Leading with Anabaptist Values

To demonstrate character is to be clear about who you are, be open to growing, embrace your convictions and gifts, and treat others the way you would like to be treated.

For Anabaptists, developing character is not only believing the “right” things but doing the right things. Beyond affirming a belief statement or creed, the measure of faithful living is having a character that responds as Christ responded. Compassionate living, loving others – including one’s enemies – and robust communities with healthy leadership give evidence of growing character. Anabaptists have challenged each other through the centuries to match actions to professed internal changes. Many early Anabaptists refused to swear oaths requested in court or daily life, believing their “yes should be yes” and their “no should be no” according to Jesus’ teaching. Integrity flowed from the character of the individual not an outward thing by which one swore.

Mennonite leader, Rowena Lark, at Camp Ebenezer, Holmes
County, Ohio, circa 1950. Credit: Mennonite Church USA Archives, HM4-110, Photo 1967.

In the mid-twentieth century, Rowena and James Lark, African-American leaders in the Mennonite Church, demonstrated the best of Anabaptist character as they ministered with integrity and persistence. Despite the racial discrimination they faced both within and beyond the church, the Larks began churches, trained leaders, and administered programs addressing human need in communities across the U.S. During about the same time period, young Anabaptists in the U.S. drafted for military service in World War II had to decide how to demonstrate their peace convictions. Many chose to fufill their obligations in civilian or noncombatant service. Anabaptists believe that one’s character shines through in the quality of relationships a person has with others. Persons of mature character are persons who seek justice and whose relationships are filled with trust, kindness, peace, compassion, and reconciliation.

Values In

Anabaptist-related organizations often consider a leader’s exhibiting strong and growing character to be just as important as he or she having the right competencies. What one commits to and lives out in everyday life is as important as having the correct technical and professional skills. This does not mean that competencies are not important. Instead, one’s character is also foundational. Values, convictions, and ethics are not the icing on the cake of leadership that are nice to have; they are essential for being an effective leader. A leader sets the tone in an organization, and how she or he treats staff and others speaks volumes. Strong character lived out consistently in day-to-day interactions builds trust, the currency of exceptional organizations. Behaving in ways that ultimately build mistrust or dissension demonstrates neither healthy character nor effective leadership. For example, stakeholders quickly recognize inconsistency in a leader who is compassionate but does not communicate honestly. Anabaptist related organizations look for leaaaders who understand and demonstrate the importance of internal integrity that is visible in everyday organizational life.

Reflection Questions

  1. How do you model honesty and direct communication as you interact with board members, staff, and those you serve?
  2. Jot down a few character traits of your organization. Are simplicity, truth-telling, or concern for justice and reconciliation anywhere on the list? Why or why not?

For the early Anabaptists, becoming a Christian was not a one-time decision to follow Christ, rather, following Christ was seen as a process of ongoing discipleship. Because of this approach, Anabaptists have believed that character is not fixed but can mature and become more Christ-like. One’s character could and should continue to develop and emerge. A Christian should be open to spiritual growth and new ways of thinking and acting. Re-visiting heritage values and interpreting them in new ways inspires character formation. For example, many Anabaptist communities have valued simplicity. In some settings simplicity referred to communicating honestly, without pretense. In others it meant codified clothing options or rules about what was considered economically ostentatious. Today’s conversations around economic simplicity recognize that if one is able to make the choice to “live simply” that person has class privilege. Tracing Anabaptist values through time creates valuable personal engagement and highlights that the character of the Anabaptist movement changes and grows too.

Values In

Since character is not fixed or static it is important for leaders to grow their characters and related organizational skills and competencies. This implies the need for self-awareness and continued review and discovery. Gaining clarity about one’s own convictions, skills, gifts, and abilities is central. It also means learning new skills and strengthening needed character qualities for consistent, visionary leadership.

