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Leadership as Sacramental Vocation
Katherine Tyler Scott
When a culture loses its authorized version, the body politic fragments, and its spiritual prosperity withers.
— Bruno Bettelheim
Although differences in polity and theology across the Anglican Communion seem irreconcilable at times, what I find constructive in this time of turmoil is that the current conflicts have precipitated a period of reexamination of identity and purpose. The church has been motivated, and in a few instances pushed, to identify what its beliefs are at the core and to create a common understanding from which to engage and reorder relationships with others in the Communion.
The Search for Coherence, the monograph based on the research by William Sachs following the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, describes the church as being in a state of "creative incoherence." This is the result of old ways no longer working and a lack of the conviction and courage necessary to risk changing. The ensuing modernday Tower of Babel reveals one of the challenges of being on the margin, of being in between the familiar and the yet-unborn, that of having vocational amnesia. The state of creative incoherence beckons us to return to our foundational sense of who we are and why we exist. It is a call to the vocation so movingly articulated in the Baptismal Covenant.
The Baptismal Covenant conveys our Christian call; it is the contractual agreement addressing the universal questions of identity, our relationship to God, and our obligations to one another. In the reading of, listening to, and practicing of this sacred covenant we enter into the heart of God, a God who promises us community and connection, who holds and cradles us, a God who provides the peace and belonging we crave. We come to know an expectant God who asks us to fulfill our obligations to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to treat them with dignity and respect, and to persevere in resisting evil. When we are sent into the world "in peace, to love and serve the Lord," we are being sent out to live this covenant in some of the most challenging conditions. When asked whether we will seek to meet God's expectations in the covenant, we respond, "We will, with God's help." In this response we are expressing our strong desire to live out our baptismal promises, while knowing that we cannot enter into the gap between reality and the ideal without the help of the Divine.
The Baptismal Covenant calls us all to a common endeavor, and yet unless the deeper meaning of these words is translated into practical day-to-day actions, they lose their power to transform. The loss of meaning results in a state of creative incoherence — a state of hollow ritual and busyness lacking meaning. The church continues to clarify how the ministry of all the baptized should manifest itself. The working out of these shifting roles and relationships is vital in obtaining a creative, coherent state of leadership in the church.
Implicit in the Baptismal Covenant is a template for the relationship and responsibilities of laity and clergy. It evokes shared leadership and mutual ministry that, when faithfully practiced, reinvigorates the church and expands its mission and impact across the globe. The Baptismal Covenant sees leadership in everyone and at every level. It claims a new paradigm of leadership, the DNA of which is embodied in the covenant.
When the Israelites wailed in the desert, "What is to become of us?" they had forgotten who and whose they were and what they were called to do. The Israelites had lost the signposts that helped them to remember their identity and ultimate destiny, the guides that had provided them with security and direction. Likewise, the church is experiencing a passage of confusion and loss, and in our contemporary desert time the question of what is to become of us still hangs in the air. The story of Exodus reminds us that in the in-between times, historical amnesia and loss of identity is a recipe for prolonged suffering.
We are being called to have the faith and courage to move with grace-filled patience and trust, knowing that we will arrive at the Promised Land with God's help. Remembering our vocation, living out our Baptismal Covenant, will help us to endure and triumph.
The transformation of the church can be accomplished without losing what is precious to it, but it cannot avert change. Whether it is accepting a revised Book of Common Prayer or the service leaflet in its place, the loss of an esteemed lay or clergy leader or the departure of parishes and splitting or consolidation of dioceses, a period of grief and disorientation will ensue. Any time our understanding of identity, authority, and vocation is called into question, the real work is to live into and through the dissonance that automatically comes with change, emerging with an even stronger faith.
This is work that cannot be done alone; learning to do the work of transformation requires a community of faithful learners and leaders. The church should be the primary institution preparing leaders for this work. If it accepts this vocation the church will enter a "renaissance of mission" that will revitalize the church and plant the seeds of transformation in the world.
We will need a set of skills and resources designed to bring about such transformation. The resources described on the following pages will enable leaders to read differing historical and cultural realities deftly, to develop competence in group dynamics and development, and to gain expertise in facilitating adaptive work. Additional skills in managing change and resolving conflict, translating facts into a meaningful narrative, creating communities of learning, engendering cultures of trust, and manifesting courage, integrity, and authenticity will be essential.
