Leading with Love — An In-Depth Interview with Elaine Robinson


Is your leadership so preoccupied with strategies and actions that you’ve lost sight of the ultimate why? In this interview, Elaine Robinson shares why love must be the foundation of all Christian leadership.

Listen to this interview, watch the interview video on YouTube, or continue reading.

Ann Michel: Your book, Leading with Love: Spiritual Disciplines for Practical Leadership, is grounded in the simple premise that the fundamental principle of Christian leadership must be love. Why do you think a focus on love is so often missing from other discussions of church leadership?

Elaine Robinson: It’s a great question. And I think it begins with the idea that to lead is to act. So, we begin with the question, how do we lead? What are the tips? What are the techniques? What are the ways that I can be effective in leadership? But church leadership is unique. We have a why that is different from every other human organization. And our why has to do with God’s mission in the world, with the command that Jesus gives us to love God and to love others. When students ask me how they can be an effective leader, I always say “We have to know our why first.” Why are we leading? We should be leading God’s people deeper into love. God is love. Our calling is to become love. I talk about the church as a laboratory for love. And so, our leadership must be about that why if the how is really going to serve God’s mission in the world.

Ann Michel: Could you give an example of how leading with love might be different from other ways we might approach leadership?

Elaine Robinson: Leading with love is about having a mind-set and a skill set that fit the twenty-first century. If I’m leading with love, I’m developing emotional intelligence. I am thinking not only about what I want and expect to happen, but I’m also thinking about what that other person loves, who that other person is.

Here’s a simple example. Before the pandemic, we had a handbell choir at the church where I serve as pastor. Recently, another church asked to purchase our handbells. We no longer have a handbell director or a bell choir. But I knew I couldn’t just say, “Yes. Let’s sell these handbells.” I had to go to members of the church, former members of the handbell choir, and leaders in the church and ask, “What if we did this?” But I also knew the first response would be, “No. We can’t sell the handbells!”

Now every leader in the church is going to understand this because that’s the way the brain works. The first thing the brain will do is relate to past experiences and to emotional content. So, they remember being with their now-transitioned parents. They’re remembering a wonderful Christmas. They’re remembering all these things that say, “We have to keep the handbells.” But if I’m patient and say, “I hear you. I hear that there are a lot of things associated with those handbells that you really love,” they will then allow their cortex to begin to process and to think. And once they’re able to take a step back, then they can say, “You know what? It probably glorifies God more to be using the handbells. Maybe we should sell them.” If I push back when they are still processing their emotional reactions, then they’re probably going to get stuck there. But if my love realizes the emotional connection this handbell choir has for them, I can give the space and time for them to say, “Okay. I love this, but my mind knows it might be the right time.”

Ann Michel: Your book really steps back from leadership strategies and tactics and centers on a series of principles and spiritual practices that can help a leader open their mind and expand their worldview — to use scriptural language, “to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus.” Can you name a few of those practices and explain why they’re important?

Elaine Robinson: In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul says, “But we have the mind of Christ.” In the book, I work with the idea that all of us as human beings see partially. And often we’re only seeing out of our own lenses and experiences. To take on the mind of Christ is to move us beyond my way, my desire, my likes, and to a much more holistic perspective where we’re able to see also through the eyes of others, to see the way they’ve been formed and the things that matter to them.

If we want to grow into the mind of Christ, there are certain practices leaders need to take on. The first is what I call deep listening, which is an ancient Christian practice of stopping our thinking and stopping our feeling and just opening ourselves to hear from God. When I study and read the prophets, I am reminded that what always goes wrong is that people are not listening to God. The prophet always says: If you would just listen, you would be healed. Given the world we live in today — how noisy it is, how much background noise there always is —we need to find ways to be still and know that God is God. We need to be still and listen.

A number of other practices come out of being able to listen to God. One of these is growing. So often, when we’re in leadership, we find that our people are stuck. They think there’s only this way to do church. And you’ll hear leaders complain “my people don’t want to change.” Well, part of that is because we haven’t helped them see that growing is a basic principle that God has put into the whole of creation. My book has a chapter on what it means to grow, what it means to teach our people beyond the childhood biblical stories to a deeper understanding and a deeper engagement of God in the world.

Ann Michel: Many of the practices in your book relate to what it means to live in relationship with God and Jesus and our neighbors in authentic ways. They seem relevant to all believers, not just leaders. So, I wondered, how do you define leadership? And who is a leader?

