It has become one of my convictions that healthy and holistic leadership is leadership that stubbornly refuses to become fixated on results at the expense of relationships. To put it another way, healthy and holistic leadership is leadership that resists the temptation to become so obsessed with a particular destination that it begins to overlook the meaningful and revelatory encounters occurring within the journey.
Interestingly, this conviction found fresh illumination recently as I spent some meditative time with the first eight verses of the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel.
The situation in this moment of Scripture is as follows: In a profound expression of both her love for Jesus and her adoration of his Lordship, Mary (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) takes the most expensive perfume that she owns and pours it over Jesus’ feet. My sense is that this gesture represents her most extravagant effort to help everyone in the room, including Jesus, to respect more deeply the nature of his life and ministry. It is Mary’s way of placing a tangible exclamation point upon her belief that Jesus is to be set apart and anointed for the purposes of God.
It would have been considered inappropriately intimate, by the way, for a woman to touch a man’s feet in public. It would have been considered even more inappropriate for a woman to dry his feet with her loose hair (since loose hair was often the style worn by prostitutes). In this biblical moment of consecration and adoration, however, Mary is not particularly concerned with societal norms and conventional etiquette. Her only desire is to do something extravagant and tangible to honor the One before whom she is willing to kneel.
Unfortunately for Mary, however, one of the disciples is also present at this meal. His name is Judas—and, yes, it’s THAT Judas.
Judas apparently has a different idea concerning who the Messiah is supposed to be and what the Messiah is supposed to do. He seems to believe strongly in the pursuit of ethical action and social justice. When he sees Mary pouring the expensive perfume onto the feet of Jesus, he cannot contain his displeasure over what he perceives to be a sinfully profligate display:
“Hold on,” Judas essentially says to Mary. “What’s the meaning of this?! We could have sold that perfume for a lot of money, all of which might have been used to minister to the poor!”
Judas, you see, is fixated upon a very noble end result: specifically, the end result of providing for the needs of the poor. And, before succumbing to the temptation to criticize Judas for missing the point, one must first acknowledge that caring for the poor is indeed a priority that has always been located somewhere very close to the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
But Jesus responds to Judas’ interruption with something other than an affirmation: “Judas,” Jesus says, “leave the woman alone. She bought this perfume so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
“The poor will always be with you,” Jesus continues, “but you will not always have me.”
Jesus’ teaching in this moment must not be interpreted as an effort on his part to downplay the urgency of caring for the poor. Even a cursory examination of Jesus’ life and ministry makes crystal clear the fact that the poor were always inseparably linked to the kingdom he came to inaugurate. Therefore, when Jesus tells Judas that the poor will always be with us, it cannot be regarded as an expression of indifference toward those living in the social margin of poverty.
But Jesus does seem to be teaching Judas that it is entirely possible for people to become so fixated on noble goals and ethical pursuits that they become inattentive and unavailable to the moments of authentic relationship that are developing right in front of them.
In this significant moment of Scripture, Mary is honoring Jesus in a way that bears witness, not only to her life-altering theological convictions concerning Jesus’ ministry, but also to her vulnerability and devotion. I am grateful that Jesus is a wise enough Savior (and a sensitive enough leader) to recognize the sanctity and preciousness of the moment.
Is it essential for leaders to keep the big picture in mind. Yes.
Is it essential for leaders to be vision-casters for God’s preferred future? Absolutely.
Is it essential for leaders to remind their people of the destinations and the end results for which they are working? Without a doubt, yes.
But it is also essential that leaders not become so idolatrous about their desired destinations and end results that they grow desensitized to the people standing alongside them in the journey, many of whom who are hungering for relationship and validation.
Back in 1995, I spearheaded an effort to launch a new worship service in the church to which I was appointed at the time. I was in my twenties, gung-ho for God and absolutely convinced that the God’s kingdom depended upon the successful launch of this new worship service. In fact, if my calculations back then were correct, then this new worship service would eventually become the eschatological doorway through which Jesus would return! (If any of you have ever been overzealous in your spearheading of a new ministry, then you will understand that my exaggerated description of my attitude is at least partially accurate.)
I’m pleased to report that the worship service began in successful fashion. Best of all, that worship service is still in place, fifteen years later.
Three months after the worship service began, I had a conversation with a church member who told me something unsettling. “You know,” she said, “I tried to talk with you half a year ago about some of my concerns about the new worship service.”
I told her that I remembered the conversation (vaguely).
“Well,” she continued, “I just wanted you to know that it never felt like you really listened to me. It felt like you were so eager to defend what you were trying to do that you didn’t really want to make any room for a differing viewpoint.”
I began to feel that burning sensation of being inwardly convicted.
“I’m not mad at you,” she said. “I know that you were really excited about what you were doing, and I’m thrilled that the new service has begun so well. But I just wanted you to know that it hurt to feel pushed aside. It hurt to feel like you didn’t care about what I thought.”
I’ll never forget that conversation because of the way in which it made me to understand how easy it is for leaders to become so fixated on holy results that they lose sight of the relational, tender, and Christ-centered moments that the Holy Spirit makes possible along the way.
In many ways, I am still learning this lesson. Not a month goes by that I don’t find myself playing the role of Judas, allowing my preconceived desires for particular results to interrupt a Mary’s effort to anoint the feet of Jesus.