“We have a new bishop!”
I proudly declared on Sunday morning, announcing the weekend’s big event: when nearly 1,500 people gathered to ordain the 11th Bishop of Indianapolis, the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows.
“And right now she’s claiming her seat.”
And because I refuse to pass up such perfect opportunities to preach, I took the moment to share with the congregation the centerpiece of the service: I call it the holy huddle.
Like we do in baptism and eucharist, confirmation and ordination, marriage, unction, and reconciliation of the penitent, we invite the Holy Spirit among us to bless and heal and breathe new life into this community, this person, this moment. And for the ordination of a bishop, we not only invite the Spirit, but a whole collection of bishops gathers around and they all lay their hands on her head. And we sing! We sing for the Holy Spirit! Come! we sing. Come, be with us!
And for those of us there, this would already be a big deal if we didn’t know how big of a deal it really is. How big of a deal this moment, our bishop, our diocese, our place in the Kin-dom is. A big f-in’ deal as Biden might say.
I shared with our community how central these moments are and how connected it is to our theology and practice.
But as the moment faded in real time and the haze of excitement dissipated, another thought came upon me. One I didn’t share the next morning with the congregation.
People are going to hate her.
Of course, some people already do. They hate her because she’s African American or a woman. Or because she’s both. They hate her because she’s an introvert or because they don’t want to think about the historical moment. They don’t want the reminder that we had 1,099 bishops before a woman succeeded another woman as Diocesan, the lead bishop of a diocese.
But we knew that already.
People are going to hate her because she’ll mess up. She isn’t perfect.
They’ll hate her because she’ll take a stand they don’t like or proclaim the gospel in a way that challenges them. She’ll make her own mark on the diocese and not be like the Rt. Rev. Catherine Waynick, her predecessor. And she’s going to say something at some point that she will regret and people are going to get righteously pissed about. It happens to every bishop.
Like it happens to every leader.
People are going to have an outsized view of Jennifer as leader and hold her to an outsized responsibility.
Because we expect our leaders to be perfect.
Even when we know they aren’t. Even when we know intellectually they can’t be. We expect it anyway. We put that on them. Us. Like a button that says “I will be perfect at all times” or just a lapel pin in the shape of perfect.
How counter the gospel. The gospel we would hear the very next day.
And as I watched this graceful, imperfect leader receive her gifts for leadership, the symbols and instruments of her work with us, I kept thinking of all the ways I will get mad, all the disappointments I will feel when she doesn’t get it right.
I thought of all the leaders who frustrated me and all the times I couldn’t stand the leaders I served.
I thought of my friends and family who express their frustration with what leaders say or do. What we say or do. The same way I frustrate my friends and family with my horrible imperfections.
All the ways I fall short of perfect.
But we leaders don’t have that much power, really. The real power is in defining reality: in defining perfect, success, failure, expectation itself. A power expressed in praising God for the blessing of a bishop and cursing the priest who fails to make your life more alive with grace.
And we fail to see the power we have to change organizational culture or political outcomes. To see our partisan divide as not the result of a singular leader of any one particular party or even the ineffective machinations of a Machiavellian congress, but the will of a people to be divided by these parties. The will to fail rather than work together. Or worse, to exercise the power to divide or define success, not through compromise or seeing the community succeed, but in winning. Only in winning.
And that is why it was like a strange twisted joke to celebrate at a time when our Methodist friends are facing a conflict of massive proportions. One The Episcopal Church is not entirely unfamiliar with. But this is radically different.
It’s a conflict in which the lived realities of governance, structure, polarized theologies, and an uncompromising view of law and leadership is playing out in an extreme way.
For more about the conflict and how it differs from the experience of The Episcopal Church, I commend Tom Ferguson’s excellent piece: “WTF Is Happening With The United Methodist Church? Crusty Explains“.
And it also happens to be playing out in a way we see throughout our culture and world.
A way that both rejects the institutions while giving them more power. Which rejects the central authority of leaders while seeking to give them more. And a way which claims that power resides with our leaders by our words, but not our actions.
Actions which include withholding funds, leaving churches, forcing others to obey, and decrying preaching that’s too “political”. Or actions which undermine the authority, not just of the leader, but the institution, like a bad Yelp review because it was busy or gossiping with friends.
None of these divisions is necessary. They aren’t pre-ordained, nor are they acts of God.
They’re stupid and petty. And human.
In fact, most of them come because we refuse to see our part in the play or our part in fixing it. We’d rather foist that up onto the shoulders of those in leadership. They’re paid the big bucks to shoulder the burden, after all.
The year I came out of seminary, two bishops I served had heart attacks within a month of each other. What I thought, and still think, was
What are we doing to our leaders?
The burden bishops and other church leaders bear right now is leading to poor health outcomes at rates we didn’t see half a century ago.
That means there’s something about the job and expectations which is out of balance. It isn’t all on the leaders. That’s precisely why we’re seeing these problems!
We construct the expectations we hold our leaders against.
We draw up the schematics with imaginary pencils and rulers, carrying the blueprints with us whenever we encounter them, breaking them out to see how they measure up; how much they’re doing for me. Only to turn around and claim we’re powerless to change our reality. “Those tyrants!” we shout. “They never listen to us.”
- The success of our churches is all on the pastors.
- Schools on teachers.
- Cities on mayors.
- Boards on CEOs.
- Governments on presidents.
All the while, we the people, spewing our hate and claims of accountability, hide behind a filter of powerlessness.
They’re the problem. The whole problem. Change them and we fix everything.
As long as we can claim the other is the problem, we can hold them accountable. And we never have to look in the mirror.
But if we did, we might see in there who the real leaders are.
And not just the one who is ultimately responsible for our junk. But also the one who has the power to change the world.