“In a beloved relationship, the one who has done harm must come to listen and be ready to ask for mercy and commit to change in order to restore the dignity of the other group or person.”
Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Shann Ray Ferch talks about his experience growing up among the Cheyenne people, the dynamics that shape leadership and forgiveness, and why servant leadership requires a balance of love and power.
What are some practical ways that we can bring this kind of balance—with the goal of becoming people able to serve and lead with that combination of love and power?
As a starting place, art and music in the life of a church are hugely helpful. What is it about the power of a beloved hymn in certain settings to move us to repent and reconcile with our neighbor? A three-verse song somehow does something a three-point sermon never could. Engaging our creative life is a wonderful first step, and a soulful sermon contains this beauty too.
It’s not for nothing that there’s been an incredible blossoming over the last 20 years in worship music. People in the West can listen to that music and it can break us in a moment. I believe this is partly because it speaks to that more balanced, singing, nurturing side of Christ. It is bodily, and communal. It brings us together.
And that is part of the core of forgiveness. Actions and attitudes that soften us more, that make us tender, like we need to be in order to really listen to another person, in order to work to see ourselves with clarity, as God sees us with clarity.
What’s one way that a leader could foster that in a congregation or community organization?
This is one of the hardest things about COVID-19. It has kept us from singing together. But however we can lead people to experience embodied beauty is actually a step on the road to broader actions of forgiveness and reconciliation. Beauty tenderizes the soul and the heart.
I think churches are doing that a ton—which is good—and I think small group leadership is doing that, too. But I hope we never downplay its value or see it as incidental.
Simply including more art or music as the opening and the closing of a service is a way of bringing the life of the teaching and invitation to the fore. Creative engagement that way is healing—often more than we can easily communicate or understand.
Finding a more whole and human balance than we’ve often valued in Western faith actually directly relates to some of the big commands to the church, doesn’t it? The “one anothers,” commands to love, to forgive, to bear each other’s burdens.
Yes. I love that. I completely identify with that. It takes bravery, but I believe the body of Christ is ready and wants that bravery. And it’s going to change our souls if we listen.
Your work intersects reconciliation at multiple levels—at the individual, family and even cultural/national levels. But many of the principles are the same.
Yes. The breakdown of marriages is one easy place to begin looking at this. The research shows that Christians are not better at successful marriage than non-Christians. They are actually equally as bad. For me, that gives us insight into a wider principle—even though we might like to think that our status as Christ followers, as forgiven and reconciled people, gives us a head start on relationship skills like forgiveness and reconciliation, that isn’t necessarily true. After all, if it were, wouldn’t we be able to demonstrate that in our marriages?
What then are the principles that we can glean from that? How can leaders lead through that type of conflict to a better place for us?
I think so much of it comes down to humility—being willing to learn, willing to accept that we are not automatically in the right. Willing to accept that we may need to ask hard questions of ourselves in order to honor a relationship in conflict.
As well, I’ll say this again—we need balance. If our faith is predominately rational and focused on doctrine, add more beauty and focus on creativity—without losing the gifts of reason. In my eyes, the image of God is at work in the world, in and through us. But we must allow God’s whole image to be present.
We see this especially in our long-term relationships. We cannot be fundamentally defensive and stonewalling if we want to find common ground. That kind of person, relationship or church is going to fracture. They become brittle, calcified and rigid. There’s no chance not to break if stressed hard enough.
Research from the Gottman Institute bears out that 80% of people who divorce have a factor in common—contempt or hatred for the gender qualities of the other. The wife has contempt not just for her husband, but for masculine ways of seeing the world and often men as a whole. The husband manifests behaviors and attitudes that are negative not only toward the wife, but to women in general and feminine ways of seeing the world. The issue is deeper than the marriage. It is about the ability to accept and receive a way of being and relating that is different from your own.
This principle is true on every level of society. How can we relate as humans if we are dehumanizing the other person or group at the outset? How can we relate if we are being dehumanized or dismissed ourselves? We lose our starting place to seek truth and a reconciled state.
So, what do we do? How do we lead through this to something better?
I believe we must consistently be responsible for our own postures and actions in ways that are very open and communal. That’s true inside a marriage or inside a church. When we notice our faults, and ask forgiveness for them, and deeply work to truly make amends, healing follows. Weekly, daily, as needed throughout life. Humility, sincerity and fully embodied action over time.
