Historically, Christianity hasn’t been very open to the idea of being influenced by other religions. In the early days of the faith, we borrowed from Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Judaism and various “pagan” religions, repurposing their symbols to mean something new. Following the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, we focused more on converting others to our faith, or at least denigrating the legitimacy of other faiths to establish ours as superior.
Oh, but times, they are a’changin.’
Our numbers are down, our influence continues to wane, and we’re struggling with what I call in “postChristian” both an identity crisis and a credibility crisis. The good news is that, in this newly humbled state, lies a glimmer of opportunity. Not the kind we’ve had previously, to once again dominate the cultural landscape. That time has passed. Rather, as more of us within the Christian faith take less for granted, we’re asking harder questions:
When I began a Masters of Divinity program at Wesley Theological Seminary, I was convinced that my generalized anxiety would be a wrinkle I’d iron out as I became more competent in preaching and pastoral care. What I failed to recognize was that my aptitude for ministry in itself was not the issue. I already felt called to hospital chaplaincy and had had experience working with the sick and dying as a nursing assistant. However, despite all the practical knowledge I’ve continued to gain at Wesley, anxiety has remained a debilitating problem.
When my anxiety was at its worst this past spring, I often asked myself, what business do I have pursuing ordained ministry? How can I serve others if I can’t take care of myself? Last week, regarding the suicide of Robin Williams, I heard frequently: “How can someone so funny do that?” The best answer I’ve found is that even when we are in great pain and anguish, feeling isolated from others, we don’t stop doing what we do best. Even in times of depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, Williams never ceased to do what he did best — make people laugh when they most needed to. Likewise, despite my anxiety, no matter how I attempt to close out the world, I still feel called to the ministry of chaplaincy, to bring healing to others through my presence.
A new model of leadership that’s been refined in the fires of change and conflict is emerging from U.S. religious women.
In June, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, along with Solidarity with Sisters, invited 150 people to Catholic University for an opportunity to discuss the model of leadership that has developed in Catholic women’s communities around the world over the last 50 years since Vatican II. The event coincided with the release of Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times, an anthology of 10 addresses given by Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) presidents.
Catholic sisters are emerging as leaders ahead of their times. From Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, and Nuns on the Bus to Catholic Health Association CEO Sister Carol Keehan, DC, who helped pass the Affordable Care Act, to former LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, who practiced authentic spiritual leadership in the face of the Vatican’s ongoing investigation of that organization (an investigation that Pope Francis should have laid quietly to rest, but has not), religious women are getting notice for their thoughtful, faithful leadership in the face of withering criticism and their own communities’ dramatic changes.
What are the marks of this new leadership?
1.Leadership must begin with facing oneself. Sister Marie McCarthy, SP, calls this taking “a long, loving look at what is.” Developing a prayerful, contemplative consciousness allows illusions and judgments to fall away. What changes are needed so that we can go “deeper into life, into service, into God,” as Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, writes? “The purpose of leadership is not to make the present bearable,” writes Sister Joan, but “to make the future possible.” This kind of leadership is measured and evaluated by the degree to which the people around the leaders are inspired to effective, resilient change.
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I've always been one who feels guilty easily, so being a mom and a pastor—and a Lutheran—comes naturally to me. It's silly really, but there are ample opportunities to feel guilty in two of the singularly most deified and diminished roles modern society has to offer.
These new fellows join a powerful community, including Jim Wallis, Judith Browne-Dianis, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Paul Rieckhoff, Rachel Lloyd,Rea Carey, Rinku Sen, Saru Jayaraman, and Van Jones. Prime Mover Ai-Jen Poo commented about her experience as a Prime Mover fellow, "Strategic support of leaders can be game-changing in the development of a movement, as they are a critical part of a movement's architecture. Creating a web of support and resources for leaders is an invaluable investment in movement-building."
"Don't go left, don't go right, go deeper." This has been the longtime mantra of Jim Wallis and his organization Sojourners, a Christian social justice group that he presides over and helped found in the 1970s. Today Wallis is a leading voice on the intersection of faith and politics, one often known to counterbalance the religious right (though he himself doesn't identify as liberal).
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to spend the night at the Metropolitan House Men’s Shelter, part of Washington, D.C.’s, Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church.
And in this experience, Henri Nouwen’s, In the Name of Jesuscame to life for me. In reflecting on his own experience of transitioning from Harvard University to L’Arche, a house for mentally disabled individuals, Nouwen realized he had to rediscover his true identity. Up until that moment, Nouwen relied on his accomplishments, achievements, accolades, educational training, and social connections to legitimize his impact and reputation in ministry as a priest. However, at L’Arche none of the things he relied on seemed to matter, and he had to gain credibility with those he planned to serve — the mentally disabled. Nouwen states, “I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment” (28). Nouwen was forced to let go of his “relevant” self. Nouwen defines relevant self as, “the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things.” Nouwen would have to allow himself to become vulnerable while suppressing his “relevant” self.
Headline news is usually bad news. Viral blog posts are usually polemical. And those “way-too-long” conversations on Facebook and Twitter are often based in controversy. Pain, division, and anger drive on-line traffic and often directs the content.
And church news is little different: pastor so-and-so is embroiled in a moral failing; church such-and-such fired its pastor over leadership differences; and the seminary down the street let go a professor over theological issues. The list goes on and on.
Isn’t it time for something different?
How about a little good news? What about a viral campaign about churches doing well? Well, here is my modest attempt to say a good word about our church community.