Victoria Atkinson White: We create in community

Illustration shows a light bulb, gears, and a web of connections

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Holy friends help us see the truth about ourselves and our contexts when it’s time to do something new, writes the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

How do you go about building something entirely new? Which people do you talk to? What do you research?

A colleague asked me these questions when I was developing a new program. They startled me.

First I wondered whether I was taking on more than I could handle. Then I realized that these questions might be asked of any pastor, Christian institutional leader or social entrepreneur today. How do you create something that doesn’t exist?

The answer, considered in the larger context, seems clear: We create in community.

In Christian community, we practice traditioned innovation and holy friendship, cultivating the conditions for truth telling and experimentation, two of the key elements of creating something new.

Theologian Greg Jones writes, “Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.” A holy friend is exactly the person we need to talk to when contemplating doing something new or different. Holy friends tell us the truth about ourselves and our contexts.

Recently, I attended a Sunday school class at a friend’s church and was so fascinated by the discussion that I took several pages of notes. Later, I mentioned to my friend -- the church’s pastor -- how engaging the class had been. She listened and then proceeded to tell me how frustrated she was with the lack of change in her congregation. I pulled out my notebook and recalled for her, line by line, the signs of hope and life I had heard, many of which were directly attributable to her leadership.

The pastor is deeply embedded in the life of the church, as she should be. She is busy keeping the congregation on budget, following the strategic plan and attending to the pastoral care needs of an aging community.

It can be challenging to see clearly in our contexts, because we are too close. The truth gets buried beneath the daily drama of our constituents, who have histories, needs and agendas. And often, we are so preoccupied with surviving or keeping up, much less succeeding or thriving, that we simply don’t know how to move forward in new and hopeful ways.

I asked my friend about the history of her church. What are the celebrated moments of its past? What challenges has it faced and then overcome? What are the congregation’s favorite stories to tell? How do they see their story interwoven with God’s bigger story of love and grace in the world?

I wanted to nudge her into thinking about traditioned innovation. What is good, hopeful and true in the church’s tradition that it can pull forward and innovate within? When has the church dared to experiment and then thrived because it was brave enough to take a risk?

As she considered these questions, she began to see ways her church could remember the best of its past and live into a bold and bright future. Her church had been one of the first in the area to open its facilities to a mobile homeless ministry. She recounted some of the questions the congregation had faced as they undertook this brave experiment, which included building shower facilities. What would the neighbors think? Why would anyone need to shower at church? Who else might want to use the facilities if they found out about the showers?

A generation ago, my friend’s church had leaned into its convictions of loving its neighbors and shifted the structure of homeless ministries in its community. There were starts and stops in each of the experiments the congregation tried until they settled into a rhythm and a set of practices that worked for them and those they served alongside.

The church knew how to do something new. It simply needed to be reminded of its own story -- and the pastor realized that it was her job to tell that story, to remind the congregation of how they had bravely risked and experimented in the past.

She has the privilege of telling the story of the church doing the work God created it to do: loving its neighbors, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned. She gets to collect the tales and legends of the past and knit them into a badge of honor and bravery, woven into God’s greater story of love, that will help the church boldly innovate into its future.

In community, we have the privilege of witnessing the blessings and challenges of each other’s work. Holy friends listen carefully for the deep and long-abiding truths we come to miss because of familiarity, busyness or distraction. Holy friends ask probing questions, inviting us to re-root our stories in God’s story so we can faithfully experiment with our traditions and explore innovative and hopeful paths to the future.

Doing something new can be scary and intimidating. Second-guessing and overthinking distract us from the most reliable and faithful resource we have when forging new territory. We have community. We are community. As we are blessed with holy friends, we are also called to be holy friends.

The community of believers, the church, knows how to do new things. Innovation is in our past and our future. Thanks be to God for holy friends and community so none of us has to do it alone.