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Servant Leadership and Forgiveness

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

by Terry Harman

My wife Kim has been a source of encouragement and support for many years. Encouraging me to stretch myself and step outside my comfort zone, and move into leadership roles, believing in me when I did not believe in myself, being a sounding board when I needed an ear, providing feedback when I was off track. She brings out the best in me. I love her deeply and I am fortunate to have her serve alongside me.

A “Leader will be willing to accept ultimate accountability, to take upon themselves the risk to succeed or to fail and to assume all responsibility for any and all failure of their own doing and those serving under them. Such an individual is willing to admit failure when appropriate, painful as it may be to do.”

Adapted from The Heartbreak of Failed Leadership by an anonymous author.

This blog closes with a prayer I offered before a congregation I served during a period of conflict and transition. I share it here, in a humble effort to encourage leaders to be vulnerable enough to admit when we are wrong and to be willing to ask for help and forgiveness when relationships are bruised.

Servant Leadership

Being a leader in business is not an easy task. Being a servant leader of a congregation is more difficult to navigate. In business you have employees who are rewarded for their labor with a paycheck, titles, benefits, and annual performance reviews.

Volunteers on the other hand, do not receive wages or benefits. Volunteers do not necessarily care about titles and do not receive annual performance reviews. Volunteers choose to follow the servant leader because they sense a partnership with the leadership team and intrinsically believe in the mission of the organization. Volunteers yearn to be part of something bigger than themselves and desire to make a difference in the world in which they live in.

Like businesses, congregations are made up of people. People with differing personalities, backgrounds, strengths, areas for improvement, gifts, talents, and a variety religious experiences. We must remind ourselves that being a human is hard. Being a member of a faith community requires taking the risk of being misunderstood and being bruised.

I read the following quote from Rabbi Rachel Greengrass in her synopsis of Pesachim 64: The Doors Wouldn’t Close On Him. If you want to read the entire article it may be found at:

“Rabbi Yehudah reminds us that people are complex. The same person who is capable of prejudice and nasty barbs can also be a person full of wisdom and fear of God . . . We are all both flawed and prejudiced and we all also have capacity for great wisdom and kindness. Rabbi Yehudah reminds us that excommunication – cancelling – is not the answer to this complexity. He invites us to ask ourselves: how do we learn to reprove and call out misdeeds without cancelling? How do we reproach with love to invite change instead of distance?”

Some members of our communities of faith continued the faith of their childhood into adulthood. Others became disconnected from the community of faith and left for a time. On the one hand people have fond memories of Sunday School. On the other hand, others bare the wounds of negative experiences from their childhood.

Too often, the hurt came through negative experiences of growing up in the church or synagogue. Despite the feeling disconnected, baring emotional wounds, many return to the community of faith hoping and praying this time the community experience will fill the missing piece in their life. Some settle in and decide to serve because they are searching for purpose, meaning and spiritual fulfillment.

Those who serve as clergy, congregation leaders, board members or other roles must prepare for the ups and downs of congregational life. Any day can bring the joy of accomplishment as well as the disappointment of misunderstanding or failure. From the high point of everything going well to the downside when you doubt your leadership and are uncertain of whether you have said or done anything right that day!

When congregational strife occurs within the community it is natural to examine what you could have said or done to prevent the misunderstandings. It is common to question your own leadership skills even when others are supportive of what you say and do. At the end of the day someone must step up to the plate, take responsibility and hit the reset button for the health of the congregation. It is not easy being a servant leader. If leading was easy, everyone would do it.

A Leader’s Prayer for Forgiveness

It has been said:

“If you are at the Temple to give your offering at the altar of burnt sacrifice, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your gift at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person.

Then come back and offer your sacrifice to God.”

Lord, these words are too difficult to say!

Surely you understand why these two words are hard to say!

Surely you know the reason!

Lord, the reason is not that hard to understand.

If I say it, I might not say it right.

If I say it, I might be misunderstood.

If I say it, I might make it worse.

If I say it, that means I am wrong.

Lord we are human . . .

we have the tendency to think, that most of the time,

if not, all the time, we are always right in what we say and do!

And when we are wrong and admit we are wrong and say, “I’m sorry,”

Too often these words come from our lips and not our hearts.

This past year has been revealing . . . This past year has been painful.

This past year I have not measured up.

At times, I have failed you, my family of faith.

I am torn by my leadership shortcomings,

. . . yet you are my spiritual family.

I am uncomfortable laying bear my soul before you.

. . . yet you are my spiritual family.

I am apprehensive with the words that are welled up within my heart.

. . . yet you are my spiritual family.

I stand before you this evening . . . to say from my heart,

to our clergy,

to the Executive Committee,

to the Board of Trustees,

to any individual members of our faith community

I have not already spoken to,

to my wife who patiently stands by me

I am sorry for any injuries, pain or hurts,

I caused you this past year.

I am without excuse.

I ask for your forgiveness.

Moving forward it is my intention to sincerely work hard . . .

to seek counsel, rather than counsel

to understand, rather than be understood

to listen rather than be heard

to let go rather than to hang on,

to respond rather than react

to speak gently rather than harshly.

I share these words . . .

Because you, asked me to serve.

Because I have asked you.

Because the future of our community is at the crossroads.

Because the future of our community is at stake.

Because the health of my soul is at stake.

Because unforgiveness harms both the offender and the offended.

We have several paths on the horizon!

Each path leads to a different destination.

Each destination brings different challenges.

Each challenge requires different leaders.

I do not know . . . I am uncertain . . .

Where will the path lead?

How the challenge will be overcome?

Who the leaders will be?

So, I call for your time, talent, and treasure.

to those who can encourage to encourage.

to those who can visit to visit.

to those who can greet to greet

to those who can hold a door to hold the door.

to those who can stack chairs to stack chairs.

to those who can repair to repair.

to those who can teach to teach.

to those who can give to give.

to those who can lead to lead.

to those who can lead services to lead services.

to those who can sing to sing.

to those who can lead in prayer to lead in prayer

to those who can dream . . . join hands and dream with us.

to those who can forgive to forgive.

Lord, mend our hearts, our minds, and our souls.

Guide us to mend broken relationships.

Guide us to repair our community.

Guide us to navigate clear of bruises, hurts and wounds.

Guide us to release old resentments that strangle our souls.

Guide us to scrutinize our part in the squabble.

Even King Solomon, may have tossed and turned, on many a sleepless night.

After he encouraged the people to unify

After the people built the stone edifice for the Lord

After the people built the stone altar

After all the preparations for dedication were complete

After the people brought the sacrifices

Solomon stood at the altar and prayed . . .

for the presence of the Lord to dwell within the midst of the people.

And the Lord answered Solomon’s prayer with yet one more requirement:

“If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,

I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”

I began by sharing my internal struggle with, “the two most difficult words to say?” The two most difficult words to say: “I’m sorry.”

May I share with you . . . The three most powerful words someone yearns to hear from you and from me this night? The three most powerful words people yearn to hear from you and me this night?

“I forgive you!”

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