Melissa Wiginton: Leadership without delineating who you are (and aren't)

Two ministries collaborate in New York without having to define, in advance and for all time, who they are and what they believe.

“This works because we’ve invested more energy into ‘how do we make it work’ than into ‘who are we’.”

So says Sara Nazimova-Baum of the Episcopal Service Corps’ New York Internship Program. She is one of the leaders of the New York Faith and Service Coalition (NYFASC, pronounced “Nye-Fask”), which was born two years ago over lunch between directors of faith-based volunteer year-of-service organizations in New York City. Each runs a shoe-string budgeted program that hosts a handful of young adults who live simply, in intentional community, and work in local direct-service agencies. The volunteers are just out of college, searching for the meaning of life (or at least meaningful work), rooted in a faith tradition that calls them to serve. Most live in the grittier spaces of the Big Apple, though they are from the middle-class white American heartland. They are quite remarkable young people. Maybe, these two directors thought, we could do more for our volunteers together than we can separately.

They invited some other folks in the business to get together and pool ideas and resources. Pretty soon they planned a joint picnic, a retreat for reflection, and a graduate school application fair. Now they have a year-long calendar of low-cost, high-benefit events and a group of young adults with more friends, more chances to connect, and grow and more ways to share their experiences with others. The alumni of NYFASC’s first year left a gift for those who were to come: “A Volunteer’s Guide to Happiness and Wholeness in New York City,” which includes the “Best of” everything from thrift shops to karaoke to views of the city.

In the process of creating NYFASC for the volunteers, the program directors discovered a community of support and nurture for themselves. They initially met once each month for two hours. Before long they decided to meet every other month for four hours. “We realized that we needed time to schmooze, share and bond, as well as tend to business,” said Nazimova-Baum. They wrote a draft of a mission statement, but never finalized it. Why did they need to? Everything was clicking. They don’t have a vision statement. Core values? Sarah says, “We are very open-table—anyone who wants to be involved is welcome—and pragmatic, as in how do we make that work.”

Open table and pragmatic. Sounds risky for a leadership strategy. The people who established and operate NYFASC are leaders. They are servant leaders, to be exact -- keenly responsive to their context and the needs of those for whom they have responsibility.

Now, they are not in the business of establishing an institution. They also know that it does matter who we are, of course. These organizations keep their own practices of formation and accountability structures. But here is the lesson for those of us who would call ourselves leaders for the church: they come together out of mutual need, in vulnerability, and discover joy in making real what they thought was out of reach.

In a time of incredible polarization and divisiveness, in which so many of our churches are engaged in intense controversy over who is in and who is out, NYFASC is a breath of fresh air. It’s okay just to have a picnic. With no other agenda. In fact, it is important. It’s what we are supposed to do.

Remember, everybody on the hillside got plenty to eat. It didn’t matter who they were.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Ministry Programs and Planning at the Fund for Theological Education.