As leaders take their own growth potential seriously, they recognize the opportunity to extend grace in believing that other team members can also grow and change. A leader drawing on Anabaptist values looks for methods to nurture transformation in individuals and organizational structures and processes. A fluid view of character keeps open the possibility of real improvement.

Reflection Questions

What everyday personal practices or spiritual disciplines help you grow your self-awareness and be attentive for discovery and learning opportunities?

Anabaptists have tended to take a high view of the personhood and potential of each person. They have believed that individuals have the ability and agency to develop their character. A prime example of this is that Anabaptists believed that only an informed adult can decide to become a Christian. In a corollary belief, and in contrast to other 16th century reformers, Anabaptists held that children only become accountable for their life choices when they are mature enough to understand sin and the need for repentance. Hence, Anabaptists stressed adult baptism, which is why they were labelled Anabaptists, meaning re-baptizers.

Employee Focus Group, Thurston Woods Village, Sturgis, MI. Credit: MHS.

Early Anabaptists valued individual choice and believed one could only become a Christian because of one’s own choice to follow Jesus and not due to circumstances of birth. In addition, persons should not be coerced to become Christian, rather they need to decide based on their own convictions. Anabaptists believed people are to be valued and respected because they are created by God. A well-known story from the Anabaptist movement in 16th century Europe highlights the kind of character that sees high value and potential for good in every human, even one’s enemies. Dirk Willems, imprisoned for being an Anabaptist, managed to escape his imprisonment and was fleeing across a frozen lake when his pursuer broke through the ice and cried for help. Dirk chose to turn around and rescue his captor. He was immediately returned to prison and later martyred. While an Anabaptist perspective on character offers choice and freedom, it also places responsibility for the development of one’s character with the individual. The individual has the ability to use her or his gifts and resources for God and the common good. It also means that when one is called for leadership it is important to take the responsibility seriously and embrace the role.

Values In

Ongoing growth implies self-awareness, an openness to change, and attention to how one relates to others. If the leader’s character is healthy and growing then it is reasonable to expect that coaching and mentoring others around the leader will result in their growth as well. If a leader’s character can grow and mature then he or she believes that other persons that she or he works with can grow and mature too. An Anabaptist approach to organizational life holds open the possibility that all persons can develop strong character.

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you believe that the team member you have the most difficulty getting along with is working on his or her character and personal growth?
  2. What can your team do together that carves out time for personal reflection and team transformation?
  3. Who do you look up to as a person of strong character? Consider writing a note thanking him or her for modeling integrity in life and leadership.

In Summary

Character for Anabaptists is foundational but not fixed. It has both internal dimensions and external implications. In organizational life a leader looks for methods to improve her or his own character and remains open to the possibility that the character of others can grow and develop too. Some of the ways leaders might enhance and model character growth in Anabaptist-related organizations are:

  • Become aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Be clear about one’s convictions
  • Develop systems of accountability and transparency
  • Develop skills that build community and trust
  • Develop practices that encourage growth for oneself and others
  • Accept the challenge of active leadership
  • Seek work and life balance that encourage wholistic wellness

Organizations have at times made the mistaken assumption that if a leader is a “good person” that is enough to accomplish organizational goals, regardless of the person’s actual competencies. A person may believe that character will carry them and the organization through difficult times or uncharted waters. Some leaders of Anabaptist-related organizations have assumed that because it is a Christian organization, there’s no need to learn new things, develop new skills, or embrace new processes.

A resident leaves an office at Central California Mennonite Residential Services

Other times the emphasis on character has meant that people believe that their convictions and perspective do not need to be tested by others. If one has the truth, then consulting with others or collaborating with others is not necessary. Being clear about one’s commitments and living in specific ways has been so important to some Anabaptists that they have tended to emphasize being faithful over being effective. Following one’s beliefs has been more important than demonstrating positive results. This can lead an organization to become unresponsive to needs around them. Inattention to results also creates space for injustice to go unchecked and people and organizations to be complicit in oppression, whatever their intentions.

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