Elaine Robinson: It’s a great question. If you read authors who write on church leadership, let’s take Lovett Weems for example, there’s always this idea of a faithful next step. I think leadership is always about where we’re going and not where we’ve been. But for me, church leadership is about faithful and hopeful attention — paying attention to growing into God’s promised future as it draws near in this time and place.

I have geared the book toward pastors, toward the shepherds of the flock, because if they are not growing in love then they can’t model and bring others along. But you’re absolutely right that this is true of all Christians. If we’re on this journey and on this path, we should be leading whoever is still growing behind us, metaphorically speaking. Our love should be infectious. Our love should be leading others to want to follow Christ, as well. I do focus on leaders, but I think the principles and practices I share have a lot of application for anyone who wants to be a follower of Jesus.

Ann Michel: When many of us hear the term spiritual discipline, we think of prayer or fasting or labyrinth walking or scripture reading — actions undertaken perhaps as acts of piety. But you seem to have a more practical and organic understanding of what a spiritual discipline is. How do you define a spiritual discipline? And what makes the practices in your book spiritual?

Elaine Robinson: A lot of people understand spirituality as being about a longing or a desire, for example, Ron Rolheiser or Barbara Brown Taylor. But I think that longing or desire is just what leads us into spiritual practice. Spirituality itself is really about God’s love growing and living in us and overflowing into the world. It’s about becoming complete. It’s about being whole as God has created us and all of creation to be. In Ephesians 3:14–19, Paul talks about being rooted and grounded in God and rooted and grounded in love so that we might be filled with the fullness of God. We have to find ways and practices that open us to God, that open us to listen, to pay attention.

I absolutely believe in fasting and reading scripture and prayer and all of these disciplines. But this is where I think we sometimes miss the mark. We make spiritual practices about me. About what I’m feeling. About what I’m experiencing. But that’s not the gospel. Because the gospel is: Once we were broken and separated, but in and through Christ we become one, we become related. Spiritual practice should lead us into love.

Love is always a relational quality. You can’t have love without the beloved, so the more we love the more reconciliation and relationship happens. In other words, our spiritual practices are opening us to God so that we might become more related and filled with love of the whole of creation. That’s a lofty kind of “wow” thing, but ultimately that’s what God is at work doing.

Ann Michel: In the conclusion of your book, you wrote that “It’s not our job to save the church. The only true standard of our success is if we’re leading with love.” Can you explain your belief that “we cannot fail if we’re truly leading in love” and how by leading in love we can find that hopeful, faithful future for the church?

Elaine Robinson: The church is not intended to be simply a human institutional reality. It is of God rather than merely of humans. This body of Christ is rooted and grounded in the Spirit. Historically, we know that the church is always recreating itself. And probably we are now in some ways in an era of reformation. Things are changing.

If we are leading with love, if we are being filled with God’s love, if we are listening to God, if we are teaching our people to love those who are beyond the walls of the church, the church may not end up looking like what we expect. But God’s ecclesia will still be thriving in the world. Jesus didn’t give us a blueprint for the church. There is no one way of being church. As long as we are helping people become healed and whole through God’s love and pouring that love out into the world, then we are doing God’s mission as the church.

Ann Michel: Many of the practices you describe are community practices. What are some steps that a leader might take to encourage the whole community to take on some of the practices you discuss, such as deep listening, or connecting with the community, or learning to love yourself so you can love others?

Elaine Robinson: First, we need to acknowledge that none of us is ever really the leader. Jesus is the leader. Even the pastor should be following Jesus just a little closer and be a little better at listening to where Jesus might want to go. But then, begin slowly. Introduce slowly. I have been introducing these practices in my congregation for six years now and it’s helping them grow. Leading a church is more like steering an ocean liner than a speed boat. If you turn too quickly, you’re going to tip the thing over. Recalling the story of God leading the people through the wilderness, you have a sense of God leading by stages. You begin with love. You begin by reminding them of the spirituality of the church. And as some of this begins to take root, then you can introduce more and more pieces. So, this is a long-term project. It’s a lifetime of work to learn to love and to lead with love.

Leading with Love: Spiritual Disciplines for Practical Leadership (Fortress Press, 2023) by Elaine A. Robinson is available at Fortress PressCokesbury, and Amazon.

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Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash


About Author

Elaine Robinson is Professor of Methodist Studies and Christian Theology at St Paul School of Theology, Oklahoma City campus. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves as pastor of Villages UMC in Oklahoma City. She is the author of several books, most recently Leading with Love: Spiritual Disciplines for Practical Leadership (Fortress Press, 2023)

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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