It felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me—as if with a single blow, everything in my life had become untethered. I had actually left full-time ministry. What was I thinking?
When I left my job as a youth director for a parachurch organization, the plan was to care for my infant son and pursue a writing career. But I didn’t realize how closely tied my identity as a Christian was to what I did in that role. And when I no longer held an important title or had a flock of followers looking to me for answers, I questioned if I’d ever been a real leader in the first place.
It was as though the everyday tasks that now defined my life no longer matched the characteristics of Christlikeness I’d long espoused as necessary, if not crucial, to the work of the church. I’d clung to outward attributes that garnered a round of applause for my giftedness—my ability to dazzle a crowd and rally the troops, all for the glory of God. But when it was just me and my baby boy alone in the silence? Who and what I’d always been called didn’t seem to match who I suddenly was.
Leader didn’t live in the mess of dirty diapers and spoon-fed meals; it didn’t seem to exist in the midst of Target runs and middle-of-the-night feedings, when the interruptions of parenthood often overwhelmed each of my perfectly laid plans.
My gut told me that there might be something different, in terms of what I’d always thought of Christian leadership and Jesus Himself. But where do you start when it feels as if everything you know has been turned upside down?
In Luke 10, a lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds rather indirectly, by answering the man’s question with another story: When a man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead by the side of the road, the very ones who should have responded in kindness do nothing of the sort. Instead, they cross to the other side of the road and continue on their way toward more important things.
Mercy isn’t measured by one’s giftedness in public speaking, writing, or business acumen, but by how generously one responds to the person in need.
Maybe that’s when the parallel between the story and my current situation first hit me: Christlike leadership is interruptible. After all, a merciful response always chooses the person over fame or adherence to a schedule. And wasn’t this what I did in motherhood now? I leaned into interruptions, whether I wanted to or not, responding to the needs of my son when he was hungry or wanted to play, when his bum needed cleaning or his body needed sleep. I leaned into the interruptions because the merciful part of me always chose to care for the one who couldn’t care for himself.
In his book Strength to Love, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says that the Good Samaritan, unlike the priest and the Levite, does not ask, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Instead, he asks, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Mercy thinks not of itself, but of the other, choosing to allot time, resources, and one’s very being for acts of selfless love. When this happens, mercy performs a great reversal of sorts, altogether redefining Christlike leadership. It subverts definitions of leadership composed by a culture of fame, money, and education. And it’s measured not by one’s giftedness in public speaking, writing, or business acumen, but by how generously one responds to the person in need.
In the gospels, Jesus’ power isn’t evident only in what He can do visibly—in how He’s able to manifest the outward, up-front gifts of leadership we so often value above all others in contemporary American churches. His authority was also—and perhaps primarily—visible to us in His demonstrations of mercy: in bent knees, through fingers that wrote in dust, and in a hearty invitation at the foot of the sycamore tree. His power showed in the way that mercy, flowing from perfect love, responded to the blind roadside beggar and the educated Pharisee alike. His power was in letting go of power itself.
But how does one grow in mercy? Though I don’t always know, I wonder if it begins when we come to terms with our own need for mercy and the way God continues to give it, even when we don’t seek it. I wonder if it starts with understanding ourselves as the ones in need of help—beaten, robbed, and left for dead by the ravages of sin. As for me, had I not leaned into the loss of institutional leadership, I would have missed out on the discovery of a lifetime—the truer and more Christlike leadership that comes with being a mother. I had to let go of my power. And in the end, that’s exactly where I needed to land.
Illustration by Eugenia Mello