Blessed are the Nathans

Anne Howard

I’m looking for Nathan.* I’m looking across the landscape of emerging leaders from our divinity and theological schools, seeking the Nathans, but finding instead batches of temple priests more focused on burying Uriah than confronting David.

Don’t get me wrong. We need those priests. We need caring pastors and imaginative liturgists, lay and ordained faith leaders to enliven our community worship, accompany our life journeys, and encompass our joys and griefs. But we need our pastors and priests to be courageous as well as comforting. We need leaders of faith communities who are not afraid to discern the signs of the times and speak and act with courage about what they see.

I’m not talking about hoary-bearded prophets of doom, placard in hand, ranting in high decibels on street corners. Nor am I talking about the righteous steely-eyed voice of blame, the finger-pointing axe-grinder who climbs into the pulpit to cause groans from the rapidly emptying pews. I’m talking about leaders with a vocation to inspire their congregations to embrace a public faith. A vocation to lead is something quite different from a vocation to care for the congregation’s private life and personal needs.

“Looking for Nathan” has become something of a mantra at The Beatitudes Society as we work to identify and equip leaders to grow faith communities for the sake of justice and the common good. The Beatitudes Society’s new yearlong Beatitudes Fellowship, launching this fall, assembles a select group of entrepreneurial faith leaders who will gather quarterly for customized workshops tailored to their particular ministry. They will work alongside their peers on leadership skills, including strategic planning, communication, spiritual practices, community-building, and learning to discern what a ministry needs, from the tangible (people, money, time) to the intangible (faith, hope, courage).

Embracing the Entrepreneurial

We are looking for that pastor, lay or ordained, with a vocation to lead – someone who has a bold vision for corporate worship, spiritual formation, and social justice, with a commitment to hold all three in creative tension. We are looking for entrepreneurial faith leaders who want to take that bold vision from a good idea to a tangible project that connects their congregation with the world beyond their church doors.

In our search for these “Nathans,” I find I need to explain the use of the word “entrepreneurial.” We use the word because we are looking for leaders who want to start something new in order to grow their congregations, not simply maintain them. Yet “entrepreneurial” has little resonance with many of my church colleagues. As one colleague said to me, “Entrepreneurial sounds just too bold for the church. We’re not like that.”

But we need to be “like that.” We need bold faith leaders for tough times. Across the world, this new century has been marked by unceasing wars, unprecedented climate disasters, and increasing wealth disparity. Across the country, local and federal budgets are shredding safety nets for the poor, incentives for the middle class, and protections for the environment. In tough times we need bold faith leaders to proclaim the active compassion and justice at the heart of all the great religions.

“Where Are the Religious Voices?”

As a neighbor said to me a short while ago: “It’s amazing that it took kids camping on Wall Street to come up with the 1 percent-99 percent slogan. That phrase alone gets my attention. But where are you people? Where are the religious voices? Why aren’t they talking about wealth and poverty and income disparity? Jesus did a lot of that, didn’t he?”

Yes, he did. And so, yes, in this era when too few rich “kings” own way too many “lambs,” we need new Nathans to say, in effect, “You are the man.” The point is not to blame the infamous “1 percent” but to help us see a way forward together, confess our complicity in the status quo, acknowledge the planet’s suffering, and embrace our responsibility to be agents of change, stewards of creation, and neighbors to one another. We need leaders with Nathan’s quiet audacity to weave a winsome story about a lamb and a rich man and a poor man. With that single story, Nathan portrayed the 1 percent-99 percent reality of his day, and named the consequences of that injustice.

Over coffee awhile back, a friend of mine, something of a cynic, made a napkin drawing. It was not a pretty picture. Across the top of the folded paper square he drew a few boxes. “These boxes,” he said, “represent those who wield power in our country: energy, finance, manufacturing.” Below that, he listed the entities used by the power-wielders to broker their power: K Street lobbyists, the media,  PR firms, attorneys. Off to the side, he drew the politicians, linking them to the power at the top and the brokers right below “to do their bidding.” And then, on the bottom of the napkin, he drew a row of stick people, saying “These are the people who are trying to keep a roof over their heads, supper on the table, body and soul together.”

Above the row of stick people he drew a row of circles. “These are the churches and synagogues and mosques and service clubs and local agencies, applying the Band-Aids to the wounds inflicted on the people at the bottom by the power structures at the top. The church stands for abstention from change and an investment in the status quo. Where’s the voice speaking truth to power in this picture? Where’s the moral compass?”

