On Hild Day — in praise of women leaders

[In honor of Hild Day, Nov. 17, and in honor of the good women leaders among the Circle of Hope, I thought I’d re-do a piece written in 2008 and share it with you]

Leadership makes a difference

When I say that, a good 90% of us probably automatically tune out. As far as the organizations we understand and the church as it is, we already have a lot of leaders over us and we don’t see room for many more, certainly not ME.

We don’t imagine Jesus calling us to lead any time soon, either.

When Jesus talks about his claim to lead the people of God he pictures himself as a good shepherd, as opposed to all those false shepherds that lead everyone into misery. Very few of us would sign up to be a shepherd like that, good or false.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:27-30.

Most of us don’t feel like we need to be in the shepherd role. I call that leadership on the “macro level,” sometimes. Not everyone is given that role. And I think that makes sense, since we don’t really need that many of those catalysts and guides.

But all of us are leading, in one way or another on what we might call the “micro level.” God has given each of us the capacity to make a difference. You count. You are in the father’s hand. You are carrying eternal life. So what you do means something. What you do leads me. You are like an undershepherd looking out for my interests.

I was arguing this out with a person the other day and telling him that his immoral life was leading me. He was presenting me a direction for how I should follow Jesus. I had to think, “Should I do it his way, or another way?”  He wasn’t happy to hear me thinking about this. He wanted to make no difference. He said, “I live my life and you live yours.” But I told him that was impossible. We get a common life from Jesus, that doesn’t belong to either of us exclusively. We are tied together —  if you just live whatever you think your life is, doesn’t that lead me to exercise the same illusion? Besides, we are tied by love. I love you. I cannot make you not make a difference to me. Where you are going, in some way, is where I am going too. The question is, “Where are you leading me?”

In some major ways you can tell where a people is going by where their macro leaders are going. But that is not the whole story. Especially in the church, you can tell where the church is going by what the preponderance of the individuals are doing, where the microleaders are going. If we are mostly passionate, visionary, loving, faithful people, things will go that direction. If we are not responsive to the Spirit of God’s leadership, nothing I or another macroleader tries to catalyze will get too far.

I know this is not true of quite a few people who read this blog, but I would say that many of us probably take ourselves much too lightly. You are not leading us where you think we should be going. As a result, you are more like one of the thieves or hired hands that Jesus is fighting than you might like to think.

Hild can help us think this through. In the era in which the New Testament was written, and in the era that saw the flowering of the Celtic Church, our spiritual ancestors had the very same challenges we do. The work of Jesus always faces challenges to find its place and find a voice in every culture. And it always takes Spirit-empowered people to lead the way. Leadership makes a difference. There are always the thieves and the hired hands, and we pray that there are always the undershepherds listening to Jesus, the good shepherd, and following.

So I want to re-tell the story about how it worked out a long time ago with Hild. I think this makes sense because we are a lot like the Celtic church. They were planting the church in a place like Center City Philadelphia, where so many people do not have faith and do not have a clear picture of Jesus at all. Our cells and our congregations are remarkably like the communities that the Celts formed to help people work out a way to live the abundant life Jesus promises and be a part of calling people who can hear the voice of Jesus into the fold to share that life.

Hild’s story center’s on Whitby, on the East coast of Northumbria. She became the famous leader of the Whitby Community about the year 650. That’s nearly 300 years after Patrick’s pioneering work in Ireland. A vibrant faith had spread from there to Scotland and down to Northumbria, and it had also moved up from Kent in the south. At this point the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northern England were the most vibrant on the islands. And Hilda was in the middle of it.

The story of Hilda’s leadership in the church begins with King Oswald, who became a follower of Jesus. King Oswald decided to help his people know the Lord so he sent off to the great community on Iona, where he had once lived in exile, to recruit a person who could help people come to faith.

The history of Oswald’s recruiting looks a bit like the  last U.S. presidential election. The first man Iona sent was too hot and people did not like him. Oswald sent him back. The next man sent was Aidan, who was gentler and more politically savvy. Aidan found a lot of success.

