It was the last week of summer 1998 and I stood staring at a couple of tables with a large assortment of picnic and potluck foods on it. I stared because the thought of actually taking any of the foods brought to mind nothing but pain.
I was just about to begin my second year of classes at Denver Seminary. The potluck picnic was the kickoff social event. My problem was that I had had my tonsils removed in the summer and was having a terrible time recovering. Even water burned my throat. Solid food hurt so bad that I’d cry as I tried to swallow.
I was hungry. My tonsillectomy resulted in 20 pounds of weight loss. I was hungry, but I was also late. The only food that remained on the table after I woke up from a nap was corn, barbecued chicken, and other salads. Nothing sounded tolerable.
I must have looked a sight, because as I wistfully looked over the food choices, Vernon Grounds, the chancellor of the seminary, walked up to me and made a wisecrack about how lost I looked and how no one should look that confused at a picnic. I responded in a raspy voice telling him that I couldn’t eat anything. I had had surgery.
To my amazement, Dr. Grounds, a man known all over the world who had several decades of leadership in the seminary behind him, stopped, grabbed a plate and spent the next few minutes going table to table, including the groups of people sitting down with full plates, to scrap up whatever Jell-O salads he could find. At first, I was a little embarrassed to be served in such a way. The plate he presented to me wasn’t exactly the most appetizing picnic food. But, it was a plate delivered out of love.
More than just love, this plate represented to me a lesson. Leadership, especially leadership in the Church, isn’t about being driven. I never met the driven version of Vernon Grounds. Maybe he was driven in his younger days. The only Vernon Grounds I ever knew was one who demonstrated every day that he loved the people in his spiritual care.
In many ways, we’ve lost that in the western church. It’s time that we reconstruct that as the norm for our Christian leaders. It’s time that we elevate to the tops of our church leadership structures men and women who scrape Jell-O salad out of bowls, so the least of their congregants can see that Christ wasn’t motivated by building something great- he was motivated by sacrificing for the least important.
Throughout the New Testament, the family imagery is clear. The church is a family. It is most clear in 1 Thessalonians 1:7b-12 when Paul says:
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
If we want parents who are spiritual leaders in the development of their children, we must be models of parental leadership. We do this first by being good parents to our children, but just as importantly, we must be good spiritual parents to our congregations, serving in humble love, caring for them like their mother, and encouraging them like their father.
In this generation of broken families, it is all the more important that we demonstrate this kind of leadership. Our young adults often come from broken homes. They need church leaders who can model what they missed in their childhood.
The family model of ministry isn’t about helping leaders build something big. It isn’t the next church growth strategy. It is about serving the people who are in their care, and serving them as a parent would serve a child. We need another generation of Vernon Grounds who leads by example and love.