The Rev. Dr. Stephen Burns Gives Commencement Eucharist Sermon on Leadership

Text of the sermon given by The Rev. Dr. Stephen Burns, Associate Professor of Liturgical Theology and the Study of Anglicanism at Episcopal Divinity School, at the 2014 Commencement Eucharist on May 21, 2014, in St. John's Memorial Chapel. 

1 Peter 5.1-9a (KJV): The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith.

Daniel O. Aleshire, Treasure in Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 31: People tend to assess the work of ministers and priests in terms of three broad questions: Do they truly love God? Do they relate with care and integrity to human beings? Do they have the knowledge and skills that the job requires?… Not only do people ask them, they tend to ask them in this order. If the answer to the first question is “no,” people don’t even proceed to the second and third questions. 

St. Matthew 20.20-28 (NRSV): The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink? They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”  When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


Blessed be God, who holds the world in mercy, joins us in our need, and stirs up our yearning for liberty. Amen.

■ Introduction

I would be remiss if I did not begin with a straightforward statement of delight about being asked to speak at this commencement eucharist. I am both honoured and happy to do so. 

And maybe it’s in part because “commencement eucharist” sounds so much more grand than its British equivalent—“the leaver’s service.” Preaching at the commencement eucharist feels important, and it is important, as we gather together in holy communion and send you on the Way with our blessing, giving thanks to God for your presence here.  

The leaver’s service, though, typically takes the form a missional charge to students, distilling what the preacher thinks (or hopes) the students might have learned in seminary that will serve them well in ministry. And that, I think, is a great tradition. So I was pleased when I started to ask people what they thought I should speak about today, here, now. It quickly became obvious that people wanted to speak about leadership. I think that’s a fine topic for a commencement eucharist at EDS: after all, EDS literature talks about “forming leaders in pastoral ministry [being] at the core of EDS's mission.”

So, dear leavers, let me, for a few minutes, invite you to reflect on your formation—on what kind of shape you are in—as we send you as leaders with resources from your time at this college.    

I need to say another word of introduction, too. To say what an intimidating bunch you are, sitting there with your heads brimming full with biblical studies and all the rest after these years of study. Of course you and I are all aware that no neat conclusions can be drawn from the biblical readings we have heard about the governance of communities today. There are certainly no tidy three-fold ministries in the Bible, and the fragments on different leadership roles—apostle, deacon, elder, bishop, etc—that were later melded into patterns that at least some of us have inherited are in so many ways frustratingly opaque. We can, however, be absolutely clear about a couple things. Notably: that one Greek word which the New Testament never, ever, uses to describe Christian leaders is archon, the normal secular Greek word for a leader of business or politics. Also, that the New Testament unambiguously challenges hierarchical models of leadership replete with notions of status and power and replaces these with its overwhelming emphasis on service. Did you hear the Gospel?

(By the way, against this background, we are not surprised to find so many Christian theologians thinking that secular management models can be countersigns of ministry in Christian communities: Steven Croft—the bishop of Sheffield and the principal of the first seminary in which I worked—calls them “false trails,” and “broken cisterns,” for example.)         

So, with these caveats and with this clarity about the scriptures on which we are leaning, here are my three points, some simple things I believe.

■ Scrutiny 

First: let me remind you that taking on leadership involves being scrutinized. I understand that the Greek word, skopos, which shapes the word episkope, “oversight,” means, literally, “the object seen.” Leaders are supposed to be seen to symbolize the values of the people they serve and represent. And so I want to urge you, dear leavers, always to recognize that, if you want to be a leader, those people have a rightful role in scrutinizing you.

Some of you have shared in many conversations with me about ordained ministry as a way to be “visibly vulnerable”: not so very different from any other Christian, but sometimes with more public ministry, and always more vulnerable for being so public. Most of you have heard me—again and again—talk about the meaning of “presider” being “to sit in front of.” We have spoken often about how, as you preside, a few people will be watching you to see whether how you arrange the silver or pots, or fold the cloths for communion, conforms to whatever passes as their local sense of tradition. But many other people will be watching you in far less trivial things: they will be watching how you, as a leader, live, whether your words are congruent with your actions, and they will be making a measure of your integrity. 

One of my favourite stories is of Evelyn Underhill preaching about the London Docklands priest Father Wainwright. She said of him, more or less bluntly, that he was an absolutely rubbish preacher. But then she reminded people that they didn’t come to church to hear Fr. Wainwright’s sermons. Rather they came to church “to look at his face,” they came to church “to be in his atmosphere.” It was through Fr. Wainwright’s company, his manner, his actions, that they learned that they were beloved of God. Evelyn Underhill reminds us that good leaders have faces that people that want to look at; good leaders have an atmosphere that others want to be in. So, dear leavers, be those kinds of leaders.

If you are preparing for ordination—and many of you are—consider your calling to care for, through, and with word and sacrament—the heart of your ministry—in terms of what you hope people will see in you: 

      • Hans Urs von Balthasar—not a theologian I am often found citing—once wrote beautifully about saints (and we might also say leaders) as persons who embody with great passion one verse, one portion, one line, one image, of scripture. What divine promise in the Bible will you, as a leader, seek to bring alive for others?
      • Austin Farrer—sometimes credited as being the greatest Anglican theologian of the last century—famously spoke about persons in ministry being “walking sacraments,” in all kinds of circumstances “being there,” like Christ in the eucharist. How will you, as a leader, strive to be a sacramental presence, a means of grace for others’ lives?
      • John Patton—an elder of contemporary American pastoral theology—has written I think so sagely about “care” meaning both anxiety and love. Anxiety: think of the phrase, “cast your cares” (we heard it in the 1 Peter reading). Love: think, caring as cherishing, treasuring (again from the reading, “he careth for you”). In your work as a leader, what and whom will you get upset about and relish, and be seen to get upset about and relish?

