“A Way Forward”: The importance of courage, perseverance, and resilience.
In celebration of the 40th anniversary of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. (Exemplary examples of courage, perseverance, and resilience)
The difficulty of wading through difficult calls is that they are often very complicated. The histories before and after those calls is complex for the clergy and congregations. The way forward through them is not easy for all concerned. Resolutions can involve a larger village work. I am part of that work in the church. I wanted to write the following to focus on an aspect of this journey that involves deepening the capacity of both clergy and congregations alike to be resilient, have courage, and to engage in healthy perseverance in moving forward. What we take back into our present work or to new work is ourselves. So what can we learn about the work around us and within us that can help us move forward?
I wish to say that nothing I am about to share should be received as a harsh criticism of my early ordained ministry life. I felt supported by my bishop, clergy and lay leaders, family, and by my first congregation. That being said, it was not an easy time then or has it been in many work and life situations since. Asked to be the first vicar of a new emerging congregation required of me skills and experience which I did not bring to the work. Of course, I needed to start to work on them. Not having an intentional support network reflecting on the practice of ministry network was a missed opportunity. What was most disconcerting was the stress my wife and I both felt as I sought to assist young people in our community who were on drugs and being accused of overstepping my boundaries as a parish priest in doing so. In my first work in ordained ministry I encountered political and social realities that were informing at best and difficult to navigate at the worst. This was at the end of 60”s. A number of years ago I had a conversation with Roy Oswald who said that much of his work on clergy wellness, planning, and understanding systems came from reflecting on those early years of ordained ministry. So it has been for me.
Later on I realized that my experience, though unique to me in my particular context, was not unique in the wider church. What I later realized was that the issues of conflict within congregations and with clergy were often a result of much broader, deeper unresolved conflicts that permeating the breadth of our life and work. It wasn't and isn't just about me but what is about me I need to pay attention to. It is also about us and the life we yearn to live now and in the future. Over the years I have had very challenging jobs and work situations. I have had to deal with many conflicts and stressful ministry contexts. I have learned for me how important it is not to do this incredibly difficult yet life transforming leadership work alone and to invite others into my reflection orbit! Offering leadership is discerning when it is important to lead, when it is important of blend, and when it is important to follow. It is in the context of reflection on practice of ministry that we realize most fully how we are exercising leadership. Throughout my ordained ministry I have been a supporter of networks, educational opportunities, and coaching to help others navigate their work/life situations. I am giving my life yet today to work within these systems and opportunities. Yet I know this work by itself is not sufficient. There is also an interior work that involves the marshaling of courage, perseverance, and resilience that is also crucial to engage in order for us to move forward.
Two other important areas of work within congregations and clergy leaders are the examination of the power of default and understanding/coming to terms with our histories. Both are very powerful influences on our behavior. Default is a place where we go that is a known space and may or may not be life-giving. It defines a place where we often reside when we retreat from stress. Coming to terms with our history is a process of re-examining what significant events and people have affected our lives and what their impact continues to have on us. Soren Kierkegaard once stated that we understand ourselves by looking at the past but we live our life looking forward. We can become stuck if we live our life primarily looking backward. Practices and propensities for acting have been framed in the past and our work is to see if they make sense now for the present. Otherwise actions of the past can become actions of the present whether they have worked or work well now, or not. So much more could be said here.
We also know that communities, like individuals, have personalities and that some have a history of conflicts that pass on from generation to generation despite our best efforts to come to terms with those conflicts. Fear is a motivating factor in many conflicts. A fear of failure, loss, inadequacy, change, growth, learning that might lead to new understanding, living a full, vulnerable life, giving and accepting forgiveness that can lead to healing, death,... So transference often rears its ugly head in conflicts where some receive the brunt of anger generated from another person or place in time. Sometimes we have also lost sense of who we are as the Episcopal Church which has at our roots a dialogue and conversation that leads us, at our best, to new understandings and ways of being together. Speaking and accusations replace listening and an earnest desire to respect and understand one another. Are we willing to be courageous and resilient by standing in the whirlwind of discontent and differing points of view and collaborative seeking to grow into a new space; or do we want to be resilient by only retreating to a previous position (circling the wagons); or primarily resilient by jumping to a new position come hell or high water (perhaps leaving others in the wake). Of course we occasionally do all of these things and each has a place in our quivers. These realities apply to both clergy and congregations.
