to be a follower, instead

Before I took my last job with the Church of the Brethren, Inc., I worked with both my therapist and a clergy coach to discern whether or not taking the job – managing a creative, innovative program that I got to help envision, fund and create – would be worth the constant attempts at silencing my voice that I knew would accompany the role.

I knew that those attempts at silencing would happen because I’d been a part of the Church of the Brethren denominational work for over a decade, by then, and had experienced my fair share of being told to sit down, shut up, try to say things less FORCEFULLY. I knew it would happen, and I took the job anyway.

Not one month in, I tweeted in frustration about a week’s worth of national news filled with straight white men who had abused their power in ugly, violent, horrendous ways. Another angry young white man had committed a mass shooting. A governor was trying to explain why he wore blackface in college. And *both* the Baptists and the Catholics were reckoning with decades’ worth of turning blind eyes to their clergy sexually assaulting and abusing the people in their care.

“The news this week,” I tweeted, “mostly makes me feel like straight white men should be banned from a) owning guns b) being clergy and c) governing any.thing.”

The ensuing outrage isn’t worth detailing. What is worth saying is that, despite the insistence that I publicly apologize for this public expression of emotion, despite the years of being told I needed to be more courteous toward straight white men’s feelings, despite the conversations both voluntary and required of me listening to how hurtful this tiny tweet was to so many angry straight white men, today I feel even MORE strongly that straight white men shouldn’t be in charge. Of anything.

[Here’s your chance, angry trolls: take that sentence, copy it, paste it, stoke the fires of outrage all you want. I don’t have a boss you can call up, now. There’s no one assigned to “keep me in line” or forcefully suggest I issue a public apology any more.]

Here’s the thing: it’s not just straight white men who shouldn’t be in charge, though in the social hierarchy of American life, those guys always end up at the top of the pile. Over the last few years, I have begun to learn the truth of Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is where the last are first and the first are last. I am learning about what it means for us to take seriously Jesus’ self-emptying posture in Philippians 2 – instead of taking his privilege as something to be exploited, he emptied himself and became a servant.

The more I listen and learn from people who have occupied rungs on the American social hierarchical ladder that are lower than the one where I got plopped down, the more I know what I do not know. The contours of my ignorance are becoming clearer. To be like Jesus means to give up power and privilege, to make space for the leadership of the marginalized, to willingly submit to the wisdom and life experience of people who have systematically and historically been shut out from formal leadership in formal structures.

In the Church of the Brethren, those people have been women, people of color, and queer folks – an incomplete list of the people who, failing to be born straight white men, have not been ushered complimentarily into positions of power and influence. If I want to follow Jesus, then I need to learn to submit to the authority of those whom society ostracizes, oppresses and harms. If the Church wants to look like Christ, then the Church needs to figure out how to do this, too.

That means naming the fact that the Church of the Brethren has, historically and systematically, excluded women, people of color and queer folk from both positions of leadership and decision-making power. It means not freaking the fork out when someone – like me – says that out loud.

It means voluntarily giving up positions of power in order to make room for others who have been less welcomed or represented, but it also means listening intently to the changes that those folks tell us need to happen in order for our structures and systems to stop doing so much god-forsaken HARM to God’s own beloved children, our own beloved siblings.

I don’t think straight white men should be in charge of much of anything. I also don’t think that I, a straight white woman, should, either. I think that those of us who have inhabited positions of privilege and power should follow Jesus’ example and command and learn to submit ourselves to the wisdom, authority and leadership of the people we’ve cut off and cast out for so long.

For decades, I was groomed for church leadership. But I actually want to learn how to follow – to follow the lead of the queer people in the Church of the Brethren whose persistent witness to their own worthiness and belonging shines with holiness; to follow the example of Black Brethren who keep combining anabaptism and liberation in ways that are grounded in lived realities; to follow the faithfulness of Latinx and Spanish-speaking Brethren whose discipleship is so rich and broad that it cannot be confined to a single language; to follow the resilience of the women who have been forced out for telling the truth, whose witness has been rejected but not destroyed.

So, I’m trying, these days, to shrug off the titles and assumptions of “leadership.” I’m learning – slowly, fitfully, two steps backward for every one ahead – to be a follower, instead.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?


  1. Zeke · September 21, 2021

    It’s sometimes called servant leader, a concept foreign to most in leadership


  2. Frances R Townsend · September 21, 2021

    Excellent! Thank you! There is a lot to think about here.


  3. kathiekurtz · September 22, 2021

    I think it is especially challenging for those of us who feel like we have had to push against the structure and put up with a lot of discounting to recognize our privilege, but we have it–in spades,


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