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L. Gregory Jones: Asking more of laypeople

Influential laypeople yearn for deep relationships with Christian institutional leaders. We can nurture those relationships by entering the worlds where laypeople live, think and work -- not seeing them primarily as church volunteers and funders.

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January 3, 2012

The billionaire businessman, a devout Christian, told the denominational executive that the denomination’s leaders needed to be more visible and bold. They needed, the businessman said, to ask more of laypeople like him.

The executive, unsure, hesitantly asked, “How would you like to be more involved in the church?”

But the businessman had already “done his time” serving on church committees to fill a slot rather than accomplish a purpose.

The businessman was imploring the denomination’s leaders to demand more about how he lived his discipleship in the world -- and not by prophetically criticizing the wealth he had accumulated while regularly turning to him to support capital campaigns or building maintenance (a common experience among the wealthy).

When I witnessed this exchange, I interpreted the word “ask” as a request.

The businessman wanted church leaders to make a claim on him to help him live more faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ in his daily life. Church leaders could be more thoughtful in seeing laypeople as disciples who yearn to connect more explicitly their faith with the ideas, insights and imagination they have developed in their vocations.

More recently, I have become aware of a deeper interpretation of the businessman’s plea: we can discover what is in laypeople’s imaginations only if we focus on what it means to “ask” in the sense of inquiry. The businessman was seeking holy conversations with church leaders, hoping that church leaders would ask more of him by asking more about him.

What are the issues he is wrestling with as a business leader? How might his faith inform his responses to management challenges and his thinking about leadership? How should his faith help him decide how to schedule his time? Nurture his personal and professional relationships?

Inquiry is a central activity for Christian institutional leaders in cultivating teams and discovering innovative possibilities for an organization.

It is also crucially important for developing deep, personal relationships with people on their own terms rather than just fitting them into “our” contexts. Christian institutional leaders often engage with empathy when laypeople come to us for spiritual direction or in crisis -- but we often forget the importance of inquiry in our day-to-day leadership of Christian institutions.

Why do Christian institutional leaders forget to practice inquiry?

Perhaps we believe that our role is to provide expertise, to offer answers to life’s questions. Or maybe we feel insecure around people who have been better trained, and have more experience, at leading and managing organizations. So we become defensive and assert that our work is different and somehow better, more pure, because we run not-for-profit organizations.

Or perhaps we believe and act, unwittingly and sometimes wittingly, as though the church and its institutions were the only arenas in which Christian discipleship can be faithfully lived. Rather than recognizing, rightly, that the church and its institutions are central contexts for worship and the formation of Christian identity, we turn them into idols where they are our exclusive focus.

Our forgetfulness typically involves a combination of these dynamics.

Their cumulative impact results in Christian institutional leaders assuming that border crossing goes only one way. We will welcome others to cross from the secular world to the church world, but we don’t choose to leave our comfortable perches to venture in the other direction. That can alienate the laypeople the church needs to bear faithful witness to God’s kingdom.

Through genuine, mutual inquiry -- not just asking what you can do for me or I for you -- Christian institutional leaders will experience the vocations and contexts of laypeople.

Our efforts ought not to be limited to those already involved in church but should extend also to those who might be outside or even marginalized by our institutions. Christian renewal movements, such as the Wesleyan revival of the 18th century, have typically been led by pastors and other Christian leaders who were adept at crossing multiple borders to inquire after people.

In so doing, we will need to cultivate the trait of interpretive charity, which requires us to listen to the perspectives of others with the most charitable perspective we can imagine. This does not necessarily mean agreeing with the others, but it does involve patiently listening to what is said and why it is being said.

Early in my service as dean of Duke Divinity School, I was invited to meet with a wealthy business leader.

I was tempted to focus on what he could do for me, namely, make a large gift to the Divinity School’s capital campaign. I was also aware of my biases about wealth and greed, but I knew I likely wouldn’t get what I needed either by challenging him to give his wealth away in general or by asking him directly for a gift.

We didn’t have a relationship, so I asked him how he had gotten into his business.

He told me that he had considered going into ordained ministry but ultimately had decided that his calling was to business. He then described how he had learned to practice his business as a lay ministry. He described how his vision had helped articulate his company’s mission and its relationship with employees and customers.

As I asked him about how he expressed his faith through his leadership, I was humbled to learn that his company has often undertaken education and health initiatives, because the company believes it is important to support its employees and the people in the wider community. He was more attentive to the community’s ministry needs than are many congregations and Christian institutions.

Our conversation turned out to be the beginning of a long-standing mutual relationship in which we each ask much of and give much to the other.

We have discovered that as our border-crossing Christian relationship has developed and deepened, we will often challenge and even critique each other. But because the borders have been crossed in more than one direction, my challenges and critiques of him, and his of me, are typically life-giving rather than polarizing.

Christian institutions have been started and sustained, renewed and transformed over the centuries through remarkable partnerships among leaders of Christian institutions and Christian leaders of other kinds of institutions. We need to ask more of each other, in the first instance by learning to ask -- to inquire -- in fresh ways.