What gives Christian leaders the courage to persist in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges? Tom Berlin shares how courage emerges through faith, hope, and God-inspired convictions as we deepen our commitment to walk with Christ.
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What gives Christian leaders the courage to persist in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges? In this episode Tom Berlin shares how courage emerges through faith, hope, and God-inspired convictions as we deepen our commitment to walk with Christ.
Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary, and I’m your host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m joined today by Rev. Tom Berlin, who for many of our listeners, probably needs no introduction. Tom is the longtime senior pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. He’s been a committed and influential leader in denominational matters. And we at Wesley Theological Seminary are grateful for his current service as chair of our Board of Governors. And Tom is also the author of numerous books and studies that are widely used in the church today. The most recent is Courage: Jesus and The Call to Brave Faith. And that’s our subject for today. Welcome, Tom.
Tom Berlin: Thanks, Ann. It’s great being with you.
Ann Michel: I’m going to begin by asking what moved you to take on the subject of courage at this particular time?
Tom Berlin: You know, Ann, I have been interested in the topic of courage since I was in high school and had to write a paper for a humanities class. Using the resource The Great Books of the Western World, we had to choose a topic. And I ended up choosing a topic on courage. And ever since then, I’ve just had an interest in reading biographies of courageous people and observing courage in the life of people that I met in the church. I see courage in the life of our congregation and the way people live out their Christian faith, so often.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, many of us were thinking, well, maybe with the way life has changed, I’ll learn to do something or I’ll take on a special project. I thought, you know, maybe it’s time to think about another book. I’ve written some short books and maybe it’s time to do that. And I thought this is a time where people are having to display courage because there’s been a lot of fear in this past year. And so that culmination of sort of a lifelong observational journey and the push of the pandemic.
It turns out during the pandemic was not a great time to write the book. But I persevered. In the words of courage, I had fortitude and made it to the deadline. And I’m so pleased because our church is using this resource right now. We’re preaching a sermon series. People are telling me it’s very relevant to their daily life right now. They’re finding it really a good topic to take a look at how Jesus lived out a life of courage and how we can too.
Ann Michel: I think one of the things that struck me was that I’m not sure I’ve read a lot of other books on the subject of courage and the Christian faith. I get to read pretty widely the literature, particularly of church leadership, and it’s not a subject that is addressed in a lot of places within the corpus of church literature.
Tom Berlin: I agree. But if you look at ancient literature, it is. Courage is one of the cardinal virtues that Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine both addressed. And so it’s been a part of the vocabulary. And I think one of the problems in the church today is that we’re not talking about it. And as we don’t talk about it, we also don’t encourage the value in the virtue. And I think understanding how courage works, understanding what are the component parts of courage, if you will. That’s what this book attempts to address.
Ann Michel: So as I read the book, I found myself wondering whether courage in a biblical or Christian context is something different than the way that courage is commonly understood in our broader cultural context. And so I wondered if you could speak to that.
Tom Berlin: I think I haven’t really done the comparison with the broader cultural context. What I will say, is that courage in the broader context is often a single story of someone who does something in a moment. It’s the soldier who throws himself an explosive device to rescue others. It’s the person who jumps in the water to save someone who’s drowning. I think in the Christian context, especially when we look at the Gospels, what we see is Jesus living a life of courage. And it’s sometimes a singular moment in time, but is also a pattern that is persistently lived. And I think that’s really the courage that most of us are wise to consider. Am I living a courageous life? Am I doing the things that God would have me do with my life? Or am I allowing fear to hold me back, or low self-esteem to push me down?
And I think that there are a lot of reasons we don’t exhibit courage. So I think it’s wise to really look at the life of Christ and then ask ourselves, how do I gain that? How do I become like that? Because our discipleship is about becoming more like Jesus over time. That’s the process of sanctification. I wrote a book called Restore that was about the process of sanctification. I actually think courage is the virtue that fuels sanctification over time.
Ann Michel: What you just said reminds me that what really impressed me about this book is that it really is a re-presentation, if you will, of basic gospel truths using the lens of courage. I felt like it gave me “courage” as a new angle of vision for understanding Jesus and what’s going on in the Gospels. And so I want to thank you for that. Because I think it’s always wonderful when in our journey of faith, we have the Gospel explicated for us in ways that makes it anew. So I’m grateful for that. But I wondered what new eyes or new perspectives on faith you gained as you studied this subject?
