As an avowed chocolate fan, I love Vianne Rocher’s chocolaterie as a picture of incarnational ministry. The protagonist of the movie, Chocolat, Vianne is “warm, non-judgmental, and compassionate, offering grace and peace to the troubled community… She engages the lives and troubles of her community… offers space… for honesty and truthtelling to happen”. Vianne makes transformational friendships in the community by discerning the individual (chocolate) preferences of each customer and prescribing the appropriate (chocolate) remedy for their needs. She cares less about the success of her business and more about the concerns of the people in the town. Vianne serves the French community with the incarnational attributes of love, self-sacrifice, and commitment. As a result of her compassion and acceptance, Vianne’s ministry transforms the lives of individual friends and the village as a whole.*
The greatest story of transformation power through personal incarnation is God himself coming to live among us in human form through the person of Jesus (Phil. 2:7). An incarnational model of leadership is a willingness to re-make ourselves in order to mimic Jesus more effectively in our life and work. Incarnational ministry does not require that leaders completely give up their culture (national/gender/personality) identity. Jesus did not give up being God; He did choose to limit certain aspects of His character and power. Just as a body illustrates how the varied spiritual gifts are necessary to serve God completely (I Cor 13:4-31), so are elements of all cultures necessary to reflect the full image of God. (…a whole box of chocolates!) No one culture alone is the perfect God culture. Sometimes aspects of one culture may more closely represent the character of God than another culture; at other times, combined cultural views reflect the character of God more accurately; sometimes an aspect of culture is definitely not Biblical, and a leader should discard that value. Incarnational leadership requires a lot of reflection and effort to determine how and where to make the edits in order to be more like Christ.
Applying the incarnational servant model in leadership is not easy. It can cause self-doubt, confusion and frustration. As leaders we enter a leadership position with a deeply ingrained sense of identity that developed over a lifetime. Our ethnocentrism assumes that others do or should have the same cultural values because my view is the “best” or the “correct” view. Leaders inevitably bring pride and selfishness into the situation and often negatively judge others as inferior or wrong. Attempts to serve and lead in another culture or with multi-cultural teammates will also be affected by the others’ views of servanthood and leadership. Remember: an action is not a service simply when called service; the action must actually be helpful to the receiver. (Which chocolate is their favorite, not my favorite to give away?) In addition, the pre-conceived opinions, perceptions, and stereotypes of others may interfere with our efforts to lead and serve. Sometimes even though our motives are good, our actions are completely misunderstood by others, due to their own culture grid or even their own insecurities.
Applying the incarnational model to leadership begins with an attitude adjustment. Just as Jesus came as a helpless infant, so must we approach the leadership situation humbly and with a willingness to learn.
- The first step towards an incarnational model is self-acceptance. This self-acceptance implies recognizing that God made each person intentionally and uniquely, and that He sovereignly allowed their lifetime experiences to develop in them the cultural values that they have at the time.
- Secondly, it is important for a leader to recognize their personal values, but also be willing to adapt them when necessary. (Would I give up my favorite candy?) God’s power to help a people yield their own preferences and needs to those of others is an indispensable element of incarnation. Without confidence in God’s power to change lives, there would not be much hope for the difficult process of incarnation. Thankfully, with desire, effort and God’s help, leaders can change and grow in their incarnational leadership.
*The Chocolate example comes from The Shaping of Things to Come (2003) by M. Frost & A. Hirsch (pp. 33-62) Hendrickson Publishers.
*** Next blog post will discuss six abilities we can develop to grow in our incarnational leadership… stay tuned!
How do you apply an incarnational attitude to your leadership?