Saturday, May 29, 2010
Slings and Arrows
Yes, that Rowan Williams. You know, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Spiritual Leader of the Anglican Communion.
And, yes, that Barack Obama. The President of these United States of America.
In the way that is often my thought process, the more I considered Mr. Obama and his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy and deficit, and now the horrific oil spill in the Gulf, the more my thoughts turned to the whole issue of leadership.
The more I considered Rowan Williams and his Pentecost Letter, the more I realized that this was not so much about +++Himself as it is about the impossible vocation of being a 'spiritual leader'.
No, I'm not giving Rowan any slack. In trying so hard to appease absolutely everyone and preserve the unity of the Communion, he has only succeeded in riling everyone on both sides of the troubles that have plagued the Church for the past forty years - and, I suspect, only added to the wicked, poisonous brew that is religious schism.
I want to suggest, however, that there are differences between being a 'leader' and being a 'spiritual leader'.
I remember inviting Bishop Steve Charleston to lecture a class I was teaching at the Theological School at Drew. He began by setting up two columns on the black board. On one column, he wrote the word "Spiritual" and asked the students to say the first thing that came to their minds when they heard the word.
"Peaceful," someone called out.
"Holy," said another.
"Saintly," said a third.
"Godly," offered yet another.
There were more, but you get the point.
Then, he wrote the word "Leader" in the other column and asked the same question.
There were more, still, but you get the point. I suspect you also get the point he was trying to make.
If the term 'spiritual leader' is not a bit of an oxymoron (like 'jumbo shrimp'), it is, at the very least, two words that often seem at odds with one another.
How do we reconcile the two words? How does one become a 'saintly manager'? If it is true, and it is, that 'boss' spelled backward is 'double SOB', then how does one become a 'godly boss'?
Whatever the answer, I want to suggest that 'appeasement' is not the path to reconciliation.
I suspect Mr. Obama, after his first year in the highest office of leadership, is learning a bit about the dangers of always wanting to cross the aisle and find agreement on the middle ground.
Which is all to say that, when one is in any position of leadership, one can - and, perhaps, should - expect to deal with criticism.
Some of it will be valid. Some of it will not.
When one is a 'spiritual leader' it gets even more complicated than that.
People can have unrealistically high standards for clergy as ministers and as human beings - it's that 'saintly manager' thing.
Some people will actually expect "the impossible" as an operational standard for ministry - including, unfortunately, the pastors themselves.
For example, there is an unspoken expectation that pastors will have a healthy, happy, stable family life AND s/he will always will be available to parishioners - any time of the day or night.
Or that pastors will always be available to visit folks in their homes and hospitals and extended care facilities, AND also be sitting in the church office, ready, willing and completely available when someone "just stops by" - without an appointment.
Mixed up with all of this are the ways people sometimes can project onto pastors their feelings about parents, other authority figures or even God. Or, change. Or, not changing. Or love. Or, emotional distance.
There is no end to the variety of reasons why clergy are the object of criticism. Besides all that, the gospel requires that clergy take a stand on many matters that will not endear us to others.
It's the old "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". It's the reason why clergy in The Episcopal Church system have life tenure - so we can do the work of the gospel and not lose our jobs for it.
Although, some - indeed, many - of us no doubt have, anyway.
Sometimes criticism can feel like confirmation that we clergy are doing our job. But those times tend to be rare. More often, most clergy I know feel like the unfortunate person with the sign "Kick Me" pinned to the back of his/her clerical shirt.
Sometimes it is not about me. Clergy are — and need to be - a relatively safe place for people to bring their disappointment, grief or anger, even when the clergy person is not the original source of that emotion.
No one articulates this better than author and Lutheran pastor Walter Wangerin in his book of collected essays, "Ragman and Other Cries of Faith." It's a powerful metaphor for Christ and those who follow in his path. You can find the essay here. G'won, give it a read when you have a chance.
I can not recommend more highly Pamela Cooper White's book, Shared Wisdom. Learning about the dynamic of 'transference and counter transference' has helped me in literally hundreds of situations and thousands of different ways.
