Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World


Written by: on March 15, 2023

“Our task, as human beings, as human leaders, is…to grow up, to learn, through the experiences we are given, who we are – what it means to be courageous, what it is to serve, what it is to be loved and to love, what it is to be real, what it is to be fully human. Leadership is the activity, – any activity – that leads other people more deeply into this full humanity:  which enables them to take hold of, and take responsibility for, the life that they, as a unique, particular person within the created human race, have been given to live.”[1]

This season of Lent we are preaching through the Beatitudes using Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie’s book, Bless the Lives We Actually Have. I have struggled with this word, “blessed.” So overused and made trite on social media, #blessed, I wrestled with what to do with this word.

In Matthew, the beatitudes are not practical advice for successful living. I mean, who wants to be poor in spirit or in mourning? Who wants to be described as meek? Perhaps worst of all, who wants to be persecuted? And yet, it is precisely when we are at the end of our rope, when we are stooped low, when all of the defenses we use to protect ourselves from pain or failure of any kind are thwarted and overcome, that God has a chance of picking us up, holding us close, and whispering, “I love you no matter what. In fact, there is nothing you can do or fail to do that will change my love for you.” We are blessed.

As a response to the Assurance of Grace (or pardon, depending on your tradition) I asked the congregation if they would turn to one another and declare, “God loves you no matter what!” instead of the traditional response, “Peace be with you. And also with you.” Whew! Did I receive some push back! They did not want to “force” God’s love on anyone and felt that saying such a phrase would put people off.

While I appreciated their sensitivity to the comfort level of those sitting next to them in worship, I wondered if underneath the push-back a deep sense of God’s love being conditional based on their behavior. This particular congregation had a long history of being quite transactional in the community and amongst their own interactions. I had to believe that their own beliefs about God’s love influenced how they interacted and lived, and why they couldn’t bring themselves to tell others that God loves them “no matter what.” (To be fair: I was trying a lot of new things on this congregation and this could have simply been the straw that broke the camel’s back.)

In Simon Walker’s book, Leading Out of Who You Are, Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, he writes, “The idea of undefended leadership is that we are secured not by our skills and resources but by our attachment to another – one who is big enough not to be overwhelmed by our failures and weaknesses.” [2] Of course, when Walker refers to the “one who is big enough” he is referring to God as “human relationships are simply not big enough, nor strong enough, nor true enough to give us a proper sense of perspective, a proper sense of ourselves.”[3] I think Friedman might refer to this as the “undifferentiated self” in that we are not caught up in the anxiety or beliefs of others but are able to take a stand because we know who we are and Whose we are.[4] In contrast, all of those skills and resources we use in leadership or life in general, are defenses we use to prop ourselves up, to hide the reality of our lives, or as Walker says, our “backstage.” And while they may work for a time, at some point the curtain will be drawn back, and our “backstage life”[5] with all its “struggles and unmet needs and unresolved problems”[6] will come front and center. This may sound scary and awful. Who wants their dirty laundry aired or their secret lives made public? But this, is when Jesus says, God sees us, God works in us, God blesses us.

The story of the “sinful” woman who pours perfume on Jesus’ feet is told in various ways in all four gospels. In Luke’s gospel she slips into the crowded room, finds Jesus’s feet as he reclines at the table of Simon, the Pharisee, and begins to cry. Big, wet tears, enough to require her to use her hair to wipe up the water from Jesus’ feet. She then starts kissing his feet and pouring her perfume on them. Her actions are met with disgust from Simon, the host. “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”(Luke 7:39 NRSVUE)

Jesus turns to the woman and says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? Do you see the way she loves? Look at her!” (Luke 7:47 NRSVUE)

Here was a woman, probably a prostitute, who when at the end of her rope, the end of herself, had experienced the love and forgiveness of God. She was blessed. In turn, she sought out Jesus to express her gratefulness and love to him.

“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little.”[7]

According to Walker, this woman became an undefended leader. She received great love and grace, cultivated this generous source of approval from God,[8] and gave it back to Jesus and to the world. In doing so, she leads us.

This book made me wonder if my role as a pastor, if the role of all pastors, is to lead our congregations into undefended leadership even as we are trying to dismantle all that keeps our own leadership defended. It’s not an easy task. In fact, it is probably a life-long task and one that we will never fully accomplish. But, even in being able to admit that we will not ever fully become undefended, brick by brick we are dismantling the walls that defend us.

Our full humanity, the joy and sorrow, the successes and failures, all of life is a gift. It is our job as leaders to “see that truly”[9] and in our gratefulness and wonder lead others into seeing and living it.

[1] Walker, Simon P., Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, Carlisle: Piquant Editions, 2007. 154

[2] IBID, 103.

[3] IBID, 105.