So what leads to conflict that goes beyond the bounds of disagreements and which seeks to destroy the reputation of the other? Check out the conflict intensity chart which gives perspective to each of the five stages of conflict. If conflict disintegrates into win/loss, intractable positions, wishing the other to be destroyed then it is very difficult and occasionally impossible to resolve. Too often conflicts which may be resolved at a low level of intensity are not engaged early enough. At other times one or more of the parties are not interested in a resolution short of getting what they want. All life is tinged with conflict but it seems that we are increasingly affected by it in negative and often demeaning ways. We are continually divided by racism, sexism, ageism, cultural and economic perspectives, political persuasions, religion, the near grinding to a halt any working in government for the common good,.. We are clearly living in a global village and that will continue to be stressful as well for years to come. We are also part of a great transition in the wider church which has been going on for some time. Authors such as Phyllis Tickle, Diana Butler Bass, Brian MacLaren and others speak of it in their work. It seems clear that the church is changing rapidly in the last 40 years but upon reflection it has been changing for a longer period of time. Increasingly the church does not seem to be a preferred meeting ground for meaning-making.. I still am invested in time and energy in the church as community where that can happen but understand why others may not see it that way. And, of course, there are Sunday sports which seem to occupy young and older alike. In our broader culture we both want leadership and yet resist leadership. Well the list could go on and on... could it not?
So how might we move forward? It involves a journey outward and a journey inward. Deepned capacities of courage, perseverance, and resilience offer us the ability to do so.
We are a people of the context, a people of the gathering, a people of the table, and a people of the dismissal. We are also a people whose work is physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual and it is often hard to find a place to talk about the stress of them. These realities create complexities in our response to particular situations. Knowing these complexities however can help us get some perspective on the situations in which we find ourselves. Our contexts are indeed complex. They can be confusing, disorienting, and conflictual. But this is place where we live most of our lives. These contexts can also be celebratory, creative, energizing, and compelling. In our gatherings we seek to gain understanding of our contexts. Are we going to circle the wagons in our gatherings or are we going to try to create permeable circles of trust? The table is not only the holy table in our churches but other holy tables for conversation, eating, meaning-making that can be found literally everywhere. It is a the table when we wrestle with the larger meanings of life and seek to understand more fully where God is in all of this and who we are becoming. When our time at the table is compelling, robust, and full of new possibilities we are tempted to want to stay there. But we know that we are also a people of the dismissal and that our journey takes us back to the contexts. What we can learn, I believe, is that our contexts can be informed by our gatherings, being at table, and our commitment to be dismissed and engaged in mission. What sometimes (often) happens is that conflicts also bleed over into the gatherings, table, and mission is such a way as to derail us from engaging in differences without benefit of commitment and understanding of how we are called to treat one another. Our Episcopal sign says: All are welcome or we are here for you. Sometimes we do neither. Sometimes we do it well. Yet we are not welcome to do anything we want to do or say to another person. So how can we welcome different points of view in ways that honor and respect the dignity and freedom of others in conversation?
I have found over the years that a few disruptive, disrespectful people in congregations can disrupt the whole of congregational life. Rumors, scapegoating, sending anonymous letters are not appreciated but also not stopped. It would be helpful to have respectful communication guidelines not only for group study but also for larger gatherings of the congregation. Vigorous debate can be healthy and vibrant within a congregation or wider community. Demeaning, pejorative comments and actions are not helpful in any conversation either by the clergy or congregations. Most folks in congregations are not disruptive or out to “get” the clergy. It can feel that way by the clergy particularly when there is not a supportive group of people within the congregation coupled with an intentional support group on the outside suggesting some positive ways to give helpful perspectives, engage others in meaningful ways, and move forward. I have been a part of such groups over the years and have found them to be life-saving. Knowing more clearly what is mine to own and what is not mine to own has made all the difference.
