Do we perhaps have the leadership we deserve? This is in no way a rhetorical question. Bear with me.
We have been in trouble in this annual conference for a long time. I remember when I was in seminary, 20+ years ago, there was talk of poor morale in the NTC. As a member of First Church Dallas I personally experienced the turmoil in the wake of the events surrounding Walker Railey’s last days in the conference. I walked out of a number of clergy gatherings in tears during Bishop Blake’s term, because as a Local Pastor I felt completely unwanted, unappreciated, and ignored. And I have had my own difficulties with a Board of Ordained Ministry that really didn’t understand a call to ministry that included doing PhD work while remaining committed to local church ministry, resulting in a 17-year journey to ordination as elder.
For the past few years we have been talking about effectiveness and fruitfulness. We have restructured and renamed positions, though often the people occupying positions of leadership have not really changed. Our congregations are all seeking the pastor that will turn things around for them. Our pastors are seeking churches that will work with them and not be “clergy killers.” Our Bishops, Connectional Table leaders and large church pastors tried at General Conference to restructure our general boards and agencies so that the local church could be more effective. And now the North Texas Conference is convinced that if we have just the right bishop we will prosper. Everyone is trying to save the church and we all think we know the answer.
We have asked for transparency from our Bishop. We got that at the very end of conference and it doesn’t seem to be what we wanted after all. Perhaps because I was at home watching the end instead of at the Plano Centre, I think I may have experienced Bishop Bledsoe’s announcement rescinding his retirement in a different way than many of you. I simply heard and responded to the pain. I really wasn’t thinking about whether or not it was appropriate for a leader – which, I admit, may say something about my leadership skills. I didn’t experience it as manipulative, just very real.
So to answer the question that I posed: Do we have the leadership we deserve? I think the answer, at least for me, is yes, I certainly have the leadership that I have deserved. I think that if Bishop Bledsoe has not been the leader that I wanted, then I have been responsible for that, at least in part. I have assumed that he would not listen to me – that I was too unimportant to listen to. So I didn’t try to get to know him when he came; I didn’t tell him what I thought he did well; I didn’t tell him when I thought he was doing the wrong thing. I thought the safest course was to stay “under the radar.” I have certainly complained when I thought I or others have been unfairly treated, but I have not complained to the bishop because I thought that would be bad for my career. And therein lies the problem. I have been thinking of the Bishop as my boss instead of as my brother in Christ who has oversight of my ministry, but who is subject to the same Lord and the same Spirit as I am. I have been more concerned about my career than about caring for the covenant by sharing as honestly and lovingly as I can.
Here is where I hope we will go: If the news stories, blogs and facebook posts are any indication, many believe that the bishop is wrong to fight and will be unable to lead the NTC effectively. I am hearing a great deal of pain and brokenness. But my prayer is this: that we are so broken that we are at the point where we can say, “God, we can’t do this. We don’t know what we are doing. We are in a mess and we can’t save ourselves.” That is the point at which I begin to see hope, because when we acknowledge that we cannot save ourselves and we cry out to God, God will listen and respond. After all, as Bishop Swanson said so eloquently and passionately, “It’s not our church, it's God's church!”
If it is in God’s will, I would like to see Bishop Bledsoe remain as Bishop of the NTC for several reasons: First, because I think we need to heal from our pain and brokenness together. Secondly, because I think it will be crystal clear to all of us that his success and our success will depend completely and totally on our Lord. Third, because I think that if we get a new bishop we will expect him/her to fix things, to save us, to be the answer to our problems, and that would be a great mistake. One thing I learned at General Conference was that Bishop Bledsoe was not the only bishop who was restructuring and who was trying to find ways to get ineffective pastors out of ministry. Bishop Willimon has said that he has transitioned 30 pastors out of ministry in his time. (See the interview here: http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/video/entry/2777/will-willimon-on-guaranteed-appointment-for-pastors )
If things are going to be different, then we must be different. We must give up expecting the Bishop or the conference to solve our problems at the local church level. We must give up our reliance on core competencies as the guarantee of fruitfulness and pray with humility that we will display the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. To paraphrase Paul: there is no dashboard against such things.
We have always been proud of the leadership of the North Texas Annual Conference in the broader church. We are proud of our large churches and our innovative programs. What if instead of being known for our pride, we were known for the quality of our humble servanthood? What if we were known as the conference that relied on the Holy Spirit for guidance? What if our faith instead of our best practices were proclaimed throughout the world?
I don’t have the answers for our conference. But I do have the answer for me. I am recommitting to the covenant we share. I prayed for every pastor and church in the conference last Saturday and I will do that every week. If you have a particular prayer request that you wish to have prayed for, then please let me know. I will be praying tomorrow (Friday). I hope to be going down to pray in the chapel at the Conference Center on many weeks. I can’t do that tomorrow because of a prior luncheon commitment in Leonard. So I will pray here. I will also be beseeching God to forgive me of my sin of putting my career above the covenant and transform me into a more faithful disciple. I pray that the next time I see injustice in the system, I will be able to speak about it boldly without fear and without anger. But I pray that I will also become an encourager of my brothers and sisters in a much deeper way and a means of grace in any way that God can use me.