Bishop responds to President calling to reopen churches
As many of you may have heard, President Trump has just declared the opening of all houses of worship throughout the country. He rightly recognizes that we need “more pr…
May 11, 2020
Taped to my bookshelf on my desk is a meme from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring.” It says:
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
It was hard to provide leadership—clergy or laity—in the church before the coronavirus pandemic. It’s really hard now! I often look at this quote because it’s tempting to wish we didn’t have to live through this difficult time, much less provide leadership in it. But then I think about what Gandalf says to Frodo to encourage and also to motivate him: our task is to decide what to do with the time that has been given to us.
This Gandalf quote reminds me of Moses’ reaction to being called into leadership. “No way!” he says. He resisted God’s invitation to bring the Hebrews out of Egypt. He had every excuse imaginable, including that he couldn’t even talk right. We all know that Moses wouldn’t have passed our background check: he killed an Egyptian. He hid out in the backside of the wilderness.
Well, he learned, as the old saying goes, that you can run but you can’t hide! The task was larger than Moses or Aaron and they knew it. Sometimes it’s only when the task is bigger than we are—no matter how smart and experienced, clever and creative—that we finally get what it means to trust in God, listening carefully to God and to those who are around us. It was a big task, but God not only called Moses, he equipped him to do the task.
The first lesson of leadership for these times is to know we aren’t in this alone—God is with us!
That leads to the second lesson of leadership for our time: the models of leadership that worked in the past may not work now. One of my favorite stories about Moses is after he brought the people out of Egypt and they were far enough into the desert that they weren’t in harm’s way (from Pharaoh anyway), he sent for his wife and sons. His father-in-law, Jethro, brought the family out to him. (I always wondered how he found Moses. It’s not like they had the app, Find My Friends, which locates your family members or friends! I wonder…)
Anyway, back to my story: it’s “take your father-in-law to work day,” and so Moses took Jethro with him when he went out to judge all the disputes between the people. They’d line up and Moses would hear their complaints and rule on them, each and every one of them. Now you wonder if Moses was just trying to impress his father-in-law with how important he was. But Jethro has none of it!
Jethro tells him that what he’s doing isn’t good: “You will end up wearing yourself out and the people, too…you can’t do this alone.” So Jethro helps him organize the massive amount of work in a new way. And what you realize if you read between the lines is that Moses has internalized the organization of Egypt and taken it into the wilderness. In other words, his “pyramid style,” where he was at the top of the pyramid of responsibility and power, is a direct reflection of Egypt. Jethro’s not from there and suggests a more conciliar or collaborative form of leadership.
Leadership in every church requires clergy and laity to be talking about who you are going to be in this coronavirus age—it’s not over even when we venture back into our buildings. Leadership in every church needs to be taking responsibility for making sure that the financial needs of the church are being addressed. Leadership in every church needs to make sure that the safety and health of our people is a primary value and concern in all our decision-making. Clergy don’t make all those decisions alone, nor do laity: they must be made together.
And that leads me to the third lesson of leadership: learning new ways. How many times did Moses get water from the rock by striking it? Some biblical scholars suggest that minerals build up in the rocks, trapping water, and when struck, it breaks the mineral buildup and water comes gushing out. It worked every time!
But then one day, God knew there needed to be another way—if only to see if Moses would obey: speak to the rock instead of hitting the rock. But Moses was already angry at the people and he didn’t heed God’s command to speak to instead of hit the rock. So he hit it (not once but twice) and, as a result, God chastised him for not trusting God in this new way.
We must all learn new ways of being followers of Jesus and the church. Those churches which had begun to make some major changes prior to this—such as electronic transfer for offerings, online worship—appear to be the strongest right now. But it’s not too late! We have no choice but to make changes—some of them that we have been loath to make in the past—or we won’t make it to the Promised Land.
And finally, the fourth leadership lesson (for today anyway) is “rejoice in the Lord and again I say rejoice.” Huh? Well, think about another prophet who didn’t want to do what God wanted him to do, who ran away from God, who was eventually incredibly successful in his mission (but was a royal pain)! Yes, that would be Jonah. People like that story but I’m telling you he whined and cried and complained through the whole story. And you might notice a couple of things: 1) others were more than willing to throw him overboard to get rid of his bad energy and 2) there is nobody else with him once he gets to Nineveh. Nobody wants to be around him even in his success!
We can do all the right things in our leadership—now or any other time—but if we’re too much like Jonah, we can be totally successful but nobody wants to be with us. Too many churches don’t grow in the best of times because there’s too much moaning and groaning, conflict, and unrest in them—and frankly, who needs it? If leaders don’t know how to make their people smile—even laugh on occasion and even now—their “success,” if you will, is diminished. Joy carries us even when it’s a long walk through the wilderness. Joy is the outward sign of our trust.
So all of you—clergy and laity—need to decide how to live in this time and I encourage us all to live in joy! We need to decide what to do and to do it collaboratively. We need to keep focused on why we exist as the church of Jesus Christ: to care for one another, yes, but also our communities and the world around us.
Why, how and what will you do with this time that is given to us?
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