Everything I Know About Church Leadership Part III

I’m back wth the final four, and it’s all about the main thing. Read on…

Number 4: Sometimes simplicity, done beautifully, outstrips the ornate, done poorly. This relates to what I said earlier about creativity and tradition. On the Great British Baking Show, it sometimes seems as if there is an emphasis on complexity. That’s the nature of baking, at least sometimes. So let’s compare and contrast two bakes: 

The showstopper on top was indeed a showstopper in terms of appearance, but the baker was a wreck when it was done and some elements of the bake were less than stellar. The date and walnut rolls below it appeared in one of the bread episodes, where things rarely look fancified, but even in bread world, this looked like an unprepossing sort of bake. But the judges loved it. The flavors were delicious. The baker was happy with the result. No one was overly stressed out, although it is not easy to bake with rye flour. Skill and flavor. Not much flash, but flash isn’t always a virtue. 

Because the Episcopal tradition, with its focus on the power of all the senses in the act of worship, can sometimes seem pretty complicated – think of acolytes swinging that thurible of incense! – the work that is done in praise of God is exactly that: praise of God. There is a particular beautiful to complex worship done well, but there can be moments when it is a source of stress, a source of epic fails, a source of distraction from the main thing: God. 

But it’s not only in worship that we sometimes sacrifice the main thing. I’m thinking of a parish that had a biennial kid’s musical. It was a huge event:  a hundred kids, and almost as many parents, doing a Christian-themed musical. Every child had their little moment of glory. Some outstanding performances happened. It seemed that every parent was involved in some way. Seamstresses sewing costumes until their fingers bled. Platoons of lawyer-dads wielding power tools, a frightening vision if you ever saw it, building a stage in the sanctuary. Much of this was magnificent: the kids were taught to view this as a ministry to the parish and the community as a whole, and many got involved who were only marginally attached to their children’s faith experience.  But there was also a budget that exceeded the outreach dollars of most parishes, exhaustion, emotional drama, cattiness on occasion, and some demonstrations by some of the adults of behavior that was less than what Jesus would have hoped for.  It became, some might say, the tail that wagged the dog of the parish, because everything else appeared to stop when the parish was in production season.  

Sometimes, the main things got forgotten. And then it was just another middle-school/high school musical. Not a bad thing, but was it about the main thing? I wonder.  

A much less-resourced parish did an annual children’s Christmas pageant. It was something that all the kids participated in. They, too, saw it as a ministry. The adults supported it, planned it, worked on it. It wasn’t flashy. The production values were not superb. But there was an honesty, and fidelity to the story and what it meant to those participating, to those attending the pageant, and to us all as we re-heard that story. Because the main thing was the focus. The story of God’s Son’s birth, and what it means to us all.  

So it’s always a good thing to consider if doing something that’s a showstopper will distract you from the importance of the sustenance we get from the main thing. I’m not saying don’t strive for more. I’m saying that if it’s about striving for more for the sake of more rather than for the sake of God, it’s time for some rethinking. 

Because sometimes going for the fancy showstopper doesn’t work very well at all. 

Number 3: Sometimes you cry. Some of us are stoics who can get through anything without shedding a tear, because there’s work to be done, darn it! Some of us are weepy, whose deeply felt emotions spring forth with every puppy YouTube. The stoics sometimes get sniffy about the emotional ones. No reason for that: each of us has our own  bucket to hold our emotions, and sometimes the bucket is plenty large enough and sometimes things spill over.  

We saw that in play with TGBBS. Some bakers were all “get it done” and others would well up over a cracked piecrust. The remarkable thing was that everyone just accepted the differences in emotional expression. It seemed like there was no judgment about the crying/not crying abyss.  

In ChurchWorld, the same is true. Of course, the universe deems crying acceptable at funerals (except if you’re the preacher) and at weddings (if you’re the parent of the bride or groom.) But there are moments of sadness, of failure, where before you can see the failure as data, you just feel the pain of it. There are moments when people are behaving badly and you – and Jesus – weep. There are moments when the exhaustion gets the better of you. If there is any church musician who hasn’t had an emotional moment in this season of endless change and technological challenge without the blessing of in-person music-making, I’ll eat my hat (or my date-walnut roll.) Because all of us in ChurchWorld, be we pastor, lay professional, lay leader or member of the congregation, have had our times of grief, loss, pain, frustration. And it’s okay to cry. It does harm if we deny that need. If Jesus could weep at the grave of Lazarus, we can, too.  

Number 2: Don’t gloat over those who didn’t win. As I mentioned earlier about TGBBS, it’s a reality show without the nasty competition found in others of that genre. It’s an odd phenomenon, and maybe the bakers just masked it really well, but it appears that these competitors don’t snark it up about those who are eliminated. Even some of the less likeable bakers didn’t seem to generate that sort of “thank goodness (s)he’s gone” energy.  

If I could figure out how the producers of the show structured things, or how they screened potential bakers, to be a bunch of sweetie-pies, I might be tempted to try to replicate it in ChurchWorld. 

But I can’t and I wouldn’t, because we don’t screen out the humans whose traits are not always admirable, we welcome them. Because we’re Church, after all, and we’ve all got stuff that needs improvement.  

That doesn’t mean that we cannot strive to behave well toward each other. That doesn’t mean that we cannot name some norms of what’s acceptable and what’s not. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to model what we promised in our Baptismal Covenant, respecting the dignity of every person, because we are all children of God, as flawed as we might be. So cliques and gossip and snide remarks and exclusion need to be named as anathema to the Way of Love and something that will be called out in love.  

Number 1: Enjoy the people and the process, even if the product is imperfect. Relationships, relationships, relationships. It’s the people who matter. I think about TGBBS, and I think most about how the personalities of the different bakers interacted and meshed. I think about the gifts of some and the stout-heartedness of others. I think about smiles, and tears, and hugs in good and bad times. This little microcosm of relationship, with several competitors brought together for a fixed period of time for some very specific work, oftentimes showing the best we can hope for in human interaction…that’s what sticks with me. Some of them were awesome bakers. Some of them fell apart technically. But seeing how they interacted was, dare I say it, a peek into how the realm of God works.  

There once was a special service at a parish. The Rector was particular about the aesthetics of worship. Another priest was preaching. I was distracted, though, by the Rector. He was squirming in his seat. It wasn’t the sermon – the other priest’s sermon was quite engaging. But the vibrations of discomfort came off the Rector in waves, until he finally got up from his seat and went over to a chair that was central to the worship space. It was out of alignment with the other chairs, and he had to straighten it.  

In the midst of the sermon.  

The other priest was vaguely aware that something had happened but plowed on. Attendees had lost the flow of that sermon because of the distraction of the chair-moving. The Rector had lost his ability to enjoy the people and the process, because he was so oriented to the aesthetic perfection of the alignment of the chairs.  

And that takes us back to the notion of the main thing, and the Way of Love: when we attend to our own needs to the detriment of the work of others whom we are called to love, we are forgetting what the main thing is. Relationship with God and relationship with our fellow humans. The product is a distant third.  

So often, we go sideways in ChurchWorld when we forget these simple lessons. Whether it’s baking or leading in the church, love God. Love the people. Love the process. It may be messy. It may be crunchy at times. It may be missing some parts. The product is a distant third. But love is the ingredient that is vital.  

Be sweet, in the best of ways. Do feel free to “like” or to comment pro or con about these thoughts. This is a dialogue, I hope! 

Love you all! 

©2021 Mary Brennan Thorpe 

2 thoughts on “Everything I Know About Church Leadership Part III

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