACSI Education Foundation and its mission to promote the strategic growth, influence and effectiveness of Christian schooling worldwide. For thirty years Jan has led Christian schools, primarily in mission advancement. Her passion is to expand the understanding of what it means to think, live and educate with the mind of Christ.