October 18, 2011

Shoulders to Stand On

If you’ve ever felt paralyzed by your congregation’s glorious past, or overshadowed by the prior rector’s legacy, consider the lot of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA.

This past Sunday, just after a prior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - was honored with a memorial in Washington D.C., NPR did a brief but excellent interview with Rev. Warnock about how he balances Dr. King's legacy with the congregation's call to serve Christ today and tomorrow. A key quote: “People often ask me what it is like to stand in Dr. King’s shoes, but I am very clear that while I serve in the pulpit where he served, it’s not really my job to fill his shoes. I think the best we can do is stand on his shoulders and benefit from the insight and work that has gone before us.” 

Listening to this interview, I was struck by Rev. Warnock’s grace and humor as he navigates what must be a weighty legacy. And I found myself thinking that if he can do it, surely we can too!
Was there a prior legendary (or notorious) rector who looms large in congregational meetings? Is your congregation paralyzed by its rich (or troubled) past? And are we as a denomination unable to embrace the future because of a desire to return to a "golden age"?

I recently heard a humorous, though apocryphal, story about a new priest and a portrait of a prior rector. At some point between the interim and new priest's arrival, a vestry member hung an enormous portait of the rector from the congregation's "golden age" at the back of the sanctuary. This struck the priest as a bit odd, but it wasn't until he'd ascended the pulpit that he realized it had been strategically placed to be at eye level with whoever was preaching that day.

He was literally being stared down by the past. 

One recent variation on this story are online tallies of the declining number of senators, supreme court justices, and titans of industry who identify as Episcopalian. Inevitably this is discussed in terms of the Episcopal Church's dwindling influence in the halls of power, a sure sign that the denomination is at death's door. But what else might it be a sign of? Only rarely do we hear a questioning of whether this is, in fact, a past we'd ever want to recreate. 

For better and worse, glorious pasts loom large in congregations and at the denominational level. How can we go from trying to fill those shoes toward a willingness to stand on the shoulders of the past with an eye toward the future?