Four words have always instantly evoked fear and trepidation upon me.
“You are in charge”
I have learned long ago that I am more of a follower rather than a leader. I discovered this when I began to work in retail. In 1995, I started working for the now-bankrupt “Circuit City” (not my fault) selling Personal Computers and related products. During my downtime at the store, I would often go and learn about other products in the store as well. Soon, to my chagrin, management bestowed on me the unflattering title of APE (all product expert). This meant I could sell anywhere in the store and, more importantly for management, I could be assigned to any department on any given day.
From 1995 to 1997 I was an APE but assigned to the appliance department. This was for two reasons. First, every salesperson in that department quit within a month. Secondly, since I was married, it seemed reasonable that I probably owned some appliances myself. In those 24 months, I had 18 different sales managers. The longest one lasted seven months. Most lasted about two to three months and the record was a large Southern gentleman named Walden who came and left within twelve days. The turnaround was so insane that the stereo department would play “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen whenever someone left.
Finally, the day came that I had dreaded. After eighteen Sales Managers, Four Store Managers, and Two District Managers, management approached me and asked if I would be interested in becoming a sales manager.
Worst Decision of my life!
I went through the training and was assigned another store. The staff did not listen to me at all! No one cared about my ideas! No one respected my newfound authority! In their eyes, I was just Number whatever in a long line of people over them. I lasted four months and quit.
I went over to American TV and Appliance, who also went bankrupt (again, not my fault) and started selling computers again. Managers came and went, I learned many products in the store and started to rise as a shining talent. Finally, management came again to offer me a sales manager position.
Like Charlie Brown, I knew that the football was going to be pulled away but I assured myself that this time I would succeed. I became a manager and nine months later, I was gone.
I realized that I am not built to be in management. I do not have the “delegation” instinct. Sure, I can train someone how to perform a certain task but, honestly, my first instinct is to jump in and just do it myself.
Fast forward twenty years and I find myself in the same situation. I am a volunteer on Saturdays at Ebenezer Stone Ministry, a food pantry on the southside of Milwaukee. Every Saturday we would allow people into our building for a hot breakfast while they waited to pick up the food items that were donated by Hunger Task Force and other places in Milwaukee. The breakfast was coordinated by Wayne Kestner, a man of great renown in our church.
At first, I just started showing up and talking to the clients. But as time went on, I became more and more involved. Just like those retail jobs, I kept learning every aspect of running the pantry and the breakfast. I became a valuable member of the breakfast team, doing whatever jobs that were necessary like purchasing, recruiting, and fundraising. After three years, I became Wayne’s right-hand man.
Then the pandemic hit in March 2020 and our organization, like the rest of the world, had to pivot overnight. No clients were allowed inside the building. Many volunteers stayed home, taking the new restrictions very seriously. Unfortunately, the need for food increased in our community. We continued the best we could, with the following changes.
Clients now had to stand outside the building and wait in line to receive food. We were discouraged from having any contact due to COVID restrictions, so we stopped serving breakfast and just focused on the pantry. Wayne stopped coming when he and his wife wisely decided to isolate and shelter in place.
For the first couple of weeks, the pantry was run every Saturday and Wednesday by three people, Michael (our director), Robin (my wife), and myself. And every week, at least one of the clients would ask me what was for breakfast. I realize now that question was coming from God.
After a brief conversation with Michael and Robin, we decided to try a “TO GO” breakfast. I found three people who wanted to help, purchased containers, syrup packs, and about forty pounds of breakfast sausage. That first week we sent out about fifty hot meals! As the weeks went by our numbers grew to sometimes over 300 meals a week. We have served pancakes, French toast, breakfast burritos, egg and ham on bagels, and even attempted chicken and waffles on a couple of occasions. Every week, I planned the menu, procured the supplies and the volunteers, and wrote a short devotion that would go to every household.
But I never thought of myself in charge! I was just holding down the fort until Wayne returned to take the reins again. I did what was necessary. I did not think of myself as the leader, I was simply the guy who knew what to do when to do it. Over the last year, I have flipped pancakes, rolled burritos, and done dishes. I mopped floors and took out the trash. I purchased equipment and recruited volunteers. These are the same things I would have done if Wayne was down there, the things needed to be done. I knew because that was how Wayne did the job as well. He never asked anybody to do anything, he would simply start something until somebody came along and volunteered to take over. Watching Wayne handled his responsibilities taught me volumes about how to be an effective manager. When Wayne was gone, I simply started doing things the same way.
I would start to make the to-go bags and someone would eventually come along and start helping me, then taking over (since most found they could perform the task faster than me.) I would start running the water for dishes and someone else would start washing or drying. I would look at an overflowing garbage can and someone would empty it within minutes.
What Wayne was doing (and taught me by example) is called Servant Leadership. In all of our human nature, it is to bristle and want to lash back when being told what to do. We all have had the memory of that horrible boss who never seemed to lift a finger but always demanded an impossible number of tasks daily.
Of course, our greatest example of Servant Leadership is our Lord Jesus Christ! He led by example, never afraid to get his hands dirty. The best example that comes to mind is the Washing of the Feet, as recorded in John 13: 3-5 “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords took upon himself to start and complete a task that was set aside for the lowest member of the household, usually a servant. The disciples knew that the washing of feet was a time-honored tradition but their pride prevented each of them from stepping forward. Surely, they thought, there was someone here who was beneath me who should perform the ritual. Jesus, knowing their thoughts and their hearts, couldn’t let this opportunity be wasted for a final lesson.
The lesson? It is the same one Wayne taught me. The leader is not the one who barks orders. The leader is the one who does whatever is necessary to allow others to do their part better.
Last Saturday, Wayne returned to the pantry. He informed me that he is fully vaccinated. “Cool,” I said, “It’ll be good to have you back in the kitchen where you belong”
He shook his head. “I already talked to Michael and we are making it official. You are now in charge of the breakfast. I even had them put your name on the website.” When he said goodbye and walked away, I felt a momentary weight on my heart followed by those four fearful words “You are in Charge”. Eventually, I realized that nothing had changed, I was simply going to be doing what I have been all along. The weight lifted and I quietly thanked God for the people he placed in my life to teach me how to be an effective servant leader.
Prayer: Dear Heavenly Father. Help all of our leaders follow your example of servant leadership. Be with all the leaders, give them the wisdom and the guidance to never ask someone to do something they are not willing to do themselves. In Jesus’s Name. Amen