Leadership: Leaders Discern Status

Leadership Blog



My son and I are college basketball fans. He is a huge University of North Carolina fan, and I am a Duke fan. In the world of college basketball, these 2 schools are huge rivals.


Each year, we attend the game where the 2 teams play each other. This past month was no exception. As we drive to the game, we are both aware of a simple fact. After the game, one of us will go home happy and the other one sad. We are also sure of something else. The winner will be merciless to the loser. All in good fun, of course.


One of us will go home in honor. The other one will return home hanging our head in shame.


When the word ‘status’ is used, it is connected to an honor/shame continuum. To speak of someone having high status is to say they have and receive honor. To speak of someone having low status is to say they live in shame. 


Leaders, many times, set their eyes on high status and engage in many techniques to maintain high status and avoid low status. This is based on the belief that one type of status is desirable and the other to be avoided.


I believe that leaders are not called to attain a high status, but they are called to discern status. Leaders will at times assume the place of high status and other times assume the place of low status. Discerning status is determining when it is best to assume either a high or a low status.


Leaders who can faithfully discern status are leaders that can create an environment where mission can thrive.


Understanding the Honor and Shame Cycle

At the heart of status is honor and shame. Let’s look at how honor and shame play out in scripture.


New Testament Scholar Rev. Dr. Mark Allan Powell writes, “The pivotal social value in the New Testament world was honor.”1 He defines honor as “the status that one has in the eyes of those whose opinions one considers to be significant.”2 Interestingly, Powell writes, honor “was ascribed through factors beyond an individual’s control: age, gender, nationality, race, height, physical health, economic class.”3


Lest we despair, Powell names things that can increase one’s honor and are within the control of the person. He lists “religious piety, courage, virtuous behavior, a congenial or charitable disposition.” And as there are things a person can do to increase one’s honor, there are certainly things a person can do to decrease their honor as well.4


Life Is Transitory, but Honor Is Eternal.

New Testament Professor Craig Hill echoes Professor Powell’s observation that understanding social standing is paramount when reading the New Testament. Hill quotes, J. E Lendon, “Honour was a filter through which the whole world was viewed, a deep structure of the Graeco-Roman mind, perhaps the ruling metaphor of ancient society.”5


Honor is accumulated, writes Mark T. Finney, through “One’s birth (lineage/family/town/city; social position of friends and acquaintances; wealth; social location; the size of one’s retinue (soldiers/ clients/slaves); and a number of miscellaneous items (clothes worn/banquets given).”6


Hill goes on to add that a person’s moral reputation was among other factors that influence honor. Other factors would include “education and eloquence, military success, the holding of civic office, the provision of public beneficence, and personal appearance and health.”7 So, like Powell, we see that there are factors that give status over which we have no control, and there are factors that give status that are within our grasp. 


As leaders, we attempt to use the natural status factors to our advantage and try to increase our status in other ways.


Desiring Status Is Part of Who We Are

Cicero, a Roman philosopher and politician, “described the love of honor as a natural drive: ‘Nature in fact not only puts up with but even demands it; for she offers nothing more excellent, nothing more desirable than honour, than renown, than distinction, than glory. Nature has made us … enthusiastic seekers after honour, and once we have caught, as it were, some glimpse of its radiance, there is nothing we are not prepared to bear and go through in order to secure it.'”8


You Have Heard, But I Tell You

One of my favorite “go to lines” of Jesus is, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” He names the way we normally think and act, and then he presents an alternative to that. His alternative is grounded in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, as we read in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5: 1-12, turns our understanding of what is natural and normally accepted upside down. 


How do we apply that to status? The temptation is to assume that we should reject honor or what is seen as high status and accept shame what is seen as low status. I think this is a simplistic approach and is not rooted in the Jewish preference of Both/And instead of Either/Or.


When we look at status, perhaps we consider that there are times when we assume high status and times when we assume low status.


Understanding Status

Sam Wells, in his book, Improvisation, addresses the concept of status. In general terms, he states, status is seen as high or low—that is “superiority or inferiority.”9 With this understanding status becomes an either/or situation. Wells notes that in life there are times that high status is required, and there are times when low status is required. There is not a universal rightness of high or low status.10


Each situation in which a leader finds themselves calls for the leader to discern whether assuming high or low status best serves the needs of the moment. Discerning leaders choose which status is required in each particular situation.11


The common misnomer is that leaders have high status and those who follow the leaders have low status. Indeed, in many secular and sacred settings, this plays out. In the church, however, a leader moves between high and low status. At times the leader is up front, directive, and the center of attention. At other times, the leader steps back and allows attention to be on others and allows others to demonstrate their interests and skills. 


Leaders with an understanding of status have an uncanny ability to move back and forth at will. This capacity is important in relationships. In these relationships, the leader allows others to claim status. In doing so, the other person’s insights, knowledge, and proposals are honored. Honoring one another as having integrity, being worthwhile, and having a gift to offer the interaction creates a dynamic environment for people to do ministry.


