From an upcoming book chapter on the leadership of Francis Asbury I am working on for an anthology in Wesleyan leadership. The working title of the whole chapter is “Imitating Christ: The Leadership of Francis Asbury”. Francis Asbury’s leadership corresponds to a “mimetic model” of Christian leadership built around kenosis, servanthood, humility, embracing humanity, and obedience. This is a short section on kenosis.
Phil. 2:6-7: “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing”
The kenosis of Christ is a voluntary divestiture of the privileges of his divine office for the sake of overcoming the separation between God and man. In the hymn, the self-emptying of Christ climaxes in Christ’s death on the cross. Christian leaders who imitate Christ voluntarily pour themselves out in sacrifice to the ones they are called to lead. Few contemporary leaders embody a posture of self-sacrifice and self-emptying better than Asbury. “My soul thirsteth for holiness in myself and others,” Asbury’s journal records, “…if my whole body…could labor and suffer, they should freely be given up for God and for souls” (1:456).
Asbury lived his entire life in monastic fashion, never taking more a modest annual salary. Aside from what was needed for his frugal expenses, he gave away most of what he received. He never had a regular home and owned only what little he could carry in saddlebags. “I will live and die a poor man,” he wrote in 1800. At his death, he had saved two thousand dollars, all of which he left to the church. Asbury held a dim view of preachers who sought to “show the effects [of wealth]…by lording it over their poorer neighbors and by securing to themselves all the offices of profit or honor” (1:577). In one episode illustrative of a constant habit, a group of preachers at a conference in Tennessee “were in want and could not suit themselves; so I parted with my watch, my coat, and my shirt” (2:517).
Within weeks of his arrival in America, Asbury concluded, “my brethren seem unwilling to leave the cities, but I think I will show them the way.” In a time when most clergy and their superiors confined themselves to the comforts of city life, Asbury did just the opposite, pursuing both the unreached and embracing the uncomfortable. Across forty five years of ministry, he rode on average five or six thousand miles a year across rugged terrain crossing the Appalachian mountains over sixty times on poor roads and through all kinds of weather. He quickly earned the trust of the preachers because they were never asked by him to go to places or endure hardship in going that he himself was not experiencing. He truly did “show them the way.”
Asbury viewed leadership in terms of suffering and sacrifice. He suffered from chronic health problems like asthma and rheumatism, as well as the effects of poor diet, lack of sleep, emotional distress, extreme physical exposure, and ill-informed medical treatments. As a result, Asbury was frequently violently ill or in great pain. But he saw suffering as a necessary part of the calling, so he doggedly pressed on, noting in his journal, “it is only on condition that we suffer with him, that we shall also reign with him.” (1:181). Asbury literally sacrificed his physical health for the sake of his calling and office.
Because of this self-sacrificing posture and the willingness to give himself so fully to the work no matter the cost, his contemporaries revered Asbury as the ultimate example of the Methodist circuit-riding preacher.