Jim Harnish

The Kind of Leader We Need


What Kind of Leader Do We Really Need?

It goes without saying — though I will say it anyway! — that we are facing deep divisions in both our nation and (speaking as a United Methodist) in our church.  What kind of leaders do we need to show us the way forward?

I had never heard of William White, but he’s become a model for me of the kind of leaders we desperately need at this moment in history.

Born in Philadelphia in 1747, White was a priest in the Church of England. In spite of his ordination vow of loyalty to the King, he supported the Revolution and served as chaplain to the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1789.  He then served for ten years as the Chaplain of the Senate. He led in writing the constitution for the Episcopal Church in America and became its first Presiding Bishop.  One writer points to the way his “gifts of statesmanship and reconciling moderation” led the church through times of revolutionary upheaval and change.

I was drawn to White because of the collect in his memory that is included in the Episcopal calendar of daily prayers on July 17.

O Lord, in a time of turmoil and confusion you raised up your servant William White, and endowed him with wisdom, patience, and a reconciling temper, that he might lead your Church into ways of stability and peace; Hear our prayer, and give us wise and faithful leaders, that through their ministry your people may be blessed and your will be done; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Don’t miss those words: wisdom…patience…a reconciling temper…wise and faithful leaders. They became my persistent prayer for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference as it elected five new bishops for the United Methodist Church. They are my prayer as our Council of Bishops attempts to lead our denomination through this critically important time in our history. They are also my prayer as we continue to make our way through the noisy conflict of this Presidential election season.

A Time of Turmoil and Confusion

Like William White, we live in “a time of turmoil and confusion” in our church, nation and world. What kind of leaders do we really need to lead us through these revolutionary times “into ways of stability and peace”?

There’s always the temptation to go for the “strongman” who feeds on our fears and frustrations and promises to solve every problem by the sheer force of his personality and power.  We’re always tempted to deepen the polarization that separates us, to listen only to those who reinforce our preconceived assumptions, to demonize those who disagree with our chosen positions and to make every issue an “all or nothing” decision without being willing to search for the “common good.”

William White represented a very different kind of leadership.  His leadership was rooted in the wisdom that comes from broad learning; patience that looks at each decision in light of the long-term implications, not immediate gain; and faith that grows out of lifelong disciplines of biblical reflection and spiritual growth.  All of which resulted in a “reconciling temper” that brought people together who would otherwise have been driven apart.

For United Methodist readers, I commend James Howell’s recent blog Four Compelling Reasons Conservative and Progressive United Methodists Have to Stay Together as an example of that kind of leadership.

May God give us leaders in every area of our lives who lead with wisdom, patience and a reconciling temper, that together we might find ways to stability and peace.

Grace and peace,