[4] Friedman, Edwin H., Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal. A Failure of Nerve

[5] Walker, Simon P., Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership, Carlisle: Piquant Editions, 2007. 27

[6] IBID

[7] IBID, 47.

[8] IBID, 117.

[9] IBID, 124.

About the Author

Kally Elliott

Mom of four. Wanna-be Broadway star. PC(USA) pastor. Wife. Friend. Sometimes a hot mess. Sometimes somewhat together. Is this supposed to be a professional bio?

5 responses to “#Blessed”

  1. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Kally, You highlighted the following statement from Walker,“The idea of undefended leadership is that we are secured not by our skills and resources but by our attachment to another – one who is big enough not to be overwhelmed by our failures and weaknesses.” Considering Bowlby’s attachment theory, I am wondering about the impact of a leaders attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized on the ability to remain undefended. The more securely attached we are the better we are going to be able to differentiate and practice undefended leadership. I am curious about what I need to be aware of within myself in working towards improving my undefended leadership! Any thoughts?

    • Kally Elliott says:

      “The more securely attached we are the better we are going to be able to differentiate and practice undefended leadership.”

      While I didn’t have leadership in mind at the time I remember when my kids were infants and toddlers how important it was to me that they knew I was there for them and that their needs would be met. (Of course, it is STILL important to me that they know I am there for them and their needs are met now that they are older.) Having been a Human Development major in college I understood attachment theory, etc and while that may have influenced my parenting something inside me just knew that if my kids became securely attached to me and to my husband in their early days they would grow into more secure and independent adults. The jury is still out as only one of them is now an adult – the rest are teens or pre-teen but I think my adult child turned out pretty well. He still has some growing, evolving, and learning who he is to do but he is on the right path!

      I say all that because I really do believe that the more securely attached we are in infanthood/young childhood, the better able we are to become undefended in our adult years. I think it is a matter of believing that you are loved and supported no matter what. Love and support for you will be unconditional giving you permission to mess up, make a fool of yourself, fail, and STILL be loved and valued. It doesn’t mean that messing up and failing is easy for you, but one who was securely attached in childhood is probably going to be more resilient in adulthood. You can be undefended because your weaknesses or vulnerabilities do not have the last word about you.

      I don’t know if it is the same for you but I am finding that I have to quiet my inner-critic in order to become an undefended leader. My inner-critic loves to tell me I shouldn’t have said something, I might fail, I need to quit talking, I am too much, I am not enough, etc, leading to me “defending” myself. When I can soothe that inner-critic and/or tell her to be quiet, I can hear the louder voice of God telling me I am loved no matter what and therefore safe to be myself and lead in the way I am made to lead.

  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    Kally, can you shed a bit more light on what it looks like for a congregation to be “quite transactional in the community and amongst their own interactions?” I do agree that the term “bless” (or blessed) is used so much that the meaning and significance gets lost. And even when we talk about being a “blessing to our community,” that phrase requires much more explanation. I wonder if there is a two-sided chart to be made — one column would be examples of ways churches are transactional in their communities and the other side would be ways that a church actually do/can be a blessing, not for applause or for finding approval from the community…but simply because congregants are operating from a deep attachment to God.

  3. Kally Elliott says:

    Yes! Yes, to to the two sided chart. That was a helpful visual for me (even if it wasn’t literally visual) to try to explain what I meant by being “transactional.”

    When I referred to the church being “quite transactional in the community and amongst their own interactions” I was thinking about the ways they seemed to always be seeking to find ways to make another dollar and/or keeping track of what one person did for another. To be fair, we were in New York, where the cost of living was high, the church’s operating budget was always stretched beyond their limits, and many of the congregants were retired, living on a small pension. There was also a culture of transaction within that particular community. I’ll do for you with the expectation that you will then do for me.

    At the time – and I want to emphasize that I was new to being a pastor in a brand new context that I didn’t understand well so I was making one assumption and mistake after another – but it did not seem to me that they were operating out of a deep attachment to God. There was a lot of judgment and criticism in that church community. There was also a lot of fear about change, not having enough, growing old, dying. God seemed to be in, in the minds and hearts of many, someone who kept track of their wrongs, shook a finger at them, demanded proper behavior, etc.

    Again, I was pretty inexperienced and full of myself going into that pastorate so I may be the one who was making the assumptions. And you know what they say when you “assume”….

  4. Adam Harris says:

    I have struggled with this word, “blessed.” I am with you here! I’ve tried my best to change my language to “fortunate” rather than blessed after diving into these passages a few years ago as a reminder. Nothing about Jesus’ use of blessed has anything to do with how it is used today (usually materials and stuff). Jesus turned normal values on their head with the Beatitudes.

    Love your thoughts on leading others into undefended leadership. That is something this book challenged me in and gave me permission to do. Be more vulnerable.

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