Know Your Purpose

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When Rabbi Noah, Rabbi Mordecai’s son, assumed the succession after his father’s death, his disciples noticed that there were a number of ways in which he conducted himself differently than his father, and asked him about this. “I do just as my father did,” Rabbi Noah replied. “He did not imitate, and I do not imitate.” (Kurtz and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, Bantam, 1993) Fundamentally, leadership is having a clear sense of who we are and where we are going, and relating to our followers out of ourselves. The best leaders are themselves in their role, rather than imitating other leaders or looking to their followers for their primary cues. They know who they are and what their purpose is.

Leadership requires managing the delicate balance between knowing our own clear purpose and managing our relationships with those we lead.

Finding your purpose in ministry is not a to-do item you can complete and check off the list, but an ongoing process of discernment. Purpose involves more than one level of our life and work. It includes big questions such as: What am I on this planet for? Who am I, and what are my best gifts? And it also involves some shorter term questions: What is my purpose in my role in this ministry? Where am I headed right now, and what do I need to do to get there?

Now, what happens when we enter the pulpit or the board meeting, or even sit down at the family dinner table? Leadership requires managing the delicate balance between individuality (knowing our own clear purpose) and togetherness (managing our relationships with those we lead). This is true for all leaders, from the family house to the White House. And as we get clear, others will respond. An old saying goes, “If it’s foggy in the pulpit, it’s damned cloudy in the pews.”

When we look to others, whether they be other leaders or our own followers, as our primary guides, we are borrowing our purpose from them, rather than looking within or to God. We borrow our purpose from others when the denomination suggests a program or goal and we sign on for it because we are a loyalist. We borrow our purpose when we say to our followers, “Where do you want to go? I’ll lead you there.” Others will always be glad to tell us what our purpose is and who we ought to be, so that our purpose becomes serving other people’s agendas.

As we determine our purpose, we need to pursue it, but that does not mean we get everything we want. We don’t take our primary cue from others, but we do have to pay attention to feedback. If people know we are open to hearing what they have to say, and that we will adapt as necessary along the way, our message will get a better reception. The Reverend J. Edwin Bacon, Jr., rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, describes the leadership process this way: “It starts with being clear about where you end and somebody else begins. You get clear about what you believe, and express that in a differentiated and inviting way.” As important as it is to know our purpose, leadership only occurs when we actually speak about our purpose to others who can then choose to follow.

The Reverend James Lamkin, pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, says that he often fools himself into thinking he has outgrown the Serenity Prayer, originally composed by Reinhold Niebuhr: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Lamkin suggests, “The serenity prayer is about willfulness. To accept the things I cannot change means I can’t change history and I can’t change other people. Then, the courage to change the things I can change means me.” One of the gifts that his congregation has given him in twelve years is the realization that he cannot will the congregation into his goals, so his most important task is to focus on himself: his clarity, his own functioning as leader of the congregation.

Articulating our purpose to our followers must always go along with letting go of the outcome, and with an ongoing effort to build relationships. Finding our voice means that we say, steadily and over time, what our most important principles are and where we are going, inviting others to come along. Make a plan for what you want to say and when and how to say it. And remember these words from Luke’s gospel: “No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light” (8:16).

Here are five questions to consider in thinking about your own leadership:

  1. What energizes me?
  2. Where do I need to clarify my own thinking?
  3. Where do I need to define myself more clearly?
  4. Where have I been pushing too hard? How could I step back?
  5. How long am I willing to work on this project (whatever it is)?

    This material is from Margaret’s book Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Seabury Books, 2009) and used with permission of the publisher, Church Publishing Inc., New York.

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About Author

Margaret Marcuson

Margaret Marcuson is an ordained American Baptist minister, a leadership consultant, and an author. She offers a way pastors can bring their best to their ministry without giving it all away, so they can have a greater impact and find more satisfaction. Get her six top strategies for creating an energized and sustained ministry at margaretmarcuson.com.


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