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Pope Francis: how to lead from the middle

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Pope Francis waves at the conclusion of the Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 5, 2015 (Credit: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

In a recent article for The Atlantic titled “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?”, Ross Douthat examines the life and ministry of Pope Francis. The overarching question Douthat asks is what sort of legacy does Francis desire to leave? That question has also been on the minds of many of the Catholic Church’s estimated 1.2 billion followers. Is he the progressive liberal who will usher the Catholic Church into an age of reform and cultural contextualization? His Jesuit background has led many to assume that he might be more open to making compromises with the larger culture in order to help the Church grow. Since their institution in 1537, the Jesuits have been among the Church’s most successful missionary groups, often as a result of a greater willingness to be flexible on matters deemed non-essential to the faith. Does Francis share this flexibility? If so, what matters are deemed negotiable?

An alternative perspective sees Francis as a misunderstood conservative who has been mistakenly characterized by those wanting to see something that is simply not there. Such a view is held by many of the more conservative priests and cardinals. And they have a point. It is true that, as Douthat notes, many of Francis’ actions, mannerisms, and words “mirror moves his predecessors made to less fanfare and acclaim.” However, it is also clear that Francis is more than a continuation of those who came before him. His priorities are different, focusing more on reform within the Church and on giving a greater voice to Catholics in Africa, Latin America, and Asia than Benedict and John Paul II (the two popes that preceded him) ever did. Moreover, he has placed more emphasis on practical issues such as concern for the poor and the Catholic stance on a variety of social issues than his predecessors, even if the content of his words is, at times, similar.

Ultimately, Douthat argues that Francis is neither of these extremes. Instead, he sees the pope as “trying to occupy a carefully balanced center between two equally dangerous poles.” His Church appointments have furthered that end, replacing some of the more extreme cardinals and bishops, typically of a conservative bent as they were appointed by the more conservative Benedict, with non-Europeans and those of a more progressive mindset. This desire to live in the middle, to serve as a mediator between the two sides of the Catholic Church, has been successful to date and has made Francis among the more popular popes in recent memory. However, it is a difficult balance to maintain. He is sure to be tested in the coming years. Should he stray too far to one side or the other, it could have lasting and divisive consequences for the Catholic Church.

While none of us is likely to ever be the spiritual leader of well over a billion people, the need to mediate between competing groups for the betterment of the whole is a task common to most leaders. Francis has found success by listening to both sides without letting either distract him from the larger objectives to which he feels called. That ability to give value to the views of a person or group without necessarily accepting those views is vital to one’s ability to lead from the middle. It requires that the individual is valued beyond what he or she can contribute to the larger group. That, in turn, requires that the leader cares for others on a personal level. That is how God views us (Romans 5:6-8) and it’s how we should view others as well (John 13:35).

Gene Wilkes, in his book Jesus on Leadership, identifies these values as essential to what he calls servant leadership. The leader assumes a posture of serving both the mission of the group, as well as the followers in the group. In doing so, there is progression towards the mission and care for the people. The mission matters, as well as the people on the mission. Thus the servant leader values both in equally unique ways. How do you become a servant leader? Wilkes says, “you accept without compromise the call of God on your life.” Pope Francis has done it, have you?