Tom Berlin: Another word that is used for courage in the ancient traditions or the ancient writing — I say ancient, we’re talking about hundreds of years, thousands of years — is the word is fortitude. And fortitude is courage that is so persistently exhibited over time and through hardship that it is sustained in a person’s life. And my observation is that there has been no great work that has improved humanity, that did not include fortitude. And one of the authors that really helped me with that is John Lewis, Representative John Lewis, who died this past year. And he said that when people talk to him about the Civil Rights Movement, the number one question that they ask is, how did you do it? And reading Lewis, I began to understand, and I talk about this in the book, is that courage depends on hope.
So for the Christian, you can’t have deep courage and take on important topics in your personal life or in the society at large, unless you have hope that you are in fact doing God’s work. And as Lewis said, the battle is already won. And his example was walking across the bridge at Selma. He said people ask him about that experience over and over. And I think he was always happy to talk about what that was like. But he said “We knew as we walked across Selma” and I’m paraphrasing, but this is the sense of the book, “that we would be beaten, we would be thrown in jail. We knew it was going to be bad.” But he said, “We also knew in our hearts that God had already brought us the victory. That the intention of God was for us to experience equality and it was the intention of God to push out the systemic racism.” Again, I’m paraphrasing, I’m putting my language on this. But he said because “We already knew of that victory in Christ. We had such deep hope,” that he said, “I really didn’t feel the blows,” is the idea.
Well, you know, I think that in all of our lives, that’s wisdom to think about the things that we’re trying to deal with. You know, we’re still trying to deal with systemic racism today. We’re still trying to improve our personal transformation today. During this pandemic, many people that have lived bright and joyful lives have found it hard just to get out of bed in the morning sometimes because it’s it has this way of sort of pushing you down every day.
So whether it’s on a personal scale or on a social scale, fortitude is necessary. And so when we realize that this is a construct of our faith in Christ, that by believing that the victory is already ours, that the reign of God is what Christ came to bring, and that we are we are servants of that reign, we are citizens of that space. And so we have both the birthright and the work to do. That is what gives us courage.
So, so often, I’m thinking about your earlier question, this issue of how does our society see it? I think so often courage is called out of people. Like if you just try harder, if you if you just dig deeper, you’ll you can be courageous. I found it’s the opposite.I don’t want to dig any deeper into Tom Berlin. I want to dig deeper into the Christ who desires to live in me and be expressed through me and the Holy Spirit that would guide me. But make no mistake, if you are a Christ follower, he is going to take you into places that you never expected to go, and deal with issues you never thought would be important to you. And that’s going to take courage, because whenever we do those things, we meet tremendous resistance.
Ann Michel: So I appreciate you connecting courage with hope as you were talking about John Lewis, because, again, I think something that’s so valuable in your book is that it makes it clear that courage doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That it arises from clarity of purpose. It’s connected with hope. It’s connected to our God-inspired visions. It emerges within a context of love. That courage is so very intimately connected to faith. I found myself wondering if courage even is really different than faith? I mean, because I felt like you can’t have courage without faith, that you really can’t live out your faith without courage. And so it’s a very essential Christian practice. But I’m wondering how you think about that? Is courage a unique attribute? Or is it something that’s so intricately connected to these other things that it comes along with them
Tom Berlin: I think that faith, lived without courage, is likely to produce spiritual malaise. I think that we’ve all experienced at different times now, sometimes we have a spiritual malaise that’s more akin to a dark night of the soul, which some have identified is actually a gift that God gives us to take us to a new space in our faith. But I think there’s something different.
There are people who begin to experience a regression of their Christian faith that used to be called “backsliding.” And I don’t mean backsliding into sin. I mean backsliding in the sense that we lose the vitality of the faith. And I think that often arises when we are not giving our lives to things that matter. If you live a Christian life and the only thing you get out of that is feeling that probably when you die, you’re going to go to heaven, you have not experienced the vitality of the Christian faith. If you live the Christian life and all it does is help you seek more and get more for yourself, you are not living, you are not walking deeply with Jesus.
