Kennedy, Christ, and Diverse Leadership
In addition to our weekly blog pieces, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 9 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. Since these pieces represent some of our best work, we want to give them greater circulation. So, starting this semester, our blog will post a new piece each Wednesday as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “The Great Commission,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the fifth of ten installments.
I have always been a fan of political history. There have been great achievements in domestic and foreign policy, but there have also been great failures. These successes and failures demonstrate what does and does not work when a leader seeks to build a team and make decisions affecting the lives of millions. One such failure is the Bay of Pigs Invasion. One such success is the Cuban Missile Crisis. These episodes in political history illustrate the importance of surrounding oneself with diverse voices to aid in making informed decisions. This is not only a practice in politics; it is also a value espoused in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus welcomed people from a variety of backgrounds, bringing diverse perspectives and shaping the early Church. This characteristic of Jesus’ ministry was not merely practical, but instrumental to Christianity’s success. Jesus’ model leadership is effective both in the political arena and in the personal realm, guiding us to become ambassadors of Christ and His kingdom. 1
The Bay of Pigs Invasion planned to topple the Cuban government with a group of Cuban expatriates supported by the U.S. government. The invasion was a complete failure. The insurrection was quickly squashed by the Cuban government, which knew of the secret invasion. President Kennedy’s cabinet and advisors, who came from the best schools and were supposed to be the best in the business, failed to notice even the most obvious flaws in their plan. The book Groupthink, written by political commentator Irving Janis, examines these fiascos such as the Bay of Pigs invasion. The questions are simple: why do groups of supposedly very smart people often make terrible decisions, and how can we minimize these incidents? Janis defines this phenomenon of “groupthink” as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.” 2 Janis found that the Bay of Pigs and many other historical examples point to this phenomenon known as Groupthink, which leads groups to overlook alternative courses of action. One of the main contributing factors is that when one has a homogeneous group of backgrounds or ideas, it becomes less likely that people will speak up about their opinions if they are contrary to the prevailing viewpoint. Groupthink causes people to be less direct, leading to pitfalls overlooked and good ideas ignored. Janis’ intended remedy includes direct communication coupled with a heterogeneous environment and team.
Kennedy would learn from the mistakes of the Bay of Pigs and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, create an environment that fostered different viewpoints. This foreign policy success was accomplished by avoiding indirect communication and tackling differences head on, rather than having minority views silenced. Janis established a means to help prevent these pitfalls by stressing the need for a diverse group of people to be used in decision-making and creating an environment that allows individuals to question the judgement of the group. Through continual meetings and thanks to free and open debate within its ranks, the Kennedy administration avoided confrontations that could have potentially ended in nuclear war.
It is by being inclusive and working towards a common objective that people are able to succeed in their task. I wonder how the Lord seeks to use those with a desire to be leaders for the Great Commission? When I seek guidance and wisdom on creating a vision and direction, I turn to the leadership qualities that Jesus embodied throughout His ministry. These qualities, in fact, embody the very things which Janis says help avoid the weaknesses associated with homogeneous groups of people.
Jesus emphasized the power of a diverse and inclusive ministry. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He pulled from a variety of different backgrounds. His disciples would continue this trend by expanding the reach of His ministry to all parts of society, both geographically and ethnically. Although this is a major component of fulfilling the Great Commission, the building of a diverse leadership team and organization also has practical implications. It is by building and maintaining this diverse ministry that we can minimize the risk of groupthink.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus instructed many of His disciples to simply follow Him; and they did. Yet these men were not religious leaders or scholars, but instead lowly characters in the eyes of religious Jews: immoral tax collectors, immoderate zealots, and uneducated fishermen. Jesus was able to pull people throughout the region into His ministry. He recruited Andrew and Simon by saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 3 In many ways, founding a ministry would require some of the skills and dispositions fishermen have, such as the ability to collect people and the patience required to bring people into the fold. Jesus and His disciples would come to include people from all walks of life in their ministry. Another disciple, Matthew, was a tax collector, which, to the religious leaders of the time, was an offensive occupation. Those of high religious standing were not supposed to fraternize with sinners such as tax collectors. While having a meal at Matthew’s house, Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees about His eating with the tax collectors and sinners. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” He responded. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” 4 First, Jesus made it very much apparent through the selection of His first disciples that He was not seeking to fill His ministry with those within the existing religious institution. Instead, He selected those that were removed from this facet of life. By fraternizing with tax collectors and sinners, He made the point that He was there to serve—all kinds of people from all walks of life. And this notion spans beyond the idea of unconditional love. It is this universal idea of service that allowed Jesus to pull those from the early ministry to His cause, an idea that is both morally fair and practical. This was a recognition of the ministry’s need for those that are not only on the periphery of society, but also those from a variety of backgrounds. It was the Kennedy administration’s failure to utilize diverse viewpoints that led to the failure of the Bay of Pigs, and it was their learned embrace of these differences that led to their success in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Throughout the New Testament we see the apostles recruit from all ranges of the socioeconomic spectrum even including Gentiles, who had never been considered “fit” for Judaism. God even used a man who actively persecuted members of the early Church, Saul, whom He called to His cause and renamed Paul. It is this very open nature of the early ministry that allowed Christianity’s reach to expand. In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul states:
And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 5
We must all find our specific talents and skills that allow us to serve effectively. Although we all come from a variety of different perspectives, we must work toward creating an effective ministry, which can only be achieved through a diverse and open forum of ideas. We are not all meant to be the same, rather, we are meant to use these differences to create a well-functioning ministry.
We must also consider the biblical teachings, which teach that those of our faith are to seek and include those from all walks of life. One of the earliest controversies of the church was whether Gentiles had to adopt Jewish customs, including circumcision. Jesus sought to include the Gentiles in His ministry, yet there was still the question of whether they could be full members of this new community without the process of becoming clean through circumcision. When pressed on this question in Acts 15, Peter stated:
By my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and when made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 6
Even in the early Church there were different beliefs as to what would be proper in the eyes of God. Yet Peter communicated to those in the early Church that it was not customs that should unite us, but rather our faith and belief in the Holy Spirit. When we seek to make decisions as a Church body we should take this as a guiding principle. We should also accept the possibility that we may not all share the same cultural customs because of our upbringings. These differences, coupled with our guiding principles in Christ, help to ensure we have a thriving ministry.
A truly capable leader does not simply finish strong and step down, but throughout his or her tenure instills the qualities of leadership in others. The last words Jesus speaks to His followers in Matthew are:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age. 7
He sent His followers out to travel thousands of miles preaching to the peoples of all nations and to share the gospel and love of Christ.
We have all been given a difficult task in the Great Commission. We should see Jesus’ request to go and make disciples of all nations as an advantage. Christianity’s appeal across cultures and classes grants us a diverse collection of people to build churches and organizations that can solve problems creatively and avoid echo chambers that could lead the Church down the wrong path. The expansion of Christ’s ministry to previously untouched communities is in fact an asset in and of itself. It is by mirroring Christ’s original ministry that we may fulfill the Great Commission and, in expanding the faith, we are able to increase diversity in order to lead successful missions for the Kingdom.
Andy Truelove (CC ’17) is from the great state of Texas. He is the former business manager of Columbia Crown & Cross and loves to grow his faith in Christian community. He will be attending law school this coming fall.