Leading from Grace—A Ministry of Presence
Leaders are present with their people. It sounds simply enough, doesn’t it? Leaders have to know and understand those we are leading as well as what we are leading them toward. While it is easy to understand, however, it’s a whole lot harder to put into practice.
What does it mean to be present? In leadership, as in the rest of life, it covers a wide variety of meanings.
Physical presence: The tasks of leadership often prevent leaders (bosses, CEOs, admirals, politicians, etc.) from being among their employees or constituents. There are simply too many obligations, constraints, and demands to be able to engage with all of those who might want your time. It is easier to stay shut up in your office, gathered in a boardroom, or cloistered in the study than to get out and engage with people.
Listening presence: Too often I am there, but I’m not attentive. Maybe my kid is telling me a story, or a church member is rambling on about some minor detail, a counseling session is simply rehashing the same old information, and I lose my train of thought. Or I get too caught up in my emails or text messages to truly attune to the person across from me. Or I start thinking about all of the things on my to-do list rather than doing the hard task of being present with another person. Often I am physically present, but my mind and ears are somewhere else.
Engaged presence: I have found myself recently putting in my time at work—writing my sermons, keeping office hours, sending notes and cards and emails, checking in with members and reaching out to visitors—all without really being engaged in my work. There are days when I feel like I am spinning my wheels and not making a difference; there are other days when I simply want to be other places. Don’t get me wrong; some days are great. But I often find myself finding it hard to be engaged in the work I am doing.
Great leaders find ways to engage with their people:
Physically: Setting up intentional meetings with employees to get to know them, listen to their ideas, etc.; utilizing Senior Master Chiefs in the US Navy who represent the needs of the enlisted to the commander; implementing a pastoral care system to get elders, deacons, small group leaders, etc., to shepherd people and bring needs to others. While the leader cannot always be physically present to everyone, they can help create opportunities for people to be ministered to.
Listening: Great leaders find ways to listen to the people with whom they are interacting. Some use feedback in the midst of conversation, utilizing nonverbal cues and asking questions to deepen their understanding. Others create innovative ways to invite input and ideas from their employees. Still others carve out space, set aside their devices, and minimize distractions when engaging in conversation.
Engaging: One of the most helpful tools I have learned is block scheduling, setting aside time for the task at hand. If you find it hard to sit down and study for the sermon, carve out a four-hour time block in which to get it done. Then create intentional space for the other activities of your work: pastoral care, counseling, leadership development, budget meetings, etc. Intentionality is the name of the game; otherwise you will find yourself pulled in a dozen different directions and not caring about any of them.
One of the things that amazes me about Jesus is how present he was. Jesus was the Son of God, God-made-flesh, who came with a mission to seek and save the lost, to bring reconciliation with God, and to defeat sin, evil, and death. That’s a pretty massive job description. Yet we also find Jesus making space for people. He would stop for Pharisees and for unclean women; he would reach out and touch lepers and a sit with Samaritans; he would go away to be alone with God so he could engage with thousands in his ministry; he would call crowds but also call his disciples away for their own development (and rest). Jesus would sit and explain deep theology to those who were scorned in society. He would listen to and bless children. He would suffer with those who mourned. Jesus had a ministry of presence. Although he always had pressing matters, nothing was more pressing than being present to the moment he was in and the people with whom he was engaging.
Presence builds trust. Presence shows care. Presence demonstrates what is important to you. For those of us who serve in ministry, we need to be present:
To our congregations
To our coworkers
To our spouse (if applicable)
To our children (if applicable)
To God (because too often that relationship suffers from our lack of time and attention)
If Jesus could be present, and Jesus calls us to be like him, then who are we to do anything less?