“This is such a heavy burden. May God give me strength to bear it.”
This is what people say when they have been elected to Christian leadership in Tanzania. During elections, people are very reluctant to put themselves forward, always waiting for someone else to suggest them. Even the most confident seem overcome when they are elected, often kneeling in prayer, sometimes even crying. They will often go on to become very capable leaders, but in this particular moment, it is as if they appear to wilt as the mantle of leadership is placed on their shoulders.
After 5 years, we can predict when this will happen, but we still do not understand it. Is it some kind of cultural script that you have to conduct? Is it a show of humility? Is it some kind of re-enactment of Moses’ call or a playing out of Paul’s strength-in-weakness language? Or is it genuine? And if so, why?
I asked our friend Mussa, who is a Christian leader. He confirmed our observations and answered my questions about what was behind it. Below are my questions and my recall of his answers, written up with his permission.
Tamie: When people do not volunteer for leadership, why do they stay silent when they could be very good leaders?
Mussa: Most people prefer to be followers. They do not want to be leaders. [Tamie’s note: this resonates with the session I did on personality with TAFES student leaders.]
Tamie: So, when they are nominated or confirmed, they are genuine in feeling that it is a heavy burden?
Mussa: Yes. Most people do not want the responsibility.
Tamie: So, what if someone was to put themselves forward for leadership? Would that be seen as arrogant?
Mussa: No, people would be surprised, but also relieved that someone would be in the position.
Tamie: What does this mean for the quality of leaders in the church?
Mussa: This is a different problem in the church to general Tanzanian society. In politics and other arenas, everyone wants to be a leader and they put themselves forward. But in the church, or Christian organisations people are very reluctant.
[Tamie’s note: what I was angling at in the previous question was the idea that people are so relieved that someone is willing to be a leader that they are susceptible to charlatans or poor teaching. But the way Mussa read and answered my question suggests that in his view the church is actually at lower risk of these self-interested parties than other parts of society. A culture of reluctance may be protective in that sense.]
Tamie: Why are people more reluctant in the church or Christian organisations?
Mussa: Because they do not get the same benefits as in secular jobs. There you get more money, prestige, opportunities for bribery, etc. But in ministry positions — at least ones that are not corrupt — you do not get those things, so you are motivated to leadership only by the love of people or the organisation, and wanting to see changes happen.
Tamie: So, all you have is the burden of leadership, without any perks. But isn’t that as it should be? Wouldn’t it be bad if people were motivated to Christian leadership because of the perks it brings?
Mussa: Yes it would be, but that is not what we are facing. Some staff live in homes without windows or doors, with nothing on the floor and mosquitoes everywhere inside. This is not a good standard of living. It cannot inspire students.
Tamie: Do staff workers need to be wealthy in order to inspire students?
Mussa: They need to be living in comfortable conditions, that fit their age and position, and give them space to flourish instead of skipping meals because they cannot afford lunch.
Tamie: So, you are not talking about being wealthy, but about being able to do life well. How do students feel when they see staff workers living in the conditions you described?
Mussa: The students feel sorry for them and they want to give money and support the staff.
Tamie: Does it compromise the staff worker’s ability to teach and train the students?
Mussa: They are still able to teach and train them, but a teacher and trainer should not be in the position of living at a lower level than the students.
Tamie: Is that shameful?
Mussa: No, it is not shameful for the staff or the student, but it shows that the organisation is not being run well, because it cannot look after its staff. It is not the students’ job to look after the staff. That should be done by the Associates [older graduates and supporters]. How can we encourage students to be generous with their money, to us or anyone else, if they are not confident in us as an organisation?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.