The announcement this past week by President of the House of Deputies, Canon Dr. Bonnie Anderson, came as a surprise to most of us deputies and alternates and the entire Episcopal Church. We fully expected Bonnie to continue for three more years, paralleling the nine-year term of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Now that the initial shock has died down, it’s time to think about the characteristics that we would include in a wish list for the next President of the House of Deputies. We will also be voting for a Vice President of the House of Deputies at the upcoming General Convention in July. Depending on order, clerical or lay, of the elected President, the Vice President must be elected from the opposite order.
The Episcopal Church is at an important crossroads as we move towards General Convention. There are numerous, game-changing issues facing this church and the whole panoply of Christian churches in the Western hemisphere that also coincide with major demographic, economic, and political changes in the secular world. The powers that be and the dominant culture’s stranglehold on controlling the media messages have been battered by the grassroots, thanks to the explosion of social media. Access to social media has helped the Occupy and Arab Spring movements to flourish as well as the plethora of instantaneous petition and letter-writing campaigns responding to all types of political issues.
In this context, it seems to me that we need to elect a leader for the next three years (and possibly more years if such elected leader is deemed the right one and is reelected in 2015) who is a departure from the way we’ve always done things. As a member of the Executive Council in this past triennium, I have had a front row seat in observing our President of the House of Deputies, who is also the Vice President of Council, and the challenges faced by her. We need a leader who isn’t married to the way we’ve always done things, while also having an appreciation of our history, traditions, and how we got where we are today.
So, without further ado, here’s my wish list, not necessarily in any order of priority.
1. We need a leader who has multiple visions of what The Episcopal Church might look like in three, six, nine, twelve, or fifteen years. Being single-minded and having a singular vision is a thing of the past. The world is moving at light-speed, and we must embrace visions of our future that encompass multiple possibilities. Of course, the singular core value and guide must be our Gospel-centered, baptismal identity. However, the expressions of our being church as we move forward will be multiple and varied, depending on the local context, demographics, and culture. We need a leader who has the capacity to hold multiple visions in mind as possibilities while continually adjusting and communicating an evolving vision that points ahead and includes newcomers and their ideas. More than ever, the icon of the Anglican umbrella of comprehensiveness becomes important not merely symbolically, but in actual praxis.
2. We need a leader who has a high tolerance and comfort with ambiguity. If the expressions of our being church will be multiple and varied, we need leadership with a posture of openness that can embrace, lift up, and support multiple and varied models of ministry at the provincial, diocesan, and congregational levels. One size has never fit all, but now, more than ever, leadership must acknowledge, encourage, and support the different expressions of ministry. This is not easy work nor is it typically within the range of leadership and management styles found in the institutional church. Leadership must get past getting stuck in feelings of rejection when new models of being church bubble up from the grassroots, learn to be open-minded even when it’s uncomfortable, and adopt a sense of time that extends past a budget cycle or a 3 to 5-year plan.
3. We need a leader who is adept at receiving, incorporating, and integrating 21st century information, technology, and social media. As an aging (some would argue, “dying”) church, The Episcopal Church cannot afford to invest in a leader who is behind the times. Yes, we will value the wisdom and advice of our elders, but perhaps their time to lead has passed, and it is time for new leaders. Brain science is telling us that the electronic age has rewired many of us to multi-task, process, and integrate information from multiple sources and media in ways that are mystifying to those who haven’t kept up. Rather than be judgmental about the role of technology and social media, we need to step up proactively to include increasing amounts of resources and space for the new technology and social media. Whether we choose to live in the future or not, the future will not be stopped.
4. We need a leader who is a consummate, passionate communicator and listener. More than anything else, the way forward will involve enormous amounts of listening and conversation in multiple formats. There is anxiety in the church system. That anxiety needs to be heard. There are myriad ideas for ways forward. Those myriad ideas need to be heard. We need a leader who has the multicultural, technological, and social media skills and the sincerity of heart, mind, and soul, to listen deeply to people of all political, cultural, and demographic persuasions so that they know they have been heard.
