Episcopal Diocese of Washington

Engaging a changing world with
an enduring faith in Jesus Christ

Prayer and Leadership (Sermon for the Ordination of Deacons and Priests)

June 15, 2019

Para los de habla espanol, buenos días. Gracias por su presencia y participación en este servicio de ordenación. Voy a predicar en ingles, pero les doy un breve resumen. Usando el ejemplo y varias citas de Evelyn Underhill, un autor del siglo 20 que escribió de la importancia de las prácticas de oración en la vida de todos christianos, incluyendo los líderes de la iglesia, voy a decir a los 5 presentados para ordinación que su personal camino espiritual es importante para su liderazgo. Pero también es importante que crezcan como líderes, en sus capacidades y creatividad and perseverancia como líderes.

In 1930, Evelyn Underhill, the English laywoman whose writings made her one of the most influential Christian authors of the early 20th century, wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury just as the archbishop was preparing to welcome all the bishops of the Anglican/Episcopal Communion to a meeting at Lambeth Palace.

MAY it please your Grace: I desire very humbly to suggest with bishops assembled at Lambeth that the greatest and most necessary work they could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently, to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer.

God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only priests whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by their own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend God. . .

I know that recovering the ordered interior life of prayer and meditation will be very difficult for clergy immersed increasingly in routine work. It will mean for many a complete rearrangement of values and a reduction of social activities. They will not do it unless they are made to feel its crucial importance. All clergy must understand that it is an essential part of their pastoral duty and not merely for their own sake: (a) To adopt a rule of life which shall include a fixed daily period of prayer and reading of a type that deepens communion with God; b) To make an annual retreat; (c) To use every endeavour to make the church into a real home of prayer and teach people, both by exhortation and example, so to use it. (A letter from Evelyn Underhill to Archbishop Lang of Canterbury)

I am humbled and personally challenged by Evelyn Underhill’s words, for I know what it’s like to get so caught up in the work of ministry that I lose my tether to the One from whom my strength comes. I routinely need to be called back and reminded of my first love. I’ve worked alongside enough clergy to know we are not that different from others in dealing with the struggles of life, and the challenge to sustain foundational practices of Christian life. There were times in my years as a rector that I didn’t know how to create a community in which drawing closer to God in Christ was our primary work, and as bishop I’ve lost some sleep on that question as well.

So may we all take Evelyn Underhill’s words to heart--clergy and laypersons alike--and recommit to a life of daily prayer, reading that feeds our souls, and to make our homes, churches, and schools places of blessing and spiritual inspiration, rooted in the love of Christ. Speaking in particular today to the ordained, to which the five of you now belong: to tend to your life of prayer, your personal relationship with Christ Jesus, and to your spiritual growth, a journey of faith that progresses and deepens over time.

That said, I must also say this: to be a leader in Christian community--be it a parish, school, or any other gathering of followers of Jesus--it’s not enough to be a person of prayer. It’s essential that you are, so essential that if you’re not, everything else falls apart. But it’s not enough.

You have been called--Yoimel, Rachelle, Jenifer, Tim, and Todd--to spiritual leadership at a time when the entire spiritual enterprise known as the Church is undergoing, like the society in which it finds itself, dramatic transformation. It’s true that we are blessed with many sacred traditions, rituals and institutional structures to sustain us in the changes and chances of this life, but it is nonetheless true that we are living in a time of what some call adaptive change. That is to say, that many of the challenges we face--not only in our congregations and schools, but as a people, a nation and a species--surpass our current capacities and skills. So we must learn new skills, new practices, new ways of being ourselves in order to become--by grace and hard work--leaders capable of meeting the challenges and opportunities before us and helping others do the same.

Thus you are called--we all are called--to be people of deep faith and at the same time to lead energetically and whole-heartedly, with a willingness to learn new skills, experiment with new ideas, and do whatever is needed to be catalysts of transformation, so that our communities may thrive and rise to the challenges of our time.

Such a posture of continual learning is humbling because we make a lot of mistakes along the way. Moreover, the issues before us are daunting and require a real slog of persistent effort. I know that you five know this, because you’ve lived it. Everyone else in this Cathedral and watching online knows it, too, because life in church and school isn’t that different--in terms of human dynamic and institutional challenge--from life anywhere else. Except for the fact that in Christian community, we can consciously, intentionally, and explicitly commit to the timeless spiritual practices that sustain a personal relationship with God in Christ, as we go about our work--not as an escape from the real challenges we face, but as our way to engage them. We can draw upon a strength not our own, and know joy in the midst of sorrow, and the peace that surpasses understanding.

The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said.  

This week I met with one of the heads of school in the diocese, along with a few others in her circle of leadership. The school is facing significant financial challenges, the kind that keeps the person in charge up at night. The good news is that there are ways out of this situation, and the head, the board, the congregation with which the school is affiliated, and the diocese are all working hard to pursue any number of those paths. The not-so-good news is that the work has been slow going and frustrating, in that other entities with authority to make decisions that affect the school are dragging their feet, to put it kindly. As a result, the head of school, who is a person of deep faith and commitment to the education of children, must spend untold hours of her week dealing with the numbing complexity of the financial issues of the school, rather than on the work of her heart, which is with the students, faculty and staff. But you know what? She is all in, committed to the financial work because it’s the work that’s needed now. “I look forward to the day when this is behind us. I’m going to look back on time and say, ‘that was really hard.’” But the mission of the school sustains her, and her commitment to it is contagious. She will do whatever it takes to guide the school to a sustainable, fruitful future. That is leadership.

At the same time, she realizes that she and her faculty need to be spiritually sustained and encouraged in this season of challenging work. So she scheduled a day-long retreat for them all, a time for relaxation, celebration and renewal. I don’t know what her daily practices of prayer are, but I trust that she has them, given the faithfulness and sustained, persistent, creative energy of her leadership.

Yesterday, the five ordinands, the Rev. Robert Phillips, and I spent several hours together, and we read some other quotes from Evelyn Underhill. Let me share a few of them with the rest of you:

It is those who have a deep and real inner life who are best able to deal with the irritating details of outer life.

Every minute you are thinking of evil, you might have been thinking of good instead. Refuse to pander to a morbid interest in your own misdeeds.

Pick yourself up, be sorry, shake yourself, and go on again.

A simple rule, to be followed whether one is in the light or not, gives backbone to one's spiritual life, as nothing else can.

And the one that seemed to resonate the most for all of us:

Never let yourself think that because God has given you many things to do for Him--pressing routine jobs, a life full of duties and demands of a very practical sort--that all these need separate you from communion with God. God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive God there with gratitude in that sacrament; however unexpected its outward form may be, receive Him in every sight and sound, joy, pain, opportunity and sacrifice.

Yoimel, Jenifer, Rachelle, Todd and Tim, you are called to lives rooted in foundational spiritual practices of prayer, learning, and personal growth, combined with a growing capacity to function at a certain level of excellence, and to lead, in particular, to lead during times of uncertainty. It’s a tall order, requiring a degree of stamina and commitment to growth, and assurance of your call to spiritual leadership.

Remember this: spiritual maturity and your personal walk with Christ are what give you authority to lead. It isn’t about the amount of time you spend in prayer, but the person you become as a result of your prayers, the way you live and work and function in the world, that matters.

Trust the slow work of God in your life, who is always with you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment.
 

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