We know that the gap between rich and poor is growing. We see it in our communities, our nations, and in the world at large. And it is clear who is more likely to be in the category of rich or poor isn’t random – it is very likely to align with factors like race, gender identity, dis/ability, citizenship, and so forth. And it is also clear that the Earth itself is suffering: many species and even whole ecosystems tipping more and more into the “poor” category.
Given these realities, what is ethical leadership? What are those of us in positions of authority, and who are concerned about these realities, called to do? It is rarely clear. So often we get caught up in the day-to-day, in doing what our most immediate constituents seem to want, and in trying to appear and be “successful” by certain standards.
However, I believe that ethical leaders are those who pause periodically to take a step back. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that may be understood as taking a time of “sabbath,” prayer, retreat, or discernment. Once we have some distance, it can be easier to remember what matters most. It is so critical to be immersed in and guided by our deepest values. Ethical leaders need to continuously remind themselves – alone and through community – of their deepest values and most central commitments.
For me, one of my central commitments that comes from my faith is the call to build a more just world, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (myself definitely included in that!). It is not that those of us who are comfortable are “bad,” it is that our lifestyles, privilege, and systems are contributing to the oppression and marginalization of other people, communities, and the planet.
Comforting the afflicted is seen by many people as a “good thing,” but afflicting the comfortable is really hard and really demands us to be brave and to swim against the tide. As a leader, it means being willing to challenge those who are used to getting their way, used to being in charge, maybe even those who employ us and have the power to end that employment.
But I think ethical leaders are those who are willing to take that risk. Certainly, not everyone shares the same ability to take those risks in the same way (i.e. some of us are more economically vulnerable than others). But I think all of us are called to know what our values are and do as much as we can to bring our actions, our lives, and our leadership into alignment. To show those we lead that other ways of being are not only possible but are also required of us. This commitment has led me to write a book based on my dissertation entitled Serving Money, Serving God: Aligning Radical Justice, Christian Practice, and Church Life. This book will be out through Fortress Press in early 2023 and will help church leaders (and others) who are committed to justice better live into those commitments through their finances and other collective practices.
Although this work is hard, ethical leadership is creative, life-giving, sustainable, and exciting. It may bring us out of isolation from one another, away from cut-throat competition, and allow us to cease exhausting and stressful ways of living and leading. We may find ourselves knitted more deeply into collaborative and affirming relationships with other people and the rhythms of the planet. We may show with our leadership that another way of being is not only possible, but is deeply live-giving and life-affirming for all.
Sheryl Johnson is a Visiting Faculty Lecturer at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. She received her PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in 2021. Her dissertation project focuses on the intersections of social justice (racial, economic, gender, etc) and ecclesial practices (specifically stewardship, finance, and polity). You can watch her GTUx lecture, “Ethical Leadership x Living Your Values” here.