Of stress and leadership

Yesterday, I preached a Michaelmas sermon in which I talked about spiritual warfare in our world. If you doubt the existence of spiritual warfare, look at a newspaper. Or consider what’s happening in our church.

stress ballMy social media feed has been taken up by an unfolding crisis at The General Theological Seminary over the last few days. Not long before that, it was Episcopal Divinity School. On a regular basis, I hear about about crises in congregations. And then every three years in the lead-up to General Convention, you can count on a crisis in one form or another.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

When we are under stress, we are never our best. That’s part of the human condition. Our church has been stressful for many, and that’s only going to increase. Lots of congregations are facing increasing pressure as attendance plummets and (often deferred) maintenance needs rise. Our seminaries are mostly not a picture of health. Dioceses are trying to figure out what to do as assessments look to get smaller. And then there’s the churchwide level, which is a whole new level of impending doom.

Standard 7WD digression: yes, there are lots of truly healthy congregations, and I’m bullish on the overall future of our church. I have every confidence that Christ will guard his church’s witness in the world. But we shouldn’t turn away from some real challenges, primarily because those challenges alert us to some failures to proclaim and to embody the Gospel. But that’s another blog post.

Back to topic: as stress levels increase, it gets harder to behave well. Or easier to behave badly. Our reptile brains take over, and we don’t think strategically or well. Fear pushes out our capacity to be generous. And of course, when a community is under stress, it is that much harder to forgive offenses from leaders and from those whom leaders serve.

There is no magic bullet, I’m afraid, to make stress go away. We can work on being “non anxious” but the cloud of stress in many places is here to stay. There are three things we can do, however.

First, as a church, we must not forget our hope is in Jesus Christ and our anchor is in prayer. Prayer opens the way for the Holy Spirit to work in us. It changes our hearts and perhaps the hearts of others. In crisis mode, it’s tempting to do things like “skip the prayer” or offer perfunctory prayers in meetings. This is spiritually deadly.

Second, we can practice reconciliation. It does no good for us to say we have Good News to share if we cannot practice reconciliation in our churches. This will, of course, take many forms. Sometimes it means moving on. Sometimes it means truth-telling. Sometimes it must include justice before anything else. And it always, always, always involves repentance. See next point.

Third, we must hold ourselves and one another accountable. There are communities which are toxic, and a parade of new leaders is successively run off, while the community never repents (see step two). There are leaders who serially abuse those whom they are called to serve. While I think we must be exceedingly generous, because we all make mistakes, there are times in which communities (congregations, for example) must be closed, for there is no hope for them having a healthy future. There are people who should forfeit any future call as leader, for there is no hope of them being a healthy leader. Forgive often. But Jesus also told his followers to let the dead bury their dead. And while Jesus loved everyone, he also told all those whom he met to change, to repent. We cannot say we are followers of Jesus if we are not ready to repent.

As I write this, I don’t really know much about what’s happening at General or EDS. I don’t know much about the woes of hundreds of congregations across our beloved church.

I do know this. We must all pray, and not just for “our side” if we have one. We must anchor any hope of a future for our church in our own hope in Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us to offer forgiveness, but he also insisted on repentance. Only great wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can help us know when to emphasize one or the other in this duet.

I began this post mentioning spiritual warfare. It’s going on in our church. Good battles evil. Hope battles fear. Future battles past. How do we enter this fray?

Prayer. Reconciliation. Repentance.

When it comes to working on institutional health, by all means, let’s look at technical fixes. Let’s bring in experts. We should use every analytical tool at our disposal and every organizational best practice we can learn. But I would encourage us all to use three things above the others.

Prayer. Reconciliation. Repentance.

Today is Michaelmas. I leave you with a hymn verse about St. Michael.

Send thine archangel Michael to our succor;
peacemaker blessèd, may he banish from us
striving and hatred, so that for the peaceful
all things may prosper.

