Leading with Anabaptist Values

To change for the better is to recognize that things can be different, to articulate a vision, and to inspire participation on a journey of growth.

The Anabaptist movement grew out of a groundswell call for change. Church and government power structures in 16th century Western Europe closely intertwined, and people were weary of the abuses that resulted, thus the Protestant Reformation. Protestant reformers wanted to restore the church to beliefs and practices that they believed were more true to the Bible. During this time of intense change, Anabaptists pushed for even more change, calling for the life of Jesus to be central in how one understands the Bible and lives the Christian life.

A gathering of the Christian Peacemaker Teams Columbia group in 2009.
Christian Peacemaker Teams Colombia training group, 2009. Credit: Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Changes advocated by early Anabaptists were not purely spiritual or individualistic. They called for social, economic, and ethical changes in how people related to each other and lived their lives. The change they advocated was behavioral and also what we today might call social or institutional. A more recent example of Anabaptists imagining how things can be different took root in 1984 at an inter-Anabaptist meeting called Mennonite World Conference. At this gathering of Anabaptists from around the world, a call went out to create non-violent, Christian peacekeeping forces in answer to the dominant military response to conflict. This vision that things can be different in how people and nations respond to conflict inspired the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). CPT has been working for decades at amplifying the voices calling for justice accomplished without bloodshed in conflict situations around the world.


Anabaptists have often been referred to as people of the “third way.” They have been known for looking beyond the one or two dominant perspectives presented in a particular situation and seeking a new or different way to resolve an issue or move forward. There’s a healthy impulse within Anabaptism to set aside “either/or” thinking and explore not only “both/and” but “what else?”

Leaders should assume things can be different. The current reality or situation is not the only reality or situation that is possible. Don’t be satisfied with what is. Cultivate a high vision of what is possible. Seek more truth, more compassion, more justice, more kindness, more healing, and more beauty.

Patricia Lehman

Patricia Y. Leaman

Board Chair, Mennonite Home Communities, Lancaster, PA

“About 5 years ago at a retreat our board of directors learned about the home-based model of care for residents in skilled nursing. We were in the process of remodeling our skilled nursing floors and chose to move away from the outdated medical model and its environment and to instead design resident living into “neighborhoods” with kitchens, dining and living rooms, and laundry facilities. We also invested in staff education concerning…read more

Reflection Questions

  1. Think about a challenge you are facing. Is there a “third way” to move the situation or challenge forward? Is there a new way, a way in between, a way entirely beyond the categories you’ve envisioned so far?
  2. What changes in the last several years have had the most positive impact within your organization and among the people you serve?
The cover of the book The Little Book Of Cool Tools For Hot Topics.
The Little Book Of Cool Tools For Hot Topics, by Ron Kraybill and Evelyn Wright

Early Anabaptists actively advocated for their beliefs and practices, but most believed that people should freely choose to follow their own beliefs and practices, that individuals and groups should not be violently coerced to change. Rather Christians were to model a new way of living that led change, welcomed change, and did so intentionally while rejecting violence as a way of convincing others to participate. Leaders of Anabaptist movements often participated in public debates regarding how church and society should be organized to meet the needs of all citizens. For a variety of reasons, including belief in non-coercion, Anabaptists became early advocates of a separation between church and state.


It is important that leaders be both careful and thoughtful when leading change within an organization or community. Aspects of change advocated by early Anabaptists that deserve consideration in the organizational context include:

  • People over Buildings – Anabaptists believed that the church is the people and not the building. In the 1500’s this was a radical position to take among the cathedrals of Europe. Anabaptists asserted that God would and did meet people wherever they lived and worshipped, not just in a building. This is helpful for leaders today, to remember what an organization is: people organized to accomplish a particular purpose together. Buildings and administrative “structures” can be important accessories in meeting the mission, but they serve the purposes of the mission and the people, not the other way around.
  • Sharing over Privatization – Early Anabaptists saw the Christian life as one of sharing possessions and resources, including gifts and abilities, with others. Many resonated with the call for economic justice that precipitated the German Peasants’ Revolt, a precursor movement. One early Anabaptist group, the Hutterites, formed a common purse in which all property and economic activity was owned communally. Many Anabaptists emphasized mutual aid, prioritizing support, encouragement, and caring for each other in practical ways.
  • Community over Hierarchy – While early Anabaptists did not reject all authority they were cautious of embracing a complicated hierarchical approach to authority. They embraced the authority and wisdom of the gathered community over that of persons and systems not connected to the local community. Anabaptists were leery of power, which they believed could be easily abused. They advocated for a more organic approach to decision making and planning.

Reflection Questions

  1. How might our leadership team invite the change we wish to see vs. impose the change we wish to see?
  2. How might those in leadership go first in being the change they wish for vs. having others go first in being the change the leaders wish for?
  3. How might your organization prioritize the creativity and needs of people over the current structures in which you operate? How do we keep the responsibility of attending to administrative details from overwhelming the potential to be a new people movement?
Residents converse with each other at Messiah Lifeways in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
Residents in conversation. Messiah Lifeways, Mechanicsburg, PA. Credit: MHS.

Early Anabaptist movements touched centers of power but took hold most strongly among ordinary people on the margins of society. As these ordinary people called for change, they made sure to prioritize the needs of their vulnerable friends and neighbors, the “least of these” from Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25. Anabaptists considered persons with physical, personal, or social challenges important members of the community. They knew that for change to be effective it would need to address the needs and welcome the engagement of the frail and marginalized. Anabaptist movements initiated change primarily from the margins rather than from the centers of established power.


It is tempting for leaders to think they know what others within or served by the organization want or need. Disciplining oneself to ask questions directly of others – especially those on the margins – and really using their responses and inviting their participation to help steer change takes courage and confidence. One of the best ways to monitor whether the organization is creating the kinds of communities it says it wishes to create is to ask the most vulnerable members of the community.

Reflection Questions

  1. To whose voices calling for change do you listen? Why them? Who else may have an important perspective that you’re missing?
  2. How do you include the voice of the “least of these” in the change process and end goals? How might you start change by engaging around the margins of power vs. with those at the center of power?
  3. How can the interests and wishes of the marginalized help leaders find more creative and inclusive responses to organizational challenges?

Some Anabaptist-related organizations have approached “changing” things by being salt and light to the world (a reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:13-16). Their interpretation of being salt and light focuses on making sure that the community is “true and pure” so it can be a witness to what should be. This can lead to an internal focus and becoming so isolated they have few connections beyond their program or site. Some organizations using this approach have been unwilling to collaborate with other organizations because it might decrease their salt and light.

Dr. Fran Sparrow in conversation with staff. Philhaven, in Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Fran Sparrow in conversation with staff. Philhaven, Mt. Gretna, PA.

Other organizations have focused so intently on using mainstream professional best practices in pursuing change that they have lost their Anabaptist identity and the resources it brings. Anabaptist-related organizations have a mixed history which sometimes includes insisting they’re doing good work while refusing to listen to, or only partially listening to, calls for changes within the organization. These calls for change might spotlight such dynamics as power imbalances, need for transparency in authority and decision making, or issues with consistent communication.

The cover of the book Making Shifts Without Making Waves.
Dr. Fran Sparrow in conversation with staff. Philhaven, Mt. Gretna, PA.
The cover of the book Promise And Peril.
Promise and Peril
By David R. Brubaker
The cover of the book The Little Book Of Cool Tools For Hot Topics.
The Little Book Of Cool Tools for Hot Topics
By Ron Kraybill, Evelyn Wright
Healthy Organizations
The Little Book of Healthy Organizations
By David R. Brubaker and Ruth Hoover Zimmerman