Mary, Martha, Deion Sanders, and Me

The implications of imitation for church leadership

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“Blue tiger right 54 counter!” My heart jumps. That’s me. I’m getting the ball.  

“Ready, break”  

“Down set HUT!”  

My heart is pounding out of my chest.  

The ball snaps. I take the handoff. Suddenly, as if Moses himself were present, the beefy linemen part and I get the gap I need. A gap never experienced before or after. It was meant to be.  

I run through it. 40, 30, 20, 10. And that’s when it happens. Something so natural, so innate, it requires no brain power. No weighing the pros and cons. The option not to do so was non-existent. I begin high-stepping.  With the right hand carrying the ball and the left hand postured behind the ear as though listening for applause I mimicked my way into the end zone. 

This momentous game was played on a back field one step above an Illinois cow pasture. I was on the “C” team for 7th-grade Cary-Grove Football. I was a short, overweight fullback. I’m being generous when I use the word “run” to describe my movement toward the end zone. Maybe unsurprisingly, I was immediately pulled from the game for my antics. It was the beginning of the end of my two-year football career. 

Why did I high-step into the endzone that fateful Saturday morning? The decision was not made in the moment; rather it was a product of nature and countless hours spent with Deion Sanders.  

The year was 1995. Deion “Primetime” Sanders, at the height of his professional sports career, was my idol. I had (have) hundreds of his baseball and football cards, a couple of jerseys, and his rap CD. I never actually spent time in his presence but I spent a lot of time soaking in his aura. The high step was his signature move when taking an interception to the endzone. To this day, anyone who high-steps in the NFL learned it from Primetime. 

For me, mimicking Sanders was not a matter of “should I?” or “shouldn’t I?” It was a matter of when would I. 

Leadership has always faced the same equation. Not with Deion or high-stepping but in how we lead and the metrics we mimic to measure success. This is a law of nature. We are creatures of imitation. Rarely do we pause to consider the question: “What do I desire and why do I desire it?” because leadership is expected to operate at an ungodly pace.

Philosopher Rene Girard gives us a thought-provoking concept called “mimetic theory” which has significant implications for leadership in the Church. For our purposes, let me highlight a few points from the theory:

  1. We are creatures who copy our desires from the world around us
    1. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” 
  2. We are tricked into thinking we are original in our desires.
    1. “The desiring self as autonomous and independent is flatly rejected”
  3. We increase feelings of significance by expecting others to mimic our success
    1. “The adult likes to assert his independence and offer himself as a model to others, he invariably falls back to the formula “Imitate me!”  

Girard is not speaking of appetites or needs. He is speaking of the things we desire, be they material (a car) or immaterial (approval). Since our desires are mimetic (they imitate what we see around us) there are at least two significant implications for leadership. First, our ambitions can easily be influenced by unseen forces larger than ourselves. Second, we can easily fall prey to division and competition in the pursuit of our desires. It is not difficult to consider how church leadership through the ages has been heavily shaped by these realities.  

Consider the present day: the means of increasing influence, the strategies for growth, and the aim for consistent branding. Spoken or unspoken, these are rivers of force in 21st century leadership. The concepts themselves (influence, growth, and branding) are mimetic desires.  Whatever our school of leadership may have been, the contexts of “best practices” and “philosophy of ministry” are shared and mimicked. We listen to podcasts, conference speakers, and social media influencers because, like my 7th-grade high-stepping self, we are looking around for models of success. Our desire to mimic that success is expansive. Often, we do it without considering “should I?” or “shouldn’t I?” (The connection between the current leadership crisis, principalities and powers, and mimetic desire is thoroughly considered in JR Woodward’s book The Scandal of Leadership.) Don’t get me wrong, the content is not intrinsically evil but the risks of listening in the wrong places and posturing off course are high.  

There is a biblical story that further illustrates the point. It’s a radical story about listening and posture. In the gospel of Luke, we encounter a scene powerful enough to redefine success and reorient our naturally imitating selves. It takes place in Martha’s living room (Luke 10:38-42). It’s a contrast between two women who love Jesus. 

Martha is distracted, troubled, and anxious because of the immanent demands of religio-cultural success. Her distraction flows from a desire. A desire she learned by mimicking the desires of millennia of Jewish Middle Eastern women before her: successful hosts, capable women, the Proverbs 31 woman. None of her efforts were wrong but they paled in comparison to God incarnate, teaching in her living room.

On the other hand, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. The contrast is stark. For Mary, immanent pressures were no less real but held no sway in the face of the transcendent. The pressures, expectations, and cultural rules melted away; good desires were overshadowed by the Great One. The scene is more potent when you realize Luke used an ancient Greek word nowhere else used in the Scriptures. He could’ve used “sit down” or “sit with” but those failed to convey the heart posture of Mary. She had to “sit near” / “sit alongside” Jesus. She had to listen to what He taught. Jesus concludes the story by honoring Mary in his gentle rebuke of Martha. An honor that clues us into the value of posture and proper imitation.

Martha and Mary were both creatures of imitation. They were both full of mimetic desire. One postured her imitation around social religious models of success. The other postured her imitation by sitting near Jesus and listening. One is anxious and troubled. The other is eternally secure and honored with inheritance language. I’ve been delving deeply into this story the past six months and it continues to speak to me. Maybe I’m just now listening with a leadership lens.

Over the past year, I’ve been blessed with unemployment. Slowing down has been forced in some ways. This ushered in a posture shift which has allowed for better listening. After 17 years as co-founder and CEO of a non-profit, I can look back and see the Mary/Martha mix in my leadership. My leadership desires were always an imitation. Sometimes, more like Martha, when my approaches, goals, and ambitions looked more to “successful” Christian models of leadership. Other times more like Mary. Wonderful seasons of imitating Jesus through a posture of desiring to do the Father’s will, void of selfish ambition.  

We are all going to imitate. It’s not a matter of if, but when and whom. In leadership, the more we hold to the lie of originality and remain ignorant of the fact we are creatures of imitation the more we operate as disembodied tools. Tools spent for the advancement of a “mission”, the casting of a “vision,” the solving of a problem. Tools readily utilized and discarded by principalities and powers.

We can’t change our nature but we can change where we sit and who we listen to. The image of Mary sitting near Jesus and listening is the beginning of an anecdote. The presence of God is an immanent reality injecting transcendent hope and power, animating our leadership, if we are eager to imitate Jesus. His desires to do the will of the Father, to bring the healing touch to bear on real people, to sanctify in truth those whom the Father had entrusted to his care are worthy of imitation.   

We can’t course correct without a posture of listening. We can’t turn away from high-stepping into the end zone without discerning where God is at work and coming alongside those spaces. The Church, especially its earthly leadership, is faced with new realities in a post-pandemic world. The fixes and techniques that used to work have lost effectiveness. The path forward is strategically unknown and maybe that’s a good thing. Jesus invites us to desire rightly by drawing near to him, listening, and modeling his ways so that all other models lose their shiny gleam.

  • Milan Homola

    Milan Homola is a leadership guy in an era of leadership crisis, who believes that choosing unity over isolation is essential for The Church, walking in spaces where he can support isolated leaders, equip teams for greater impact, and find willing collaborators. A husband and father of three, Milan loves soccer, roadtripping, and (shhhhh) birding.

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Scott Olson
2 days ago

Great post applying Gerard to Mary and Martha! Very encouraging!

JR Woodward
3 days ago

Great word bro, and thanks for the HT!

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