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4 Responses

  1. Scott, thanks. If the report on the crisis at General Theological Seminary is to be believed, then the explanation for the crisis won’t be found in identifying a single issue. In a volatile academic market where there are far more seminaries than any church can sustain, change will come. The only question is whether the change will be made voluntarily or involuntarily.

    For institutions that fail to embrace that change, the future is bleak. The business model that sustained the modern seminary in the numbers we now have can be traced to historical forces that are unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future: (1) Post war GI bills for education; (2) massive immigration; (3) the Vietnam war which left the church with a cohort of students who elected to go to seminary, instead of going to Saigon; (4) women’s ordination; (5) second vocation boomers, who are largely past starting second careers, and who are followed by smaller generations who are unlikely to imitate their elders; and (6) the increasing numbers of Americans who are unchurched.

    Those factors need not be fatal, but seminaries will need to be strategic — whether they think that they have time to be strategic or not. Flailing around and grasping at “sexy” alternatives will not work. Students, churches, and our society will see those choices for what it is: an effort to repackage the culture’s own appetite, in the name of offering it back to them in new wrapping. And jettisoning the demanding task of bringing the tradition to bear upon the demands of contemporary life with rigor and faithfulness is also a bad option. If seminaries do not foster that kind of trenchant analysis, they have little to offer the church or the world.

    On the other hand, seminaries are complex institutions. They are part academic institution, part church, part monastery, and part business. Leaders who are charged with steering a course forward will need to work cooperatively and creatively with their faculties to craft a way forward. That can’t be done unilaterally. It can’t be done by cobbling together a program that is simply an amalgam of every conceivable suggestion offered. And, yet, it cannot be accomplished without coherence, focus, and an eye to the needs of the church and prospective students.

    In other words, it requires catalytic leadership. The active, creative, analytical engagement of leaders with the life of an institution, who refuse to leave things unchanged, but who work with and in the environment. The result is a vision that honors the past, listens deeply the present, and offers a faithful interpretation of the institution’s gifts for a new generation.

    Here’s hoping that the folks at GTS find a way forward. But the subsequent news from New York has not been encouraging.


  2. Kevin McGrane Sr. says:

    Wonderful post and wonderful comment! May I make a suggestion about the seminary situation in TEC, please? Look to the diaconate for a solution.

    The Diocese of MO has its own Episcopal School of Ministry, which educates and trains its deacons. It has no campus or buildings of its own, no library, no dorms, no cafeteria or bookstore. It rents space from another institution and holds classes there during “weekend intensives” over a three-year program. The faculty is staffed by local priests and scholars in the diocese, and runs the program in conjunction with a board. It graduates about 5 people each summer from a diocese of 12,000 and the entire school costs under $60,000/year.

    The hallmarks of this program are how it mirrors modern society – flexible, nimble, cost-conscious, and appropriate to need in a fast-paced world. It is a 21st century system of education and formation for a 21st century world, not a 16th century system for a 21st century world. Match this system along with CPE and field work, and we have a pretty good way to educate and form priests.

    TEC need not make a Xerox copy of this system, but I think it can use it as a model of how to produce good, solid priest (not necessarily scholars) who are prepared to step into a pastoral role quickly, and without all the tuition baggage therein. It will also, IMO, avoid a lot of the turf wars and infighting that seems to haunt academia. Thank you.

    Kevin McGrane Sr. – St.Louis, MO

  3. Barbara says:

    Thank you, Scott; very well said.

    Prayer must indeed be first; it’s taken me years to learn this simple truth. Without God nothing is strong, nothing is holy. (Interesting how the meaning of these collects all of a sudden becomes clear!)

    And then there’s the one we just had a week ago:

    “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

  4. Susan Charle says:

    Thanks for a really good reflection. One of the things that really stood out for me as I read all the sad stuff that GTS was going through, was the absence of any mention of prayer.It seems to me that all talking and debating and wrangling should STOP and EVERYBODY should be in that chapel in prayer. And they should pray without ceasing until some resolution is reached.

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