I carry his question with me, as I look across a new generation of faith leaders and seek those with a vocation to lead, those prophetic leaders who can discern the reality of God in the world and help us shape creative responses to that reality. We need those individuals described by Walter Brueggemann: “poets who bring the world to voice outside of settled convention.”

Settle Not for Status Quo

We need them, but I’m not sure we want them. Nor do our institutions invest in them. We live inside our settled conventions, from our local pews to our national denominations to our theological schools. We might not want to know what that world out there is saying, or what we might say and do in response.

William Sloane Coffin had something to say about this: “Most church boats don’t like to be rocked; they prefer to lie at anchor rather than go places in stormy seas. But that’s because we Christians view the Church as the object of our love instead of the subject and instrument of God’s. Faith cannot be passive; it has to go forth – to assault the conscience, excite the imagination. Faith fans the flames of creativity altogether as much as it banks the fires of sin.” (Credo, Westminster John Knox, 2004, pp. 140-141)

Dare we risk the faith that fans the flames of creativity? Dare we invite that kind of leadership into our churches and our schools? Do we make room for that kind of innovation in our seminary curricula? Or are we content for our faith leaders to tend to the personal and the private, for churches to be first-aid dispensaries and hospices?

I hear a widespread acceptance about the notion that religion is marginalized in the culture today. In a recent interview, Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools said the culture no longer looks for “a significant kind of leadership” from religion. Religion has been marginalized, he said, “it has been shifted from being a culture-forming value to being a personal-forming value.”

But a quick look at the headlines would say religion does play a significant role in society today. Conservative Christians in this election year are influencing public debate and ballot box results. On battlefields and in town squares across the Middle East, religion fiercely affects culture. So a question we might ask right now is which kind of religion molds culture today – only the most extreme version, or the loudest version, or the most literal version, or the version most aligned with cultural norms?

I can see, from my neighbor and my coffee companion and the church at large, that prophetic religion – the kind expressed in the beatitudes of Jesus – is indeed on the sidelines. Imagine if Christianity were known for the beatitudes.*

In these sayings recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives us not a picture of a world beyond this one, marked by blessings and rewards, but rather a lens with which to see this world: Jesus points to a God who is always doing something new in our time, a God who engages this world with healing mercy, endless compassion, and liberating justice. The beatitudes were offered to the early church as both encouraging comfort about the presence of God in the midst of suffering and as a stirring manifesto for a way of life that ran radically counter to the prevailing ethos of the Roman Empire.

So do we want a Christianity known for the beatitudes? Do we want faith leaders who provide both encouraging comfort and stirring manifesto? Do we want a faith that challenges the status quo and engages the people in real transformational work for human thriving? 

The answers we give to these questions guide our churches and leadership development. In a recent blog entitled “Seminary Is Not the Problem – the Church Is,” author Brian McLaren said, “Seminary training isn’t supposed to be about preparation for a nice, cushy desk job. Neither is it supposed to be about preparation for decades of chaplaincy to congregations that want to be tended and serviced, not served and led.”

I have seen too many young faith leaders dampen their own desire to serve and to lead because they believe the church wants to be tended and serviced. I hear them talk about the need to “keep a low profile” in order to make it through the ordination process, to get a job, keep a job, and keep paying off their student debt.

Fresh Voices

But I also hear the conviction of the new preacher (at a recent Beatitudes Society Prophetic Preaching Workshop) who says her model for preaching is Martin Luther King, Jr “because of his ability to communicate a cohesive sense of the gospel and how it compels the complacent to take action without resorting to proof-texting or brow-beating. Dr. King’s sermons are full of vibrant hope that elicits the strongest, best parts of our human nature while telling the truth about the worst parts of our human experience – calling us into the truth of our baptismal vocations.”

That hope, and that image of vocation, could, if we wanted, transform our churches, our schools, our leaders, our basic understanding of faith. William Sloane Coffin’s description of this vocation gives us our charge and our challenge:

“We are called on not to mirror but to challenge culture, not to sustain but to upend the status quo, and if that to some sounds overly bold, isn’t it true that God is always beckoning us toward horizons we aren’t sure we want to reach?” (Credo, p. 146) 

Anne Howard, an Episcopal priest, is Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society ( and the author of Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation (Alban, 2009). 

* II Samuel 12 – Nathan said to David: “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man.” 

* Matthew 5:1-12: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”