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Understanding Organizational Culture
In addition to the larger societal, global, and historical contexts in which your parish sits, obtaining a broader and deeper understanding and knowledge of organizational culture is critical to the work of transformation. Culture is a complex concept, and its creation and ongoing development is one of the key responsibilities of the new leadership. The ability to read culture and to manage the complexity of human and organizational experiences and perspectives that exist within it is the sine qua non of leadership.
Terry Deal, coauthor of Corporate Cultures and an expert observer of systems, describes culture as "the way we do things around here." This pithy aphorism captures the behavioral aspects of culture, without highlighting the deeper underlying structures and unconscious assumptions that frequently evolve into unquestioned beliefs and unexamined behaviors. Both aspects of culture compose a hologram through which we can view how a parish perceives, believes, and thinks about itself, how it is perceived by the larger public, and the impact of these perceptions on mission. The following typology might assist in exploring the depth and breadth of culture that the most effective leaders learn to master. The levels indicate the degree of visibility.
The Artifactual Level of Culture
The artifactual level showcases the obvious and visible aspects of culture most easily associated with an organization. For a church these include the physical location, architecture, worship space, placement of the altar, furnishings, and art, as well as tangible aspects of church life such as the service bulletins, website, nametags, bulletin boards, and newsletters. We can gain some understanding of a parish culture through observing such phenomena.
At this level of culture, status and authority are equated with formal position, title, and institutional name. The leader can easily become the personification of the parish and the bearer of its institutional myth. The identity of the leader an d that of the parish can merge into a blended image of projections from past experiences and unspoken expectations of parish members. Differentiating between projection and reality is important in the work of transformational leadership. Differentiation means that the leader will be able to clearly know the difference between who they are and whom others believe them to be. One of the hallmarks of transformational leadership is the ability to differentiate self from institutional persona while still accepting the role of institutional narrator, a responsibility that paradoxically requires more than the ability to tell the institution's story; it involves knowing and telling the leader's own story. The deeper knowledge of self prevents the seduction of a leader to believe automatically either the accolades or criticisms.
The Structural and Behavioral Levels of Culture
Both the structural and behavioral levels of culture unearth tangible forms of the organization of people and worship and how congregants participate in ministry inside the parish and out in the world. The weekly and annual calendars of parish activities, the worship bulletins, and an organizational chart are all indicators of how the leadership and life of a parish are ordered. If these artifacts do not exist, this is also important information about parish culture.
Vestry and committee meetings are other venues that help a leader to decipher communication dynamics and patterns, mission, and the distribution and exercise of power. Questions that can be asked of such gatherings include:
How are members oriented? Prepared to lead?
Who convenes the meeting?
Who plans the agenda?
How often and where do they meet?
When and how do the meetings begin?
How is leadership experienced?
What opportunities are there for Bible study and/or theological reflection?
What frameworks and norms exist for discussion and decision-making?
How is mission integrated?
The answers to questions such as these are revealing of the culture of a parish.
Another way to access the various levels of culture is to attend the ubiquitous coffee hour following a parish worship service, and consider the following questions:
How do people hear about it?
Where is it located? How accessible is it?
What time is it scheduled?
What are people given to eat and drink?
Do the clergy attend? With whom do they talk?
Are name tags available, and are they worn?
How are visitors greeted, and then treated?
How are members treated?
When my husband and I first moved to the diocese of Indianapolis, we visited every parish in the deanery searching for a home. One Sunday we visited a parish that to our surprise had the bishop visiting them. When we walked into the church, no one looked at or greeted us. We found our seats and sat in observant silence. We were barely greeted during the Peace and, after a beautiful service, we processed out to attend the reception. Members joyfully greeted one another and gathered in clusters of familiar friends. The bishop spotted us and came over to hug us. His huge smile and embrace of us was food for our souls and a gesture of our friendship. No one in this congregation knew he was a friend of ours until that moment. After this, a number of people came up to say hello and to welcome us. As we left to go home, we looked at each other and knew that we would not return to this parish. The structural elements of the culture were exactly what we expected — everything was identifiably Episcopalian — but the behavior of the congregants was the antithesis of an inclusive, hospitable, loving community. We immediately learned that in this parish status mattered more than the Baptismal Covenant.
These levels of culture require leadership with excellent organizational and planning skills. They need leaders with strong administrative skills and the ability to match people and resources in ways that maximize the parish's ability to accomplish its mission. Even when there is staff designated to do this work, the rector must be capable of supervising the work. The clergy leader is responsible for the workings of the whole system and its parts and serves as the "creator of community." Creating an environment in which people feel purpose, belonging, a shared identity, security, and trust is a responsibility that sets the transforming leader apart from others.
