Notes from the 2019 ECMN Clergy Conference
This year’s Clergy Conference held space for some intense conversation, brought about by the search for the tenth bishop of Minnesota. As we spoke together, we named some of the deepest tensions and challenges of our polity and shared life in ministry.
On the one hand, we asked, How do we mitigate the overwhelming tasks assigned to the bishop? That question arises out of the recognition that the role of bishop is an executive position with a scope of oversight that is, on a good day, gargantuan – along with a public role that comes with extraordinary expectations. What could we do, we asked, to make the job more humane? Underneath that question lies the fear that no one will want to step into the role. Who would want to be so vulnerable to failure and blame, to step into the role of vision-casting, management, and buck-stopping of an organization so dispersed?
In tension with that question is another one: Our need (‘us’ being lay people, deacons, and priests) to come to terms with our desire for nearness – love, attention, affirmation – from the person serving as our bishop. We want relationship, time, coaching, direction, even discipline sometimes. We want the bishop to show up at our celebrations and take our emergency phone calls and be available to support our emerging programs and to offer pastoral care when our faith communities decline, and also, of course, to plan beautiful liturgies with our particular contexts in mind. Here’s a reality check: any bishop is one person who is unlikely to be able to be in two places at once – one person who, in order to stay well and inspired in such a big role, will have to make choices about where to apply their energy, where to seek the kind of interactions that feed their own soul, where to find wise counsel, whom to disappoint when difficult decisions must be made, and how to acknowledge the mistakes they will inevitably make. The rest of us, if we don’t get honest about our desire to be seen and loved by the bishop, will be forever operating in reaction to the bishop’s decisions, taking things personally that were not meant to be so, failing to ask for what we really want: to be seen and known and authorized to say yes to God’s invitation to mission and ministry.
That’s a big tension to navigate – the tension between appropriately shaping expectations of the bishop, and shaping our own interaction with that person. We can and should pray for the Search Committee as they undertake their work and lean into those questions. But we will be missing an opportunity to grow if we don’t lean into those questions ourselves.
Perhaps the conversation stemmed from something Rob Wright, Bishop of Atlanta, said earlier in the conference: How are we participating in our own oppression?
Bishop Wright’s invitation to us, over two years of speaking at ECMN’s Clergy Conference, has been this:
- To take seriously our own purpose and vocation, as individuals and as faith communities.
- To embrace that purpose with joy, to lean into its inconvenience, with trust in the leadership and provision of the Holy Spirit.
- To recognize when we are instead engaging in work avoidance: colluding with our own oppression by offloading shame, fear, and grief up the chain, disempowering ourselves and blaming others for it.
Listening to that message, I felt my own hackles go up, and I saw others navigating their own defensiveness too. Those are tough words to hear. Sitting with our own loss and grief is painful. Acknowledging how we’ve embraced the status quo as a shield against our own purpose (and God’s?) takes a high tolerance for vulnerability. The embrace of purpose and mission entails risk: risk of exposure, of failure, and most importantly: the risk of learning something new and being changed.
And: We will be seeking those very capacities in the person we call to be our next bishop.
Friends, if we’re to be worthy partners in ministry, if we’re to truly open ourselves to what the Holy Spirit might be inviting us to do, now is a good time for that kind of discernment and purpose to take center stage in our own hearts and faith communities. We cannot reasonably expect a bishop to do for us what we are not willing to do ourselves.
In other words: now is a perfect time, if you haven’t already, to ask what the Holy Spirit is doing in your neighborhood, and how you might join in. I can only imagine that the person called to be the next bishop of Minnesota will be amazed and delighted to find ways to support, inspire, and applaud what we’re learning. The toughest aspects of serving as a bishop might just be mitigated by the privilege of serving alongside faith communities who are deeply and joyfully engaged in God’s mission.