By Rachel Bauer, an incoming student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
I was asked recently to consider what it means to be a leader in the church in an era where the church is dying. This question assumes something that I’m unsure about: the church is dying. Old ideas of it may be and that’s how things go: old things die, new things rise in their wake. It’s part of the mystery that we consider and celebrate every time we are drawn together in this thing called worship. This statement assumes a lot too, that people worship in traditional Christian ways where we proclaim the Gospel and participate in the Eucharist. Not everyone does this nor even wants to do this, and I’m not sure that we even have to do this to really consider the work of the Church. The work of the Church is the good news of God in Christ. We live out the Gospel. We digest it, go into the world and exhale it, just in time to inhale something that completely rearranges what we believe, and go back to partake of the Gospel once more.
There is something nourishing in this cycle. Nourishing because it feeds us with something more than just bread. It feeds us with something the world cannot give us. To be a leader in the church, lay or ordained, I think, is to recognize that. I think to be a leader in the church is to also have a whole lot of courage and just a touch of insanity, because it requires constantly that we be awake. That we notice when the Spirit offers us another way. Christ shows up in new ways all the time. Constantly asking us to question what we mean by Church, and I think that’s a good thing.
I found my way to Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, a really interesting perspective on the tendency of humanity to create groups, crave leaders, and above all, act in faith. The Church is in a place of transformation, of being born anew, and it’s both scary and exciting to consider what it means to be a leader in an atmosphere that feels amorphous and unsure. This is where that courage-with-a-touch-of-insanity kicks in. More and more I think leaders are called to be catalysts, called to be the spoon that stirs the community. That finds where the community is sticking, to find where the community is over-boiling itself, to find new ways to engage the community in the overall soup. The thing about making soup is this: even an old recipe followed exactly can, and probably will, produce a slightly different taste. I think part of leading is going along with these variations, and even, to some extent, encouraging them, because it makes us pay attention.
But going along with the variations often requires of us an enormous leap of faith. What seems small at first glance can actually be gaping, and at some point, we have to trust in our bones. The idea of bones is something that has stuck with me for quite some time. I come from a liturgical church and the liturgy is the bones. It bears the weight of the congregation around it, and all bones lay down more bone tissue when weight is beared upon them. I think leaders in the church do this too, call upon the bones of the institution and make them bear the weight. It reminds us that there is still life in that marrow.
It is a challenge to be a leader in a place that invites everybody in, all hospitality and God’s love, no matter what. It is challenging to hold people accountable when the core belief is one of salvation for everybody. Who are we if we are one? How can I be one and also me? I think a leader is also in this space between me and one. It is a place of torque, of mystery. A leader lets the bones hold the oneness, and reaches out—one heart to another—to the me, and calls the me into action. When our distinction is used together for a common purpose, we are one. There are no guidelines or rules on how to build this thing called church, and I think being a leader is recognizing that and seeing it as a strength. It involves collaboration with those around us, and a willingness to see the outskirts, the underside. So much of being a leader is being in the exchange from Gospel to life and back again. It understands vulnerability as a strength, as a way back to our own bones. Because at some point, we all need a place for our bones.