Another suggestion of a way forward is to focus on our collective assets discovered by the process of active listening and appreciative inquiry. This can be one of many ways we can change the dial from problem-solving only to imaginative, creative,, imaginative, our of the box thinking and acting; all of which can enrich our lives and the lives of those around us immeasurably. For sure this does not mean not dealing head on with conflict when necessary but it does mean not having the conflict define who we are.
Achieving courage, perseverance, and resilience is easier said than done. It requires a capacity to reflect on our practices of ministries and other life choices (to be self-reflective), a sense of hope in our present and for the emerging future, gathering of ways we have engaged those qualities in our past and/or have observed others doing the same, leadership of others who can model these qualities and who are willing to help us live into them, and willingness to step into the fray anyway and discover those qualities within us even when we did not know we had them beforehand.
So I am thinking of some rations for my knapsack for my journey ahead as I work within systems and within myself: a) A life of prayer and resources to aid me to pray and think theologically; b) Form relationships of support and continue to be a lover of learning; c) Seek to be courageous, to persevere, and to be resilient; d) Gather and rally around hope, joy, promise, laughter, and gifts whenever possible; e) Take myself seriously but not so seriously that I miss out on the joy of living; f) Reduce my whining and increase my wailing over injustice and the hurts of others; g) Seek to be fully present in the moment; h) Be open to the unfolding vistas of my future; i) Increase my ability to reflect on my practice of ministry and learn from my assets and my shortcomings; j) Express an unequivocal commitment to the poorest, weakest, and most abused members of the human family; k) Give attention to caring for my body, spirit, and my relationships with others;
l) Turn the dial from focusing principally on problems to catching and following a new vision of gifted-ness and opportunities that lead me and others to new work, faithful life together, and radical hospitality; m) Seek to be a non-anxious presence whenever possible; m) seek to speak truth in love, and n) Continue to believe and trust that nothing can separate me from the love of God.
So what might you choose to be in your knapsack?
A further word about courage:
Forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage, which is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life's ambiguities. This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
May it be so for you and for me.
The Rev. Dr. Bud Holland lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and enjoys opportunities to gather with his wife, Annie, and their family (three children and seven grandchildren) whenever possible. Avocations include photography, storytelling, writing, and enjoying music and dancing. He has been ordained for 46 years and has served as a vicar, rector, member of diocesan staff, and more recently as Coordinator of the Office for Ministry Development on the Presiding Bishop's staff. In 2009 he joined the staff of the Dialogue Center. His areas of special interest and expertise include strategic planning, leadership development and clergy/lay coaching. He is presently working with several churches in significant transition as a member of the Diocesan Consultation Team of the Diocese of Pennsylvania and has served as Interim in three congregations since retiring from The Episcopal Church Center. Bud also serves as Conference Leader for CREDO for Retired Clergy and as a workshop leader for Education for Ministry, the Church Pension Group, and others.
Bud is a graduate of Wake Forest University (BA), General Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.M., D.Min.).
Bud is a graduate of Wake Forest University (BA), General Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.M., D.Min.).
The above essay was written out of a partnership between The Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) and The Network of Episcopal Clergy (NECA.) This project developed following a watershed moment when in January 2014 the Diocese of Newark passed a resolution seeking that their Bishop appoint a task force to explore Dignity of Work issues related to clergy and workplace bullying. This essay was written as part of a collection of essays written to begin to address the challenge of challenging calls and the issue of workplace bullying. While the views in this essays are the authors own and we acknowledge that no one essay will be able to identify all the issues involved, our hope is that in and through the collection of pieces we might support what has begun locally in the Diocese of Newark and more importantly, further the conversation in the wider Episcopal church. As these essays are both sponsored and being released jointly by both NECA and The EWC please read all the essays at The Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog and The Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls Writing Project.
If you are a clergy person in the midst of a challenging call or you have gone through it and would like to see the beginnings of a set of resources that might support you, please see the NECA Resource Page
If you would like to write about your own experience of a challenging call or forced resignation for posting on the Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog please send your essay to firstname.lastname@example.org