resignations, ashes, and the phoenix

For the first time in half a millenia, the pope resigned. The news rocked the world, or it should have. Or maybe the fact that it didn’t is in fact the news story. The church, as we knew it just a generation ago, is over. What remains are intensely ugly skirmishes at the grave site.

When I heard the news I quipped that my departure had signaled a trend, and chuckled; the absurdity of the comparison humorous. Beyond the laughter, however, is a poignant truth. In an insightful New York Times article, Constant Drumbeat, authors Elisabetta Povoledo and Laurie Goodstein explore the complex and numerous factors that led to the pope’s decision. As I considered the challenges of management that pushed Pope Benedict over the edge, I found myself feeling empathy for the one who I would name as nemesis.

To be sure, beginning with distinct and divergent theological assumptions, our management styles and skills would be remarkably different. ¬†Inasmuch as our theologies inform our leadership styles, Pope Benedict’s belief in original sin and the corrective power of punishment, would have led him on authoritarian paths quiet different from those engendered by my belief in original blessing. ¬†Believing that at our core we discover the light of the sacred, my management (and parenting and teaching) style to er’r toward respect and nurture. More significantly, the article named that the pope’s challenge was less about leadership style and more about a failure to read people, a failure to surround himself with appropriate advisors, a failure to recognize the players in the court. This ability to read social cues is a very particular skill and certainly a leader, chosen for faithfulness and vision, cannot be demeaned for missing one of a plethora of worthy skills. Yet tragically this one missing skill became essential and it’s lack his ultimate undoing. Having clay feet myself and a tendency to see only the flowers upon which my eyes have focused, I read the story of the pope’s unraveled ministry and feel his pain.

Once upon a time, when the church was in a hey day (pick any one) such administrative blind spots might not have been significant. In Protestant America, there was a golden age in the post war years in which boring preachers with mediocre administrative skills could head thriving congregations. Many of the children of those clergy sit in pews today, confused by the emptiness. When younger generations do choose to explore church communities, they are looking for charisma, relevance, and efficiency.
These gifts are sorely lacking in most of our institutional edifices where baby boomers are left holding the keys and the confusion. The more the baby boomers try to reassure the elders with new pipe organs and beautiful liturgy, the more unattractive the institution becomes for the (few) young folk who would visit. When churches dare to reach out to the young, trying new modes of music and ministry and (more importantly) message, the change is unsettling to the already gathered. Conflict is inevitable and those who feel called to stand in leadership must have well honed conflict management skills.

In the season before my own departure from ministry, an angry voice accused me of being “calm, charismatic, and positive”. The words were spat and intended as an insult, but I have held them as a reflection of the dynamic that was at play. At that point the pews were filled and the energy high and good; but the otherwise positive words spat in anger belied a dangerous undercurrent. The change that was necessary to engender new life was threatening to that which had thus far been comfortable. What was a breath of life for one segment of the community felt as betrayal to another, and so it goes. To manage this kind of emotional gauntlet in a time of cultural change requires a skill level that apparently surpasses even that of the reigning pope.

While the pope’s exodus signals what I suspect is a death knell to the institution of Christianity as we knew it, I find myself strangely hopeful as I sit in the ashes this year.

The Phoenix Rising, Karen Dawson

For it is from the ashes that the phoenix rises, and I can feel the energy moving. With or without church, with or without God-talk, with or without any particular body of story and theology, the breath that calls us into being is moving through the earth. The trees, the wings of the birds, and the hearts of our elders and the laughter of our children bear witness to the presence and call us into compassionate relationship with one another.

Yesterday is gone, tomorrow yet unknown. But in this moment, the light shines and the phoenix stirs. And it is very good.