Some time ago, I served a parish in a Southern California beach community as the acting rector. The church building itself was rather large, a remnant of the optimistic 1960s when it was built. The membership, attendance and pledging numbers were rather small, a remnant of what had been. The church was in that all too common state of anxiety over the question of its survival, following years of neglect and crises and a changing community. Yet those who were there were good, faithful and committed, people I like to call the “stalwarts,” the folks who show up, give what they can, live lives of faith in the midst of difficulty, and care. One of those stalwarts was a 90-something, Margie Banks. Petite, sturdy (trooped the Holy Land in her late 80s), thoughtful and dedicated, Margie no longer served on the vestry or was able to do much of what she once had, but there she was, a friend to many and an icon of a virtuous life.
One Sunday, as we exited the church into the morning sunshine, and I took my place to greet the emerging mix of regulars and a few visitors, there was Margie standing on the other side of the double doors, holding a shallow bowl full of red roses, their stems cut to boutonniere length. Smiling, she offered them to all, but especially singling out the people she did not know, the visitors by definition. This improvised gesture of hospitality said more about the parish than any vision statement or strategic plan. In its simplicity and generosity, this bowl of repurposed roses, left over from a funeral the day before, affirmed that nothing is lost in the economy of salvation. Hope resides in the surprises, and in the ways we appreciate the gifts we have been given and are moved, yea, called, to share.
There is something here to be learned about leadership in the church. I am not suggesting that the impromptu gesture substitutes for the intentionality, discipline, and commitment that has to be part and parcel of leadership. And I am not suggesting that parishes deploy their seniors with bowls of flowers on Sunday mornings as the latest Episcopal incarnation of evangelism, but I am suggesting that leadership– good, effective, faithful– leadership is deeply connected to the spirituality that gave birth to this gesture. Gratitude and joy, born of grace and gift, are at the heart of this spirituality. And so leadership becomes a work of praise and thanksgiving by those who have been baptized into the Body of Christ and have received and are receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, then the hard work begins: Incarnating a ministry of praise and thanksgiving in the face of all of the tough stuff facing vestries, congregations, dioceses and the church at large and translating the joy in one’s heart into patterns of practice that strengthen communities and empower disciples.
Can an imagination that sees left-over flowers as an invitation to community allow us to see and grasp the possibilities for new life in a broken and failing world? How long will the roses keep? And are there enough of them?
Kathleen Russell brought a range of chaplaincy, parish, and social justice ministry to Seminary of the Southwest when she joined its faculty in 2005. She has taught in many settings—parishes, programs of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), workshops in diocesan settings and other small groups. She supervised CPE students at the Center for Urban Ministry in San Diego and the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC.