Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Follow the Leader

One of my favorite authors is Candice Mallard who, sadly, has only written two books to date. The first was titled River of Doubt. It chronicles a trip Teddy Roosevelt took down an uncharted river deep in the Amazonian jungle after failing to be elected president in 1912. I am now reading Mallard’s newest book, Destiny of the Republic, which explores the 1881 election, presidency, and assassination of James Garfield.

Garfield, a U.S. Representative from Ohio, never wanted to be president. At the Republican Convention in 1880 he delivered an impressive nominating speech for one of the candidates. The party was deadlocked between that person and another and voting went on for days with no resolution. Out of nowhere a movement to draft Garfield began, even against his own protesting. Eventually, the convention made him its candidate by unanimous vote.

He never campaigned a day in his life. Garfield had always been recruited and then promoted by others. All he really wanted to do was work his farm and sit on the front porch of his home in Mentor, OH, near Cleveland. With this campaign, party officials urged him to take to the stump. But Garfield considered travelling from town to town asking for votes to be undignified for such a lofty office, so, instead, he stayed on his farm and greeted anyone who wanted to visit with him. Remarkably, this strategy worked and that fall he was elected in a landslide.

I share this story because it sits in such sharp contrast to political campaigning in our own time, where candidates can spends months and millions traipsing around the state of Iowa to garner only a few hundred votes. I also share it because it reflects something of what we see in the gospel reading for today. Jesus did not campaign to be the savior of the world. It was John who first proclaimed this identity when Jesus came to be baptized and then God pronounced it as Jesus arose from the waters of Jordon River. We heard this in last week’s reading. Today we hear the genesis moment of calling disciples. Various individuals approach Jesus and he offers the gentle invitation, “Follow me.”

A professor I once had defined leadership this way: A leader is a person who will take you someplace you would not get to on your own. A leader will take a person or a group to a place he, she, or it would not get to otherwise. It is curious that Jesus’ first act of leadership is to get a group of people to travel with him to his hometown of Nazareth, a backwater place held in high contempt by most. It is a trip that began a moral, spiritual, and vocational change in these followers that never would have occurred if Jesus had not led them.

There is a fundamental difference between leaders and managers. Managers maintain what is going well, they tweak things to make them better, and fix things that are broken. Managers play a very important role in the scheme of things and good ones are worth their weight in salt. But manager-skills don’t take you to places you cannot get on your own. To get to those places requires leadership.

Some people can do both – lead and maintain. We are blessed at St. Paul’s by the ministry of Al Reese, our Music Director and Organist. He selects the hymns and offertories, plays the instruments, and manages the music of the parish very well. He also instills courage and confidence in our choir members. Several of them have said to me, at one time or another, “Al is getting us to do things we didn’t think we could do.” That is leadership, isn’t it! And many of you have commented to me how good the choir sounds. It’s true. They deserve our thanks for their dedication and hard work and Al deserves a lot of credit for taking them to a place they would not have gone on their own.

St. Paul’s Church is blessed with good managers. Our Wardens and Vestry and numerous volunteers do so much to keep us going, and going at a high level. We tweak things to make them better and we fix things that aren’t working well. Joby Webb, who today completes a three-year term on Vestry, said that one of the things he has learned through his service is just how many people it takes volunteering their time to make our church work. He is right, it does take a lot of people and I am grateful to serve as Rector of a parish so deeply loved and supported by its members.

I am now in the fifth year at St. Paul’s. The time has flown by and I continue to enjoy being here. You know better now than when you called me what I manage well and what I do not. Given the capable staff and parish leadership around me, I have a better sense of this too. I manage what I manage well and can leave the rest to others. You may disagree, but up until now I have not had to lead you; to take you to someplace you would not go without me.

In 2012, this is going to change. I am going to invite you to follow me out of a hurting area of parish life that simply can be ignored no longer to someplace new. The material handed out at today’s Annual Meeting reports that in 2011 we spent $28,000 more than we took in. This year’s budget projects a $39,000 shortfall in revenue over expenses. We are in this situation not because of wasteful spending. We have a bare-bones budget that is actually 10% smaller than what the parish operated on fifteen years ago in 1997! Still, in the five budget cycles that I have been your rector, St. Paul’s has run an accumulated operating deficit of $125,000, not counting this year’s projections.

We have a revenue problem. There is no single cause and there is no single answer. I pledge to lead our current Vestry in an exploration of where we are and how we got here in order to develop a multifaceted plan to get us on firm financial footing and to replenish what has been lost. At the heart of this issue is a basic question: can we fund the ministry of the parish we want – a parish with a fulltime priest, quality music, and a part-time administrator – or can we live with a parish commensurate with our funding – a part-time priest, diminished music, and office volunteers.

Ultimately, every leader who wants to take a group to a place it could not go on its own will have to deal with the group’s fear. Yes, we would love to be at the place you want to take us - be it singing on Sunday mornings with confidence and grace or tackling a significant budget deficit - but we are afraid of what it will take to get there. Fear is faith’s opposite.

For those first disciples, the miserable trip to Nazareth was made palatable by the companion who led them there. It was made glorious by the ministry and miracles he performed there. I am excited by the challenge before us. You might respond, can anything good come out of a church that has to focus so much on money? Like Phillip said to Nathanael, “Come and see.” At the outset of our journey it sounds like we’ll be hearing a lot about a subject we would rather ignore. But like those first disciples, we are followers of Christ and he will be our companion along the way. I expect no less of a transformation to take place in us as took place in them. In time, we will say, as the disciples did, thank goodness we came to Nazareth.