The Case for a Humble ‘Custodian’ as President


Democrats did a pretty good job with the first virtual national party convention. Good for them. Good for us. The parts I watched seemed solid, at times inspiring, and mostly on-point.

I remember Rabbi Edwin Friedman (Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix) lamenting the fixation of most religious congregations on clergy in the age bracket of 35 – 45, prime of life, family and ambition. Friedman said that he thought older clergy had a lot to offer — they were generally speaking wiser, were less ego-driven, more likely to keep things in perspective.

I thought of that observation as Biden accepted the nomination and gave his acceptance speech. Time and trial have given us not just a seasoned politician, but a seasoned human being. I don’t pick up much ego from either Joe or Jill. There’s a job to be done and Joe hopes, with a lot of help, to do it. His age and experience — potential lemons — have been turned into lemonade. “We know Joe,” was repeated again and again. Being known is an asset in the present moment, not a liability.

I was struck in Frank Bruni’s NYTimes commentary by an observation which seemed to me particularly astute. There’s a parallel between Biden’s story and the nation’s story. Both know what it is to be down. Both know what it is to come back. Now is the time for that narrative. Beyond that, I have often felt that the most successful leaders do find the connection between their own story and issues and that of the organization, nation, enterprise they lead. Here’s Bruni on this:

“In other words, personal fortitude is bound together with national fortitude. Our leader’s arc is our own. Biden was saying that toughness and faith go a long way, toward a brighter day. And he was telling us that he could show us that path.”

Another observation: I was struck by President Obama’s use of the word “custodian” in his speech on Wednesday evening. A custodian is “someone who has the responsibility for or cares for something.” The image that came to my mind is that of a school custodian. It’s a humble image.

Obama spoke of a President as a custodian of the Constitution. This, he said, is basic to the Presidency. But it is a function or role that Donald Trump appears incapable of performing. I think that is right. Trump is unable to perform such a humble but critically important custodial role. It means caring for something that has preceded you, and will, we pray, endure beyond you. I thought of ministry that way. The church, writ large as well as particular congregations, preceded me and would endure beyond me. My job was more than being a good custodian, but never less than that.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

One complaint, or maybe suggestion, for the Democrats. So often the stories and examples of everyday Americans which they cite are people on the edge, people who have lost everything, people who have gotten a bum deal. To be sure, there are plenty of those stories and we need to embrace their struggling and suffering. But a victim narrative is over-used and doesn’t really inspire.

Moreover, there are other folks and stories out there. There are people of strength and resources who need a different word. They need a challenge. There’s a parallel in church-world, at least liberal church world. We tend, often, to be focused on and even preoccupied with the victim, the suffering, the needy. Important to be sure. But that’s not the whole story or human experience.

There are also people of strength, ability and capacity who need to be addressed, who need to be challenged by the gospel. And, in some measure, that includes all of us. Even the struggling, the unemployed, the people who have experienced marginalization, have strengths that need to be called forth and put to use. There’s something paternalistic about the victim/rescuer framework.

I remain a Kennedy Democrat. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” There’s both moral and political wisdom in that challenge.



Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


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