A time to lead?
Queen Esther, newly installed in the Persian royal palace at Susa, is faced with a perilous decision. Should she risk incurring the wrath of the King by challenging his new law that would bring about the massacre of her people, or should she stay quiet to preserve her own life and so become complicit in the slaughter? Her uncle Mordecai was clear what her answer should be, spurring her to embrace the leadership potential of the situation: ‘Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ (Esther 4:14) As Esther’s courageous response is enacted, Mordecai’s wondering proves true; as far as the Jews displaced to Persia are concerned, Esther has indeed risen to influence for ‘just such a time as this’.
In the Septuagint, this phrase is translated using the Greek word kairos (καιρός) for ‘time’. The other Greek word for time, chronos (χρόνος), denotes chronological time, understood as a straightforward sequence of happenings. Kairos, in contrast, refers to a specific moment of opportunity, the recognition of which can bring about a successful denouement to the complex of chronologies that converge in it. For Christian theology, kairos is the time in which God acts decisively to establish the kingdom (Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς, Mark 1:15), the time in which human and divine history transformatively intersect.
The biblical narrative of Esther clearly sees her leadership as an example of kairos rather than chronos time. She did not simply happen to be Queen at that time, the successor to the unfortunate Queen Vashti, though of course that is an accurate statement in itself. Esther’s elevation as queen was not merely her time, chronologically, but also her time, understood as her kairos, when her particular history intersected with the prevailing complex of political and social chronologies to bring about a transformative denouement. Of course, from the point of view of Persian chroniclers, Esther may just have been another in the long line of royal consorts; but from the perspective of divine history, her chronos was kairos, the ‘right’ time.
This episode draws attention to the timeliness of leadership. What might be termed the ‘leadership moment’ is a product not merely of the skills and abilities of the leader, but also of the particular challenges and opportunities of time. The leader’s ability to ask and answer the question, ‘What time is it?’, is critical.
The importance of time has a firm, if often overlooked, theological basis. Karl Barth helped to nudge theology’s attention back to time, from a rather unhealthy preoccupation with eternity. Time, according to Barth, ‘is the form of creation in virtue of which it is definitely fitted to be a theatre for the acts of divine freedom.’ (Church Dogmatics II.1, 465) While the common misconception persists that Christian faith seeks to shake off time in order to embrace a timeless eternity, theology after Barth recovers time as an aspect of God’s good creation. Far from being a barrier to God’s interaction with humanity, time is in fact the ‘theatre’ of that interaction.
As theological Robert Jenson asserts: ‘God does not create a world that thereupon has a history; he creates a history that is a world.’ (Systematic Theology Volume 2, 14) The flipping of the order is enormously significant, and, for our purposes, illuminatingly instructive. The universe is not to be conceived as a collection of things, which must be coaxed from their natural inertia by positive leadership; rather, the universe is a complex collection of stories, which may be either rhymed together or told apart, according to the skill and insight of whoever happens to be lead narrator at any particular moment. Insofar as it is God who narrates the history of the world, the goal of such narration will be consistent with God’s revealed character, a ‘perfect harmony’ between our life and God’s, between ‘created time’ and ‘triune time’, between the varied stories of the universe, and the story of Father, Son and Spirit that God is. Insofar as it is we who narrate any particular segment of the world’s story, we may either expose or obscure God’s ‘metanarrative’ depending on how we choose to narrate the strands that converge in the moment of our leadership.
Time for Wesleyan leadership
All this can be read appropriately as a Wesleyan conception of leadership. For a start, John Wesley was keenly aware that the Methodist movement inhabited a particular kairos. In a letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury on 15 September 1790, discussing the doctrine of full sanctification, John Wesley noted:
This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.
Here, holiness and leadership – or leadership in holiness, the promotion of sanctification – are seen by Wesley as the core tasks of Methodism’s kairos. The future of the movement appeared to be of far less significance to Wesley than its commitment to its divine calling to give transparent witness to the power of sanctifying grace, as evidenced in the familiar quote from his ‘Thoughts on Methodism’:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.
Furthermore, Wesley’s organisational axioms – from the Rules for his Helpers to the questions for class and band members – were directed towards the formation of timely holiness, in the sense that it was responsive to and appropriate for the particular circumstances in which it was enacted. Leadership, in early Methodism, was not mere faithfulness to an inherited tradition, but rather faithful innovation on that tradition to meet the challenges of the kairos.
Part of the founding conviction of Wesley House, Cambridge, is that a Wesleyan form of leadership in the church and the world is not a luxury, but a necessity. This is not because of any peculiar monopoly that Wesleyan theology has on leadership; however, if indeed God raised up the Methodist movement with a ‘grand depositum’ to ‘propogate’, then we are only being faithful to our vocation if the Wesleyan voice of leadership is heard clearly in both church and society.
The latest issue of our free online journal, Holiness, explores the theme of leadership through a variety of articles, reflections, devotionals and reviews. One article records a lively conversation between the staff and students of Wesley House, exploring the notion of ‘curating leadership’, drawn from a recently published book by Vaughan Roberts and David Sims. The international community that gathers week by week at Wesley House to pray and study brought unique insights to this notion, and, as the article states in conclusion, curation as a leadership tool ‘is essential for all leadership today, if the church is to be self-aware, globally-conversant, and open to the many gifts that God gives through others.’ Learning to ‘curate’ – bring together – people and situations, Scripture and Spirit in transformative ways is a peculiarly Wesleyan contribution to leadership. Perhaps it is still ‘for such a time as this’ that we, as Methodists, continue in existence, sustained by God’s grace.
Questions for reflection:
- How does thinking about ‘timeliness’ challenge or change your assumptions about leadership? Do you think that leadership is dependent on the ‘time’ in which it is offered? Or do you think leadership is somehow ‘eternal’?
- Can you think of an example of leadership where the leader has ‘rhymed together’ God’s time and human time? Was this rhyming harmonious or discordant?
- If you are a leader, are there ways you can listen to the perspectives of the global Wesleyan tradition? It might be that reading articles from Holiness is a good first step.
- How might the timely rhyming of ‘people and situations, Scripture and Spirit’ affect the way you pray today?
The Revd Dr Andrew Stobart is Director of Research at Wesley House, Cambridge, and Commissioning Editor of Holiness, Wesley House’s international journal for Wesleyan scholarship.
This article was first published in the Methodist Recorder on 19th October 2018