In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Foundation

A reflection on Matthew 7:21-29 for Proper 4A by the Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

Jan Richardson from The Painted Prayerbook offers this reflection:
“ When a friend of mine was ready to build a house on the land he had purchased in eastern Kentucky, he sent out a request to some friends. Scott invited us to offer an object, a tangible blessing that he would bury in the ground upon which he would build the house. He recalls that “Folks were amazingly thoughtful—some of the items included tea, Legos and puzzle pieces from my childhood sent by my mother, guitar strings, a bit of climbing rope, a bit of granite from my home town (Lithonia meaning roughly “rock place”), a wine chalice from my potter friends, shells from our childhood vacation spot, herbs, bits of plants and dirt from various parts of the country, and chocolate.” After all the gifts arrived, Scott gathered with some friends for a ceremony on his property. Placing the gifts in the ground, they offered a blessing for what would take root in that place. Married now and with young children, Scott and his family flourish in the house built atop the buried blessings.”

Think about it. Building a house on the foundation of gifts of others including prayers and many blessings. When I read this I thought immediately of our churches. Our churches are built on the generosity of others – the people who have gone before us and the gifts they have given the church in leadership and financial support.

Of course having a solid foundation for our finances and buildings is only part of the foundation that Jesus is speaking of in our Gospel. He’s pointing us to see that it isn’t enough to shore ourselves up, there is more to be done. There is more to be done than just hearing the word of God, which is like shoring ourselves up… What Jesus is saying in this conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount reminds us that hearing the word of God is good. Building solid stable finances is good. But it isn’t everything. There’s more…we have to do something.

In my ministry I have served two churches as the rector. In both cases I have followed strong male leaders who built up the church and left a lasting impression. These male rectors were focused, by and large, on building the foundation for financial support and church buildings. They led from a bureaucratic style that was common for that generation. But, like the world around us, the way of the church is changing and the leadership style of the past is not as effective now.

In their book, “The Web of Women’s Leadership” Susan Willhauk and Jacqulyn Thorpe discuss the impact of women’s leadership in the world and in the church. They surmise that although women’s leadership in church remains relatively low (they cite 12.3 % in 1996, and I think its now about 20%) women have had a big influence on leadership style. They use the image of a web to convey this impact. “Who has not marveled at the hair-like thinness, as well as the tremendous strength, of the strands of a web? We want to dispel the myth of the spider as an evil conniving creature. Spiders are, in fact, graceful, diligent, determined, industrious, creative, artistic, consistent and persistent creatures. Their webs can teach us about and be symbols of new, far-reaching, and inclusive ministries.”

The web as a metaphor for leadership describes a system that replaces a hierarchy with a circular system that includes concentric circles “bound together by….axial and radial lines that criss-crossed the structure in a kind of filigree.” The web as a model gives us an image for leadership from the center rather than leadership from the top down. The web also provides an image for leadership from the edge, from the margins. In essence leadership can flow in and out from the margins to the center, and from the center to the margins. This has been a distinctive mark of women’s leadership which focuses on relationships, collaboration, and a shared vision that rises up from the group rather than the leader.

In both my calls as rector I have found a congregation yearning for this style. People who no longer want the bureaucratic, highly structured style of years past, but want an open shared ministry. I think this may be why women are becoming leaders in the church. It’s partially the times we live in. But I also think it is a movement of the Spirit calling forth the gifts of women. Obviously I believe that God remains active in this world and is influencing the times we live in. Therefore the Spirit is calling the Church into a new way of being with the influence of women’s leadership paving the way.

Now of course the ability to lead as a web is not limited to women. Men are growing into this style of leadership too. And the church will benefit from this new round of leaders be they clergy or lay. The outcome for the church, I think, will be a renewed focus on ministry to the world. We see this in the importance of the Millennium Development Goals and the many other ways churches are responding the needs of this broken world. As we do this we will move from a focus on building finances and church buildings to a focus on seeing the Other in our community and world.

We need to have a solid foundation, stable finances, and relatively comfortable buildings. But Jesus reminds us that it is not enough to hear the word, it is also not enough to just build for ourselves. In my experience churches that are struggling financially benefit when they put their energy into helping others in the world, even in a small but consistent way. Each of us, small church or large, needs to do something that impacts the world around us. This kind of work, moving out from ourselves and into the world, also needs a strong foundation. It needs to be grounded in the belief, that no matter how little we have we can still be a generous people. The foundation for this work needs to be grounded in prayer and collaboration and innovation. Perhaps it is a foundation that looks less like the concrete slabs we build our homes on and more like a spiders web. Perhaps its strength needs to come less from its hardness and solidity and more from its flexibility and roundness.

Like the creative foundation upon which Scott built his house in the Jan Richardson reflection may the foundations we build be a blessing to us and all we meet.

The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski serves as rector at St. Francis-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church in Green Valley, Arizona.

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