A common word heard a generation or two ago was, “The pew cannot rise higher than the pulpit.” The idea that the herald of the gospel must be soaked in a regular regimen of study and prayer in order to present the congregation mature in the sight of God is easily lost in the weekly pressures of parish ministry. Just as preparing a balanced, nutritious sermon takes forethought and space for the word to work first on the preacher’s heart and then be able to be conveyed with authenticity, so the spiritual life of leaders is not like the turning on or off of a light switch, but is something rather to be cultivated.
Author Ruth Haley Barton is a practitioner of wisdom and spiritual discernment. Several years ago her book Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups caught my attention. I was feeling a sense that our parish leadership wasn’t going into the depths. I lamented that I couldn’t address this very well out of my own reservoir, shallow as it so often was. But, just as Jesus summoned the early disciples to put out into the deep, it felt that we were much too content with fishing the shallows. And I was with them, although I knew that deeper water summoned.
The question was: were we content with our vestry being a board of directors or, in some fashion, were we being called to a place of spiritual eldership? In our case, we had already committed to becoming a learning community. That is to say, we would take the first forty-five minutes of our monthly meetings to discuss an article or a chapter from a book that we were reading together and apply it to our church, Saint Gabriel’s. These discussions were often fruitful, and I would take the ideas back to the staff or work on them in my mind over the coming month. And yet, it also seemed as if this, too, was artificial and that we could either take it or leave it. In other words, there wasn’t yet a collective conviction that we were operating as a Spirit-led community with certain non-negotiable assumptions about being spiritual elders.
Barton asks whether our approach to decision making is different in the church from secular models. Is there more to becoming a church with a biblical eldership than “the perfunctory prayers that bookend the meeting”? Does our community life mean something, does it have its own integrity, independent of the financial statements, ministry reports, and “arguing over the cost of sharpening the lawnmower blades,” as one my clergy colleagues memorably put it? If so, how do we become that kind of community?
One thing we know is that becoming a community of spiritual discernment differs dramatically from throwing on a light switch. Further, we also know that corporate leadership discernment around God’s will presumes that each person who is called to be a spiritual elder carries the potential—and responsibility—in his or her individual life to cultivate a receptivity to the Spirit of the Lord.
In other words, if corporate leadership is “the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God as a leadership group relative to the issues we are facing,“ (italics, Barton original) it is what happens in the in-between time, the ordinary time, in individual hearts that make up the corporate body, that allows discernment to be, truly, corporate. The practices, the rules of life, the habits of the heart—the prayer, daily office, sustained Bible study, times of meditation or centering prayer—these practices till the soil of the individual in such a way that when we come together, we can practice corporate leadership discernment and fulfill our calling as spiritual elders for our congregation.
At Saint Gabriel’s we are novice step-takers, to be sure. We do not always hold up well, necessarily, as a model. But now we have the conviction that unless we do this as a body of leaders, the pew cannot rise higher than the board room. If we rest content with the shallows, the potential of Christ’s calling in us will remain just that, potential.
“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”—Psalm 27:5
Christopher Ditzenberger, Rector, Saint Gabriel the Archangel Episcopal Church
Cherry Hills Village, Colorado