Friday, January 3, 2020

Robert K. Greenleaf, Intersectionality, and the UMC in 2020

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Before my current work with Global Ministries, I served as Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College in Ripon, WI. In the Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership part of my job, I was tasked with promoting practices associated with the philosophy of servant leadership as set forth by Robert K. Greenleaf.

Greenleaf was an idiosyncratic thinker, and there are portions of his writings that clearly reflect his mid-twentieth century US context. Yet, there are portions of his thinking that have enduring value, and servant leadership is one of the main paradigms within the contemporary field of servant leadership.

The term "servant" leadership has been critiqued by women and people of color as potentially reinforcing traditional serving and servile roles for those parts of the population. While those concerns are legitimate, I believe servant leadership can function as a significant critique of white men and others who have traditionally held power (and others who currently hold it). The paradigm of servant leadership does this through its insistence that leaders consider first the impact of their actions on others, not how they can benefit themselves through their positions.

In this way, the model of servant leadership follows the example of Jesus' relationship to power, especially as set forward in Philippians 2:4-8:

4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Greenleaf, in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, laid out this test of servant leadership: “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"

These two questions - How will others benefit from your leadership? What is the impact of your leadership on the least privileged or most oppressed? - are questions we should ask all our leaders.

Yet there is a complication in the second question, one that is highlighted in the concept of intersectionality. There are multiple forms or dimensions of privilege. Wealth, education, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, nationality, tribe, religion, formal position, and a host of other factors can confer advantages to individuals and groups. Thus, the process of determining who is the "least privileged in society" is not a straight-forward one.

This is particularly true when one takes a global denomination such as The United Methodist Church as one's society. There are multiple groups within such a large and heterogeneous body that enjoy privileges denied to others, and conversely, there are many groups that are discriminated against or oppressed relative to others.

Much of the current discourse within United Methodism has focused on the oppression of LGBTQ persons, who are denied marriage and ordination relative to straight, cis-gendered persons. This is certainly a legitimate application of Greenleaf's test: How can our actions as a denomination benefit, or at least not further deprive, LGBTQ persons?

Yet, there are other oppressed groups in the church as well. A pregnant woman in Mozambique who must walk 15 miles to a hospital is also disadvantaged relative to Westerners who have (in general) much more abundant access to healthcare. An undocumented immigrant in the United States is marginalized relative to US citizens and does not have the same legal protections that they do. Indigenous peoples, whether in the Philippines, United States, Norway, or elsewhere, face social and sometimes legal stigmas not encountered by majority society. The applications of Greenleaf's second test are multiple because of the intersectional nature of privilege and oppression.

There are several unhelpful ways to respond to this complexity of power and privilege. One is to try to assert that the oppression of other groups does not matter relative to the oppression of one's own. Another is to assert that, since it is impossible to benefit all oppressed groups, the system should be left as it is, with its current set of privileges preserved.

The most helpful path of leadership in the face of these various moral claims, and probably the most difficult, is for leaders to listen to as many groups as possible and consider the impacts of their actions on as many groups as possible, in the process resisting simple or quick answers.

This is my wish for the UMC in 2020, especially as we head toward General Conference 2020: that those who are exerting leadership and making decisions as delegates, as denominational officials, and as caucus leaders behind the scenes might embrace Greenleaf's test in all its complexity.

I pray that they may consider not just how the plans and proposal they promote will benefit themselves and their constituencies, but that they may consider the impacts on the "least privileged" in whatever form they might present themselves: the transgender person in Norway, the malarial mother in the Congo, the immigrant congregation in the US, the war refugee in Germany, the potentially suicidal lesbian teen in the US, the future generations of the church everywhere who are not yet included in its decision-making.

Each of these groups has a moral claim on the leadership that our delegates, bishops, and others will exert throughout the coming year. There are no easy answers for how to handle these at times competing moral claims. But the answers we do arrive at will be better if we accept this moral challenge and recognize the complexity that lies therein.

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