Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Papa Calls It Quits

So il Papa has resigned.  Pope Benedict the Somethingth, realizing that the limitations of his aging body and mind were making it impossible to fulfill his vocation, announced to the great sprawling fellowship of his ancient community that he's stepping down.

As a progressive, I'm aware that many leftists view him with snarky dislike.  I've nonetheless developed something of an appreciation for the current pontiff.  Yeah, he's completely wrong in a Jesus-would-be-pissed sort of way about women, and is a looooong way off on a number of other fronts.  But as he's talked about ecology, and nationalism, and militarism, and the radically imbalanced mess that our economic system has inflicted on humankind, I find myself in agreement with him at least as often as I am in disagreement.

Always best to live into that place of grace, eh?

And in showing the courage to stand down, I find my respect for him only increasing.   It's hard to step down.  Yeah, I know, there's precedent, and that it's been six hundred years in the Catholic Church is like two pastorates ago in most American Protestant churches.   But in an institution that has spent five centuries defining the Papacy as a vocation that only ends when you stop breathing, it takes particular boldness to stand against that expectation and to say: "This isn't working.  I'm not right for this any more.  I'm done here."

Having watched pastors cling to failed ministries, and watched churches cling to pastors who have long since passed their expiration date, I know how hard it is to let go.   Our individual egos and the collective sense of self-identity that can be woven up in a Beloved Leader often cripple the vibrancy of our fellowships.

A church can come to revolve around the story of that One Special Person, who steps in front of Jesus and becomes the embodiment of their identity.  It happens in countless fellowships, some small, and many large.  In the little church, and in the big, that individual becomes the defining feature of the community.  Their story becomes the story of the church.  Without them, the church is lost.  That's a dangerous thing.  Even if someone is blessed with particular gifts as a leader, a community cannot be a healthy fellowship if that is the case.

That way of being stifles the spirituality of everyone who participates in it.

Stepping down is doubly hard on the ego of the leader.  "I am the pastor of this church," we say to ourselves, and we say it enough that it weaves its way into our self-understanding.  We cannot imagine ourselves in the absence of that relationship.  We cannot envision what it might be like if another human being were to step into that role.

We can't bring ourselves to prepare a community for our leaving, even though we know that we are dust and ashes, and that the time for our departure will inevitably come.

Real leadership does that, but we often struggle with it.

So welcome back to being Joseph, Joseph.