Frank Griswold: Maybe this is the desert time
For the Episcopal Church and mainline Protestantism, this may be a wilderness period, a time of being shaped, formed and made ready to enter the promised land, says a former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
November 8, 2011 | The Episcopal Church and the Protestant mainline in America today may be going through a normal “paschal pattern” -- a dying and a rising -- that all churches go through, said Bishop Frank T. Griswold. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
“There’s an arrogance and a self-confidence that is shattered by things falling apart,” said Griswold, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. But beneath the church’s many challenges is an invitation to deeper wisdom, a hidden grace that leads to new insight, wisdom and resurrection.
“To use an image from the Old Testament, maybe this is the desert time,” Griswold said. “The desert was a period of purification and self-knowledge in order that they were prepared to enter the promised land.”
“If we are in fact the body of Christ, limbs of Christ’s risen body, we’re OK,” he said.
Griswold served as presiding bishop from 1997 to 2006, and before that was bishop of Chicago for 10 years. He was ordained as a priest in 1963 and served three parishes before being elected bishop.
He spoke with Faith & Leadership about leadership, the Episcopal Church, the future of theological education and other issues. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: You spent 43 years in active ministry. What are the lessons you learned about leading a large and complex organization?
The first is, “Where are you grounded?” That’s probably the most important learning.
As a parish priest, I had the fantasy that I actually controlled the congregation, that my will was God’s will to some degree. But as a bishop and then as presiding bishop, I realized that the institutions I oversaw were well beyond anything I could actually manage, so several things were important.
First, I had to remind myself, “What’s this enterprise about? Where am I in relation to the one in whose name this institution functions?”
The complexity of leadership drove me to a deeper place of prayer. I realized that I didn’t have, from my own imagination and skillsets, the competency to oversee the complexity of a diocese or a national church institution.
The paradox was that the more elaborate my title became, the more I got in touch with my own limitation and my own interior poverty and the more I realized that what needed to be done would happen not by my efforts but by a deeper dependence on the grace of God. Spiritually, these “elevations” were an invitation to deeper intimacy with Christ in prayer.
That gave me distance and perspective.
Things could happen, and obviously I was involved and cared deeply, but at the same time all reality wasn’t wrapped up in the issues I had to deal with. I could say, “There’s another place I stand, which is in relation to God, who existed well before I came into the world and will exist well after I go.”
Another thing I looked at early on, when I became bishop of Chicago, was how my family of origin related to my leadership. It was an invitation to self-knowledge, so that I could avoid certain traps that were part of my psyche by virtue of how I’d been shaped and formed in a family context. That was very useful.
I also found it important to step aside regularly in retreat.
I would go annually for an eight-day retreat and look at the past year and examine the changes that occurred and the edges that I needed to attend to in order to be a more faithful disciple and a more effective leader.
Stepping away and being “un-useful” -- “wasting time” in prayer and reflection -- reminded me that all of my life wasn’t bound up in being a bishop. One’s ego can easily become so caught up in one’s leadership that protecting it can become one’s undertaking, as opposed to actual leadership.
Q: So the higher you go, the less control you have?
Q: But isn’t the temptation the opposite: the higher you go, the greater the desire to control?
Yes. But you can’t do it. You have to learn how to count on other people. You have to share. Leadership is a shared reality. You can’t be a solo performer. You have to know your own limits.
There are certain areas that I have no interest or competency in. I knew that, and I found people who had those competencies. I’m no whiz with a budget, and I’m not an analytical thinker. I’m more intuitive, so I’ve always had excellent budget people who told me what I needed to know.
If you’re overseeing a complex institution, you’re really dealing with a number of subsystems.
I always described myself, both as a diocesan bishop and the presiding bishop, as a pastor of systems. My role is not to be the direct deliverer of whatever is needed but to provide for the proper delivery of certain things in certain areas. It’s important to see the care of all the churches as a ministry you share with others.
One of the difficulties in the Episcopal system is that the person chosen to be bishop has often been an effective local pastor and assumes that being a bishop is like being a local pastor, but on a larger scale, when it’s completely different.
Q: How so?
When you’re a parish pastor, you’re the star and the focal point. When you’re a bishop, your role is to help the parish clergy be the stars. Your greatest joy is the local priest who is really a great parish priest. No one may thank you for helping that person become the most effective priest they can be, but that’s your role.
It’s a ministry of enabling others rather than you being the doer and the one who gets the adulation. For some bishops this is difficult, because they are so accustomed to an immediate community of affirmation.
Q: You were presiding bishop at a time of great controversy over the issue of gay ordination and were the subject of often-harsh criticism. How do you lead amidst such division, and how do you deal with the kinds of personal attacks you were subjected to?
I’ve always felt that truth is embodied partially in us. Therefore, divergent points of view -- even fiercely held and seemingly contradictory points of view -- probably have some legitimacy.
So how do you bring divergent points of view into some kind of relationship?
My focus was the House of Bishops -- trying to say, “OK, you come with your perspective and you come with your perspective, and since we are baptized into one body, we are called to engage in deep conversation.”
The word “conversation” comes from the same Latin root as “convergence.”
If you see conversation as an ascetical discipline -- not just chitchat but a costly entering into and an openness to another who may have a very different and threatening point of view -- then you may find that convergence is not that I agree with you or you with me but that I no longer see you as a threat and alien. Instead, I see you as a brother or sister in the Lord, even though there is this terrible divide between us.
I often found in my relations with bishops in other parts of the Anglican world that ultimately we came together in Christ even though there was this profound division. There was an affection that wasn’t broken by virtue of “I can’t understand how your church could have done this or that.”
Leaders have their own points of view, but how do they engage different points of view, and how do they use language that’s inviting as opposed to barrier building?
I tried to draw people into larger, more costly conversations in hopes that they might find a level of communion or mutual affection that left the divisions intact but didn’t leave them despising one another as fellow Christians.
As for me in all this, a Jesuit once said to me, “What other people said about you is none of your business.” I’ve taken that seriously. If you open yourself to adulation, then you also open yourself to being devastated by someone who says you are Satan incarnate.
So I’ve never paid much attention either to the people who praised me or the people who’ve said nasty things.
Q: What’s your assessment of the state of the Episcopal Church and, more broadly, church in America, particularly mainline Protestantism?
If I can judge by young people in seminary these days, I’m extremely hopeful. I find them much more grounded, much more faith-based, much more able to deal with a “both-and” world rather than an “either-or” world. They’re better able to make room for contrary points of view.
On both sides of the sexuality debates -- and even in some instances on both sides of the ordination of women -- I find that they can get along. They’ve lived in a pluralistic world. It’s much more familiar to them.
I’m old enough to have grown up in a world where everything was black or white -- even though it wasn’t. Now it’s a world in which there are many dimensions of truth; you have your take on it, but you also acknowledge that there is another point of view. That’s healthy.
I also think that ecclesial bodies -- just as in our own life cycle -- go through a paschal pattern again and again. There’s a dying and a rising, a dying and a rising.
There’s an arrogance and a self-confidence that is shattered by things falling apart. Usually, that is an invitation to deeper wisdom. It may be difficult and painful, but there’s usually a grace hidden in that in some way, and then there’s a resurrection with new insight and wisdom that comes out of suffering or loss.