These are all ways in which you will lead people. And people will be watching you.

As a leader, you will be scrutinized in many ways, and all the time. It is par for the course. So attend to the atmosphere you create. As a public figure in the church, or in some other public sphere, welcome the scrutiny that leadership invites. Carefully consider what is seen in you. This is my first charge to you.

■ Listening

Second: always remember that oversight depends on understanding. And understanding depends on listening. So, dear leavers, be leaders who listen.

One of the things that I most appreciate about EDS is its purpose statement’s claim to be “enlivened by liberation theologies.” You will know well Gustavo Gutierrez’s stirring image of liberation theology being done (and only able to be done) “at sundown,” after the day’s labour struggling for justice and trying to amplify the voice of the oppressed, as you listen to people speak for themselves. EDS has a precious and splendid pedigree of doing liberation theology, and I hope that it will never be lost either from this place or from your own ministries. Listening to people is the only viable way to be a leader in a liberative community.

As I have been praying for you as you take leave of this place this week, I have also been remembering very keenly how twenty years ago this week, I was not leaving seminary, but just beginning an extended piece of fieldwork at the end of my first year. I had been sent to a town in North Yorkshire, just as a new presiding priest was appointed to the parish. I remember the first staff meeting when we gathered to think about how the new vicar, and me, would start a programme of visiting. Would we begin with the parish council (the equivalent of the vestry)? Would we begin with the people whose family names started with the letter A, and work our way through the membership list? Would we subvert the alphabetic ordering and start with those who names began with Zed, and work backwards? Would we start in the middle of the list and work outwards to the edges? The new priest felt very strongly that the place to begin listening was definitely not with the parish council, because they already had voice and power; rather we should start listening to the people who had left church in the last three years, we should talk to the people who were part of the fringe groups, but not at the centre, so that the marginal—perhaps excluded—voices were not silenced, and so that dominant stories were opened to question. The visiting programme, the listening programme, was wide and expansive, and involved face-to-face talk with all kinds of people. That Monday morning meeting has left a deep impression on me, even all these years later. I do not suppose that the priest would have thought of himself as a liberation theologian—or (“pretentious, moi?”) a postcolonial contrapuntal strategist—but I can see he was teaching and enacting a liberative instinct in pastoral ministry. 

So always remember that oversight begins with understanding, and understanding begins with listening. As a leader, it is simply crucial that you listen, because you will rightly never be trusted unless you gain the understanding that only comes from you yourself hearing people speaking for themselves. So, dear leavers, I urge you to make listening central to your leadership. This is my second charge to you.

■ Power

Third: leadership gives you some power, but your authority—what will really move people to follow your lead—always has to be earned. To put it bluntly, you’re not a leader if no-one is following! 

I recall the artful title of an excellent book I studied at seminary, Celia Hahn’s Growing in Authority by Relinquishing Control. The title gives all the clues you need to get the point. I recall another classic on Christian leadership—actually on resistance to leadership: John Dittes’s When the People Say No, which stresses how when leaders recognize (no doubt because they are listening) that people are saying “no” to them, then all is not lost, for this can be the beginning of the challenge to start ministry. I urge you, dear leavers, to be leaders to whom others can give authority. You will do this by leading with ministry, with service, with care; and by being seen to model the values the gospel proclaims.

Some of us have (in class, in prayer together, in long walks along the river, and sometimes crying into our beer, or G. &T.) pored over the charge for ordination in the prayer book of the Anglican Church of Aoteraoa New Zealand. It stirs us up, as it calls us to: 

Follow Christ whose servant you are. Share the burden of those whose cross is heavy. You are marked as a person who proclaims that among the truly blessed are the poor, the troubled, the powerless, the persecuted. You must be prepared to be what you proclaim.

For some of you leavers, this is your calling. But that’s not all: the charge continues: “Let your joy in Christ overcome all discouragement.” Always remember that where the gospel is told, power is shifting: in communities that sing the praises of One who casts down the mighty from their thrones and fills the hungry with good things; amongst folks who keep at the centre of their hearts a heart-breaking Passion and who feel the power of Resurrection rumbling in the ground beneath their feet. As a Christian leader, you have to confront these mysterious wellsprings of joy and hope, and, more than that, you have to live from them

The power of the gospel of Christ Jesus means that Christian people can sometimes expect things to be, well, exhilarating.  As leaders, you should never try to grasp at power—you will fail—but you can and always should pour yourself into its paschal courses; you can and always should seek and celebrate its revolutionary rivulets. I encourage you to trust that we grow in authority by relinquishing control, by keeping close to your heart the example of leadership of that strange lord, Jesus. So, dear leavers, follow Christ whose servant you are. This is my third charge to you. (And by the way, servant leadership isn’t just something for naïve Christians with fashion sense from the 1960s; it is proposed by serious people—like professor James Heskett, around the corner at Harvard Business School—as a viable way to lead any institution.) 

■ Ending

These, then, are some simple things that I believe. Tonight it’s my privilege to offer them to you as your missional charge from EDS: 

  • be a leader who is open to scrutiny; 
  • be a leader who listens; and 
  • be a leader who trusts that the gospel is powerfully manifest in servant leadership. 

I hope that you will reflect on these things. I trust that you will embrace them. I pray that you will enact them, for Christ’s sake. Amen.