Discernment, not strategic plans

Guest blogger: the Rev. Anna Doherty, Rector, Christ Church, Woodburyannad

The Missional Leadership Cohort for Episcopal Clergy at Luther Seminary was a mind-altering, wonderful transformative experience for me, and I want to share a little of that experience with you.

This past spring, I finished up an 18-month experience as part of a Missional Leadership Cohort for Episcopal Clergy at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. The program I was a part of was an experiment of sorts, to see if this kind of model of learning would be useful for clergy who had some prior experience in congregational leadership, but who also had many years of active ministry left in their future.

In my previous six years of ministry, I can’t tell you how many committees I have been a part of, at the diocesan and congregational level, who tried vainly to do the difficult work of discerning the church’s mission. We put together countless mission statements, 5-year strategic plans, checklists of action steps, but none of it quite seemed to work. I was starting to feel resigned to a career in ministry that was all committee meetings and very little actual mission.

And then I applied to be a part of this Missional Leadership Cohort, and my outlook changed. For 18 months, clergy from around the country met in person once or twice a year, and learned and discussed and worked on projects and read books.

The most transformative piece of my learning was this: Programs and strategic plans are not the answer to discerning God’s mission. God is already working in the world; we need only take the time to look for what God is already doing in the neighborhoods where we live.

Thanks be to God, our work is about discernment, about creating safe places for people to discern, to discover what God is already doing in our midst! We do not need to start God’s mission from scratch! My sense of calling as a minister in the church has been revived and energized thanks to this most important of learnings.

As part of my participation in the Missional Leadership Cohort, I also learned this, just as important, lesson: It takes a ton of ongoing, reflective work to start to think about mission as something that God is already doing and that the church participates in…rather than the work that the church does on behalf of God.

After 18 months of ongoing study, I only just felt like I was beginning to wrap my mind around this. After all, our entire church system is set up to operate in a way that makes this kind of work hard to do. To use another popular catch phrase in the church, learning missional leadership is an adaptive challenge. It’s not the kind of thing that can be learned in a day-long workshop. And, like any kind of transformative learning, it is not the kind of thing that can be practiced briefly before it gets to be automatic. I have needed to continually check in, reflect, and talk through the challenges of the missional leadership mindset in order to continue to try and truly live it.

So, while I so value and appreciate my missional leadership learnings, there is also another part of my ongoing learning that I continue to hope and wish for: a group of people with whom I can continue to learn and reflect on this, on the challenges of living missionally in the world. After all, in the life of faith we believe that our transformation in God is always ongoing. So is our learning. I am so grateful for the opportunity to continue to grow as a minister and a person of faith.

It sounds like Luther Seminary is currently putting together applications for the next Missional Leadership Cohort group: check it out. If you have any questions about the program itself, I’d be very happy to share more of my experience with you.

You can reach Anna by contacting Christ Church, Woodbury.