Leaders Listen

And why every women’s conference is every man’s business

I threw a small fit about the laundry. And yes, my husband was on the receiving end of my late-night rant—but we weren’t volleying blame for the neglect of dirty socks. No, my vented frustration was directed at Matt Perman’s new book, What’s Best Next. In the first half of the book, Perman delivers confidently on the book’s sound premise: the gospel helps us decide our priorities and steward our time. Perman assures readers that Jesus wants us to get things done—because getting things done is one way of obeying the second commandment.

But the second half of the book disappoints. Perman encourages readers to make a “time map” of their week—helpful advice, to be sure—but his sample map reflected a life alien to my own syncopated work rhythms and contingent work hours. His workday seemed to be advantageously insulated from the interruptions of sick children, carpool responsibilities, orthodontist appointments, and grocery shopping. So what did the gospel have to say about deciding the priorities of my work—women’s work? What did God have to say about the laundry?

Godly Leadership

“Reach out to him,” my husband advised. “If time management is a topic he really cares about, he’ll want this feedback. It’s probably not a perspective he’s considered.”

On my husband’s advice, my laundry rant became a meaningful dialogue with Matt Perman and, in a post on his personal blog, he granted my concerns about the laundry. “[But] this raises a larger issue,” Perman pressed, admitting the underrepresentation of women in writing and leadership. “As men, we share significant responsibility for that because of being too narrowly focused on ourselves and own perspectives.”

Perman sensed rightly that my frustration wasn’t really about the laundry. I was lamenting this: that though we affirm male leadership in our churches and families, we too infrequently remind pastors and husbands that godly leadership is listening leadership. Godly leaders must listen to Christ, who is their Head (cf. Eph. 4:15). But godly leaders must also listen to the people they lead (cf. Acts 6:1-6.)

Incarnational Leadership

It is nearly, if not altogether impossible, to lead people whose concerns you do not understand, whose challenges you cannot identify, whose fears you have not at least tried to imaginatively enter. Indeed, the incarnation of God in the man Jesus Christ illustrates the value of leadership that actively listens: God became man. He was born into a human family, lived in a small village, worked in a carpenter’s shop, and traveled with a ragtag band of fishermen, tax collectors, and political radicals. He experienced hunger and fatigue, praise and betrayal, friendship and loneliness, and eventually, he braved the greatest of all human terrors: death.

Though the Father knew our frame prior to the incarnation and remembered “we are dust” (cf. Ps. 103:13, 14), the Son entered our fragile mortality in order to understand our weaknesses and become our sympathetic High Priest. These are the great lengths to which God went in order to listen to his people, his generosity bidding us to surrender our lives and receive from him grace for our weaknesses, mercy for our fears and failures. Isn’t it true that all of us—men and women—are led most eagerly by those who’ve attempted to walk the proverbial mile in our shoes?

Women's Work

As I think ahead to The Gospel Coalition Women's Conference, which opens today in Orlando, I’m starting to consider that every Christian women’s conference is every Christian man’s business. The incarnation would have it no other way. Too long, we’ve mistakenly billed women’s issues as the concerns of women alone—when pastors and husbands, if they want to lead well, must lean attentively into the conversations women are having. (I’m particularly grateful to see men like Tim Keller slated to teach tonight at the conference. You can watch via livestream.)

Men should seek to understand the intentions of women’s conferences, even as they should endeavor to read books written by women. In this way, they engage sympathetically with perspectives not their own, and concerns, both practical and theological, are refracted in different light. To return to my opening example, men may not struggle, for example, with splintered days and the dizzying sense of responsibility that comes from wearing many hats and spinning many plates. Yet if pastors and male teachers want to offer a sound theology of work, from the pulpit, someone needs to be talking about the laundry. (Kathleen Norris’s essay “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work” should be required reading for all pastors.) When men understand the concerns of women—even try to imaginatively enter the struggles women face—they lead better. They lead like Christ.

Most Excellent Way

But before I’m accused of highlighting the speck in my brother’s eye without attending to the log in my own, let me also admit that it is incumbent on me—as it is on every member of Christ’s body—to seek to understand and value perspectives I do not share. I’m learning quickly that my privileges are my blind spots. I am a married white woman with a graduate education. I do not understand the plight of a poor single black mother in Memphis who worries how rent will be paid and how her children will eat. The evils of poverty and racial discrimination, as two examples, will remain generic evils for me until I seek out stories different from my own. I, too, must learn to listen if ever I am to participate most fully in the body of Christ.

Perhaps this is why Paul, in concluding his discussion of the distribution of gifts in the church, reminded us that love is the most excellent way (cf. 1 Cor. 12:31). Even as we are many, we are one. We share grief and joy. Our unity depends on understanding. We adorn the gospel when we lay aside privilege and enter imaginatively into the sorrows and celebrations of others: pastors and congregants, husbands and wives, bosses and employees, even parents and children.

The incarnation teaches us that to lead is to love—and to love is, in part, to listen.