Advent is a time of waiting. As one who didn’t grow up but had to grow into the church calendar, the movement from increasing anxiety as Christmas approached to cultivating patient anticipation refreshed my hectic heart.
December is a hard time for church leaders to slow down. But the always-on, always-connected world we built with blind optimism in progress is now being challenged by those who’ve witnesses—often firsthand—its destructive power. The beginning of December seems like a helpful time to listen to some of those important voices.
I came across Godspeed at the RSVP conference with the American Anglican Council. We watched a few clips of this beautifully-shot documentary, listening to the reflections of N.T. Wright and Eugene Peterson.
The film (and its accompanying study guide) is a call for all people—but especially those who minister to a community—to slow down to “Godspeed.” As Peterson notes, everywhere that Jesus traveled during his ministry, he walked. At about 3mph. And, as only N.T. Wright can put it: perhaps we must slow down in order to catch up with God.
Geoff Chapman, who led our sessions, asked it like this: what can you NOT do in a hurry?
I would challenge you to sit down during this Advent and ask yourself this question in the context of your leadership and your personal life. The answers will shape how you approach time.
Stop, Look, Listen
Speaking of an approach to time, perhaps no one has written more profoundly about the passage of time in the course of a minister’s life than Frederick Buechner. If you’ve ever read anything by Buechner, you know that his writing is the prose equivalent of Psalm 23. His honest, beautiful language leads you by still waters; your soul is restored. If you haven’t read him, well, there’s my sales pitch.
His latest writing returns to his lifelong theme—listening to your life. The Remarkable Ordinary challenges us to resist the rush to take something and run with it and instead stop, look, and listen.
These verbs accompany essential metaphors for Buechner. A writer of haiku, he says, learns to present only the thing itself. Just the flower. Just the tree. Just the flowing stream. It does not have a point to make or a stand to take. It presents an image and invites us to stop and attend to it.
In the same way, a painter (he uses Monet as an example) demands that we look. He demands that we take an image or moment seriously, that we do not presume we can assay its value at a glance.
Lastly, a composer demands we listen. A composer works in time; indeed, says Buechner, a composer must keep time. When we listen well, we tend to the “kairos-ness” of time. You can’t stop, look, and listen to your life in a hurry. Until we stop rushing for the next thing, we will always dismiss the present, ordinary moments in our days.
Sure, yes, we say, but what about my ministry? I’m a leader—I can’t afford this slow pace. There are people who depend on me!
We think that living slowly is for the followers, a luxury afforded to those who don’t hold positions like ours.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and—as Alan Fadling puts it in An Unhurried Leader—nothing could be further from the pattern of leadership we see in the life of Jesus. When we are in an “unholy hurry” we may give the appearance of production, yet not be fruitful in the way of Jesus. Fadling encourages us to follow “grace-paced” leadership.
Our constant struggle in our lives as leaders is against the idea that it’s our position that people need. This sense sets us striving and shouldering our way through interactions, trying to achieve and maintain the status that will give us the most influential platform. But in fact, people don’t need the position; they need the person.
Until we can slow down the blur of our work and influence people through meaningful relationships, we will be building sandcastles. Until we cultivate an interior life that is animated and energized by the Spirit, we will have nothing to offer others except our anxiety and our hurry. And that cultivated life takes a long time of patient waiting.
Your life of leadership will be reflected in the ministry you lead. If you are striving to seize more influence and grow your personal platform, your church will feel like a restless start-up company, trying to become the next big thing. Your programs will be viewed as quick fixes, with every Bible Study a ten-step system to ‘your best life’ and every Vacation Bible School a factory for converted kids.
This is what researcher George Ritzer calls the ‘McDonaldization’ of churches, marked by four dimensions: efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control.
Into this environment speak C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Way of Jesus. They offer a vision for the “holistic, interconnected and abundant life together to which God has called us in Christ Jesus.” The implications in their work are far-reaching, but much of it boils down to a recognition of our necessary mutual interdependence.
Church can’t be a ‘drop-in and fill-up’ model, especially when it comes to our communal life. A patient approach will echo Alan Fadling’s challenge on an institutional scale. We must understand that our influence—our ability to help one another and our community discover and follow the way of Jesus—comes through meaningful, vulnerable relationships developed over a long time. As Andy Crouch has said, “Think decades, not years.”
In an article written for Comment a year before the publication of Slow Church, Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma uses the metaphor of cottonwood and walnut trees to talk about the slow work of creating community. The cottonwood, like the seed sown in shallow soil in Matthew 13, springs up too quickly to last, its fragile branches prone to fracturing. But black walnut trees, those slow growers, are majestic and prized.
The metaphor illustrates the work that she and her husband have done in a small Michigan town. The slow formation of community contributes to the slow transformation of people, as individuals are met with dignity and love, not treated as problems to be quickly solved or dismissed.
So We Wait
As I said, the church calendar forces us into uncomfortable rhythms that work against our well-worn inclinations. Just when our lives seem to press forward to the end of the year with an inexorable momentum, we are handed the season of Advent, that puts or worries about tomorrow into eternal, even apocalyptic, perspective.
Rich Villodas of MissioAlliance picks up on the formational demands of the season, calling Advent a season of “Wait Training”, a habit that forces upon us the life we know is best for us, yet cannot seem to choose for ourselves. He outlines four critical elements of this waiting time, perhaps chief among them the recognition of waiting as an active activity.
In our addiction to doing, we immediately sense the truth of this, know what intentionality it takes to wrangle our attention to the present moment. It is hard to be.
During this Advent, I hope you can inhabit this space of being. It is the space Mary lived in, between Greetings, O favored one and the hay-strewn manger floor. It is the space Zechariah lived in, his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth nine months before letting loose: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people. It is the space the old apostle John lived in, exiled in Patmos, looking across the sea, his eyes brimming with tears and his imagination teaming with martyrs who sing praises and a lamb who reigns forever.