September 18, 2022
The morning after Pat Conover died, Peter woke up with the hymn that we just sang, It is Well With My Soul, and he said, “It felt like a message from Pat.” That same morning, I woke up from a dream of making a bed on the couch in our living room for Pat’s daughter, Samantha, who was apparently going to be staying with us for a time. It’s clear to me that Pat had a larger-than-life impact on us and, judging from the email tributes this week, on the wider Seekers community.
While this is not a memorial service for Pat, I do not want to ignore the importance of his presence, both in person and with his writing. Although he was a PhD sociologist and an ordained UCC minister, Pat was an ardent advocate for the priesthood of ALL believers and he often gave us language for what we were already doing to make that sustainable.
Pat always made a strong case for commitment and yearly recommitment. He described the value of having a reliable core group of Stewards to hold an accountable structure in order for us to sustain a wide welcome for anyone who might be attracted to this kind of community. He argued against tithing and for proportional giving because we owe everything to God, not just 10%. He was instrumental in finding this place for our new home, and he led the effort to finance it ourselves instead of borrowing from a bank. Pat also had a heart for those at the edge, people who came alone, wondering if they would be welcome here. I think his skill was intellectual, but his gift was more often his presence, his hospitality, and his handmade cards.
In this season of recommitment, I want to speak about what it takes to be community with shared leadership. The short answer is that it takes people like Pat Conover, but here is a slightly longer description.
First, the culture that we come from. Without delving too deeply into socio-economic or political structures, we live in a relatively functional capitalist country, with a legal system that brings order if not equal fairness, and a basic educational system through high school. Family and educational structures favor independence, competence, and self-sufficiency. We bring those values here.
Most institutions in our country function with a hierarchical structure, with a single leader at the top. Businesses, sport-teams, orchestras, and even churches are organized that way. Having a recognized leader is efficient — and that’s something we value a lot.
If that hierarchical pattern surrounds us at home and in public life, then the impulse to join a body like Seekers depends on something else — an inner spiritual nudge that WE can identify as the Spirit’s whisper or God’s call. Other people might call it depression or loneliness.
I suspect that this call to interdependence usually comes after we have tested our capabilities in the marketplace a bit and found a certain amount of ego success. Or we might be facing our first real failure or loss, discovering that we are “not God” as my 12-step friends say. Either way, the urge to find others on this path begins with either a vague hunger or a sharp pain: “There must be something more, something different. What is it? Where is it?”
Coming into a place where there is no single leader, where people are expected to speak for themselves and share in the work of being an interconnected body can be disorienting – because we don’t often find such a group with respect for what each person brings. And if that group takes seriously that there is indeed a deeper source of shared wisdom, the time that it takes to discern a direction together can and does leave people frustrated and impatient, driven by our worldly habits of speedy answers and quick rewards.
What does it take to break our cultural addictions and expand our ability to trust shared leadership?
From the early days of Church of the Saviour, Gordon Cosby preached a “priesthood of all believers,” and he saw the School of Christian Living as a lay seminary to prepare everyone to function as a spiritual guide for others wherever they might be living or working. That commitment to ongoing education is the impulse for our own School for Christian Growth here at Seekers. It’s to equip people for agency and interconnection, for conscious leadership and followership. The School is really a place to sample the intimacy and intentionality that is necessary for shared leadership and valuing different functions. A body is not a democracy. It is an interdependent whole with different parts. The School pulls back the curtain on what it takes to belong to an organic body of Christ.
BEING a healthy body takes intentional commitment over time. Worship here at Seekers is a living expression of shared authority. It’s where we see the body at work. The open pulpit is the most obvious example. Did you hear the introduction? “From time to time, we are called to speak what we are hearing from God.” That is, those who preach are supposed to be offering what has come from that divine source.
And, as you know, this is not a passive congregation. There are always people who have studied the same scriptures and come to a different understanding who will speak up in the time allowed after the sermon. Preaching here is a challenge because it is not a role or an authorized position. We don’t publicize who’s preaching and we encourage beginners. Preaching is simply a part of becoming that priesthood of all believers.
What it takes to hold the open pulpit is even more an exercise in shared authority. Week after week, month after month, and year after year, Celebration Circle writes new prayers, offers fresh language for the liturgy, and prepares the space in which we come to honor the invisible cord of love and longing that holds this body of Christ together. In times of stress, it’s been the liturgy that has held us together – not so much the preachers, and with the addition of zoom hosting, Celebration Circle is spread thin these days. It takes both humility and faithfulness for their work. If you care about language and liturgy, I would encourage you to think about exploring with Celebration Circle mission group.
Recommitment is also an invitation to the inward journey of self-discovery, of shedding the protective layers that we have worn to get by in a competitive and often critical world. It’s an invitation to make this community a priority as you choose where to give your time and energy and financial resources. And recommitment is a time to discern your next step toward the new creation that runs through our biblical story into the present moment, putting your weight down in some particular way to bring justice and mercy to others.
Next weekend, there will be a silent retreat at Dayspring. Silent retreat is a time to step away from the power of worries, schedules, and words in order to find the deeper strata of our spirituality. I am still surprised by the insights that come out of silence, by the awareness of others when it doesn’t involve words. It’s an exercise in bodily prayer, letting myself rest in the arms of the earth’s seasonal change. And when I return from silent retreat, it’s like coming back from a foreign country – seeing my life here with fresh eyes. I find silent retreat more renewing than a vacation. It’s closer and cheaper too.
Learning how to bring our gifts to the table in order to share them with freedom and joy is a lifetime journey. We step into this particular community at different stages, with different gifts and different resources. Our culture tells us to compare and contrast, to compete and win. Our faith charts a different path – one of discovering the beloved community in our midst.
And what, you might say, does all this about recommitment have to do with the gospel reading for today?
As you recall, a thieving manager realizes that he is about to be fired. Too lazy to work hard and too proud to beg, he comes up with a perfect plan: He will reduce debts owed to his boss and thereby make grateful helpers that he will need when he is jobless.
The worried debtors must have been stunned at their good fortune. Mortgage owed? Cut in half. Car payments? Cancelled. Student debt? Wiped out. All because of a guilty manager trying to soften the blow for himself. The hidden story here is the unexpected grace for those debtors: Someone is betting on them – people with credit stretched thin.
Are we the owners here? Or the debtors? Or the crafty manager? All three have a role to play in this parable. The surprise is the owner’s reaction: “Well done!” he says to the manager, and we don’t know whether he lost his job or not. Clearly the owner admires the manager’s resourcefulness, his street-smarts. Then I remember other scoundrels that scripture names as called by God: Moses, Sarah, King David, Tamar, Rahab, Zacchaeus, Mary of Bethany. I also think Pat might have identified himself in all three roles at different times in his life. Good behavior does not seem to be a prerequisite for God’s blessing.
Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message, interprets the story this way:
The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.
Can we do that here? Use every adversity to stimulate ourselves to creative survival? Concentrate on the bare essentials in order to taste the essence of life – and not skate by on good behavior?
Creating a healthy body of Christ is close to what recommitment to Seekers means to me – that we share power and authority, that we acknowledge our mistakes and masquerades, that we pitch in and help when we can, and that we see and name gifts as they arise in our midst. Always it’s an exercise in awareness of the invisible power of spiritual connection.
For me, recommitment is another step toward learning how to love as Jesus did. It’s still a stretch for me. Amen.