If we want the best, embrace a strong opposition

I saw this post on Facebook yesterday:

Underneath that post was the following:

In Jean Edward Smith’s biography of George W. Bush, he wrote about what President Bush thought of President-elect Obama during the transition period. On page 650, it states:

“As part of the presidential transition, Barack Obama asked Bush if it would be possible for him to meet all the ex-presidents. Bush was happy to oblige, and organized a White House luncheon in the Oval Office on January 7. Bush and Obama were joined by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush. The luncheon lasted over two hours, each former president ordered his lunch à la carte from the White House mess, and the tone was convivial and friendly. “All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office,” said Obama before the meeting. “For me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary, and I just want to thank the President for hosting us.” Bush was equally effusive. “We want you to succeed,” he replied. “Whether we’re Democrat or Republican we care deeply about this country. And to the extent we can we look forward to sharing out experiences with you. All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.”

Some folks were interested in the gracious tone and looking to invite comparisons to what we are seeing at the moment. But what I found most interesting was George W. Bush’s comment to Obama, ‘we want you to succeed. Whether we’re Democrat or Republican we care deeply about this country.’ There it is, caring about one’s country means wanting those who have been elected to run it to succeed, even if they are your opponents.

For many of us, this simply does not compute. Don’t we want our opponents to fail? Particularly in politics because then we can take power? Well, if your main concern is genuinely the acquisition and exercise of power for its own sake, then yes. But the kind of person who is known to be like that is unlikely to win the support of the people in whose interests they are supposed to wield that power. The kind of leader the people want is surely those who wield power in their interests and such a person would want to see even their political enemies succeed because it cannot be in the people’s interests for them to fail.

That, of course, does not mean we cannot and should not hold those leaders to account. In fact, holding them to account is one of the means of seeking to help them succeed. If they are making big mistakes – or doing what is actively harmful – having a functioning opposition who points it out is, though it probably doesn’t feel like it at the time, actually a very good thing. The purpose of good opposition is to press those with power to do what is right. Where they continually and repeatedly fail to do so – or willingly and gladly do what is damaging for their own ends – the people can remove them from office at the next opportunity and elect those who will exercise power in the interests of those who elected them.

I wonder if this is how you view church life? To speak to some pastors, the regular members’ meeting or meetings with the Deacons is treated more like dealing with political opposition who are out to get you. These things are not seen as means of helping the church to flourish, but as impediments to my leading however I please. The members are viewed as obstacles to negotiate around and any questions not as friendly attempts to help you see issues you might have missed but like a session at PMQs where the opposition are looking to trip you up so they can seize power. It should not be like this in the church.

The church elders are there to exercise their authority in the interests of their flock. The church members are not political opponents desperate to seize power, but people who love the church and want to see it flourish. Their questions and thoughts at members’ meetings are not means of stymying good leadership, they are (more often than not) genuine attempts to help the leaders do what is right. They are typically asked so that the leaders don’t make mistakes and missteps and instead come from a place of wanting the best for the church.

Of course, as in any discussion, those questions and the assumptions that lie behind them might be wrong. They might be based on limited knowledge and doesn’t factor in information to which the questioner is not privvy but the elders are. But how we approach these sorts of questions and meetings says a lot about how we view and will impact how we handle them. If we assume the worst of those asking, viewing them as opposition seeking to trip us up, we will answer in a particular way. But if we view our people are those who love the church and want the best for it, whether they are right or wrong in what they say, we will approach the question in an altogether different way.

As leaders, we should want a strong opposition. Of course, in the church, our members aren’t ‘the opposition’ but brothers and sisters who are partners in the gospel. But we should want strong accountability from them and from our fellow elders. Such accountability does not stymy good leadership, but helps it to flourish. It allows the hard questions to be asked freely and it has a tendency to keep us from falling headlong into major mistakes that we would otherwise not have noticed until it was too late.

The leader who despises his members and tries to insulate himself from all accountability might well end up being much more efficient. But, ultimately, it won’t make him a better leader. In the end, if we want the best for the church (and surely that’s our bottom line) we should embrace the questions, the accountability and the insights and, when we do, we can thank God that in his goodness to us he doesn’t permit us to fall headlong into every stupid idea that pops into our heads.