I have the great privilege each year of traveling with graduate students in our missional leadership program to Durham, NC, to spend some time with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the Rutba House new monastic community. This year, I invited Richard Beck to join me and help teach a class on Hospitality as Leadership. It was a rich experience for all of us. We experienced the hospitality of the Rutba House, and later in our week, the Cole Mill Rd. Church of Christ. Jonathan’s humble witness and powerful combination of practice and theology always make a deep impression on our students.
Toward the end of the week, I was making my way to a breakfast buffet when a young hispanic woman who was on the wait staff approached an older white woman who was seated and eating her breakfast. The young woman asked her if she could get the older woman anything. The older woman looked at her with contempt and said, “you can leave me alone. That’s what you can do for me.” I was stunned. The older woman later welcomed friends to join her table with smiles and cheerfulness, underlining her ugly encounter with the wait staff. It was jarring moment, but even more jarring given the experience of rich welcome we had received that week.
My hunch is that many people who think about congregational leadership would not list hospitality as part of the job description. But I want to argue that it might be the first act of Christian leadership. I think a crucial lens for understanding and embodying the Christian faith is power. How is power thought of and how is it embodied? We tend to think of power as “power over,” or the ability to control or manage outcomes or events. To that way of thinking, power is often seen as a negative category, and rightly so.
But the Christian faith is about power. A different kind of power. A power that subverts other forms of power and creates new possibilities. Things like humility and patience actually produce something in ways that pride and urgency don’t. These dispositions of the Spirit when embodied in Christian practices, like hospitality, do things, accomplish things, make things possible.
When leaders in Christian communities make room for others, things happen. Realities change. Lives are impacted. The Kingdom comes near to people’s lives. This likely won’t impress some who equate success with things that are more directly measurable, like numbers. The way of the Kingdom tends to fall more in the leaven and salt categories. The results are often indirect and complex. But they are powerful and create a way of being in which life can flourish.
I had to choke down my own disgust in the older woman that morning in Durham. It’s not hard to imagine the younger woman adding this encounter to a longer list of such encounters that build into resentment and diminishing trust. Her inhospitality divided the room. Making room for the other creates a different reality. It is a practice of Christian power.