There is a Greek proverb: nothing is more permanent than the temporary. I have thought a lot about this saying recently, especially since Kathy and I have spent the last several days sorting, packing, and clearing out the rectory for the move to Washington. Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. We think things are going to stay the way they are forever. And then, of course, they don’t.
One of the most temporary things of all is the effect one person has on an institution. It always amazes me that a year or so after I leave a place, I come back to discover that they’re still managing to go on without me. How can that be? When you’re deeply immersed in the life of a community, you can’t imagine it continuing without you. And then, of course, it does. As Jonathan Sams has said more than once, all life is a preparation for leaving it. As unthinkable to me as it might be this morning, Christ Church Cranbrook will go on without me when I leave. Saint Aidan’s, Malibu, All Saints Pasadena, the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, all have managed to face each new day without me. Heck, Washington National Cathedral has managed to go on without me for 105 years. And of course, you know what’s next: the world will be able to go on without me when I die. The older I get, the more I hear that as good news and not bad. It really isn’t all about me. It’s about God’s purpose, which goes forward with and without us. That thought is ever more comforting to me, especially at partings.
Legacies are funny things. I remember, during my first stay here, that Jerry McMechan organized the parish history around the tenures of the then four rectors: the Marquis years, the Cadigan years, the Dewitt years, the O’Grady years. One of the quirks of my professional life is that I’ve actually known 5 of my six predecessors here. Each one of them faced challenges. Each one of them had real accomplishments.
But as I’ve thought about this legacy business, I came upon a blog post by my friend Tom Anderson, whom many here have met through his help with our stewardship process. Tom is a long time friend, and he has had a significant career as a consultant to educational and nonprofit institutions about leadership, governance, development, and ethics. In his most recent blog post, he takes on the question of leaders and their legacies. And here in part is what he says:
Leadership of a nonprofit institution is a relay race; it is not an individual field event. Leaders accept the baton of leadership from a predecessor and then spend some period of time trying to improve the institution they serve before handing the baton to a successor. The hope is that a better institution, department, or program is passed on than was received. And, that is the legacy of leadership … it belongs to the institution and not to the leader. [Tom Anderson, "Legacy . . . What Legacy?" http://andersonandtyner.com/2012/08/legacy-what-legacy/]
That’s the way Tom put it. The Greeks might put it this way: Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. Love, admire, and respect my six predecessors here at Christ Church as I do, I have finally to admit that what makes this parish great and unique among large suburban churches in the United States has less to do with them than it does with you in the pews. I’m not just saying this to suck up on my last Sunday. Sure, great rectors here have provided great leadership, but a leader is really only important to the extent that he or she can tap into the deep commitments of a community and bring out the talents and energies of its members. My former bishop and good friend Fred Borsch used to say that a parish rector is really a coach. Since my only coaching experience was as a Lamaze coach, and that performance got mixed reviews, I had a bit of trouble with Fred’s metaphor. But you know what he means. A parish rector is more like a coach or an orchestra conductor, less like a star athlete or soloist. The skill lies in understanding the missional priorities of the faith community and organizing its ministry around those priorities. You already had the vision before I came here. My real achievement, to the extent I had one, was tapping into it.
What is that vision? When I say that Christ Church Cranbrook is unique among large suburban churches in the United States, what I mean is this: if you think back on the history of this parish, it has always been a community that cared both about its own neighborhood and about the larger Detroit metropolitan area. If you read the parish history, you’ll see that from its very inception, Christ Church Cranbrook was involved in the issues that defined Detroit in the 20th century: racism, poverty, regional concerns, open housing. Many of our clergy and parishioners were involved in the genesis of nonprofit organizations like Crossroads, the Lighthouse, and FocusHope. Care for the community—and by community I mean the whole area we’ve come to call “Southeastern Michigan”—has always been a hallmark of Christ Church Cranbrook. You can’t say that about most parishes in affluent zip codes like this one. Christ Church is most itself when it lives out its mission as a parish where people from this community can give of their resources, skills, and energies not only to alleviate human suffering but also to make real systemic change in the world. Our current partnerships with FocusHope and with All Saints Pontiac are in the great tradition of this parish’s deepest commitments. Beth Taylor has developed these partnerships in collaboration with parishioners who are passionate about Christ Church’s leadership role in Detroit.
There’s another part to that vision, and it has to do with children. This has always been a parish dedicated to the nurture of children in the Christian faith and life. Dianthea Higgins, the great Christian educator who served here for so many years, made this place a national laboratory for Christian Education in the 1950s and 1960s. She was retired by the time I first joined the staff here in 1978, but I knew her also, and she was really something—the kind of leader who could encourage and inspire. But in the end she, too, was someone who simply read the community aright and called forth the gifts and energies that were latent in it. Christ Church Cranbrook is most itself when it cares for the wider community. And Christ Church Cranbrook is most itself when it cares for and advocates for children. Our current renaissance in children and youth ministry is due both to the talents of Jessica and Beth and to their ability to bring forth what is already at work in you.
I mention outreach and youth because even though they’re essential to this place’s self-understanding, in times of stress they can fall by the wayside. So I want to make a pitch that these two missional areas remain high priorities in the years ahead. In holding up outreach and youth, I don’t mean to slight worship and pastoral care, each one a long-time strength of Christ Church. John Repulski is the most talented church musician I have ever known, period. Joyce Matthews has outstanding and deep pastoral gifts. Worship and pastoral care are an essential part of the Christ Church fabric, and their longstanding excellence here is obvious to all observers. But worship and pastoral care will always be strong because they are elemental to all churches. Outreach and youth will always be more of a stretch.
And there’s one more thing—a kind of rectorly, super-secret priority. And that’s spiritual depth. I asked Jonathan Sams to come here because of my intuitive sense that it is spiritual depth—real people praying, reading the Bible, sharing their faith stories together—this is what makes a faith community vibrant and healthy. Jonathan has already organized daily Morning Prayer here in St. Paul’s Chapel Monday through Thursday. Beth and the clergy are taking on The Bible in One Year on Sunday mornings at 9:00. I don’t know this scientifically, but I do know it experientially: the prayer life of a Christian community is what will sustain it both as an institution and as a source of strength and hope in the lives of its people. If I have one piece of advice to this parish, it is this: read your Bible and say your prayers. Everything else will flow from that.
By now, you’re thinking to yourself, “This sounds more like Washington’s Farewell Address than it does like a sermon!” So lest you drive home feeling bereft of homiletical input, consider this:
In today’s Gospel, there are a lot of things happening. It has become clear to Jesus’s followers that he’s not just a faith-healing teacher: he’s something more, the Messiah, the Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Peter is the first disciple to get this. And once he does, Jesus feels the need to take them step-by-step into the depth of what it means.
So he says several things. But here is the one that stands out to me:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ [Mark 8: 34b-35]