January 2004
Uncertain Times

Fit to Go the Distance

Don’t read this piece if you are looking for some McGod off the shelf, for religious leadership in uncertain times is not about a quick fix. Call a consultant or read one of the thousands of books with “leadership” in the title for that kind of help.

A response to clergy and lay leaders about leadership in uncertain times is a two-handed answer — on the one hand, it is easy — on the other, it is hard. It is easy because what you need is already at hand. It is hard because it may take another way of looking at things to know how to uncover and use them.

One of the most valued things I learned from a former rector/mentor was how to apply practical theology to parish decision making. And in fact, that is a distinction in what is religious about religious leadership. We consciously or unconsciously draw on our Christian heritage, our journey experience, and how, at the moment, we hear God’s call. 

What does that mean for leadership in uncertain times? Certainly, on a macro scale, what has happened in the church post-General Convention has added a measure of uncertainty or unease to the church’s life. But at the congregational level, we experience uncertainty at different times as well — for example, when there is a significant shift in leadership during a transition, or when the congregation is conflicted over a challenging issue. (In that regard a Duke study, “Pulpit and Pew,” found that the top three causes of conflict in congregational life did not include issues of sexuality, but rather, leadership style, program emphasis and finances.)

Health, wholeness and holiness
So in an uncertain time, whether an unsettling church wide issue, a poor economy that generates scarcity thinking, or program conflict, what is a vestry leader or warden to do? A foundational start is to remember that what we seek for clergy and congregational life is health, wholeness and holiness. Years of research, fact finding and practice by the Foundation have proved the need for those qualities to sustain congregational vitality. 

How, then, do we emulate those qualities in our leadership — how are we healthy, whole and holy leaders? Jim Fenhagen, in his book Invitation to Holiness, gives us a clue about what it means to be that kind of religious leader. “Wholeness,” he says, is to be “…in tune with the spirit of God who moves within me.” Wholeness is the “seed bed for holiness.” Holiness is leaning towards God. 

Jim adds “…it is the way we perceive reality and the way we act on those perceptions.” I call it our sense of “Godness.” He adds that “conversion and transformation” are also ingredients in the mix. For those like me who are feeling a bit intimidated by that job description, think about the definition of the church “as a group of people who are slowly getting the idea.” It fits. 

Let me use as an example what the Foundation heard in the aftermath of General Convention’s “consent” decision. As we compiled all the reports from our contacts, it was clear that the majority of people in congregations did not have an ideological stance about the decision. What they were feeling was bewilderment about the momentousness of the decision’s impact. Many felt that "it crept up on us" without warning and without a plan for dealing with how to understand it. How did this happen? What does it mean? Who will help us figure it out?

Be proactive, neutral, and non-anxious
In a situation where there is unease, or tension is building, it is time to quietly work at your information gathering activities. Be proactive, neutral and a non-anxious presence. And remember that as chief listeners, you are not required to be the chief on the spot fixers! Rather, it is time to mine coffee hours and other occasions to hear what people are saying and feeling. Instead of declarative statements about the topicdu-jour, it’s time for the “I wonder” questions. During times of stress, more intentional listening is in order. 

My colleague warden and I used to conduct “fireside chats” when needed. We simply announced that the wardens would be available at a certain time at the church and invited anyone with particular concerns to come and talk. (The only time we were slightly overwhelmed was when the sale of the rectory was being considered—it was more like a public hearing than a quiet conversation!) 

Once the pulse taking is concluded, the next step involves discernment about an appropriate response to the community. It is time for the vestry to be a self-energized, collective, theological resource, asking: How does Scripture guide us? What prayer supports us? How does quiet time allow the spirit to speak? And remember the importance of pausing to ask, “What are we learning?” Some recording of events for future reference will be helpful.

Religious leadership is different
This simple repeated cycle of Scripture, prayer and quiet time during a meeting will provide the leads to a healthy, whole and holy outcome. After all, it is what distinguishes us as religious leaders from corporate or civic leaders. 

And, above all, we shouldn’t forget the scriptural mandate we all bear to build up the Body of Christ. For in the midst of stressful times, it is easy to choose sides and look for winners and losers, and that usually is not helpful. Because, in the end, building up the Body is a Spirit-led, collegial activity — God, people and priest engaged with each other. 

The executive director of the Episcopal Church Foundation since 1992, Bill Andersen is former senior warden of St. George’s Church in Maplewood, New Jersey.

This article is part of the January 2004 Vestry Papers issue on Uncertain Times