In this essay, I attempt to characterize leadership that is informed by Christian theological and ethical principles. This is not to say that such leadership is applicable only in religious institutions. Nor is it the case that such leadership is merely a particular flavor of ethical leadership. As the Bible’s Book of Job attests, theology does not reduce to ethics, for such a reduction would make God subject to ethical principles, and therefore not omnipotent (i.e., all-powerful). To unpack the sort of leadership that can be said to be distinctly Christian, I analyze the investiture of Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013.
Generally speaking, Christian leadership is informed by the teachings as well as the example of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether he is “fully human, fully divine” as a god-man need not be answered in order to appropriate the teaching and lived example (i.e., on Earth). This does not mean that we are reduced to ethical principles. For example, the theological concept of agape, or self-emptying love, informs the teaching to love one’s neighbor, even one’s enemy. Such love does not reduce to ethical conduct, but is theological in nature.
Hence, in his investiture homily, Pope Francis told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, "I want to ask a favor. . . . I want to ask you to walk together, and take care of one another. . . . And don't forget that this bishop who is far away loves you very much. Pray for me." To care for one another stresses the universal applicability of neighbor love. Unlike Cicero’s notion of love as friendship, neighbor love is not extended primarily to one’s friends and family. If a stranger is in need of care, agape means self-emptying one’s own preferences for the sort of person deserving of help. As a child of God, any given person deserves care when needed and by whomever is in a position (e.g., proximity) to help.
Lest it be concluded that Christian leadership reduces to servant leadership wherein a leader serves anyone and serving can become an end in itself, Pope Francis provides a more distinctly Christian sort of leadership.
For one thing, the leader is to love humanity, rather than merely serve others. Loving humanity may imply viewing humans as creatures, and thus fundamentally vulnerable (rather than “bad” or “sin”). To see the creatureliness of man is to see the creature as limited, rather than as fulfilled.
Secondly, leadership informed by Christ’s teachings prioritizes certain conditions pertaining to some but not all of us—namely, that of weakness in terms of earthly condition. In his homily, “Francis said the role of the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics is to open his arms and protect all of humanity, but ‘especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison’.” Christian leadership is thus not sectarian or limited even to Christians; there is no creedal condition one must meet in order to receive care from a leader following Christian principles. In the Gospel of Mark, it is the stranger rather than the disciples that “get it” as far as Jesus’s message is concerned. The good Sumerian cares for the injured stranger on the side of the road while the priest walks merrily by.
By implication, Christian leadership embraces humanity rather than merely protecting the faith. Such leadership thus has credibility beyond the faithful. The weak, poor, sick, and marginalized to be cared for could be Hindu, Jewish or Shinto, for example. In fact, to the extent that Christians tend to marginalize people of other religions as “not saved,” a leader informed by Jesus’s teachings and example can be expected to make a particular effort to care for non-Christians. The first are last, and the last are first. Such is the paradox that comes out of the notion of agape, or self-emptying love.
It is important to note that the caring must go beyond symbolic actions. The miracle of the loaves and fishes feeds the hungry and is therefore not a mere rhetorical symbol of caring. This is not say that symbolic acts have no value in Christian leadership. In St. Peter’s Square before the Investiture Mass, Pope Francis hopped off his jeep to bless a disabled man and kiss him on the forehead.
Before his Investiture Mass, Pope Francis blesses a disabled man. NBC
Although such an act sets the tone of Christian leadership, caring is not merely attention and a kiss. Had the pope had an aide get a walker or a nice wheelchair to be delivered to the man from the pope himself after the Mass, the leadership of caring would have been actualized rather than merely symbolized. Such actualized leadership could include the formulation and execution of a new or invigorated program geared to feeding the poor, for instance. In this sense, organizational leadership informed by Christian principles has a dimension beyond caring on the individual level.
In short, Christian leadership does not simply mean “ethical leadership” or even “servant leadership.” The foundation of distinctly Christian leadership is love as agape, actualized as universal benevolence manifesting as care for one another, especially the weak and vulnerable. Such love sees humanity itself as vulnerable in the sense of being created (i.e., creatures), and particular persons as more vulnerable than others. Even in an organizational setting, the “lower level” employees can be cared for first rather than being marginalized as last. This prioritizing directs but does not trump the universality of neighbor-love, for even the rich executive is a creature and thus fundamentally vulnerable. To love and care for vulnerability, rather than to ignore, harm or destroy the vulnerable is the calling of Christian leadership, for vulnerability is an intrinsic aspect of self-giving love, or agape.
Nicole Winfield, “Pope Francis Inauguration 2013: Catholic Leader Begins Ministry in St. Peter’s Square,” The Huffington Post, March 19, 2013.