Dear Beloved Parishioners and Friends of COTM,
There is a whole pile of books written for wannabe CEO’s with titles like, “12 Keys to Successful Leadership,” and “Leadership Made Easy.” In my experience, these books generally say everything that anyone with common sense would learn long before they were put in a position of even modest responsibility (or, so we hope). A good example is the sage wisdom that good leaders, “leave the dance floor from time-to-time to get the balcony view.” One imagines an elegant waltz with the orderly swirling beautiful dresses: neat geometric patterns folding and unfolding under a the protective paternal eye. Would that it were so easy!
In truth, my experience is more like a square dance where the band is high on Crystal Meth and the calls are in a heavily accented Burmese dialect no one at the dance can understand. Frenetically we go from one partner to the next, staying with one just long enough to get some kind of synch before being tossed off to the next.
Church land, these days, is full of leaders who not only don’t know the steps of the crazy dance we call “parish leadership,” but can’t even figure out what the time signature is. So most of us (me, my colleagues, our Bishops, too) are simply improvising as best we can–stumbling and lurching as we go. The old ways simply won’t hold: everybody knows the tune is changing.
The wise ones say that new patterns will make themselves known–after all even a mosh pit has boundaries. “Follow the Holy Spirit,” they say, “Look for the Spirit’s work.” “Make a fresh wineskin.”
“How on earth do we do that?”–the question has been preoccupying me for some time.
Maybe we start by trying to stop. Is it possible to carve out some islands of stillness on the swirling dance floor of life? Can we find our centre of gravity and take a breath? Just one breath?
This past year has been incredibly challenging for me. After the heartbreak of the collapse of what had been a wonderful partnership with Eric (our former Minister of Music), I had to go through some wilderness wandering. I had to rediscover and reconstruct what I believe to be true about music and worship in the church. It was not an easy process, but it was a necessary one–for me and for the parish. We quickly discovered that leaflets are good and that leading hymns is hard.
With very limited administrative support, I had figure out what was essential about that, too. Some days the essential thing is unclogging a toilet. Other days it’s ordering cleaning supplies or scheduling space-bookings. At one point I prayed in frustration, “I’d like to get back to being a priest.” In response to that prayer I found myself having to clean up a particularly nasty mess left by a parishioner, which reminded me right quick what God thinks of “being a priest.” “Being a priest” is about creating a safe space for people and teaching them about Jesus, and sometimes that means changing light bulbs and cleaning up messes and filling out paperwork. Get over it.
I found some solace in Theological Interns. Poor Nancy, one time we spent a whole hour talking about how to move in worship. “This is essential,” I told her, “To master worship you have to learn to move like ninja ghost walker tea ceremony priest.” It was wonderful to rediscover the fundamentals!
By the time the summer came I was very nearly burned out. I made the most of my vacation, visiting family in the States, but quickly found my self back in the dance at Messiah. Things didn’t really turn around until the Labour Day weekend.
When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in the woods. I was a country boy who took naps on the chicken shed and was a crackshot with a BB Gun. I spent hours and hours exploring the wheat fields around my childhood home in Kansas, and I think I’ve missed that wildness. So I decided, somewhat abruptly, to take Betsy and Henry on a canoe camping trip. After a great deal of preparation (including weathering the concerned expressions of people who thought we were nuts to take an 18-month-old on a serious camping trip), we strapped a friend’s canoe to our car and headed for the woods. One of the blessings of this fine country is that you can go from a Sunday morning worship service to a remote campsite (by canoe!) before nightfall.
It was amazing. As soon as we settled down into camp for the first night I knew I was tapping into something very deep and essential. A solid of core of mystical juju that had been temporarily obscured by the orbiting dust of fleeting concerns. I breathed easy.
As Henry slept in the tent and Betsy and I enjoyed wine by the fire, we talked about the church and about life and about what is true and essential. Two days later, as we paddled back to the boat ramp, Henry fell asleep on a pile of blankets in the bottom of the canoe. The craft felt light and the air was crisp and cool. Betsy and I settled into a fast, efficient stroke. We arrived so early that we ended up hovering a few hundred metres from shore letting the wind spin us in lazy arcs.
The Buddhists have a saying, “Before Enlightenment we fetch wood and carry water; after Enlightenment we fetch wood and carry water.” When we came back to Toronto there were still leaflets to write and musicians to hire and projects to manage. But it did feel lighter.
The grief for things left undone was just where I had left it. So to was the promise of things to come. There were chairs to arrange and reports to write. Planning. Coaching. Begging. Worrying. Praying. All of it was just where I had left it. But it was all a little different, too.
I have no idea what the steps are to this crazy dance, but I’m not sure it really matters. The point of dancing was never to make pleasing geometric patterns of swirling tulle. The point of dancing is to have fun. It’s about joy and about life.
Jesus didn’t come to this earth to give us a divinely inspired self-help book. Twelve easy steps to being a worthy person. Baloney! No one could live up to that, read the Old Testament if you don’t believe me. He came to give us Life, and that abundantly. Life is messy and clumsy and awkward and sometimes painful. There are “hellos” and “good-byes” and stinky messes. There is also beauty and truth and love and peace.
God is love. And we, God’s Church, are in the business of sharing that love. There is no other worthy criteria for success. Everything else–budgets and staffing and programmes and even worship–serves that mission. It is the essential thing.
So go ahead and dance your crazy dance. Flail your arms around like a spasmodic white boy at the Junior Prom. “Dance, dance, or we are all lost,” says the poet. Dance your grief away. Shake off your doubt with a shuffle and find your groove. Don’t just walk out of your deserts of temptation–dance out of them.
If you can’t find your step, give me your hand and I’ll pull you along. But for God’s sake, don’t sit out. Don’t hide behind the punch bowl and miss out, because God is playing our psalm!
1 Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple; praise him in the firmament of his power.
2 Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him for his excellent greatness.
3 Praise him with the blast of the ram’s-horn;
praise him with lyre and harp.
4 Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe.
5 Praise him with resounding cymbals;
praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
6 Let everything that has breath *
praise the Lord. Hallelujah!