It was Aidan who spotted Hilda. Hilda was a distant member of a royal family who decided to become part of an intentional community at age 33. There were no communities exclusively for women in Northumbria at the time, so she was about ready to leave for France to join one there when Aidan persuaded her to stay. He trained her himself and gave her leadership of a household. She eventually moved to Whitby and founded a community where she was the leader for the last 23 years of her life. Unlike many of the Christian communities at the time, there were men and women at Whitby — Hild lead them all. They began what became a famous school. The community had a lot of influence in the surrounding area for hundreds of years. Hilda became so well-known that many people came to her for practical counsel and spiritual direction. If you have recently gotten close to the age when Jesus began his ministry and are feeling a little nervous about what is next, Hild demonstrates that the best is probably yet to come. If forty was the new thirty for you, don’t fret.

hild at tableUnlike many of the women of her time, Hilda ended up a macroleader. Aidan noticed her gifts and she responded to the call. There is a great picture of her at a present-day community near Whitby where she is seated at a round table leading, as she did in the tense and foundational discussion that happened at the Council of Whitby. We are still feeling the after-effects of that meeting.

I think Hilda followed the example of Jesus well. A good macroleader sees herself as a gate – an opportunity for people to enter into life, a way in to the community of faith. They are also a protector — they lay their lives down for the people and the cause. They are the servants lifting up the enterprise. They see the wolves circling. The also see who and what is next — like how Jesus talks about the sheep not of the present fold. The macroleader works at maintaining a vision that is beyond the present to help us get where we are going.

Our Cell Leaders, Cell Leader Coordinators, team leaders, and pastors are all doing their best to exercise this kind of transforming leadership. We are blessed with an astounding number of sincere, teachable and faithful leaders! Either they gain and exercise the audacity of Jesus and Hilda, or we make less of a difference, as a people, than we hope to make.  When I made a speech at a conference of the BIC last year, I was surprised to find out that they look to us, as a body, to provide some leadership for the whole denomination! They asked, “What have you learned in Philly that we could all apply? How do we live out the gospel these days?” I think I felt a bit like Hilda might have felt when she was being recruited by Aidan — I had a much smaller idea of who I was. We have something to bring; we need to bring it.

Hilda was also a notable microleader. Not that all women do this, but they are often better at not missing the trees for the forest. So many men cut down all the trees and pave things over so they can build something new in the name of their domination which they then call “safety!” Women can often lead with better empathy that starts with the trees there are and nurtures the true forest out of them.

This is well represented in the most famous story about Hilda that has to do with the cowherd named Caedmon, one of the workmen on Whitby’s large landholdings. Caedmon was at the opposite end of the social scale from Hilda. He was an illiterate farmhand. He seems to have been content with his lot except for one thing. Whenever the guys passed around the harp at the end of the day before bed, Caedmon headed for the door if he saw it coming his way. Songs and stories were valued and he was a tone-deaf guy. He wanted to get into the mix but soon everyone knew how embarrassed he was about his lack of ability.

One night he felt especially ashamed of himself and went back out to the cows, lonely and miserable. He ended up sleeping in the barn. There he had a dream. A man came to him and called him by name,

“Caedmon, sing me a song.”

“I can’t.” he said. “It is because I can’t sing that I am out here instead of with everyone else at table.“

”Can’t sing?” the voice said. “You can and you must.” ‘

“What must I sing about?”

“Sing about the creation of all things.” And Caedmon composed and song, right there in his dream —  a poem of praise of Creation. When he woke up, he discovered the dream was true. He sang his song to the cows.  In the morning, he told his boss what happened. The boss thought the story was weird enough to tell Hilda. .

