When I came to my first local church appointment in California from the East Coast, about the only thing I had been told about the place was that it was “a beautiful plant.” Indeed, the sanctuary was quite lovely. What the district superintendent had failed to mention included such details as the discovery, about a month prior, of the body of a young Vietnamese refugee in the dumpster in the parking lot or the arsonist who was systematically setting fire to places of worship throughout town. As the truism goes, seminary had not prepared me for this.
Leadership is needed to fashion not only a response but also a way forward. It’s about naming hope and making it visible.
Perhaps these early experiences in ministry were setting the stage for much of what would come. The newsworthy crises included a major earthquake and a city torn apart by racial injustice. The ecclesial crises, when later I myself had become superintendent, included clergy sexual abuse, child abuse, embezzlement, and several lawsuits.
At one point, when facing a major challenge to my leadership, I hungrily read all the available books on leadership. The notion of being a “nonanxious presence” was prevalent at the time. It has to do with staying calm, not being reactive, and defusing the anxiety of the situation by being centered and steady.
That image spoke to me in profound ways and gave me words for some of what I had instinctively known to do. Maybe it’s because I’m something of a still-waters-run-deep kind of person by nature. My response to almost every challenge is to withdraw into silence for long periods of reflection and plain old mulling-over. Maybe I was a desert tortoise in an earlier life. In those times of silence, whether I’m sitting or walking, the clearest way God speaks to me is by sending verses of hymns into my awareness. When I’m paying attention, those words offer just what I need to make it through. Once, when I was feeling beleaguered, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” just started playing in my head, and the tears flowed, and I knew God’s presence would carry me through. It’s my way of staying rooted in prayer.
But I’ve also learned that being a nonanxious presence is not enough. It is foundational, but not enough. It’s important to engage the crisis in order to unpack it and discover how it needs to be engaged and, in some cases, managed. Leadership is needed to fashion not only a response but also a way forward. It’s about naming hope and making it visible.
Often that means taking action. In those early years, I quickly learned that a neighbor congregation housed the offices of the refugee resettlement organization. I reached out to them and initiated a series of community meetings to build closer relationships with the newcomers in our midst. We also banded together with several congregations to hire a security firm. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief when the arsonist was arrested and later convicted. But to this day I am convinced that a mental institution would have been more appropriate than jail for that lost soul who could not abide the thought of graven images in a house of worship.
Later I learned how to frame a situation, how to put words on it that could make it somehow manageable, or at least bearable. I learned how to work with the press to put public words on how a story might be reported. And I learned how to take a situation back, how to reframe it when necessary, to tone it down, or diminish its negative impact
Now, when crises arrive in my congregation, as they will, I know to treat them seriously but am not usually undone by them. It takes internal work and requires a kind of learning that we should not expect seminary to impact. It’s on-the-job training.
Jesus shows us all these modes of leadership. He draws apart for prayer. He calms the wind and the waves. He recounts words of the prophets and the psalmists to ground and to guide. And through it all, he keeps moving forward. He shows his followers how to keep moving forward as well. He is not fear-less. He sees and feels and senses and knows too much for that. He keeps them all moving forward anyway. These things going on around you, he’d say, here’s what they mean. Here’s what God is doing. Here’s the good news. Here’s where hope is to be found.