Before making my home among Friends, I sojourned with churches from two other denominations. The first one took me in as I was emerging from my lowest point and loved me back to life. It was a community of healing, insufficient for the long-term, but just what I needed to begin to know and follow Christ.
The next congregation was just forming and eager to latch on to anyone who ventured their way. Though I was still very much of novice disciple, they liked my enthusiasm and willingness. Before long they asked me, though I had no training, guidance or accountability, to begin a youth program and become an elder in the church.
I am told that babies, when let go in a pool of water, have a reflex action causing them to hold their breath, open their eyes and propel forward with a motion that looks like swimming. This instinct, of course, is something very different than actually knowing how to swim. Everything may look just fine for those first few moments, but it would be disastrous to think the infant could survive very long on her own in the water.
My church, so eager to make me a leader, dropped me like a newborn into the deep end of the pool. I am sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. Give the kid a chance! He’ll figure it out! This is how we learned?! Blub, blub, blub…
Maybe there is something to be said for this all-too-common leadership development “strategy.” In some sense it forced me to rely on God’s strength and wisdom rather than experience or pre-conceived notions about what works. It gave me the opportunity to become immediately and deeply involved in the life of the church, as opposed to than remaining, just because I was new to the community, a spectator or outsider. As it turned out, I neither drowned nor caused anyone else to drown, though some of the youth under my care and elders I worked alongside spat water on more than one occasion because of things I said or did.
I did learn something about ministry and leadership, but the experience left me a bit bewildered and disappointed. How important is the shared life of the church and our work in the world if you make a leader of someone who knows almost nothing of the history, polity, purpose and vision? Because I was more willing than wise, I naively agreed to serve as an elder thinking I would be instructed along the way. When I wasn’t and wondered aloud about why, the general response suggested that I shouldn’t worry because none of this really mattered all that much.
It was here that bewilderment turned to disappointment. The work of the church was intensely important to me. When I encountered Christ, the invitation I heard was not only to know and follow Him, but to join in the mission and life of His people. The notion of belonging to God and belonging to God’s people changed the whole trajectory and content of my life. Self-seeking, it was my understanding, was to give way to seeking first the Kingdom of God together. Not that important??? I didn’t and don’t think so.
One of the things I love about Friends is our radical assertion that we’re all called to ministry and all given access to God’s wisdom and power. The Spirit empowers us to move gracefully in the water of life even when we are in way over our heads. I believe and rely on this because I experience it regularly.
Learning to live in that Life and Power, then, as well as teaching and training others to do the same ought to take our best time and energy. Though we may have some natural instincts that incline us to know and follow Christ, most of us need to learn how. This is what discipleship is all about — being a student of Christ. It is essential that we share with one another what we know about how to listen attentively, walk wisely and minister gracefully. Expecting each of us to figure it out on our own, an unfortunate tendency among Friends, hinders us and undermines the central place of this in our life together.
Along with nurturing our spiritual depth, however, comes the opportunity and responsibility to train one another in the work of service and leadership. Instead of expecting our clerks, our pastors, our treasurers, our elders, our youth workers, our committee and board members to learn by trial and error — what if we resolved to mentor, teach and equip them to serve faithfully and effectively? What if we intentionally invested in their training for their sake and the importance of the work?
The thought of a spiritually energized and thoroughly equipped cadre of servant leaders and empowered ministers, ones who knew what on earth they were supposed to be doing and how best to do it, is not beyond the realm of possibility. It is, in fact, part of FUM’s hope for the future of Friends. A renewed commitment to this might just cause us to experience something akin to a baptism — a new and deeper immersion into God’s will and ways in our time.