Editor’s note: This article previously appeared on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website.
“What advice do you have?,” I asked a veteran bishop as I prepared to assume that same office after my election in 1992.
“Choose carefully where to be present, especially your first Sunday,” he replied. “Where you decide to be will be remembered longer than what you say or do when you get there. And, where and with whom you spend your time will shape your view of the church and your role in it.”
Though not at all what I had expected to hear, these words of guidance from a longtime bishop proved to be some of the most important advice I have ever received. More than a practical scheduling suggestion, it was a profound theological affirmation and insightful missional strategy that had significant implications for my own formation as a person and a bishop.
Presence is an essential aspect of both leadership and ministry. Where leaders choose to be is the initial act of leadership and a determining factor in the formation of both the leader and the institution that he or she leads. Whether we are pastors, teachers, administrators, judicatory officials, or managers, where we choose to be present is a sign and instrument of our own formation and the direction of the community in which we serve.
Following the advice of my bishop colleague, I decided to preach my first Sunday in a midtown Memphis church that had recently been formed from a merger of two congregations — one, African American, and the other, working-class Anglo. Indeed, that Sunday sent signals throughout the conferences, and the experience sparked new vision and inspiration in me.
Clearly, all of us have only limited options where we can be present. For bishops, those options typically mean meetings in conference headquarters buildings, offices, institutional boardrooms, hotels, church sanctuaries and fellowship halls. Indeed, being present in such locations was and is an important part of the leadership role and formation of the episcopacy.
Yet, such contexts omit critical aspects of the formation and exercise of Christian leadership. Being present only in corporate, institutional, affluent, convenient, and comfortable places distorts the church’s mission and inadequately forms leaders for the Body of Christ.
The profound theological affirmation of my episcopal mentor’s advice is grounded in the Incarnation. Where God chose to be Incarnate is foundational for Christian ministry.
God chose to be present in a young peasant girl in tiny Bethlehem and in a vulnerable baby, born amid darkness and poverty in a cattle stall. The incarnate Son of God chose to be present in the hurting and dangerous places and among the outcasts and marginalized. Furthermore, he promised, it would be in those very places — among the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned — where we would meet him and that nations (and churches) are judged on whether they are present in places of poverty, disease, brokenness, and confinement.
For most of us, however, being present in such places requires us to make intentional choices. We have to go out of our way and move beyond the routine places of our lives to encounter the people who live in poverty or in jails and prisons. Our schedules and locations reflect our relative affluence and privilege and the formation and exercise of our leadership are largely determined by our privileged locations.
I am convinced that where we meet influences the outcomes of our meetings. When I scheduled Cabinet meetings in such locations as a nursing home, homeless shelter, community center, prison, hospital, or site of the civil rights struggle, the tone and content of our deliberations changed. So, too, did our vision for the church’s mission and the way we evaluated pastoral effectiveness.
What difference would it make in our understanding of excellence in ministry if SPE leaders and peer groups are intentional about being present where “the least of these” live and struggle and die? What if theological education included going inside prisons/jails, HIV/AIDS units, homeless shelters, addiction treatment centers, and similar places?
Once again we turn toward Advent. God has chosen to be present in our midst, even in the barren, lonely, dangerous, and violent places of human existence. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That is the ultimate sign of excellence!