I learned this while dating my wife Jennifer. I was at a different place in my life then, and she was very different than the young women I had dated before. I was already on my path as a Christian into an over-sexualized, over-masculinized, blocking, defensive, stonewalling type of personality. And I was just in high school. But it was a generational legacy—it was how I had been taught to be a young man. Then she came into my life, and I just remember it being so different, so good. After two weeks I knew I needed to marry this person. Of course, I didn’t say anything about marriage for a couple of years. But part of the reason I knew was how her family showed love and forgiveness.
Once while we were dating, we were sitting at the kitchen table with her family. And her dad, in the course of things, said a sharp word to her mom. It didn’t register as a sharp word for me because my family was capable of great harshness. So, on a scale of 0 to 100 of verbal violence, what her dad said to her mom was like a minus 8 in my family. I literally noted at the time that he had responded pretty nicely. Well, he hadn’t. He had snapped, “Hey, I’m talking here” at a moment of talking over one another in the conversation. End of the world? Of course not. But no way to speak to others, especially the beloved. The moment passed, and I thought no more about it.
Later, I noticed her parents talking quietly by the kitchen sink. Then Jenn’s dad sat down next to me. “Hey,” he said, “I’d like to ask your forgiveness for when I mistreated my wife there at the table.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I felt a little nervous. I said something like, “Uh, you don’t have to ask me.” “Oh, no problem,” he replied. “In our family, if we wrong somebody publicly, we also ask forgiveness not only of them, but of everybody else who was present in order to restore the dignity of the person who was wronged.” It floored me. I had not seen that level of honor or care taken after conflict.
Reconciliation can get tense or political very quickly. Often, that’s a shame. But as those humbly seeking to be devoted to Christ, I think we must follow the philosophy of what Fred, my father-in-law, did in that little spat. In conflict, love begins with honor. True respect for the people that have been harmed and a readiness to take initiative to respond to the harm. In a beloved relationship, the one who has done harm must come to listen and be ready to ask for mercy and commit to change in order to restore the dignity of the other group or person.
Now, there’s no perfect world. And I know none of these things are easy. But in America with our history of genocidal tendencies, and in many churches, with our infighting, we often get this backward. We put the burden of initiative on the shoulders of those suffering. There is a better, more gentle way. And I believe leaders—just like Fred, as the father of his family—need to listen deeply and show that in humility.
We often forget that forgiveness is not the first step in reconciliation. Asking for forgiveness is. Anyone who’s practiced asking forgiveness gets this. Yes, it is hard. But if we are committed to love, we can be equally be committed to leading self and others into true and honest reconciliation.
In the past year, pastors and leaders have been carrying incredible challenges. Times were fractured to begin with. Then the pandemic hit, and massive social unrest came, much of which intersects so many of the dynamics you’ve spoken of, with historical wounds and difficulty relating. With everything going on, what advice would you give them?
That is such a big question. These issues humble us—because in one sense none of us know how to respond. But in another sense we all know how to respond. We just often don’t want to do what it will take to restore right relationships. I guess that’s the Spirit’s part, wouldn’t you say? To move us toward greater understanding. For me, the message of Christ is that love is the foundation. Love is the great reconciler. In loving, we are free, as Christ has set us free.
I’m reminded of two passages from Isaiah, that “God has given you the garment of praise instead of the spirit of despair.” And, “Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you. Behold deep darkness covers the earth, and deep darkness its peoples, but the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” What grace to hear those words spoken to us by God. In Christ, the light of life is already breaking.
Our times are deeply challenging, but they are calling us to something profound. Again, I believe we are asked to listen. In listening, we are led by the people closest to Christ—who are usually those people in our midst, including ourselves, who can be named as the wretched of the earth. Not in shame, but in holy realism. God elevates the lowly. He is a lifter of hearts.
And with all these difficulties in mind, my prayer is that we would be led by the people who have been wounded. Who have suffered the ills of abusive leadership in government, education, church and family. Who have emerged more whole through the beauty of the broken body of Christ. For many of us, that perspective can change our way of seeing the world. If we just look into some of these places where a deep healing of Christ is occurring nationally and internationally, it helps us come forward with a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
With all this in mind, what is the marker of healthy servant leadership?
