On “Spiritual Leaders” — Part 1

November 25, 2011 — Leave a comment

At a recent meeting of the Trinity Church Vestry, we spent a good deal of time talking about the term, “spiritual leader”. We discovered we did not have a clear understanding of this phrase which we’ve tossed around for quite some time. Some of us feel inadequate to have such a description “put on us”. We are all in agreement that serving on the Vestry of an Episcopal Church is about more than simply  “managing the temporal affairs of the parish”. But what is this elusive “more”?

I confess, the more I think about the verbiage, “spiritual leader”, the less I think I know what it means. I have conflicting understandings. On the one hand, in any organization, for the good of the organization, there will be some order — some way the group agrees to live out its common life. Yet, on the other hand, those of us who attempt to follow the way of Jesus are all too aware of his exhortation that, “the greatest among you will be the servant of all” and his warning not to employ authority as a way to “lord it over others.” Finally, I’m also ambivalent about the recent movement within North American Mainline Protestant circles to rely heavily on leadership literature from the corporate world with little reflection on how such literature corresponds (or doesn’t) with the Gospel our respective Churches seek to embody.

I am coming to believe that at least one aspect of this discipline of spiritual leadership has to do with developing a certain comfort concerning loose ends and ambiguity. In an attempt to begin a conversation about this topic within our Vestry, I wrote some about it in an e-mail I sent them this past Wednesday. What follows is some of what was contained in that e-mail (edited so that it makes more sense for a wider readership):


The work of “process” is difficult. It requires patience and a willingness to wander around in a good deal of ambiguity. It can sometimes feel a bit like slogging through a swamp in hip waders while carrying a sack full of rocks in each hand. The work of truly listening to others can be exhausting. We discover that even when we are using the same set of words, those words can have different meanings to each individual.

The easiest work any vestry can do is the task stuff — checking items off of project lists, making decisions about expending/conserving funds, reporting out on what has been done or needs to be done. At the end of a meeting full of such task work, we can walk away with a feeling that the time was well spent and productive, because there are “accomplishments” that can be specifically articulated. Who doesn’t want to “get things done”?

But the movement to embrace “completion” as a goal of parochial life is seductive. It can lead us to begin to see fellow parishioners (or fellow vestry persons) in an instrumental fashion. In this mindset, we are only as good to each other as our last good contribution to the last good accomplishment. We begin to make judgments about what sort of value a person (including ourselves!) has to the community solely based on the contributions he/she is able/willing to make.

The first job of being “spiritual leaders” it seems to me, is to get comfortable with the idea that we may be doing our best work when it doesn’t look like we’re working. In a culture which increasingly values more work with less resources (people/relationships be damned, full speed ahead!), both the parish and the vestry can model a different way of living. We can be the place where we offer each other the grace of generous listening and thoughtful speech. Our community can become a place where we intentionally respect each other’s dignity. This can be the place where we come to recognize Jesus’ presence among us every time we gather (because we understand he’s almost always disguised in the faces of our fellow parishioners). This work of “becoming community” will never be completely done. But part of being spiritual leaders, I think, is getting comfortable with the process of the journey, enjoying each other’s company along the way and trusting that the Spirit is always at work (even when we don’t recognize it).

So, let’s put on our hip waders; grab a bag (or two) of rocks; and rejoice that there are still a few swamps to slog through together!

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