A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the Gathering of Leaders, as I do every year. It’s a great colleague group, and I also enjoy the way each year’s theme generates discussion. This year’s theme is “Freedom, Creativity, and Accountability.” There’s a long subtitle and some blahblah, but the gist of the theme is in those three words (not counting “and,” of course). At first, I thought this would be a bit of a boring theme, especially after last year’s blockbuster, “Hope-filled, fear-less leadership.”
Was I ever wrong! As I heard various presentations and spent time in small groups, I realized how many of the challenges we face as clergy and lay leaders are wrapped up in the intersection of freedom, creativity, and accountability. This has helped me crystalize some thoughts I’d been noodling around for a few months. It’s also led me to a place of increasing exploration and uncertainty. Basically, I think we get these all wrong. Or maybe we just don’t fully realize the potential of any of the three of them. Let’s look at them one at a time.
For Americans, this is the bomb. Sometimes literally. Whether it’s politics or economics, we tend to practice a kind of discourse that privileges freedom above anything else. And that has infected our faith. St. Paul of course reminds us that we Christians are indeed freed from the Law, but that freedom comes at a cost. In Paul’s view, we are meant to subject our freedom to any number of tests, including whether or not our own actions are edifying to others. In other words, we have freedom from some constraints, but the follower of Jesus is, in fact, merely a servant to other Christians and indeed to seekers (and perhaps to the world).
We tend to focus on the obligations from which we are freed, not the obligations our faith lays upon us. You can see this on all side of the conflicts in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church, where folks are quick to jettison others, rather than understanding our obligation to honor and nurture the Body of Christ. Or in congregations, clergy and lay leaders do what they want, flouting tradition and church discipline, out of an exaggerated sense of entitlement, hubris, or can-do American-style bravado.
Ah, yes, you say, but then how does the church change? Must we be unthinking slaves to tradition? The tension between freedom and our servant role is not easy, and anyone who says it is easy is lying or has not grappled with the issues presented in scriptures and tradition. Sure, there are lots of ways to be prophetic and to advance change, but there is an inherent tension. Our pendulum has swung way over to the “I will do whatever I want” end of the spectrum, and this is true not just in the Episcopal Church but in many other churches as well.
Remember St. Paul? He said we could eat whatever we want, but that didn’t mean we should always do that. Sometimes we are constrained by our obligation to others. Our freedom, in other words, means that our salvation comes not from following a set of rules, but from following Jesus. But we still have to follow Jesus, and that means not following our own whims.
On the face of it, it would seem that we would be good at this. After all, didn’t I just say that we are all about freedom of a certain kind? Well, yes and no. Pulling out a bunch of red balloons on the Day of Pentecost isn’t really very creative at all, but preaching a sermon that invites people into the life of the Spirit requires great creativity. There are other examples. Perhaps if we think about our place in the church a bit like a marriage, the example will click. Staying married to one person for many decades might seem uncreative, but spend any time with a couple who’s managed that, and you’ll uncover a deep well of creative love. Or talk to someone who has lived with the restrictions of monastic life for decades. Living within limits can be very generative of deep creativity. Our culture prefer cheap, external, flashy creativity.
As many of our congregations bump up against financial difficulty due to various factors (*cough* zombie church *cough*), there will be endless opportunities to be creative. Finding a way to stay in that beloved old building and continue ministry there requires creative approaches. Or venturing out to worship in another place requires creativity of a different sort. We are long past the point where slapping “mission” or the buzzword d’jour into job titles and committee names will pass for effective creativity.
This is the one that many clergy leaders, especially, are allergic to. What, I am supposed to do what the bishop says? Moi? My congregation shrunk in attendance over the last few years, and people want to ask me hard questions? Wha? Oh, you mean the liturgy of the church as presented in the Book of Common Prayer isn’t optional? Huh?
Good leadership requires accountability of all kinds. A good leader is accountable to herself or himself, in terms of strategies and goals. A good leader is accountable to those he or she serves. Most leaders are accountable to a board or to other superiors. Rectors are accountable, then, to a vestry, a bishop, and a congregation. I think it would be useful to establish some specific metrics of accountability and performance. That’s probably the subject of another blog post though.
Within congregations we don’t much like accountability either, whether it’s measuring the effectiveness of ministries or even the more basic challenge of staying in relationship. People in congregations get annoyed with one another. It happens. And Jesus says, reconciliation isn’t optional. We are accountable to God and to one another for any number of things. When is the last time you heard a sermon about our binding obligations to one another, preached in a way that actually confronted you in specific ways? I don’t think that kind of preaching is very common these days.
And then there’s the biggest kind of accountability. We tend to gloss right over all those teachings of Jesus about sheep and goats. We laugh nervously about the parables in which Jesus teaches us that we are obligated to care for those who have less than us or, God forbid, sell what we have and give the money to the poor. While I’m not sure the “Do good or go to hell” line of ethical teaching was helpful, I’m quite sure the “Be nice and it will all work out” line of ethical teaching is deadly for our world, our church, and our own souls.
So what does this all mean?
I don’t have a pithy conclusion here. The Gathering of Leaders conference raised a number of issues for me, and I don’t think there are easy answers. Mostly, I think we as a church and as leaders need to wrestle with some of this a bit more. We need to jettison the American notion that the problems of others are not our problems. We need to seize our gift of freedom, but we also need to keep a careful eye on our obligations to our fellow Christians and others. We need to find ways to proclaim the Gospel in our time, but we need to immerse ourselves in the scriptures first. We need to savor the gift of our Anglican liturgical heritage, but we need to find ways to draw people into that great and deep mystery.
In summary: if it seems easy to be a Christian, we’re doing it wrong. If being a Christian doesn’t rock our world — as individuals and communities — we’re doing it wrong. When we get it right, our faith brings boundless joy. When we get it right, we receive the gifts of the Spirit. When we get it right, our faith and our church will be irresistible to those around us.