Everything I Know About Church Leadership (Part II)

I’m back with more on the subject of The Great British Baking Show and how it offers object lessons for me in how to be Church. If you found something useful in Part I of this series, great! Let’s hope there are more crumbs of delicious wisdom today.

Number 8: Lift each other up. TGBBS is a competition, right? And we know how competition goes, particularly on television reality shows. Cutthroat. Mean spirited. Sabotage. Alliances that only last as long as it benefits one person. Snarkiness.

But TGBBS has a different flavor/flavour. I don’t think if it’s because it’s British, because looking at the British tabloid press on occasion feels like watching the Christians vs. Lions in the Coliseum. I don’t think it’s because it’s food, which everyone loves, because Gordon Ramsay, am I right? No, there’s a different thing going on here.

On occasion, one of the bakers messes up in a dramatic way. A towering construction that is meant to be a showstopper starts to fall down. A frosting based on Italian meringue doesn’t cool down and firm up enough to do a proper job of decorating something. In one dramatic moment, a baker managed to cut himself rather seriously.

What happened? Did everyone snicker and say “well, that gets rid of that baker and I get to move on to the next level?” Not a one. Whether it was the baker who was bleeding like a slaughtered sow or the baker whose Tower of Babel cake toppled or the baker whose frosting wouldn’t set up, the others said words of encouragement, offered first aid to the bleeder, asked what they could do to help. This was despite the fact that they were all under serious time pressure to complete their own bakes.

Similarly, if someone was having a bad day and seemed to be in an emotional funk, others would say a word or two. At the end of the program when the person who was eliminated was announced and the person who was the “Star Baker” for that week was named, there was love and hugs for both, and for each other. And it was genuine emotion, not fake “for the cameras” stuff.

Because relationships are important. Because a bake or a competition or a program offering is a thing. It’s the people who count. I don’t recall Jesus judging the quality of the food served at the Last Supper. He was focused on sharing the emotions, real emotions, and the message he wanted to impart to these beloved, messy, occasionally argumentative, sometimes well-nigh invisible disciples (I’m looking at YOU, Thaddeus). He loved them. He knew things were changing, so this bittersweet meal, which may have been delicious, was less about the food than about the relationships.

A church and food story: there was once a woman who was justly proud of how she managed the food at the fellowship activities at a church. She was meticulous and it showed in the table settings, in the placement and serving of the food, in the menu itself. Over time, she became more and more meticulous, to the point that if something brought for the meal didn’t meet her standards, she tossed it in the garbage. “The Bishop is coming! That’s just not good enough for the Bishop!” And so fewer people were willing to bring their specialties to serve at fellowship events, and she complained that no one would help her. Somehow she had forgotten that while it was important to offer our best to each other whether in fellowship or in some other way, it was the “each other” part that was more important than “our best.”

In contrast, another person who helped with all the persons who were participating in each Sunday’s service was an encourager in chief, applauding the reader who got through the Scripture passage with long Hebrew names, helping acolytes with their cinctures, giving the high sign to the organist that everyone was lined up and ready to go…this was a moment of saying to each person who participated that their ministry was important in the praise and worship of God and everyone mattered. People were happy to volunteer because their gifts were appreciated. If somebody bobbled something, the person comforted them. If something went sideways, there was no yelling. Yelling is rarely about lifting up those with whom we are in relationship.

Count the number of times Jesus yells at people. Count the number of times Jesus lifts people up. Be like Jesus.

Number 7: Respect the judges. In the world of TGBBS, the judges are there to judge. They are experts. I can remember the time Paul Hollywood (it’s really his name!) said “I’ve probably baked about 30,000 bagels.” Having a bunch of British people bake that quintessential New York Jewish circle of joy, I wondered why the judges would ask the contestants to make them. But the technique they were told to follow was the real deal, and some of them looked fabulous, some not so much, but Paul’s model bagels looked straight out of Zabar’s.

The contestants didn’t second-guess the judges. They knew that the skill level Paul and Mary brought to the table (Mary Berry is a noted baker and cookbook author) were very high. They might not always have agreed with some of the comments about one element or another, but there was no whining and no saying “what the heck does he know?”
It’s not a sin to recognize that there are people with particular expertise whose voices are important to hear. It’s also not a sin to recognize that our denomination is hierarchical, with particular responsibilities assigned to different levels of the hierarchy. In Episco-World, we are organized by geographical areas called dioceses, often one diocese per state, except in the large and densely populated areas. The diocese has a Bishop, who serves as chief pastor in that diocese. The Bishop has a staff with particular expertise in certain areas. Those staffers have everyday experience in tasks that are rare occurrences in most parishes. Respect the experience and the skills – it’s smart! Think of it like heart surgery: you wouldn’t do heart surgery on yourself, you’d go find the best, most experienced heart surgeon and then take her advice.

