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It Takes Courage to Lead

Deborah Stollery


Setting a direction, holding others accountable, having difficult conversations, correcting and guiding, letting people go…most would agree that it takes courage to do these things.   But it also takes courage to be lavish with praise, to surround yourself with people who know more than you do, and to admit when you are wrong, overwhelmed or sad.  It also takes courage to change direction, especially when it’s the way things have always been done and/or when you set the direction that now needs changed.

In other words, it takes courage to be a leader.  And courage is both a gift from the Holy Spirit and a skill to be learned and honed.  For those of you who aspire to or already hold leadership positions within the Church, courage is a fundamental requirement.  So let’s briefly take a look at why courage is so important for ecclesial leaders and then end with a bit about how to access the gift of courage that comes from the very Spirit of the Lord.

In the Catholic tradition, courage is also known as fortitude.  It is a gift conferred in Baptism and animated through Confirmation.  Clearly, God is courageous and God intends for us to be courageous as well.  What are we to be courageous about?  What God showed us God is courageous about in Jesus:  the restoration of the world to the way God intended it to be.  That means the courage to have mercy, to forgive, to have compassion, to accompany others in good times and bad, sickness and health, to stand for God’s ways no matter what is happening around and to love as God loves: by choice, lavishly.  Jesus showed us what that looks like and His passion and death make it very clear that we will meet opposition as we stand with Him, proclaiming His way to be The Way.

To do all of that and more, as Jesus said we would when He sent the Spirit[i], clearly takes courage.  To speak the truth even when it is not fashionable or comfortable takes courage.  To speak that truth to those who hold the power of employment, of security, of reputation or election takes courage.  To live according to Gospel values in cultures that value other things takes courage.  To live according to Gospel values AND be entrusted with leading others to do the same takes a particular kind of courage…the courage of discomfort.

That’s why courage is critical for ecclesial leaders.  So how does one access this essential gift, this supernatural strength that enables the children of God to live and lead others in this way of life?  It will come as no surprise that a deep relationship with the Lord is at the heart of accessing courage.  That relationship is nurtured in prayer[ii] and in the dialogue with the Sacred Word[iii] where the Lord speaks to his people.  Ecclesial leaders must, then, pray for the gift of courage to be manifested and they must pray for the courage to unwrap the gift.  That may sound silly but consider this.  The Lord conferred the gift upon his children and it was accepted formally in Baptism and Confirmation.   It’s not difficult to see how unevenly it is being used when one looks at the universal Church’s struggles with crime and cover-up. 

Ecclesial leaders also unwrap the gift of courage through the inspiration of the lives of the Saints, many of whom lived with remarkable courage born of their closeness to the Lord and their belief that he had called them to a particular work here and now.  I’m personally inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, and St. Teresa of Calcutta for the courage each displayed in following the Lord’s word overtly and with firm intention in difficult times and calling for stunning personal sacrifices. They embody courage for me.  Do find those Saints and saints who do so for you.  The will help you unwrap the gift of courage.

Finally, ecclesial leaders can also increase their courage by listening to other courageous voices from history and in the current age.  Reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches (or better yet, watch him give some of them), reading Sr. Joan Chittister, studying the lives and teachings of theologians like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all increase courage as each encounter presents people willing to endure death, censure, ecclesial outcasting and more in order to follow Christ.

Are there more ways to access the gift of courage?  Sure, and I’ll be taking a look at them in future posts this month.  For now, the challenge for all who hold leadership positions within the Church is to intentionally unwrap the gift of courage and develop it.  The Lord gave the gift.  It’s hard to imagine not unwrapping it and using it as He intends.

[i] John 14:12
[ii] Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 534
[iii] CCC 102

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