Amateurs at the Top

One of the consistent criticisms I’ve seen of the current executive branch of the U.S. government is that many of the players lack the appropriate experience for jobs they hold. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has never been a public school teacher, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has only been a military man, President Trump never previously held elected office, and so on. While I recognize the variety of motivations for criticizing a leader for whom one has not voted, the idea that only “professionals” should lead is flawed and troublesome. I’m not endorsing anybody here, but the contempt for “outsiders” I hear from some pundits certainly sounds like contempt for voters.

Perhaps the rise of amateurs is a characteristic of revolution. One SBC seminary president complained in the 1990s about the “quality” of the trustees the SBC was sending him as the Conservative Resurgence gained momentum. They did not have the same stature as the denominational employees and high-level businessmen he preferred. On the other hand, housewives, small-church pastors and dentists can understand the purpose of a seminary. If the plans and reports of the administration don’t make sense to these average Southern Baptists, the fault is not with amateur trustees. The fact that they are not members of the denominational guild is actually a benefit to Southern Baptists’ interest in their institutions.

Wouldn’t this be true all down the line of democratically empowered public institutions? While you’d want some IT specialists, legal experts and other professionally trained folks in the infrastructure, the person at the top should be a generalist and able to understand how things, and people, generally work. In other words, the Department of Education should have people experienced in school administration as well as those who understand the bureaucracy of the department at hand, but maybe it’s not necessary that the person at the top is a veteran of the system.

I read a book once that described Ross Perot’s practice of hiring impressive people and then finding them something to do within his information systems company. He seemed to gravitate toward military veterans because the military does a good job of developing effective leaders. Perot allowed smart people to bring something from the outside into his company, and it worked for him. I imagine Perot’s Electronic Data Systems company would have been something less if he only hired those with specialized technical training. I also imagine some of those mid-level programmers grousing about the amateurs surrounding the boss. It’s a nearsighted complaint.

What did the religious leaders in Acts 4 see in Peter and John but uneducated men who were bold? They were not astonished that fisherman were uneducated but that common men were confident enough to speak on religious matters. They were offended that these untrained men were disagreeing with them.

Education does not make you right. Hopefully you will get some things right once you’ve learned the ideas of those who’ve gone before; but right and wrong is more about your essential assumptions—the filter through which you will view the wisdom of the ages—than it is about facts. This is a great reason why the exalted should never escape the accountability of the governed. The contentious wave that is rolling over our country at the moment is a reminder that the led and the governed will not be gladly disregarded. Some of the amateurs being put in charge of important matters in our country were placed there by those suspicious of the professionals.

In this 500th year since the Protestant Reformation of 1517, we should easily make the application to our churches. Pre-Reformation Europe was the world of “You don’t need a Bible; trust your leaders to tell you what God says,” or, “If you don’t speak Latin, you’re not educated enough to understand Christianity.” The post-Reformation world blew down the unbiblical wall between clergy and laity. We have different roles, but all believers will stand before the same God, accountable for the same three-score and ten years. One of Martin Luther’s “outrageous” beliefs was that the Bible should be available in the language of the people, German in his case. While I need a pastor to lead my church and preach to me, as the Spirit leads him, I do not need a pastor to tell me what the Bible says. I read it for myself and listen to the same Spirit as he applies it to my life.

Most of us have been that “amateur” in some setting and bridled at the haughty contempt of the insiders. And most of us have been those insiders, perhaps haughty ourselves. But the precept is true, generally in the world and specifically within the body of Christ; we are connected, a body you might say. Our God sometimes uses those we deem foolish to confound the wise. For those who deem themselves wise and sophisticated to have a fit about it really changes nothing.   

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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