Hilda got excited. She and the senior brothers and sisters gave Caedmon a little test. They chose a passage from the Bible and read it to him. He was to go make it a song. He took a whole day, but came back with an excellent song. At that Hilda invited him into the community. They didn’t bother to teach him to read Latin, they wanted him to make songs in English for people to sing as they ploughed and did their spinning. Caedmon is the first known English Christian poet.

In this Hilda was encouraging microleadership like Jesus also describes in the passage about being the good shepherd. Obviously Caedmon becomes the good cowherd in a whole new way.  Each of us are encouraged, I think, to see ourselves as someone with something to give. We get fed in the fold so we can grow into who we are meant to be. We count. Jesus knows us, Hilda knows Caedmon. We are not inconsequential. As it often goes, the least are often given the most because God loves using the least. He likes being the least.

Again, what you do good or bad, is going to cause something. It is sort of a sin to think of yourself as having no responsibility and leaving it all to Hilda. It is not Hilda’s job to be you! Caedmon heard God’s call directly. The leaders didn’t even know who he was. The sheep hear the voice of Jesus and follow. The following makes a difference. The one flock is people of all sorts following Jesus, and that gives it its beauty and power.

Hilda was ready to go to France. She ended up at home leading a community. Before long she was engaged in one of the leading communities of her area, hosting a synod that included people from Ireland, Scotland, and the South of England. Jesus is always looking for leaders like that who expand his fold and nurture and protect those in it. I’m not sure how Hilda felt about her responsibility. I know our president wondered how he got into his responsibility. Someone was testing him when he got started and asked him if he felt ready to be the leader of the free world. He said, “Who would?” I think many of us feel the same awe, like we just got an unusual song to sing, when Jesus calls us to make a difference.

Every one of us, whether we just entered the circle or not, has an opportunity to make a difference by what God has made us and given us to do. I don’t care if you are a big sinner right now, or if you are a women, or if you can sing or not. What you do starts good things and unlocks God’s capacity to transform.

We need our macro leaders to have energy, or like Oswald, we’ll have to go looking for someone who has some.

We need our microleaders to listen to their dreams. Sometimes the movement of God starts with your disappointment about what you can’t do. Please don’t give in to the disappointment and think you are useless. Please don’t let the wolf get you. The Good Shepherd is on our side and will keep working for us to have an abundant life – each of us and all of us.

6 thoughts on “On Hild Day — in praise of women leaders

  1. The story of Hild is quite inspiring especially with the discussion about leadership of women in the church that’s come up in the mapping process. Although I chuckled at the thought of Hild not being responsible for me being me, I do recognize that followers are essentially microleaders. I am reminded that American culture speaks about tolerance with a “you live your life, I’ll live mine” mentality but that as Christ-followers we don’t buy into that, avert our eyes and carry on. Actions speak louder than words; sometimes the words speak for themselves, too. It’s a responsibility to utilize both! It’s comforting to re-connect to my home church while away to meet criteria for my lofty dreams. The issues of leadership is so relevant for me. Yay for Rod’s blog!

  2. Yes, thanks for the reminder that we lead one another all the time by how we live. And I’m inspired by the picture of Hilda and the council around the table. God is working through us like that today—I knew it again last night as my cell met and demonstrated basic (radical) Christianity: forgiveness, truth, love.

  3. I was thinking about this concept as I looked around at the PM last night and pondered the many signficant ways people live out their faith in our community. We are rich with servants who listen for God’s calling in their lives and follow faithfully! When I think of our intentional communities, our faithful tithers, the cell builders and the potluck organizers, I realize how true it is that we lead one another by our faith and action. To believe that we do make a difference to one another is a very powerful reorganizer. Thanks, Rod.

  4. I think younger leaders, like me, are learning that to take ourselves more seriously. It’s surprising to many of us that the things we do lead other people. Young people are used to reacting, are used to living out of rebellion. My actions were simply reactions to other things that happened. How could they possible lead others? But I’m learning that I ought to be more serious, realize that my actions lead people, even people “above” me in some hierarchy I invented. Thanks for sharing, Rod.

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