Leaders can discern what is needed in which moment. Leaders who can do that are leaders that create an environment where mission can thrive.12


Practical Implications

So how do we grow into leaders that can discern status?

  1. It is good to be aware of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.13 When we do the right thing for the wrong reason, the focus is not on what a person is doing, but what the person is thinking as they do it. It’s concerned with what others think and how one is perceived. “Vainglory, the precursor to pride, is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, to get glory for oneself. Pride is doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason.”14
  2. Watch for extreme thinking as a sign of trying to claim only high status.  Extreme thinking can be either extreme positive or extreme negative thinking.15 In extreme thinking, the concern becomes being right instead of doing what is right. It leads to self-righteousness.
  3. Use 3 guides: Teachers—Laying out one’s thoughts to a wise one; Scripture—Calling our attention toward the need for God’s mercy and a longing for God and away from thinking about oneself; and Experience—No longer needing to ask, How am I doing? but trusting one’s capacity to act and to receive mercy when failing.16
  4. Practice times of being alone. I know, if you’re an extrovert, you’re already fighting this idea. But hear me out. In times of being alone, “there is no opportunity for being puffed up with vanity that comes from outside comments. If one is living with others, however, there are more occasions to become vain.”17
  5. Be careful of your daydreams. John Cassian, ‘taught that through daydreaming one could see oneself teaching and preaching and receiving standing ovations with wild applause.”18 Daydreaming allows us to become what I call “legends in our own minds.” 
  6. Attend to what you envy in others: looks, voice, mind, accomplishments. By recognizing and naming those things you envy, you will be able to name the places where you will be working extra hard to gain some status. This can be tricky, for some things we envy can look like good desire. When I was a parish pastor, every Sunday the city police would direct traffic as worshippers left mass at the Roman church down the street. I envied that need. On the surface, it sounds like I desired to have enough worshippers to need police directing traffic for the congregation I served. Underneath, it was the desire to feel just as significant and important as the priest at the Roman church.
  7. Attend to oneself—observe the following in yourself. Pay attention to times of self-boasting, times of being competitive, moments of telling remarkable tales about yourself, times of seeking the credit, or when you take on yourself the role of the hero.19
  8. Be mindful all the time. I had a mentor named Frank. He continually stressed to me as a young pastor the importance of thinking. In discussing a ministry issue once, I shared my perspective. He had a large smile on his face and said, “Yes, you are now thinking.” I was ready to sit back and feel like I arrived at some great level of leadership. Then he said this, “Now that you are thinking, I want you to think about your thinking. Why do you think the way you do? Being mindful of our thinking helps us to identify when we are trying to gain honor for ourselves.
  9. Meek is a word in the Bible that many think indicates that which is weak or even mousy. Yet, that is what Jesus calls us to be. I want you to consider a different way of looking at meekness. I invite you to think about being meek as having the capacity to relate to millionaires, those in poverty and everyone in between. For in doing so, we move back and forth from high and low status.
  10. Finally, give God the credit. As soon as I say, “I’m humble,” I am no longer humble. And it is a falsehood to say, “I am the most humble person you have ever met.” Giving thanks is the best way to avoid temptation. In regularly giving God the credit and giving thanks to God for what God has done, we move away from claiming a certain position for ourselves, and we put God in front of others. 



Here is the trap of claiming high status only. “At the end stage of pride is that the afflicted one feels sacrosanct. He has no need for repentance, conversion, or change of heart.”20


“Katherine Howard, OSB, translates St. Benedict’s chapter on humility into contemporary language: ‘Humility requires continual reverent mindfulness of God. Being watchful over our behavior and our inner thoughts, we desire to live in harmony with God’s will. We must develop a willingness to respond to others’ legitimate desires and commands out of love for God and with a quiet acceptance of the necessary suffering in life. We must not succumb to life’s struggles with anger, depression, and the desire to run away. It is wise to seek a mature and trusted other to honestly reveal our inner thoughts, good and bad. By doing so, we can even learn to be content with shabby treatment by others and be able to find a sincere, peaceful acknowledgment in our heart that we are no better, and could very well be worse, than others. This ability to live in community without the compulsion to project our unique identity by acting contrary to others shows itself in our ability to refrain from speaking on every topic, in every situation. We avoid silly, sarcastic, and demeaning laughter and have a simple, gentle, authentic self-presentation with a quiet, non-ostentatious bodily demeanor.’”21


1 Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), page 44-45.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Hill, Craig C. Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus. (Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), page 78.
6 Ibid, page 79.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., page 81.
9 Wells, Samuel. Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos press, 2004), page 88.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Funk, Mary Margaret. Thoughts Matter: Discovering the Spiritual Journey (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1998), page 141.
14 Ibid., page 144.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., page 147.
17 Ibid., page 148.
18 Ibid., page 149.
19 Ibid., page 150.
20 Ibid, pages 170-171.
21 Ibid.