Sometimes it is about me. In those times when criticism seems well founded, I look for the opportunity to learn something more about myself as well as for the chance to clarify, to apologize or to reconcile. I am always deeply grateful for these moments because I always grow from them.
I have learned that there is a difference between 'intent' and 'impact' (I wish I could remember who first described this dynamic to me so I could give her credit. Alas, she remains like so many wise women, anonymous. My sincere apologies are exceeded only by my profound gratitude.).
I understand that we can say something with one intent but it is not received as we intend it and so the impact is negative. This happens a great deal in email conversations which only convey one dimension of a person's communication or personality.
In those instances, I try to take the high ground, take responsibility for my intent and apologize for the impact. I have discovered that two of the most powerful words in the English language are "I'm sorry."
I have also discovered that there are times when the voice of criticism is the voice of the Holy Spirit, speaking the truth, seeking to correct. Even when the criticism is well founded, that does not make it easy to hear. In fact, legitimate criticism may be the most difficult to hear because it cannot be easily dismissed.
It's part of that 'intent' vs. 'impact' thing again, which can be good. Difficult, but good. Another opportunity for personal growth.
One thing I can say for certain: I put little stock in anonymous criticism. I consider it one of the ultimate acts of cowardice. Besides being difficult to evaluate the information, it's hard to know to whom you need to apologize or with whom you need to be reconciled.
I put less stock in gossip which, in church circles, can take the form of someone in leadership telling the pastor - as one once actually said to me - "Well, for example, 'someone' said that they stopped coming to church because you didn't talk to them or their family at coffee hour or at the Spaghetti Supper."
True story. Never mind that it is not JUST the pastor's job to talk to people at the coffee hour. Never mind that church is made up of a 'community' of people. Never mind the neurosis of the statement in the first place. Never mind that more often than not, the pastor doesn't get to talk to everyone at social events because the leadership is always pulling the pastor 'off line' to talk about something Very Important that Just. Can't. Wait. Never mind . . . .
Oh, just never mind.
Recently, I listened intently to a report of a Vestry retreat where the facilitator asked folks to write down their questions/concerns on a file card, which the facilitator then collected and read out loud.
The concerns were systematically categorized to be dealt with later, not addressed specifically, necessarily, but as part of an analysis of how the church, as a system was working.
Not a bad process, I thought. Most of them were valid - if not classic - concerns about the workings of the parish. Some of them, however, were strong - albeit unfair - criticisms of the pastor.
I later marveled to hear one of the leaders talk about that retreat. "It was so wonderful," s/he gushed, "that we were all able to tell the truth."
Erm. Excuse me. But, writing down anonymous criticism about the pastor is NOT truth-telling. It's a cheap pot shot, pure and simple.
And some of these people really, really believe that they are Christian. Really.
"To be or not to be" a spiritual leader is not the question. Those of us - ordained or devout members of the laity - who are in positions of leadership in the church must learn, somehow, to live with the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' that are part of the landscape of 'spiritual leadership'.
With apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, I don't think suffering "'tis nobler in the mind". Neither do I think, it is necessarily wise to "take arms against a sea of troubles /And, by opposing, end them."
The truth of spiritual leadership is somewhere in the middle of the two polar ends of Hamlet's question. Learning to navigate the dangerous waters in between the two is part of the challenge - and joy - of spiritual leadership.
Mr. Obama still has much to learn about being an American and world leader. His is a daunting task on a Very Steep learning curve where the stakes are incalculably high. I do not envy the man and am trying to learn patience while I quell my own rising tide of anxiety at the state of the world.
The Archbishop of Canterbury seems, more and more, a tragic Shakespearean figure of a man, living out the impossible vocation of a spiritual leader with an equally impossible track record of failure.
I think it was also Shakespeare - or one of his characters - who said, "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."
May we who are called into vocations of spiritual leadership find both the will and the grace to accomplish our tasks, ever more mindful of the impossible call of the Gospel to "love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with our God."