Jessica Bratt: What I learned from the General Secretary

Wes Granberg-Michaelson has shown a rooted identity as a leader of the Reformed Church in America.

Erma Bombeck said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”

I am grateful for the two years I have served alongside a Christian leader who is using everything God gave him. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who recently announced that he will step down as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), has been my supervisor, colleague, mentor and friend (see more about Wes here and here). I accepted his invitation to serve on denominational staff in his office, beginning my ministry in an administrative capacity I would not have anticipated, but one that gave me a birds-eye view of my denomination and a close up look at its leadership.

Occasionally I hear Wes joke that “General Secretary” is a fitting title for the senior leader of our denomination, as half of the church wants him to be a general and the other half prefers that he be a secretary. Watching him navigate between those extremes, I’ve seen the tremendous pressure that accompanies a role like his. Not only to support one agenda or another, but pressure that comes from the weight of the expectations people project onto him. Our Reformed polity preserves a great deal of independence for local churches and regions. The power of the elected and hired leadership is balanced and checked by that of the gathered assembly (or, more accurately, the Holy Spirit working through the gathered assembly). One might think that who or what the General Secretary is or does cannot hold the same sway over the whole system as a bishop or CEO. But people still project their fears, hopes, and grudges onto the conspicuous person the forefront.

Wes weathers these projections with a rootedness that takes three forms in his identity (you can see more detail on each of these in his book, "Leadership from the Inside Out"). First, his identity comes from being a follower of Christ. This should go without saying, but we all know Christian leaders who neglect the importance of first being followers. Nurturing a spiritual life requires committing to habits and practices with a dedication at least equal to that which is given to the endless demands of the workload. Wes’s practices of regular spiritual direction and retreat, to name just a couple, help him to be centered on God’s work, and not merely reactive to the pleas and complaints of others.

Second, Wes is deeply attentive to the ways that his own journey has shaped him as a leader, from his evangelical childhood, to young adult years spent on Capitol Hill and with Sojourners, to pursuit of social justice and creation care, and recent decades of patient efforts to recharge the ecumenical movement amidst globalized Christianity.

Third, Wes is rooted as a member of the body of Christ, the church universal, the communion of saints in all times and places. Some criticize the attention Wes gives to ecumenical relationships, but his commitments remind us that our denomination, though the oldest Protestant presence in this country, is just one small blip on the radar screen of Christianity. I appreciate the humility this perspective calls forth. It reminds us that none of us should focus only on our own tribe at the expense of seeing the fullness of the family of God into which Christ has grafted all of us.

Thank you, Wes, for taking all that God has given you and serving as head of our denomination these past seventeen years. You have shown us how to listen together for Christ’s voice calling us into mission in the world that God so loves.

Jessica Bratt is ordained in the Reformed Church in America and currently serves on denominational staff as Executive Coordinator in the Office of the General Secretary.