Leadership is very much on the minds of the parishioners of Christ Church, Springfield, as we enter the process of finding a new rector after the long and successful tenure of the Rev. Charlotte Collins Reed, who first heard the call to ministry when she herself was a member of our congregation.
One of the ecclesiastical features of the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church from which we took our start, remains a very clear sense of who is in charge. (In this respect, we are a step ahead of our English original, as we are the “Episkopoi” church, the “church of the bishops.”) This concern with authority must be in our DNA from the sixteenth century, when the issue of who was head of the church led to our somewhat muddled creation story (“The Act of Supremacy”?) and was very much still a concern when our founding documents were established.
So, sixteen years ago my wife Jody and I were new to Springfield and were visiting churches. As confirmed members of Generation X, we had already attended churches together that represented three different denominations, always choosing the church that seemed the best option in whichever new community we found ourselves.
What resonated in Dodi’s action was her willingness to say to strangers: your voice matters here as much as mine
When we visited Christ Church one Sunday, we were especially impressed by the beauty of the sanctuary and the welcome the congregation extended to a small group of mentally handicapped adults from a nearby group home. (We later learned that they were shuttled to the church every Sunday by Marcia Bethel, one of Christ Church’s matriarchs and spiritual leaders.) At the end of the service, a very kind and friendly woman introduced herself as Dodi Holmes and guided us downstairs to a meeting where members of the parish were discussing the qualities they thought desirable in their next rector, the departure of current co-rectors Ruth and Bob Partlow having recently been announced.
I remember very clearly explaining to Dodi how it didn’t quite seem appropriate for first time visitors to go to such a meeting. She politely acknowledged the concern but quickened her pace as she led us to the meeting room, explaining as we sat down that ours were exactly the voices that needed to be included in that particular conversation.
From that first Sunday and Dodi’s confident introduction, Jody and I found a home at Christ Church, raising our children here, volunteering at the food pantry and in the Christian Education program, welcoming and bidding farewell to that future rector we discussed in the abstract that morning.
I have since had occasion to reflect many times on our first Sunday at Christ Church, when the vestry discussed new efforts at outreach, or when explaining to other Episcopalians how we found our way into the fold. It now seems clear to me that what Dodi demonstrated that morning was not so much hospitality, as a special kind of lay leadership.
Before we visited Christ Church, we had made Sunday morning visits to at least four other local churches, in some cases with pastors or elders stopping us after church to tell us what the church was about and how welcoming they were to new families. But Dodi did something different: she led us to a conversation; she showed us what her church was about; she exercised authority in leading us into that meeting. Of course, as an outreach plan, perpetually seeking a rector so that visitors can be invited into focus group meetings to discuss their ideal candidate has practical limitations. What resonated in Dodi’s action was her willingness to say to strangers: your voice matters here as much as mine, and I’ve belonged to this church for more than fifty years.
I have been very impressed by the work of a young theologian who came to Procter to lead a retreat two years ago. (Sadly, I was not able to attend the retreat, so I have not met Dwight Zscheile in person, only through his books.) In his most recent work, The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age, Zscheile writes: “Leadership in the agile church is about fostering the spaces in which people can learn, practice, and play.” I am struck by the resonance of that phrase ‘fostering the spaces,’ because it suggests a more other-focused definition of leadership. The agile leader he has in mind creates opportunities for the agency of others, leading people to significant conversations – which was Dodi’s gift to my family many years ago, the legacy of her leadership in the church that she loves enough to offer to others.
Ty Buckman is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Professor of English at Wittenberg University. He attends Christ Church, Springfield.