LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 31–“Develop a Spine”

Today, I had coffee with a friend of many years whom I served on staff with a long time ago.  At one point, he mentioned a pastor he served under after I departed.  “As fine a preacher as he was,” said my friend, “he so hated conflict he would do anything to avoid it.”

At one point, said he, the pastor arranged to be out of town when my friend the staffer was going to be needing him to take a strong stand.

That pastor impressed a lot of people by his preaching and disappointed quite a few who had needed him to show some courage and take a stand.

Let’s talk about that.

Perhaps the nicest guy ever to occupy the White House lived there only six months. After his March 1881 inauguration, James A. Garfield, our 20th president, was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, described in history books as a disappointed office seeker. Garfield died in September of that year. As for Guiteau, what he was, in the words of Andy Taylor referring to Barney Fife, was a nut.

In Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, Kenneth D. Ackerman penned the most readable account of an historical event you will ever find. Now, I’m a history student (history major in both college and seminary), so I’m accustomed to slogging through the most boring books in order to learn about someone from the distant past. This book, however, is a page turner, and I recommend it highly.

Garfield’s nemesis was Roscoe Conkling, an egotistical senator from New York. He was a dandy dresser who worked out to keep his body looking sharp in a day when to be stout was proof of a man’s success. Conkling was a ladies’ man who broke his marriage vows regularly, his wife’s heart deeply, and other people’s marriages thoughtlessly. The power behind the political machine controlling New York politics, nothing happened without Conkling’s say-so.

In those days, one of the most powerful appointments a president could make was the head of the U. S. Customs House in New York harbor. Almost all foreign shipments arrived in this country through that port, meaning this office collected untold millions of dollars in federal taxes. Thousands of people worked under the authority of the director, and in the days before civil service, New York City political bosses took care of their people by filling those lucrative positions.

Until Garfield, the head of that government bureau was always approved by the boss of New York politics, in this case Roscoe Conkling. This was the price the president paid for receiving the support of Conkling’s machine. In our day, this would be like the governor of Virginia being allowed to select the head of the CIA or the Secretary of Defense since their headquarters are located inside that state. Presidents regularly caved in to Conkling’s bullying tactics.

Repeatedly, Garfield’s attempted to get along with Conkling, to give him what he asked for, to satisfy his demands which seemed limitless, anything to avoid a showdown with the man. Reading this account, one keeps waiting for the president to show some backbone and stand up to this tyrant.

Eventually Garfield did.

Tired of Conkling’s ceaseless demands and preening ego, Garfield abruptly decided to appoint William Robertson, Conkling’s arch-enemy in New York State, to head the Customs House. When the nomination went to the Senate for confirmation and Conkling learned of it, he lost his mind. The nerve of this president to defy him! Who did he think he was! Conkling’s supporters made a bee-line for the White House to see if Garfield could be reasoned with. He simply had to reverse this intolerable appointment. This would not do.

Would Garfield at least talk to Conkling about this matter? The president, always a peacemaker, would see him. Then, the New York boss handed him one more insult by refusing even that.

When (told) that Roscoe Conkling had thrown yet another tantrum and wasn’t coming, Garfield fought to control his temper. How many times had Conkling made a fool of him? How many more times would there be? “I must remember that I am president of the United States. I owe something to the dignity of my office and to my own self-respect.” (He wrote in his diary.)

Garfield sent a message back by an aide. “You may say to this senator that now, rather than withdraw Robertson’s nomination, I will suffer myself to be dragged by wild horses.”

In fact, at that moment, standing in his White House office, the same room from which Abraham Lincoln had led the nation in war, seeing through his window the graves of Arlington Cemetery to the South, embarrassed, indignant, frustrated, but oddly calm, James Garfield seemed to cross a psychological bridge. He had made a discovery about his new position: as president of a great country, once he’d made a decision, even a close, dubious one, he had to stick with it. People respected backbone, and without their respect his authority meant nothing. Garfield could no longer live with Roscoe Conkling’s petulant demands hanging over his presidency. Conkling could not be dealt with nor tolerated. If that meant political war, then he had no choice but to fight it.