I see it as fairly simple. Unhealthy leadership generally seeks to command and control. According to Robert K. Greenleaf, a Christian and a profound national leader, the true test of servant leadership is that others around the servant leader become more—more wise, more free, more healthy, more autonomous. People become better able to serve others. On a cultural level, the least privileged of society benefit—or at least are not further deprived. It is that elegance and that devotion of a leader for the good of others, that lifestyle away from an addiction to power. As a leader, I’m either living a more relationally healthy life, or I need more inner work.
What is your vision for the church as a reconciled and reconciling community?
I see women and men of all colors, hand in hand, and in deep loving embrace, fully reconciled with a commitment to full atonement present—both the atonement from Christ and then the working out of atoning repentance that rebuilds relationships that have been fractured. That’s my vision. I see it internationally, nationally and all the way down to one-on-one relationships. It’s endless love and reconciliation.
What should readers remember as they seek to serve and lead their own relationships and communities deeper into Christ’s mission of reconciliation?
My wife and daughters teach me to remember listening as an act of love.
As a poet, I want to point to the beauty of language to express the cries of love and reconciliation. When we listen to these cries, we grow, whether they are in inspired Scripture from the prophet Isaiah, or the Psalms, or the voices of modern poets giving voice to their own calls for hearing like Layli Long Soldier’s work about the suffering of her people. Are we able to really hear the voices around us?
If we learned to do this, it would be so healing nationally. Imagine, just as one example, what would happen if pastors of dominant culture asked forgiveness of pastors of nondominant cultures and committed to the atonement the nondominant pastors envision. Even just starting with such simple things as the thoughtless assumptions or dismissals that have been made over the years, let alone the grave human rights abuses across race, gender and social class.
Imagine what could happen if churches united in forgiveness-asking and real connection, and seeking to restore and repair their relationships. That unity and that conversation in Christ can exist across all races and backgrounds and demographics. When people find the reconciling cross in their full spectrum of life, it will be unimaginable to see the restoration and peace that comes.
It can be our sacred work to lead in the light of that vision.
Read more interviews with church leaders at OutreachMagazine.com/Interviews
SERVANT LEADERSHIP AND THE CROSS
By Shann Ray Ferch
The modern father of the servant leadership movement was Robert K. Greenleaf. He was an astute businessman who helped lead a Top 5 company in the United States (AT&T). He was also a Quaker who deeply valued the image of Christ washing the feet of the disciples. Greenleaf saw servant leadership as a leader’s identification with the soul of Christ, putting the fiercely graceful notion of forgiveness at the heart of Christian life. Greenleaf held that the true test of our love and leadership is that others around us become more wise, free, autonomous, healthy, and better able to serve others; and the least privileged of society are benefited, or at least not further deprived.
This test utterly deconstructs the “command and control” style of leadership in churches, businesses, nonprofits and government. Servant leadership seemingly removes power from our hands and acknowledges the legitimate moral and relational gravity that resides in others. A leader can’t bend others’ arms behind their backs and force them to say they’ve become less toxic or more loving, more whole. In the Christian tradition, guided by the Spirit, a leader has either done the life work required—and their voice resounds without reservation—or they need more work.
We often fail to grasp the grave requirements life presents us as people and leaders. Greenleaf loved poetry and retired with his wife to a Quaker community. But the surrender of power was always a struggle. Later in his life, he said:
“Our problem is circular: We must understand in order to be able to understand. It has something to do with awareness and symbols. Awareness, letting something significant and disturbing develop between oneself and a symbol, comes more by being waited upon rather than by being asked. One of the most baffling of life’s experiences is to stand beside one who is aware, one who is looking at a symbol and is deeply moved by it, and, confronting the same symbol, to be unmoved. Oh, that we could just be open in the presence of symbols that cry out to speak to us, let our guards down, and take the risks of being moved!”
There is no more potent symbol of servant leadership than the cross. Servant leaders who listen and respond to others’ requests to make amends and find justice enter the resurrection essence to which Christ calls us, and to which his cross points. In the cross, among the most revered symbols of surrender, Christ powerfully embodies the truth of forgiveness.
But are we ready to respond?