By Eddie Pipkin
On the passing of Queen Elizabeth, the news was filled with special coverage which reviewed her extraordinary life and 70-year reign. What stood out was the astonishing historical and cultural change that transpired during her time on the throne. She presided over a period of great turmoil and transition – and probably her most celebrated leadership characteristic was her unflappability: she remained a steady, calm, and comforting presence through it all. That’s not a bad characteristic for any leader to embody. Definitely for ministry leaders, who are notoriously called upon to navigate all manner of drama and crises, the queen’s demeanor and leadership style offer lessons to be learned (beyond the care and feeding of corgis).
I realize not everyone may be a fan of the monarchy, and Britain’s colonial heritage has left plenty of wreckage in its wake, but the queen herself was a beloved head of state who rose above politics to represent something lasting and honorable for her people. I thought this sense of what her reign meant was captured with thoughtful and artful wisdom by the BBC writer Jonny Dymund in this article: “Death of Elizabeth II: The Moment History Stops.” In it he makes the case that she, above all and despite flaws (since any human being has flaws), dedicated her life to service, and she never wavered in putting her duty to service first.
She, who with intuition beyond her years, pledged a life of service so many decades ago, made the monarchy the repository of much that the nation loved of itself.
She could do that because her character reflected much of what Britons like to think of as the best of themselves; modest, uncomplaining, thrifty, intelligent if not intellectual, sensible, feet-on-the-ground, unfussy, a dry sense of humour with a great big laugh, slow to anger and always well-mannered.
“I am the last bastion of standards,” she once said. She was not boasting of better manners or finer etiquette than others. She was explaining her role and her life. It was her life and her work to be the best of Britain. This was the service she gave.
It’s an inexact model for modern ministry leaders who must, by default, be in the middle of day-to-day details and must, by current cultural convention, share of themselves in a direct and often personal manner. But what a worthy goal for any of us in relation to any organization we lead (be it a church or a family), to be consistently representative of “the best of” that organization. Elizabeth’s reserve and default to a polite formality offer insights for those of us who serve others in ministry – and, frankly, any of us who call ourselves Christian disciples should be about the holy business of serving others selflessly in ministry (although the readership for this blog tends to be those who are professionally serving). Those who are called to ministry as a vocation should be particularly attuned to selfless service beyond our personal needs and desires: service that honors the sacred calling of sacrifice, that puts the needs of others above our own and the long-term needs of organizations above our momentary appetites for recognition, success, and accolades.
A steadying force in a time of turmoil is no small thing. As the Lord reassured a shaky and uncertain Joshua following the death of Moses:
“Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” (Joshua 1:9, KJV, since an out-of-the-ordinary nod to the good ol’ King James seems appropriate in this circumstance).
That verse is the epitome of the British reputation for “Keeping Calm and Carrying On.”
And humility in serving, even when we are possessed of great talent and substantial influence and power, is the watchword by which we serve. The example, as always, is the love-guided service of Christ, held up by Paul as the leadership example to the Philippians:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-7, NIV)
I am obviously not making an attempt to put the late Queen Elizabeth up on a pedestal equivalent with our Lord and Savior, but she was a woman of quiet and steadfast faith who had to lead from a very early age and relied on biblical guidance such as Paul’s words to direct her own approach to leadership.
Here are some of the characteristics that marked her approach to leadership during her record-breaking reign:
- She remembered and celebrated the values of the institution over the turmoil of any particular momentary crisis.
- She tried to keep things free of drama. (In this it was her children who undermined her, and it was the one area in which she truly struggled to figure out a modern path forward.)
- Even as she served front and center in the bright lights of media attention as the leader, she downplayed her own personal desires and concentrated on the institution she led and the people she served.
- She took her job seriously, but she never took herself too seriously.
- Even at her lowest moments and the times of her infrequent mistakes (most notably following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales), she carefully acknowledged those mistakes and pledged to do better – and she meant it.
We would all do well to promote a drama-free environment in our ministries, downplaying our own egos and desires, and attending to our duties with a humble heart and a profound sense of the sacred history and tradition we are working to carry forward into an uncertain and rapidly changing future. It is tempting to think of ourselves as the oh-so-special, God-ordained catalysts of change, of our talents as unique in a way that means we power over the voices of others. That was not the queen’s way: one of her first public utterances as a 25-year-old unexpectedly inheriting the weight of the crown was, “I cannot do this alone.”
A steady hand and calm, competent, drama-free leadership will continue to be essential for local congregations. Change was in the air for people of faith prior to the pandemic and the resulting chaos of 2020. The world was upended in those months and has yet to fully resettle. Conflict and tension abound, and denominations teeter on the brink of disunion and dissolution. Calm and quiet confidence are what we need.
Even as we make it through the impending upheaval of the next couple of years, the future of our faith will be intertwined with demographic and cultural shifts that show no sign of abating – if anything, they may well accelerate. This is the conclusion of a new study released last week by the Pew Research Center, “Modeling the Future of Religion in America.” The statistical modeling done by the folks at Pew has predicted the continuing decline of Christianity as the predominant faith identity of people who live in the United States. The “nones” will continue their rise, and the projection is that somewhere around 2070 the Christian majority will be no more:
The Center estimates that in 2020, about 64% of Americans, including children, were Christian. People who are religiously unaffiliated, sometimes called religious “nones,” accounted for 30% of the U.S. population. Adherents of all other religions – including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – totaled about 6%.1
Depending on whether religious switching continues at recent rates, speeds up or stops entirely, the projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, “nones” would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population.
The people in our pews feel the weight of this shift: what once was the dominant voice in the greater culture, our Christian heritage, is competing more and more on the political stage with other voices. We are struggling to figure out what our own voice is going to be in this next phase, and we will need leaders to calmly and competently shepherd us in discerning God’s call for how our we will respond as individuals of faith and representatives of a storied (for good and ill) institution.
The future is cloudy with uncertainty. The future is bright with hope.
We could do worse than take a few notes from the recently departed queen.