5. We need a leader who values collaboration and is a skillful collaborator. A leader does not lead in a vacuum. A leader needs people in various roles with whom to work and on whom to rely. Collaboration is a skill that must be honed and honored. Thus, a leader must be self-aware of his or her skills, strengths and weaknesses, have a willingness to acknowledge such, and have the humility to ask for and accept help. Collaboration across different communities – with fellow leaders, staff, volunteers, community representatives, ecumenical partners, etc. – builds organizational health, webs of relationship, and infrastructure. We need a leader who sees and seeks to understand the value that exists in each of those different communities and is open to the possibility of incorporating ideas and practices from those different communities.
6. We need a leader who will enthusiastically embrace a demanding schedule of hard work, involvement with a multitude of communities, and constant travel. It is well and good to acknowledge the importance of balance, self-care, and Sabbath. However, the reality of the times we are entering is that we will need a leader who can find self-renewal, positive challenge, and energy in the crucible of structural, demographic, and economic change. The type of leader who can lead in times of transition is not the same type of leader who is needed in times of stability, including times of stable, progressive growth. We need a leader who will be fueled and fed by the constant input of dynamic times rather than feel overwhelmed and fatigued by the constant motion. We need a leader whose sense of abundance derives from the overflowing cup of grace that comes from the Creator.
7. We need a leader who is whole enough to withstand the onslaught of bad behavior, unjust criticism, and blame that will be directed at her or him. In an ideal world where we all live into our baptismal identity, our leaders would not be subjected to personal attacks and under-the-microscope scrutiny, but we do not live in an ideal world. So, we need a leader who is not among the walking wounded, does not carry a chip on the shoulder, and is not overly sensitive to the barbs and snipes that will surely be aimed her or his way. I think this also means that we need a leader who has the faithfulness and fortitude of spirit to be self-disciplined about turning the other cheek, forbearing pettiness and ill will, and exercising patience in listening and in teaching.
8. We need a leader who genuinely, wholeheartedly, loves God’s people, in addition to loving the church. I think that a leader who genuinely loves God’s people, including those with whom the leader disagrees and those who abuse the leader, is absolutely needed in times of great change. It is not enough to love the institution and to want what’s best for the institutional church. A leader must also love the people of the church and the people whom the church serves, so intensely and so widely and deeply that the people know it and will respond to that love in kind. Perhaps this is the purest kind of charisma there is, a charisma that is a channeling of the love received from God and shared out in abundance with one’s fellow humans.
9. We need a leader who is willing to sacrifice, to compromise, and to be decisive. I group these three characteristics together purposely. I do not believe that a leader should hold onto any idea or point so strongly that she or he is unwilling to sacrifice it for the good of the whole – the whole people, the whole institution, the whole relationship, the whole future. Compromise has its place; there must be a give and take that is grounded in continually growing and unfolding relationships. Decisiveness is necessary; there will never be enough data, analysis, or time. Choices must be made, and sometimes, leaders will make the wrong choice. Part of the responsibility of leadership is to bear the burden of making the wrong choices and the knowledge that the cost of wrong choices falls on the beloved community. What ameliorates the sacrifice, the compromise, and the decisions is the communication and collaboration that a good leader embraces consistently and continually.
10. We need a leader who knows when to retire. I believe that God calls us each for a season for the tasks that God puts before us. We need a leader who has the humility and the wisdom to know when his or her season is at an end, and who steps aside graciously when that season has ended. The institutional church is too full of people who love the institution too much, to the point where they have overstayed their seasons. Leadership is a lot like parenting. We raise our children to leave us. We step out of their way when they are grown. So, too, must we as leaders raise new leaders to step out of our shadow, and then, we must step aside to make room for their leadership season.
From my perspective, it should be possible to hold an over-arching vision of a church that is dynamic and vibrant at the grassroots, congregational level, and yet allow for variations of how congregations and dioceses are organized. Dioceses that may favor more mutual and team ministry models should not be stereotyped as departures from the norm, but rather, the new norm should be that there is no norm.
Needless to say, leading in an environment of great diversity and tolerance for difference is exceptionally challenging and not what most traditional leaders are prepared for. The traditional mode of a leader imprinting his or her personal vision and leadership style upon an organizational unit doesn’t work well in an environment where people and ideas are moving in from the margins and changing the balance.