The conflict between these two powerful men is as intriguing and fascinating as anything in fiction. The president had finally taken all he could and made a stand against the tyrant who had been making life so miserable for him.

Spineless leaders are all around, unfortunately. They take polls to find out what the public wants, then concoct a casserole of the results which they present as their political platform. When the public changes, as it always does–nothing is more fickle than the public mood–they change along with them.

In the church, some pastors look to strong lay leaders for their instructions. Fearful of offending a heavy contributor or the deacon with the strongest personality or biggest following, these preachers get their instructions from their own Roscoe Conklings, then meekly rush forth to carry them out.

It would be funny if it were not so shameful.

Readers old enough to remember the old Disney television series about Davy Crockett will recall a line made famous by the Fess Parker character. Whether the real Crockett said it is open to doubt. “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

That’s good advice for those who would lead the Lord’s church. If you know you are doing what God led you to do, sooner or later you should quit seeking a consensus, quit taking polls, and stop asking other people what to do. Stand up and tell the group, “This is the way. Let’s go!”

“Here I stand,” Martin Luther told the council gathered to sit in judgment on his heretical ways. “God help me. I can do no other.”

History has given Martin Luther high marks for the courage, the moxie, the backbone, he demonstrated that day. Millions of people who will live in Heaven forever will be in his debt just that long.

There is indeed a time to ask other people, “What do you think?” and “What do you think we should do?” After that time to listen, eventually the time comes to stop the chatter and shut down the queries, the time to stand up and make a decision.

Over the years I have heard of a number of pastors who were asked to leave their churches for no reason other than that they would not lead the people. Their ears were great; they listened well. Their hearts were pure; they respected others. Their humility was evident to all; they received all opinions no matter how diverse.

But when they would not take a stand and give leadership to the church, the congregation felt it necessary to replace them. As their denominational leader on several occasions, I could argue with them all day and not talk them out of it. After all, a pastor is a shepherd, and Jesus said, “When the shepherd puts forth his sheep, he goes before them.” (John 10:4)

It’s called basic leadership 101.

(Now, you are wondering what happened with Garfield and Conkling. After Garfield nominated William Robertson to the Customs House, Conkling announced that the Senate would push this to the bottom of the line of names to be dealt with. All the president’s other nominations would be handled first, and the Robertson nomination would be delayed ad infinitum.

But two can play that game.

The president then pulled all the other nominations. The only one remaining before the Senate was Robertson’s name. Conkling knew he had been checkmated, so in a huff, he and the other New York senator resigned from the Senate. His plan was to return to Albany (in those days, the state senate elected their state’s U. S. senators) and get themselves re-elected by a wide margin and thus return to Washington with fresh vigor and a mandate, so to speak. The problem is, everyone was tired of Conkling’s shenanigans. Now that he was out of the senate, all they had to do was pressure the legislators in Albany not to reappoint him. They found some good men to run against Conkling and his partner-in-crime and carried the day.

As I say, it’s a great story. The Charles Guiteau aspect is something of a tragic undercurrent throughout. One gets the feeling that Garfield would have made a great president.

Incidentally, Vice President Chester A. Arthur had been Conkling’s man, and when he suddenly became president, everyone expected Arthur to appoint Conkling as Secretary of State. Surprisingly, he too, developed a backbone and the out-of-work dandy returned home in disgrace and tried to make amends with his wife. He died 7 years later, in the Great Blizzard of 1888. New York was hammered with 75 mph winds, paralyzed by zero degree temperatures, and blanketed by 20 inches of snow. When Conkling refused to pay the $50 a hack driver was demanding to drive him home, the former power-broker set out on foot. He lost his way, fell into the snow and lay there, and was later found, almost at the point of death. He died a couple of days later, at the age of 58. We’re not told about his funeral in the biography, but I expect it was a grand affair, with all the politicians doing two things: saying great and glorious things about this man, and breathing a sigh of relief that he was finally gone.

I love a great lesson from history.

2 thoughts on “LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 31–“Develop a Spine”

  1. Thanks for the reminder and the challenge, Joe. You are so right, never before have local churches needed leadership more than they do now.

    Joshua 1:9

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