Perhaps you are like me . . . a reluctant leader . . . in a position you didn’t seek, or were reluctant to take on, or in which you just feel worn out. In the spring of 2020, after my father’s death and right as the COVID-19 curtain was falling, I was asked to serve as executive dean of Portland Seminary, an embedded seminary at George Fox University in Portland, Oregon. I had been on faculty for 31 years and served in every kind of role, including interim dean. But at that time, I had my dream job as the lead mentor for cohorts of doctoral students, as well as a book contract and other writing projects. I was very content. My husband, Randy, had retired, and we had plans. I did not seek the executive dean position or want the position. When the position unexpectedly became vacant, I was as unexpectedly asked to take the role.
I consulted mentors, my coach, my spiritual director, several close friends who knew me well, and astonishingly almost all said the same thing: “For such a time as this.” Every single person was excited and believed God was calling me to this. I prayed. I made a list of five asks, five things I knew I needed in order to be successful, but several of which I knew were highly unlikely. And yet, unbelievably again, I received a yes to every one of them. I prayed some more. It seemed clear. I should do this.
Leadership can break you
So, there I was June 2020 leading a seminary that pivoted everything to virtual delivery from orientation to graduation due to COVID, that was adapting to the intense social and political disruptions with their spiritual and emotional wake, and that needed financial to curricular changes. It was a great seminary with a proud history of delivering innovative, Christ-centered and church-focused theological education since 1946. But like most seminaries, these were tough times. My leadership journey was rough and uphill. Change had to happen, but in the midst of a pandemic, change was insane. My leadership journey was rough and uphill. Change had to happen, but in the midst of a pandemic, change was insane. Click To Tweet
About four months in, I found myself questioning God and all the wise people in my life who encouraged me to take this path. I was tired in every way. Roadblocks I didn’t expect kept popping up. I felt alone in the effort. Everyone wanted me to do it, but few could stand with me while I was doing it.
When God asks questions
One morning in prayer during what became a typical complaining session with God, God began speaking to me clearly. God said, “MaryKate, can you do this job?” I replied, “Yes, Lord, I can do this job.”
God followed with a second question, “MaryKate, should you do this job?” This question caused me some frustration. “Why, Lord, would you ask me this question? You told me to do this job. I said yes to this job. I signed a contract to do this job.” Finally, I responded with, “Yes, Lord, I should do this job.”
God asked me a third question, “MaryKate, do you want to do this job?” It didn’t take me long to answer, “Not really.”
Then God spoke a fourth time, “MaryKate, will you do this job?” I said, “Yes, Lord, I will do this job.”
I had a 3×5 index card nearby that had other notes on it, but I quickly jotted the four questions down on one end. The messy card is now propped up on my computer screen, and I go through the questions as my daily morning Examen. An Examen is a prayer practice attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), the founder of the Jesuits. It is reflective exercise for examining one’s conscience, thoughts, and actions, often using Scripture or spiritual questions. Examen prayers are usually practiced daily, sometimes twice a day. These four questions set my path each morning. An Examen is a prayer practice attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. It is reflective exercise for examining one’s conscience, thoughts, and actions, often using Scripture or spiritual questions. Click To Tweet
A final question on worship
A couple of months later, I am in my morning prayer and still complaining to God about how challenging and thankless the job was. God astonished me with a fifth question, “MaryKate, will you do this job as worship to me?” The spiritual conviction went through me like an arrow to my deepest being. I fell in repentance and worship, “Yes, Lord, I will do this job as worship to you.” And that question shifted me from acting out of obedience to focusing on Christ. I am in my morning prayer and still complaining to God about how challenging and thankless the job was. God astonished me with a fifth question, “MaryKate, will you do this job as worship to me?” Click To Tweet
Now each day I have five questions, and each day I need to repeat these questions and pray them and take them to heart. The job has not gotten any easier, though many things have changed and improved, but I am not alone in the job. God is with me.
Daily strength through the Examen
Whether you began your job with excitement as a pastor, ministry leader, educator, justice worker, caretaker, or any other role, no doubt you have gotten to a place of reluctance at one time or another. These are exhausting times. COVID, social trauma, political unrest, secularism, hatred and meanness, fires and tornadoes, mental disruption in everyone . . . we are normal to feel reluctant to lead.
Consider then using the Prayer of Examen for a Reluctant Leader as part of your morning prayer. Perhaps it will strengthen you.
- “(your name), can you do this job?”
- “(your name), should you do this job?”
- “(your name), do you want to do this job?”
- “(your name), will you do this job?”
- “(your name), will you do this as worship to me?”
“No” may be the right answer
For a final comment, as a spiritual director and old soul, I also want to add that at various question points, you might actually say, “No.” Perhaps you discover that the job doesn’t fit your gifting and your calling, and you can’t do the job. Then find another job more suited to your flourishing with Christ.
Perhaps you discover within yourself that you took the job for the wrong reasons: more income, honor, respect, power, or because you felt pressured from others. The Lord then doesn’t require you to do this job, and you need to say no.
Or perhaps you are burnt out, angry, cynical, empty, or tired, and you can’t say yes to “Do you want to do this job.” Then find a spiritual director or coach. Take a leave, step away, and take care of yourself. Sometimes when you get to question four, it’s time to respond, “No, Lord, I will not do this job, because it is not what you want from me now.”
Dear fellow leaders, these are extraordinarily difficult times to lead, but lead you must. Lead I must. Christ is our peace. The Spirit guides us, and our God watches over us.