Similarly, in parishes, we have different people in different roles: the rector and the vestry are the leadership team. The Canons and Constitution of the Episcopal Church, and in most dioceses, diocesan canons, lay out who’s in charge of what in the broadest possible terms. The priest has the final word on worship activities and on use of the building. The vestry supports the temporal tasks that support all aspects of the work of the church. In the best possible incarnation, they work collegially. In the best possible incarnation, a vestry is formed of people with particular gifts to bring to the table.

In the worst possible incarnation, everyone thinks they’re an expert on everything and argue about things they really don’t know as well as others. Clarity about the roles and responsibilities of each person in leadership can help keep such battles to a minimum. Respect what people bring to the table but not everyone brings the same gifts, so when it’s time to be quiet and hear what the other person has to say, that’s a good thing.

A side note on this: let’s say you’re a parish where the average age of the members is what we might call “mature Cabernet.” Let’s say you’ve called a priest who is significantly younger (Beaujolais Nouveau) than your demographic. Trust that the priest might already know a lot about theology and the way church works and what’s permitted and what’s not, even though they look younger than the parishioner’s grandchild. Sometimes parishioners feel the need to instruct the young priest in “this is the way we always do things around here,” which is a very different thing from saying “it’s so interesting that you’ve introduced this new thing, because it’s not how things have been before. Please teach me about this.” And consider how this young priest might be introducing precisely the thing that will make the parish feel more welcoming to those younger persons you long for, even if it takes you out of your comfort zone. And that takes me to…

Number 6: There’s a place for creativity and a place for honoring the traditions. In the course of every episode of TGBBS, there are a sequence of bakes. Remember that there is an overarching theme for each episode, say, cookies. Within that theme, contestants are asked to do a signature bake – one of their own recipes in this category that shows how they approach it. So someone might do macarons, another might do molasses crinkle cookies, another might do the ultimate shortbread. Then they’re asked to do a technical challenge, with all making the same recipe, often something rather obscure that none of them have done before. They have to read and decipher the recipe and deliver the finished product, with only a few clues as to how to approach the bake. Lastly, they do a showstopper, where they can use all their skills to come up with something that tastes marvelous, looks fabulous, and showcases their creativity in every possible way. As Doug and I watched TGGBS, we saw cakes that looked like a tavern or a country fair, we saw a variety of little mini-cakes that ranged through every color of the rainbow and every flavor possible, and tarts that look like they’ve come from a darling French bakery on the Left Bank. Each episode, the sum total of what each baker has produced THAT WEEK (more on that later) is what the judges measure as they consider who will be that week’s star baker and that week’s departing contestant.

The signature bake is a warm-up of sorts, designed to get the baker comfortable making something in the theme category. It’s easier to show your best stuff when it’s something you’ve made a hundred times before (like my own shortbread cookies, which I could make in my sleep.) There’s a wisdom to not get too crazy here: if you mess up on the thing that is supposed to be in your wheelhouse, you look pretty incompetent.

The technical challenge is all about following the directions and augmenting that with your own understanding of that kind of baking. In one series, there was a young woman who had not even gone off to university yet who had apparently done a lot of study of baking techniques, the science and such. Despite her youth and relative inexperience, she outshone a contestant who had been baking for decades because she knew a principle of baking – it’s chemistry, after all, when you come down to it – and added that knowledge to what was on the page of the recipe. And since all bakes must be completed in a particular time period, part of the preparation would be figuring out what needs to be done when to achieve a completed product in the time allotted.

The showstopper, as I said above, is about pulling out all the stops and doing something that will be beautiful and memorable in appearance and flavor. Again, this is a place where planning ahead and sequencing things correctly is important. But note that creativity partners with skill level: if a baker has a concept in mind but doesn’t have the skill to pull it off will turn out a bake that looks worse than one where the baker can turn out a competent but simpler result. For example, I’ve only done sugarwork a couple of times and will readily admit that it terrifies me. I’d never try to do it on a showstopper. But piping and gum paste flowers? I can and would do them.

A similar approach can be wise in church work. In the Episcopal tradition, much of our liturgy is defined for us in the Book of Common Prayer and in the Book of Occasional Services. There are limits to how creative we can get (usually defined by what our Bishop will allow) but there is great freedom in some elements, such as music and decorating of the church. But even in those areas, while it’s good to try new things, balancing the completely new and high-risk with the familiar and comfortable can be a good thing. The bakers know that when they’re nervous, they might forget a step in the prep or shake as they pipe out the decorations. Their nerves show when they bring the bake up for judging and watchers are nervous with and for them. If the whole of a new liturgy is all high-risk and unfamiliar, both those who participate in a liturgical role and those in the pews will be distracted by the free-floating anxiety. If there are new elements but other parts that are less anxiety-producing, everyone can breathe into the worship in a good way.

