The Courage to Show Up

May 17, 2010

Let’s think about those times when you enter those human spaces where, in Paul’s thought, the “sighs [are] too deep for words.”

Roy, let’s name him, was presenting his pastoral challenge to his circle of clergy friends. On a snowy day in February, just as he was settling in for sermon preparation, the word came that Bill Lowery, friend and community leader, had suddenly died from a massive heart attack. Roy rushes to the hospital to be present to the shocked family who look to him for words. Two months later, the heart broken widow commits suicide. Again Roy rushes to the place of death to be present to the surviving sons who look to him for words.

In both situations, Roy spoke of having no “right” words, feeling inadequate, uncomfortably vulnerable, standing, it seemed, naked before a Mystery “too deep for words.” Priding himself as a professional crafter of words, he was lost for words.

You can imagine the responses from his colleagues: “But Roy, you were authentic, not mouthing pious platitudes that discount the anguish and deny the mystery” . . .”You were present with touch and feeling” . . .”You must have invited trust because the sons later wanted time and conversation with you.”

I drove away from this conversation thinking about the courage it took for Roy to show up in such a surreal place, a space extraordinary, corded off from the ordinary, a timeless moment oblivious to the clock on the wall.

I remember—as I suspect you are remembering—the dread in driving to the hospital or home knowing you will be walking into a “sighing too deep for words.” You anticipate expectations you cannot meet. You assume eruptions of feeling you cannot predict. Yes, there will be words, but they must be few and carefully parsed.

But . . . you go.

Physicians go into these holy places with a stethoscope and other tangibles. The nurses, funeral director, and friends show up with things to do. You don’t have much to do. You don’t have much to say. But, and this may be the point, you have much to be.

Being present, representing a “with us” Presence, may be the wordless Word declared that really matters and comforts.

In retrospect, Roy might turn to Paul’s assurance that Spirit is in the “sighing.” “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8: 26)

But let’s not smooth over Roy’s angst: his felt weakness, inadequacy, left to share the sighs too deep for words. I want to honor his courage, and yours, to show up, offering Presence within so much not-knowing.

—Mahan Siler

Pastor as Overseer (Bishop)

May 3, 2010

As leaders you can see what others cannot see, not because you have superior eyes, but because you are looking from a particular place. You are an “overseer.”

Consider the function of our eyes. Thank goodness, they are in our head, not somewhere on our arms or legs. They are located in the head for good reason. From that position, they can see most of the body, plus the environment around the body.

Your position as “eyes” in the body/congregation makes your role unique.

You note that I am calling forth one of the New Testament words for church leadership, namely, “episcopas,” (translated overseer or bishop). If we lay this concept alongside of Paul’s metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ and family systems’ theory, we end up having a potent way of conceptualizing pastoral leadership. If Christ is the mind of the Body (the system) whose directives we seek to em-body, then leaders, especially pastors, function as eyes. It is your location in the Body as pastoral “overseer”— not just your education, personality and ability — that makes possible the expression of your ministry.

In your distinctive position, you are given the time and freedom to crisscross your congregation in ways no member can. You can observe and experience the congregation and larger community like no member can. You can study the stories of God like no member can. Your work takes you from committee to committee, from family to family, from one age group to another. From this unique position you are able to see patterns, possibilities, needs that no one else can see. (Of course, from their positions in the “body,” they see what you cannot see.) So, from your “heady” place in the congregational system, you keep offering, “this is what I see,” along with the invitation, “what do you see from your angle of vision?” (Take notice, this be a position from which we invite, not dominate.)

I remember the “ah ha” moment for me. One year I declined to participate in the nomination committee meetings. I decided I was not needed. Capable lay members of the committee could do the work of nominating future leaders of the church. That was a mistake. I learned that I needed to be a part of the nominating process, not to control outcomes, but to share from my perspective. Sometimes, because of my position, I could offer observations and knowledge that helped match members’ gifts with opportunities and responsibilities.

This, too. “Overseeing eyes” call for limits, not just possibilities. If we are “eyes,” then we are not to be “arms and legs.” That would be called over-functioning, while other members of the body under-functioned. God forbid.

I am inviting you to revisit a seasoned word, “episcopas.” Imagine that, being a bishop.

– Mahan Siler