An example of this kind of leadership can be seen in a healthy and growing parish that is part of a diocese experiencing budgetary problems and chronic leadership lethargy. The rector recognized the need to attract younger individuals and families and began by first educating the vestry about the need to do this. Although this highly successful congregation seemed an unlikely candidate for major change, this rector was able to show the congregation its future through a study of demographics in the Episcopal Church. He engaged the vestry in analyzing the research data and its implications for the parish. Once the vestry members understood the urgency, and realized that the initiative was not about "fixing a failure" but about ensuring the future, they supported the change and the hiring of a staff person to develop programs and services for this demographic.
The message was clear: "We are serious about our ministry to young individuals and families." The parish is seeing a revitalization of youth programs, and more activities for young parents and children are planned. This particular leader framed this initiative in ways that helped all of the parish feel included in this process of forming a culture of lifelong learning so that everyone, from cradle to maturity, could see that their formation is always important, even as more resources and attention were being provided to a younger demographic.
The Philosophical Level of Culture
The fourth level of culture is not so easily or directly ascertained as that of the structural and behavioral levels. This is the place of unquestioned assumptions and unchallenged core beliefs and values. Most of the behaviors at the philosophical level are unconscious, yet they have an enormous effect on the community of a parish. This level is deeper than what we can see, and it goes to the heart of why a congregation gathers to worship. It is where the meaning of the more visible and outward signs of life in a faith community exists.
An example of this level is the way in which a congregation "passes the Peace." This act reveals deeply held values and beliefs about the ecclesial responsibility for creating relationships and a community of belonging. It is a manifestation of a congregation's beliefs about physical touch and connection, the role of worship, the importance of community, and the meaning of the Eucharist. During the passing of the Peace in one parish, nearly all of the people move fluidly across and up and down the aisles, erupting into quiet but brief exchanges, hugging, smiling, and greeting warmly all whom they encounter. In another parish the parishioners pass the Peace only to those who are in their immediate proximity. In still another congregation a number of people remain kneeling in prayer during the passing of the Peace. These practices reflect the cultural differences that lie at the deeper levels of parish life.
An examination of why a parish engages in certain practices is a way to ensure that there will not be a disconnect between the activities of a parish and the beliefs they espouse as precious or unchanging. Without congruence between their values and actions, parishes can lose a sense of integrity and can easily become overextended and frenzied in their program offerings. Actions and activities that are not tethered to core values can easily lead to forms of institutional narcissism, meaningless group activity, and mission silos. They may possess the trappings of community but lack the substance and meaning of what makes a community.
The Foundational Level of Culture
The last level of culture is what I call the foundational level, and is very close to the philosophical level, but it is even less visible. Core values and faith identity reside here; this is the level of spiritual depth in which something greater and more powerful than anyone or anything is encountered. This level houses the basic assumptions about why we exist, our purpose and reason for being, and our relationship to the Divine. It is the place of connection to a larger reality and a transcendent circle of belonging, a place of deep knowing in which we understand and feel that we are all part of the same Divine Source of all life.
This deeply spiritual and transcendent place has no easy or direct route to it. It can't be commanded or demanded to appear but is most accessible through attention to the other levels of culture and through a disciplined practice of reflection, prayer, meditation, and the study of Scripture.
Many of us have experienced the gift of grace and congruence in which we feel connected to the Divine. I recall a beautiful homily at the ordination of a priest that left the congregation breathless and in awe, or the experience of my parish when our building was undergoing renovation and we were invited to worship on a glorious Easter Sunday in a Jewish synagogue. The ability to cross such divides and be in relationship and unity with those whom we may usually see as only different was a taste of the transcendent, of what heaven is. These experiences not only leave us speechless, but inspired and full of hope that we might be able to live out God's love after all.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Transforming Vestries"
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Table of Contents
A Note from the Publisher,
Chapter 1 Leadership as Sacramental Vocation Katherine Tyler Scott,
Chapter 2 With Open and Courageous Hearts: Tools for Evangelism David Gortner,
Chapter 3 Making Disciples Linda L. Grenz,
Chapter 4 The Vital Congregation James Lemler,
Chapter 5 Suggested Routes in Stewardship C. K. Robertson,