And so if we want to move beyond nominal Christianity to true Christianity, we’re going to have to get into the space of courage. And I think that courage creates a cycle that out of our conviction — and this is one of the pieces or attributes I mention in the book — out of our faith in Christ, we develop certain convictions about how the world would be if God was reigning over it fully. If sin wasn’t so extravagantly present in our world, it would look differently. And so then we become agents. We feel a calling. We feel conviction to say, “You know what, I need to give my life to this.” Now, sometimes that may be a cause, but sometimes that may be to a person.
There are many parents I think of who’ve had the experience of having a child struggle with a disability and they have to work with schools and educators and then make accommodations throughout that child’s life. Some parents have to deal with a child who has an addiction or some sort of drug addiction. And it is so easy to want to give up. But when we have a calling out of our Christian faith, we have this conviction that God is asking us to do the right thing in the right way at the right time. And I think courage is what ennobles us to do that.
So, again, sometimes we’re trying to do hard things like help a large denomination come to a new place of inclusion. That’s been a part of my life over the past few years with LGBTQ people. And frankly, that conversation will just wear you out if you’re not careful. Because, again, whenever we try to show courage, we will always have a resistance that will rise up no matter what we do. But sometimes this creed, this courage is really focused on individual problems in our own lives, which are also worthy and which God is calling us to manage. That may be changing who we are. That may be our own transformation, may be how we bless the people around us, friendships or family members.
But in either of those two spaces, courage is linked with faith. And the more you show courage, the more you’ll depend on Christ. The more you depend on Christ, the more courage you will gain. And so, Ann, I think it creates a virtuous cycle where we find ourselves. We find that we love Christ all the more. Because after you do a courageous thing and you’ve been walking with God, it’s just impossible to look at it and say, “Look what I did!” You tend to look at it and say, “Look, what we got to do as God let us. Like what an amazing blessing this has been.” And that ennobles and emboldens our faith in other spaces.
Ann Michel: Wow. That’s a really inspiring. I think we tend to think of courage writ large, the bold things, the big things, the public actions. And I really appreciate that you’re pointing out that courage often exists in within our own lives, within the lives of our families, in the lives of our communities, in ways that may not be visible to others. And yet things that do take tremendous courage.
Tom Berlin: Ann, during this pandemic, like many churches, we’ve been very worried about food scarcity in our community. And so in various ways, we have pickups for food and sometimes we do deliveries of food to families in our area, individuals in our area. There is a mother with three children who is on her own in this pandemic. Her children are young. There is no male in this household. There’s no husband or father figure.
And you think about that woman who drives up to a church parking lot where she’s not a member of the congregation. So it’s not her space and the risk she’s taking. And she lives in this community and she’s not working right now. And the thing that drives that courageous behavior to provide for her family any way she can in ways that are legal, in ways that are good, is that she has such a love of her children.
And again, when we think of courage only as these giant acts where somebody gives their life, it’s great. I mean, we, of course, would recognize the virtue of someone who gives their life in a moment. But we have to also look at people who are giving their life day after day, minute by minute for the people around them, like the love of a mother who spends her day thinking about how is food going to be on the plates for these children this week? And who literally lives a day at a time. That is a courageous life that should be observed and celebrated, in my opinion.
Ann Michel: And thank you so much for expressing that. I’m thinking as we’re talking, I have a family member who overcame alcoholism. And I think it’s really one of the most courageous things I’ve witnessed, for someone to find the personal fortitude, but also to maintain the real discipline over now two decades, of every single day doing the things that need to be done to stay with sobriety. And I am always in awe of her courage.
I want to shift gears just a little bit. Our audience is church leaders. And, Courage is largely a devotional book. But I think it also speaks to courage as a leadership trait. And so based on your study of courage, are there any key lessons that you would want to offer for congregational leaders?
Tom Berlin: I think that good leaders sustain their focus over time. And we live in a time where that’s uniquely difficult to do. I mean, I’m finding the time that we’re in, I really have to focus on focus. I think a lot of us are experiencing that. And what I would say is that if we can think about these component parts of courage, it enables us to believe that God is still using us and wants to do so even more.
Leadership in the local church, it’s incumbent on lay and clergy leadership to call greatness out of congregations. And that means sometimes coming together and gaining a vision, what Lovett Weems and I call in Bearing Fruit a “God-sized vision.” A God-sized vision is some acts that you undertake within the life of your church or in your community that will benefit people in such in ways that you could have never imagined.
