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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.

Griswold“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?

Right, exactly.

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.

Take the Washington Cathedral.

It’s the icon of a certain self-assurance in an earlier time, when many people in government were Episcopalians, and Episcopalians were at the top of the main banks, and J.P. Morgan was building the St. Paul’s School chapel. Here’s this great monument to Episcopal ego, you might say, though it is a church for all, and now here it is suffering $25 million worth of damage in an earthquake.

What might be the symbolic significance of this in terms of mainline ego being shattered and dislodged by events? I’m not happy that the Washington Cathedral is damaged, but is it a bad thing to be in some way forced into exile and becoming a remnant?

To use an image from the Old Testament, maybe this is the desert time.

The desert was a period of purification and self-knowledge in order that they were prepared to enter the promised land. All the things that happened in the wilderness, the struggle and the suffering, were part of being shaped and formed and being made ready to enter the promised land, especially where they could receive it as gift rather than acquisition.

If we are in fact the body of Christ, limbs of Christ’s risen body, we’re OK.

Maybe we’re obese. Maybe it’s ecclesial obesity, and we have to go through a training program or a weight-loss program. These things are painful but necessary.

Q: What’s on the other side of the wilderness? What will church look like in the future?

I think it’s going to be much more flexible in its institutional manifestations. There’s going to be a greater parity between clergy and laity. I find laity hungry for theological literacy. The Episcopal Church’s Education for Ministry program, for example, is a real commitment. It’s a four-year course of study, and I’m amazed how many people do it.

We’re shifting in our understanding of the church, how it’s constituted as clergy and laity. Many of our clergy go through seminary and they never really appropriate the theology they learned. In some instances, the seminaries don’t make that happen.

It’s academic: “Here’s the doctrine of the Trinity, and you need to understand it; and there’s going to be a General Ordination Exam, and you need to pass that in order to be ordained.” But there isn’t an effort to take the theological learnings and integrate them into one’s person. Many clergy are unable to translate theology into something lived.

Q: What do you mean?

For some clergy, professionalism is their way of compensating for a sense of being an anachronism as a cleric. So skills in parish administration -- skills in this, skills in that -- are all part of “I matter because I have these skills,” as opposed to “I have internalized the theology I’ve been taught in such a way that it gives me a ground to stand on and a sense of self that I can confidently act out of as a priest.”

It’s the professionalization of ministry at the cost of theology.

That may be harsh, but that kind of integration is essential -- making those connections so that you are formed as a theological person and not just possessing some theological information that you can’t translate because it doesn’t meet you at some deep place.

People are hungry for meaning. Meaning making is a primary function of a religious leader, and it comes out of how they’ve appropriated their tradition and connected it with what is going on in the world.

Q: What’s the future of theological education?

The future is ecumenical, and that’s a good thing, because we can become awfully insular in our several traditions. Being stretched by other takes on theology, on other ways of articulating liturgy and church life, can be life-giving. It helps us to appropriate our own tradition at a deeper level, because we have to be able to explicate it.

“Why do you all do this?” Well, if you’re in an Episcopal seminary, we do this because we’re Episcopalians. But if you’re in an ecumenical context, then you’ve got to be more developed in how you perceive your tradition.

Ecumenical theological education can offer a useful critique, and it can help you see where your singularity really isn’t that singular. Anglicans talk about Scripture, reason and tradition. Well, so do the Lutherans. Being in an ecumenical setting helps overcome the egotistical dimensions of denominationalism.

Q: You touched on this earlier, but did you have particular spiritual practices you drew upon as a bishop?

Well, the discernment of spirits, which is part of the ancient tradition, part of Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises -- the notion that we are set upon by certain moods, particularly consolation and desolation. In the time of consolation, you feel united with Christ and ready to do God’s work. In desolation, you feel listless, isolated, self-pitying and judgmental.

Ignatius says these moods have nothing to do with whether you’re good or bad. They happen to all of us, but the choices you make when these overtake you are terribly important.

Ignatius would say that in a time of desolation, you’re not to change a decision you made in a time of consolation, because chances are you’re going to make the wrong decision. At a time of desolation, the negative often will become the entire picture and you’ll forget that it was ever a different picture, and you’ll be tempted to do the wrong thing. So this is about being aware of how the spirits move within us and being mindful.

When you’re in ministry, particularly a ministry with symbolic leadership to it, where people hate you and adore you and all sorts of things, being aware of how consolation and desolation play out and how you respond to them is important.

Q: There must have been moments of desolation in your time as presiding bishop.

Sure. Absolutely. The most painful thing is betrayal. When someone you’ve trusted has maligned you or turned against you in a way that you know is not grounded in reality. When someone you trust puts out some rumor that they know is not true and you know is not true, and the painfulness of that. ...

I think Judas, to Jesus, must’ve been the most painful element of the passion. That’s the most painful cross in leadership, the possibility or the reality of betrayal by people you’ve trusted.

Q: What other spiritual practices did you engage in as presiding bishop?

At church headquarters in New York, we had daily morning prayer and daily Eucharist. No matter what was going on, I would say, “We’re stopping at 12. You can do what you want. I go to the Eucharist at 12:10, and I will not eat lunch on the run, so we will resume at 1:30, and you can join me or choose not to.”

The discipline of doing that and hearing Scripture and the homily -- there was something there that pierced me. Eucharist was a way that the day was broken into by Scripture and sacrament. It often reframed whatever was going on. I suddenly saw whatever was on my mind differently.

Also, I had a small group of people I trusted who were not sycophantic but appropriately critical and helpful. I met with them from time to time to ask, “What do you see going on here? What do you perceive I need to be doing or not doing?”

Q: Tell us about retirement and the transition from leadership. How’s that been?

I remember crying a little bit as I handed Katharine [Jefferts Schori] the primatial staff. It caught me by surprise. There was a sadness in giving up the office. For nine years I had built various relationships across seemingly impossible divides, and I thought, “All this stops now.” There’s a mutual affection even though there’s an incredible discrepancy between stated points of view.

Someone asked me recently what I was doing now, and I said, “Well, I’m retired.” He said, “No, you’re pensioned; you’re not retired.” That’s exactly it. So when people ask me if I’m retired, I say I’m pensioned. I am very active and very busy. I’m not sitting on a porch. There’s a real blessing in not being the political figure.

Q: Any other thoughts?

I think the struggles of the Anglican Communion are a gift, because they’ve really raised the question, “What does it mean to be in communion? What does it mean to be limbs and members of Christ’s risen body?”

Paul says clearly that if all the body parts were the same, there’d be no coherence to the body -- “the eye cannot say of the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” Distinction is part of the mystery of the body of Christ. How do we live with those distinctions gracefully?