Francis and Clare of Assisi were reluctant leaders. I have spent a lot of time wondering why people followed them. Initially, Francis’ charismatic personality attracted people. Clare was attracted by Francis’ preaching, and they quietly began a conversation perhaps about what is important and what is unimportant for living a Christ-like life.
Both rejected the norms of their times, giving up the comforts that their birth had entitled them to, and pursuing simplicity and poverty as a way to become closer to God. In fact, the radical nature of these renunciations were labeled “crazy” by their contemporaries. Who wants to follow a man who appears to care nothing for physical well-being and normal human comforts? What magnetism in his person allowed Francis to attract thousands in spite of his refusal to compromise on questions of ownership and use of money?
My conclusion is that leadership begins with how we lead our lives. They ended up in leadership roles, but people followed because of how they led their lives. The Church’s norms required that they create or follow “rules” for religious life, but for both of them the rules were less important than their relationships in community. They were examples for others and never dictators of the rules. Francis became frustrated when people asked him what to do. He suggested that people should figure out what God was asking of them, because God’s guidance is what he was relying upon. It was not about copying Francis. Rather, it was about figuring out what God was calling them to do. Clare suggested to her sisters that they be honest and kind to one another and to use Christ as a mirror for discerning what to do.
Living Out Our God-Given Vocation
We are not our roles. We are human beings serving in roles. Leadership is rarely about telling others what to do. It is about inspiring others to live out their God-given vocation. All roles involve responsibilities, whether one is engaged in a parental role, as a teacher, preacher or organizational leader. However, all humans and people in leadership roles most of all, do little on their own, though some would like to think they can do it all. We create one another, and we need one another to grow into God’s grace. Paradoxically, the most irritating person in your life is likely the person who can teach you the most.
Franciscan stories can inform our decision-making, if we take the time to translate their meaning for our times and situations. The Sisters of Saint Francis of the Neumann Communities, in collaboration with The Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University, is launching the Padua Program in the fall of 2018, with the goal of supporting leaders, both lay and religious, who serve in Franciscan Ministries. This program is modeled on the leadership of Saints Francis and Clare.