So in this book, I talk about work that we did and in Sierra Leone with the United Methodist Church there to establish the Mercy Hospital and the Child Reintegration Center, which is a ministry that we’ve been a part of here in Floris for over 20 years now. Well, if you’re going to sustain 20 years of emphasis, it’s going to take ongoing courage. And you have to refuel your conviction. You have to hold on to hope when things start falling apart. You have to have a deep love of the things that Jesus loved.
Communities need leaders who define ministry in terms of fruitfulness as well as faithfulness. They need pastors and lay leaders who ask about the outcomes of any given ministry or program, not just its process. Mostly, they need a vision of ministry that focuses on changing people’s lives. Absent that vision, ministry will fail. In Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2011), Lovett Weems and Tom Berlin provide leaders with the tools they need to assess the fruit their ministry bears in the lives of their congregation, their community, and the world.
Because Jesus said that he loves the least of these, that Matthew 25 text where he talks about, you know, when you do these things, care for the sick and when you’re with the people that are homeless or have no clothes, there you’re going to find me. Well, when we love those things so deeply that we can sustain our focus over time, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “It will be far more than you can ask or imagine.” But some leader has to call that out of the congregation at some point. And it’s far better if it’s a group of leaders who have decided that they’re going to be courageous.
And I feel very blessed in the church I’ve served to be able to have that experience with laity and with staff members and other clergy that are a part of our ministry and have been over these years. We’ve been so blessed by God to be able to do some things we could have never dreamed of. We could have never imagined when we began. And those are some of the greatest stories of my life. You know, those are some of the things I look to and that help me realize that the Christian faith is real. It’s not something we just talk about or write about something we actually live. It’s something we do.
So I think for leadership, it’s really important for United Methodist churches and other churches right now to look in their community and say, “What is the thing that must be done now here? What’s the calling of God in this community? And who are the other courageous people in my community of other faith traditions?” And in my recent years, I’ve had the experience of joining with other faith leaders in this western Fairfax County community. My goodness, it’s so fun when you find other courageous people. And let me say that differently. Other people who also want to be courageous. That’s how I would say it. So I do think it’s a time and I do think the book is helpful. Until you examine the component parts of courage, they will be less present. Well, let me restate that. As I’ve examined the component parts of courage I’m finding, I can identify where I need to be courageous as a leader.
Ann Michel: Yeah. I think any time you take a subject like this and really analyze it, it’s so helpful. I think that is a big contribution of the book. And it’s helped me think about really what it means to be courageous and what it depends on. To draw this to a close, I have one last question that I wanted to focus on. You’ve already alluded to it a bit. But David McAllister-Wilson (the president of Wesley Theological Seminary) has done some work around how we form leaders to be courageous. And so my question has to do with how we cultivate courage in ourselves and others. I think I heard you say a little bit earlier, it may not be something that we’re able to muster up in ourselves. Or is it? Is it a gift from God, the way I believe that faith is? Or is it a fruit of the Spirit? If we want to be more courageous as Christian leaders, what should we do?
Tom Berlin: You know, right now we’re in the season of Lent. And what I’m currently encouraging my congregation to do is to read and reread the Gospels. And you know, some of us are using audiobooks these days, and I listen to the Gospels a lot. That’s been a way that it’s helped me seep into my head a little bit in a fresh way. And what I would say is I don’t think of courage as a gift of God, I think of courage as the outcome of a relationship with God. But that relationship, we must do everything in our power to deeply form it.
And, you know, so often when we hear that phrase, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” There’s a transactional quality to that. It sounds like what I’m being asked is, “Have you check the box?” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about allowing Jesus in our life in such a way that we are walking in the footsteps of the Lord. And “Lord” means that I’ve given Jesus permission to guide my life and that I have submitted to the will of Christ in these matters, and that means I’m going to have to do things I don’t even like because Jesus and I are not of one mind about this matter. But I’ve decided to do what he says, not what I want. And that is what gives you courage. Because you feel like you’re not doing something that yourself will. You’re doing something that arises out of a deep relationship with Christ by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And in keeping with the way the universe has been ordered by the Creator.
And I think that when we get into that space of a deeply lived Christian discipleship, courage is a byproduct. It just happens. It is a virtue that arises in a heart given over to a sanctified experience of Christian discipleship. And none of us are perfect people. We’ve all got our rough edges and our places where God is not done yet. You asked earlier why I wrote this book. The other thing I would add there is over the past few years, I realized that on my computer screen that’s right in front of me right now and on my desk, I’ve been assembling a group of Post-it Notes and little artifacts, all of which I talk about in the book. And a few years ago, we were having some issues of the church I serve. And I wrote a Post-it Note because I thought, what do you owe this congregation right now? And I wrote four words. I wrote Clarity, Candor, Courage, and Encouragement.
