Recently I was asked to prepare some remarks for a continuing education conference I attend every year called, “Gathering of Leaders.” One of the very great things about this conference is that while the year’s theme is decided by a governing board, the content of each “Gathering” is user driven. This year, I was asked to prepare remarks for a “Returnee’s Panel,” wherein I and two others who had attended several “Gatherings” would offer our thoughts to first-timers on why we keep coming back. While my talk was given without a manuscript, this is more or less a written adaptation of what I’d said.
I am a firm believer in the idea that most church leaders (lay and ordained) can be divided into two categories: anchors and visionaries. Anchors are those leaders who root us to our past; keep us firmly grounded in our sacred traditions; remind us of our history; call us to attend to our scriptures with focused learning; celebrate our sacraments with a grounded understanding of their significance and a high theology of their continued efficaciousness in our lives. Because they are leaders, the very best of our ecclesiastical anchors do all of this with a strong sense of purpose rather than meaningless fussiness; with a love for the historical that never strays to idolatry; with a clear grasp on the narrative arc and importance of scripture while not forgetting that God is even bigger than we can write Him; and with a reverence for our sacramental rituals that is adoring more than it is adorned.
However, if the church were comprised solely of anchors, then we would fail in the mission Christ set before us. For the metaphor would hold true and the ship of Christianity would be stuck in the mud and be able to go nowhere. This is why we need our visionaries.
Visionaries are those leaders who dream us into the possibilities of the future; who keep us moving when we would much rather remain comfortable and secure; who challenge us to live into and beyond the accomplishments of our holy predecessors; who ask the provocative questions that call us to think about our theology in a quickly and ever-changing world in which circumstance and technology can seem to be leaving the relevance of scripture behind; who take our sacraments and rituals routinely beyond the walls of our churches of stone and wood with a strong sense of mission informed by the shrinking nature of our world geography. Because they are leaders, the very best of our ecclesiastical visionaries do all this with a great hope of what could be while appreciating the gifts already present; with a restlessness for mission rather than a contentedness for what already is; possessed of a zeal inspired by the saints while not being frozen by intimidation of them; with a holy curiosity for how scientific advancement and progress in human understanding of our universe can inform and be informed by theology and scripture; with a divine desire to see the beauty and mystery of our traditions and liturgies shared in as many venues and ways as possible.
However, if the church were comprised solely of visionaries, then we would drift away on the winds of fads and with the fickle vagrancies of the times. The great ship of Christianity would be cast adrift from the mud with purpose but without a plan to sustain it, with hope but without root to nourish it. No, it seems clear to me that the church needs both kinds of leaders if we are to carry the mission of Jesus Christ into this great 21st century and beyond. More than that, the church needs both kinds of leaders to work together, and not against each other.
This is why, each year, I make a great effort to attend the same two conferences for continuing education. They represent the very best in leadership training that I have found. One, a society of “anchors,” if you will. The other, a gathering of “visionaries.”
In my few years attending the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Priests, and through the benefits of membership in its fellowship, I have learned more about the great traditions of our church than in any book or seminary class. I have come to understand that sometimes the faithful few in my pews are more important for me to focus on that the great masses of humanity other churches have. I have benefitted tremendously, both personally and professionally, from this band of clergy dedicated to worshipping God in the full beauty of holiness and to carrying the light of Christ to the darkest places of both our cities and rural areas, where the lowest and the forgotten of our great land live and move and have their being. I have learned the meanings of our ancient rituals and their continued importance today in a world just as hurting as it was in times gone by, if in different ways. Most importantly, I have gained an increased sense of the significance of sign and symbol, always pointing beyond to something greater. Always pointing to Jesus Christ.
Even though I personally identify more with this group of “anchors,” each year I also attend the “Gathering of Leaders,” a conference designed for the visionaries of the church, and unabashedly about numerical growth. At these gatherings and through the benefits of membership in its fellowship, I have learned so many best practices for adaptive leadership from those who are practicing them and seeing the results. My congregation and, dare I say, those whom we serve in our surrounding community have benefitted from the imaginative and prophetic ideas for mission and outreach that have been bandied about at the famous “networking sessions” of these Gatherings. I have heard what can only be described as examples of the very best of new, “on the ground,” theological thinking, fearlessly engaging a fast paced and increasingly unchurched culture. Most importantly, I have gained an increased sense and born witness to the fruits of the transformational power of grace which we boldly proclaim in Jesus Christ.
We are the body of Christ. We are living out our baptismal vows in this corner of Christ’s Body that we call Episcopalian. But we so often bound gleefully down the rabbit holes of false dichotomies. It is either this way or that way. It can only be progressive or traditional; it can only be liberal or conservative; it can only be building-centric or emergent. The fact is we all have different gifts and we need each other. The progressive brother cannot say to the traditional sister, “I have no need of you.” This is why I delight in both conferences, and why I encourage all of us, lay and ordained, to find some way to participate in the full beauty and joy the wide range of our church represents. Our God is amazing and Christ died to offer all of us the new life of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. So let us climb out of the holes we have dug for ourselves and see the dayspring from on high again as if for the first time.
The most transformational words the church can offer are these, “This is Body of Christ. This is the Blood of Christ.” So let us take and eat, take and drink. Let us taste and see. Let us be the Body of Christ and live more fully into this great and holy calling, whether anchor or visionary, nourished by Word and Communion, and strengthened for service in a world which God still loves abundantly.
The Rev. Ryan Whitley serves as Rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Aardmore, PA. He is a member of the Holy Cross Chapter of the Society, whose members serve in Pennsylvania.