Welcome to our series on prophecy and leadership. These posts will be published in conjunction with a parish course in St Fillan’s, Crieff, on prophecy, leading to our Lenten Journey which will centre on an old theme in the Church: ‘From Temptation to Love’.
The purpose here is to reflect on what the prophets can teach us about leadership and faith. If you would like to read the parish reflections, please click on the link https://www.st-fillans-crieff.org.uk/ or go to our Facebook page.
The first three chapters of the First Book of Samuel form the background for this reflection. At the centre is the call of Samuel, which is recounted towards the end of chapter three.
The story goes that a woman called Hannah is really desperate for a son and prays to the Lord for one in the Temple. Eli, the leader and priest of the Temple thinks that Hannah is drunk, but soon discovers she. is genuinely seeking the Lord’s help. She bears a son, Samuel, and she dedicates him to God, under the tutelage of Eli. Eli’s sons are rogues and do not obey their Father. In fact, they lead the nation into chaos. It is while this is all happening, that Samuel receives his call in the middle of the night. God tells Samuel that Eli’s family is rejected. Reluctantly, he shares this with Eli who accepts this judgment.
What do I see?
Whether the scriptures speak to me or not will depend on my being honest with myself and the text. If I see myself in the characters and story as it is related, I’ll pay closer attention. Ultimately, I can only speak for myself, so let me share some thoughts on these first chapters of the First Book of Samuel. I want to focus not on Samuel, the rising star, but on Eli, the failed leader. For me anyway as a priest in the UK in the twenty-first century, he is perhaps more immediately relevant.
The heroism of Eli
Eli is a person who tries his best, has no ego, and yet seemingly fails (Samuel will get there too, but that’s another story). He tries to remonstrate with his sons, who don’t listen to him. He cannot make people do what he wants, and what he knows is right. He also misunderstands the behaviour of Hannah in the Temple, and at first doesn’t realise that it is God who is calling Samuel. Yet, he plays an important part in God’s plan. He doesn’t seem to resent that he is no longer in favour, though he is very human, and, as we see in the following chapter, he loves his sons still, and collapses when he hears of their fate, even though he knows they’re about as useful as a chocolate fire guard.
I can’t get people to go to mass no matter what I do. I can’t make people think about God much, even when there is a clear desire on their part to pray etc. but there is no time. My authority, like that of many of the clergy, and of the Church in general in the west, is shaky, to put it politely. Meanwhile leadership is the one problem that comes up time and again in the Church, in our schools, and in society in general. When I try to be a leader, it often leads no one anywhere.
And then I look at Eli again. He recognised when he made mistakes, and he knew when to take a back seat. He also knew the real deal when he saw it.
Leadership and Eli
Is Eli showing us something of leadership? At first glance, no. It is Samuel who emerges as the chosen one of God, and his first task seems to clear up the mess that Eli and his sons have left. But he recognised the truth of his own situation and where others could lead. Recognition, looking in the mirror; it seems to be a theme which crops up in leadership talks time and time again, the ‘Law of the Mirror’.