Mary: Model of Authentic Spiritual Leadership

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
– Luke 2:19

In this post, I share reflections I developed some years ago on Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she is portrayed in several familiar Gospel stories. Looking at them through a developing understanding of spiritual leadership, I believe these stories reveal important insights into Mary as an example of someone who exhibited strong leadership shaped by a deep spirituality.

For me, the passage from Luke’s birth narrative quoted above holds the key to understanding Mary as an authentic spiritual leader.  The quotation marks the end of a dramatic scriptural scene. Shepherds have come to the manager where Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus are staying. The shepherds bring strange tales of angels visiting them in the fields, praising God on high and declaring Mary’s child as the Messiah, the anointed one long anticipated by the Jews.

We might be tempted to think that the pondering of Mary mentioned by Luke in this scene was a singular event, stirred by the words of these excited shepherds. I think not. I believe Mary throughout her life had “pondering” as a spiritual practice. In other words, she allowed herself moments of quiet reflection, contemplation, wonder, and awe at the greater mystery of which she found herself often only an unknowing part.

In this post, I will use selected passages from the Gospels to guide a reflection on Mary’s leadership attitude and actions, and suggest that Mary’s role modeling is important to our understanding of spiritual leadership in organizations today.

The Lord is with You. You have found favor with God
– Luke 1: 28, 30

Luke begins his Gospel with the story of the Annunciation.  Here we find the first evidence of Mary’s engagement in faithful, life-long openness to God’s call through a contemplative spiritual practice. In the story, an angel visits Mary and announces that she has “found favor with God.”  For me, this passage reveals that the annunciation is not the result of a spur-of-the-moment decision on the part of God. God did not say suddenly one day, “Let me look down to Earth and see if I can find a suitable virgin for my plan.” Rather, what happened in this story must be understood as the result of a long, ongoing relational presence and knowing between Mary and her God, an “at-one-ment” that had developed through a process of ongoing spiritual contact and communion.  Each of us knows persons like this in our lives: spiritual leaders who seem in tune with what is “really real” about life, and for whom sometimes remarkable things happen. We admire them, and we seek to follow them.

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered
what sort of greeting this might be.
– Luke 1:29

As the Annunciation scene moves forward, the angel declares Mary’s unique mission to bear the Christ-child.  Here in this passage, we again have the image of Mary pondering her experience. She does not react precipitously to the angel’s message, but is seen weighing its implications, not accepting its possible truth and implications quickly or without the need for careful thought and reflection.

Those who have spent time in leadership positions will recognize that it is often the reality that the Spirit calls us to do the difficult thing. In those moments, it is best to pause and reflect in order to be certain the action we feel called to is indeed the right one.

Do not be afraid, Mary.
– Luke 1:30

Fear is the most universal response to change and the unknown which it heralds.  It is important to note that in this passage the angel calls Mary by name. She is known.  Again, this is a sign to me that mutual knowing, through the experience of her life of relationship with God, is the bedrock of Mary’s trust in God in this moment. It is that trust which enables her to overcome her fear and to accept the challenge offered.

Having a spiritual practice that includes reflecting on past experiences of trust, and their eventual positive outcome, is for me an important part of spiritual leadership.

Here I am, the servant of the Lord.
– Luke 1:38

In her ultimate response to the angel, Mary acts out of her knowledge of God’s gratuitous love. She chooses to do the loving thing herself, to be a servant to others. She is open to doing the difficult thing for the sake of the greater good. Servant leadership often involves overcoming the instinct for self-preservation when confronted with the constant demands of change and transformation.

Blessed is she who believed.
– Luke 1:45

As witnessed in the Annunciation narrative, Mary has not entered into this new experience without fear or confusion, yet at her core, she still believes.  The Dutch feminist theologian Catharina Halkes (1993) discusses the relationship between God’s call and the response inspired by belief made by those like Abraham and Mary:

Believing in the Old Testament does not relate to something that is finished but to something that is happening.  Those who are called are not given any teaching but recognize that God is at work and is calling them, that they are entering into this action and taking on themselves the tension which the saving event causes in human existence generally.  This is the only explanation of Abraham and the prophets. In Mary the people of God was again given the possibility of recognizing that God is acting here and now and that they also have to act in obedience to the call and thus follow into the unknown. Here believing means making oneself available. (p. 55).

