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Leadership Burdens (Part I)

April 23, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Galatians 6:2, 5 (NIV)

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Each one should carry their own load.

Focus

How might we as leaders learn to carry our own load?

Devotion

“Teach us to care and not to care.” So ends Ash Wednesday, the famous conversion poem of the English poet, T.S. Eliot.

The first part of Eliot’s memorable phrase reminds us that the Christian faith challenges human beings to care about one another. In today’s biblical text, the Apostle Paul calls us to love others in the same way that Jesus’ loved the world. In the specific context of his letter to the Galatians, this means being willing to bear other people’s failures and to help them in their restoration (6:1). “In this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Sari-clad woman in Mysore, India, balancing a basket of chikoo on her head.

Sari-clad woman in Mysore, India, balancing a basket of chikoo on her head.

But surprisingly, and as the latter part of Eliot’s quote suggests, Paul also emphasizes the importance of each person carrying their own burden, “their own load.” So how do we reconcile the tension between dealing with other people’s burdens and our own? And how do we address the distinctive challenge of leadership, where we are, in many cases, responsible for the burdens others carry? To turn Eliot’s phrase, how do we learn to carry and not to carry the burden of others?

To begin with, it’s helpful to think about the word “burden” itself. Instinctively for me at least, the word brings up negative images, suggesting something that weighs people down in a bad way. That’s certainly one way “burden” is meant in Scripture, as for example, when people’s sins are described as a burden that they must carry.

Nevertheless, “burden” can also refer to something good that is substantive and therefore “weighty.” That’s how Paul uses the same word found in our text today when he talks about our suffering: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Corinthians 4:17 NRSV, emphasis mine). Paradoxically then our burdens can be both a negative and a positive thing. That is important as we think about how we relate as leaders to our own and to other’s burdens.

In these reflections, I want to consider three questions from a leadership perspective: (1) What burdens are we to carry for ourselves? (2) What burdens are we to carry for others? and (3) What about the burdens that we place on others?

To begin with, there are the burdens that are ours to carry alone. The worlds in which I work as a leader have seen significant movement towards more participative leadership. For the most part, that’s been a good thing and one that reflects the importance and dignity of the people we lead. However, our evolving commitment toward a more egalitarian style of leadership may obscure the importance of the responsibility that belongs to (and must be carried by) certain individuals or small groups who are called to serve the community through their leadership. That is a “burden” that is theirs alone to carry.

So, what might that burden consist of and how might we benefit those we serve by carrying it? I can think of at least three practical examples:

First, while group discernment – usually done by seeking out many differing perspectives – is almost always helpful, decision-making is a more solitary act for those in leadership. Confusing the two can lead to organizational turmoil, if not paralysis, which serves everyone badly. This is especially true when decisions are difficult.

Second, the role of leaders is to help organizations focus and not become distracted. In every institution I’ve been a part of, there are always many competing things – many good things – that vie for the attention of those we lead. And attention is not only the currency of leadership, but also the currency of everyone in an organization. Focusing people’s attention on what is important is a particular burden for leaders to carry to help avoid organizational dissipation.

Finally, especially in times of uncertainty, providing clarity is an essential responsibility for leaders. As Max De Pree famously said, the first task of leadership is to define reality. Providing that kind of clarity can take many forms. Even simply clarifying expectations of how certain decisions will be made, i.e., who has the responsibility for making which decisions, is helpful for defining the reality of how an organization is to function together.

Providing focus and clarity, and when necessary, making courageous decisions are all aspects of the unique burden of leadership. Serving others well means owning those responsibilities ourselves for the sake of the well-being of those we lead.

We will turn to how we are to relate to the burdens of those we lead in tomorrow’s reflection. For now, take some time to engage the following questions and actions.

Reflect

In what ways do you see your work of leadership as a burden? In what ways is that a negative and / or a positive thing for you?

Act

Look for ways to provide focus and clarity for those you lead in this coming week.

Pray

Lord Jesus Christ,

I am grateful that your teaching provides essential clarity and focus for our lives. You, who have come not to be served but to serve, model for us how we are to live and to lead those entrusted into our care.

Grant me grace by your Spirit to be courageous to take on the most difficult of decisions, including others and engaging them in the process of discernment, but being willing to stand alone when necessary. Help me to do this not just to be right but to serve your people well.

I ask this for their wellbeing and for your glory. Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Working for the Good of Others (Galatians 6:1–10)


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