Simon Walker‘s The Undefended Leader trilogy defines a model of leadership of selflessness. He invites leaders first to acknowledge how one’s upbringing influences their style and default settings in leadership. He talks about the front stage and back stage aspect of leadership and how these two aspects are connected and how they influence the leader’s words and behaviors. He also argues for a form of leadership that involves sacrifice and self-emptying actions and behaviors. This comes from a place within us that is built and sustained by trust in one’s self and in others. Finally, he explores how individual leadership is connected to the actions and behaviors of societies as a whole.In reading the books, I began to take a deeper look at the church and the ways the institution deals with many of the same leadership challenges. Churches often fall into the same traps as their key leaders. What if a church were to adopt an “undefended” mindset and learned to operate from a place of servanthood in its communities?
In my project research, I am exploring how our churches, government agencies, and community resource providers can better work together to serve the needs of those on the financial margins. Admittedly, my work began by focusing on what we are all doing and trying to identify the gaps and the places where more intentional collaboration could solve problems. I have not, as of yet, had any conversations with the people who actually utilize these services. It became clear that my work so far is merely perpetuating the primary liability in the system. That is, service providers see the people they serve as needy clients who require help and not as neighbors who have gifts and resources and insight of their own to contribute.
My own local congregation has historically thought of itself as a leader in the community. It was the first church established in our town. Many of the town’s most prominent leaders have been members of this church. It has been a place where business relationships and political alliances have been formed and nurtured. Many of the church’s most revered former pastors were “strong leaders” with memorable personalities and bold vision. The church’s identity is that of an historic and influential community presence.
A few weeks ago, our church had Rev. Michael Mather from Broadway UMC in Indianapolis at our church to speak in a lecture series. Mike is a key voice in Asset-Based Community Development, a model that seeks to create abundant community by beginning not with needs and limitations, but instead with assets and opportunities. In his book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, Mike writes about his church’s former practice regarding their food pantry. Clients of the food pantry were asked to complete a questionnaire asking about their income and expenses. Essentially, the church saw their food pantry clients as needy and itself as the source to help supply resources. A simple shift in philosophy changed the dynamic both for the church and its neighbors. Rather than focus on the client’s need, the church began by asking their neighbors about their resources.
They changed their questionnaire and added three important questions. 1) What three things do you do well enough that you could teach them to someone else? 2) What three things would you like to learn that don’t already know? 3) Who besides God and me (the interviewer) is going to go with you along the way? This shift allowed the church to begin to discover the giftedness and resourcefulness of the people in the neighborhood. For one woman in particular, it led her to starting her own catering business, with a mere $20 investment (used to print 500 business cards) from the church.
Had the church maintained a mentally of top-down, service-based ministry and outreach, this woman, and many like her, would have likely remained in a cycle of dependence. Because the church had not expressed an interest in knowing her gifts and because her receipt of the food in the food pantry had been based in her need, not her abilities, this well-intentioned program was creating an imbalance of power. By changing the questions and leading from a position of servanthood (instead of service provider) the church moved from being a provider of goods to clients to a partner that collaborated with its neighbors.
As I think about what my project might accomplish in my congregation and community, I am wrestling with the question of what would it look like for the church to adopt a more “undefended” posture? To be known as a place of humility and sacrifice for the sake of the people of our community? What practices would we be required to give up? What values might need revising? Is it even possible for a church with 139 years of history and tradition to consider moving from an image of power to embody humility and servant-leadership? Is it possible that the spirit of humble servanthood is already in our DNA, buried under layers of well-intentioned, but flawed leadership?
Our church has historically been very careful about what is seen and experienced on the front stage, while quite guarded about the back stage. In our internal efforts toward greater transparency and shared leadership, we hope to foster a greater sense of trust within the congregation. As we learn to do this, we might in time be able to drop the persona we have projected for so long and let our community see us for who we really are, strengths and flaws and all. If all our neighbors know of us is our façade, and if all we know of them is their need, there is no hope of a lasting mutual relationship. If we can learn to be real with one another, perhaps we will be able to form more fruitful friendships and work together to make life better for all people in our community.
I pray we have the courage to drop our defenses.
 Simon Walker, “Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership,” Book 1 of “The Undefended Leader” Trilogy, (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, 2007,) Kindle.
 Simon Walker, “Leading with Nothing to Lose: Training in the Exercise of Power,” Book 2 of “The Undefended Leader” Trilogy, (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, 2007,) Kindle.
 Simon Walker, “Leading with Everything to Give: Lessons from the Success and Failure of Western Capitalism,” Book 3 of “The Undefended Leader” Trilogy, (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, 2009,) Kindle.
 Michael Mather, “Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places,” (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018,) 14-17.