Having served as a leader in an organization in transformation, I have found that it is not enough for a leader simply to hold a vision that might bring new life to that organization.  One also must learn the more difficult lesson of how to hold the tensions that arise both within oneself as the bearer of a vision, and also among those most directly affected by its implications. These tensions include the need to confront past behaviors, to cope with one’s own and others’ natural resistance to change, to move forward at the right speed, to “trust the process” rather than seek to control the outcome.  These are all part of the daily challenge for “she who believed.”

They have no wine….Do whatever he tells you.
– John 2: 3,5

From Luke’s Gospel we switch now to John’s narrative of the wedding feast at Cana.  Here we find, I think, two very important elements of Mary’s style of spiritual leadership. In the story, Mary and Jesus are guests at a marriage banquet. Vawler suggests that Mary’s actions indicate she may have been a person of some authority at the feast, perhaps a near relative.[ii] Regardless, she is someone whose ongoing spiritual practice and contemplative attitude has brought her to a place in which she is compassionately aware of the needs of others.  She knows that the lack of wine means the banquet will fail and the couple and their families will suffer great embarrassment. Her compassion moves her to action. She goes for help to the one she knows will be able to affect a solution.  In doing so, she simply and directly defines the unfortunate reality. She says to Jesus: “They have no wine.” Leaders often are required to share the bad as well as the good news.

Jesus responds to Mary with a deflection.  “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”

Traditional commentators suggest that this statement may reflect Jesus’ foreknowledge of his true destiny.  His remark is intended to indicate that no earthly person has control of him.  Some suggest that he eventually acquiesces to his mother’s request in recognition of her faith, even though he knows his “hour” has not yet come.

Could we not, however, looking further at the unfolding of this scene, see Mary’s true genius of leadership? Mary is not hooked here by whatever Jesus’ issues are.  In fact, she does not engage him in further conversation at all.  She simply turns to the servant standing nearby, and, with obvious authority, instructs him to, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Then, and this is equally important, Mary disappears from the narrative altogether. In this way, Mary shows the true strength and wisdom of authentic spiritual leadership.  That is, she first empowers Jesus to move beyond his own resistances, and then she lets him free to respond.  Having completed her leadership role, Mary moves out of the way and into the background, allowing Jesus and the servants together to manage the situation on their own.

Conclusion

Gay Hendricks and Kate Ludeman (1997) have researched the characteristics of today’s top corporate leaders. They conclude that “the successful leaders of the twenty-first century will be spiritual leaders. They will be comfortable with their own spirituality, and they will know how to nurture spiritual development in others” (p. xviii).

My experience of spiritual leadership has confirmed for me the need to engage, as did Mary, in spiritual practices that help one to live with integrity in the midst of the ongoing transformation that is life in the Spirit.  Primary among these practices is to regularly claim for oneself contemplative moments in which to listen to the voice of the Spirit within.  For me, these moments range from ten minutes in the midst of a hectic day to an annual eight-day retreat.

Through the disciplines of self-reflection and reflection within a supportive community of accountability, one must also learn:

– to trust the movement of the Spirit in moments when one might otherwise be paralyzed by fear or moved to actions that are inappropriate at best and controlling at worst;

– to trust in the presence and action of the Spirit in other individuals and in the transformational process itself, often in the darkest of moments;

– to cultivate an attitude of compassion toward oneself and others as the transformational process triggers both one’s unique gifts and talents as well as one’s woundedness.

Whether she be real or imagined, these are lessons which Mary, mother of Jesus, models for me in the Gospel stories.

© PMB Excerpted from a presentation to the College Theology Society, 2003


Halkes, C. and Schillebeeckx, E. (1993) Mary: Yesterday, today, tomorrow. New York, NY: Crossroad. p. 55.

Vawler, C.M., B. (1968). “The Gospel According to John.” In Jerome biblical commentary. Brown, SS, R.E.; Fitzmyer, S.J., J.A.; Murphy, O. Carm., R.E. (Editors). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Hendricks, G. and Ludeman. K. (1997). The corporate mystic: A guidebook for visionaries with their feet on the ground. New York, NY:Bantam.

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