In the same way…

Number 5: When one thing is done, whether the outcome is good or bad, learn and move on to the next bake. Learning from one’s mistakes is part of the ethos of TGBBS. If you used too much rosewater in that marzipan, you’ll get called on it by the judges. If you repeat the error, the judges will once again call you on it, and it will be evident that you’re not paying attention to their wisdom. One baker who made it fairly far in the competition was superbly creative when it came to the flavoring components she used, but the basics of baking (over-proofed, underbaked, sloppily presented) continued to plague her, although Paul kept giving her the same advice. He lauded the flavors, but rightfully penalized the bake for one of those errors. It kept her from achieving the best she was capable of doing. That was bad enough, but then she kept thinking back to the critique, even when the next bake was not something where the same elements were in play. It distracted her from her work, and the downhill slide was inevitable.

Now here’s the interesting thing about TGBBS: each episode is its own thing. Results from week to week are not cumulative. So if you have a bad week, you can still achieve “star baker” status the following week. Getting stuck reliving your past failures in your head means you cannot think ahead to how you’re going to do things in this moment. Remembering past lessons is helpful. Dwelling on past failures is something entirely different, and is not helpful.

And here’s where one of my favorite phrases comes into play: IT’S ALL DATA.

Start thinking about failure as data rather than a judgment on you as a person. This ties back to the notion of critiquing the product rather than the person. If putting your frosting in the freezer to cool it down so it will not slump on the cake layers works, great! If it yields something uneven in terms of texture that makes the decorating look like cellulite rather than frosting, it didn’t work. You won’t do that again because you’ve taken the data from that experiment (trying to freeze the frosting didn’t work so I need to make it earlier in my process so it has time to firm up naturally) and incorporated it into your memory.

How does this express itself in ChurchWorld? The person who scorched the linens with a too-hot iron should not be cast into the Outer Darkness of No More Altar Guild, because if they aren’t shamed for this, I’d bet they will never overheat the iron again. They will have incorporated the data from the scorch (never use a setting higher than x when I do this). It’s data, not shame. The priest or musician who plans on five new pieces of music in a single service discovers that this makes the congregation crazy because not all of them read music, they like familiar music, and it feels shaming to parishioners who cannot keep up.

It’s not a failure, though. It’s data.

Based on that data, the priest or the musician will not repeat that mistake and will find a more gentle way to introduce new music.

Here’s a pro tip: when something like this happens, particularly if it’s something that affects the whole of the congregation (the five new songs experience, for example), one of the most gracious things one can do is for the person whose idea it was to say to the congregation, “well, that didn’t work very well, did it? I’m sorry about that – I realize now how confusing that was, and while we’ll still be introducing you to some new music, it will certainly not be an experience like last week.” If there’s a way to introduce humor into it, that’s always a good way to focus on the error in process rather than personal guilt or shame. Modeling learning and moving on is helpful to the whole parish – we want to have reasonable norms of how we treat each other, and this is one way to get there.

There’s actually a corollary to this particular learning: Do the best you can and bring it to the table. To me, one of the most tragic moments on TGBBS was when a baker – a highly stressed out but marvelously skilled baker – erred in one key element of his bake of his showstopper. He was so horrified and angry with himself when he discovered this, he tossed the whole of that bake into the garbage. For him, if one element was deeply flawed, he wouldn’t bring the whole of it to the judging table. His fellow bakers were heartbroken, since he was a gifted baker, and it seemed so rash to toss it into the bin.

When the judges started reviewing the bakes, they said to the fellow, “where’s your bake?”

He told them what he had done. They saw his emotional state and took pity, but also gave him some wise advice: “even if some of it didn’t come out as you wanted, there might have also been some other elements that were wonderful, but we cannot say anything about that because you tossed the whole thing. If this happens again, don’t toss it, bring it proudly to the table and we’ll let you know what worked and what didn’t.”

For all of our work in ChurchWorld, we are asked by God to bring ourselves and what we do to the table. Perfection is not expected. We are called to be faithful, not perfect, although we strive to become a little bit closer to God’s perfection in our own way. That’s what has helped me when things have gone awry during a service or when I have handled an interaction with someone gracelessly: I’ve learned that although I always want to do better, I should still bring the whole of who I am and what I do to the Table of the Lord, including the data I’ve gathered in the process, and offer it, such as it is, knowing that God shows infinitely more grace than I can ever offer myself.

Part III to come in a week or so…in the meantime, be sweet!

Copyright © 2021 Mary Brennan Thorpe

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