And we were going through a time of self-definition at a time where we were trying to understand who we were as a people and what we just had to express as a congregation, as our values. And you know, when you do value work, it’s divisive. The values have to be so well-written that they not only attract people, but sadly for some, they will repel them. And I just realized I had to walk with courage, but I wasn’t doing it because it was what I wanted. And this is the key. It wasn’t about my agenda. In some ways, I was as frustrated as some of the members of the church were, because I felt Christ was taking me somewhere I wasn’t initially even willing to go. But I was walking because I just felt like that’s what you would do if you were one of the 12 or one of the women who walked with Jesus.
You know, I wrote a book called Reckless Love, I’m sorry to keep saying these things, but it’s all connected in my head. But in that book I talked about walking. We look at the lessons of Jesus, but we often fail to see where he went. And he took his disciples, he always took them in to meet people they didn’t want to meet and go places they didn’t want to go. And once you start looking at the topography of the Gospel, where Jesus is taking you, what routes he takes them on. When you do that work, you realize, “Oh my goodness! They had to have such courage because they were always being taken to places they didn’t want to go.” Well, that means that the key component of courage, back to your question, I think is not a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a journey with the Holy Spirit.
Ann Michel: Well, talking with you about this has just reinforced my initial impression that courage cannot be extricated from faith. And I think the way you’ve just explained it makes that even more abundantly clear. As we conclude, I wanted to give you just a moment to share how you see this resource being used in churches, because it’s not just a book, it’s also a video series and has study guides. So how do you how do you recommend that churches use this resource?
Tom Berlin: So at Floris what we are doing — there are a lot of ways you can use it. I mean, obviously, small groups, like groups could pick this up and use it. But I like to create congregation-wide conversations in the church I serve. And so we’re using it right now during Lent. I think you could do it in any six-week period. It’s a six chapter book.
We actually got a copy to each active household in our church. And we delivered those. We asked them to read it individually. Then come on Sunday and listen as they would hear a sermon that is on, the sense of the sermons are very much about the Gospel lessons that are in each chapter. So they’re very Christocentric. They’re very focused on the Bible. But they’re about these themes of courage. And then we have life groups where people meet and they discuss. So it’s read, listen, discuss is our pattern.
We’re doing that because I think the coming year is going to require courage of us. We’re going to have to evaluate our ministry, think about what we’re no longer going to do when we come back to in-building ministry and in a broad way then think about what we will do in the future that we haven’t done in the past. It’s a year for courage. I mean, every year is a year for courage.
We also want to do some courageous things in our community where we’re very concerned about eviction and we’re very concerned about food scarcity, but we’re more concerned that that disproportionately affects people of color in our community. And we want to talk about those issues, but also the systemic issues behind them. Well, that’s a courageous conversation.
So by studying courage, we’re setting up we’re doing the groundwork for the later conversations and the action that will follow. I think it’s wise to do that on a broad level in a local church. But I’ll tell you this. I’ve had people contact me who have written me and said, “I just read your book on courage. It’s what I need because my marriage was breaking up right now. And I need to I need to be more courageous”. “It’s what I need as a parent who’s guiding their kids through online education. And I’m losing my courage. But I realized that I need fortitude.” So I could give you lots of examples. And it’s both. I think the topic is relevant both for the individual life and for our corporate life as a church. And I would use it in both spaces and all those ways.
Ann Michel: Well, Tom, I want to thank you for this tremendous resource that you are offering to the church. It’s just such an important and provocative subject. I hope our listeners will take the opportunity to check it out. And thank you for talking with us today.
Tom Berlin: Thanks. And thanks for all the great work that you and Doug Powe do with the Lewis Leadership Center. We’re really indebted to you.
Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Rock Jones, president of Ohio Wesleyan University, about understanding Generation Z and connecting with their passions.
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Courage: Jesus and the Call to Brave Faith (Abingdon Press, 2021) by Tom Berlin is available as a book, a DVD for group study, and a leader guide at Cokesbury and Amazon. Watch the first video session at AmplifyMedia.com