The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.
“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.
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One of the ironies of modern American life is the juxtaposition of Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday. At least according to the traditional view of things, we gather together with family and friends on Thursday to give thanks for all the things we have—and hopefully to recall that the most important things are not “things” at all, but intangibles like “faith, hope, and love” that Paul reminds are the things that abide (1 Corinthians 13:13). Then on Friday we rush out to buy things by the trunk-load because we are convinced those important to us need them—need them genuinely, need them to be assured of our love, need them to fulfill desires they may not even have had before the deluge of Black Friday sale ads.
When you step back and look from this vantage point at the unified celebration that Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday have become for so many, it makes clear that while in moments of thoughtful reflection we say we value the intangibles yet our actions very often demonstrate we place true value on the tangibles. Why, even Thanksgiving is becoming more and more about the items of the feast so that we must be reminded to actually give thanks to God, family, friends, and community for “faith, hope, and love.”
So what does any of this have to do with ministry and leadership in the church of the 21st century, the concerns of this blog? Well, admittedly the analogy isn’t perfect, but I think a similar irony exists in many of the ways we think and act as leaders and as those who look to others for leadership. When we stop to reflect on what we want leaders to be (whether others or ourselves as leaders), we stress the intangibles. But if we look back on the ways we act, more times than not our concerns are with the tangibles.
We say that we want leaders who have “wisdom and maturity of faith” and can build up such faith in others, but we gauge success by the number of those others and not by the depth of the wisdom and maturity of their faith.
We say that we want leaders who inspire hope that is not pollyannaish but grounded in “sound judgment,” but we choose them based on hard evidence of proven track records and assurance that what worked elsewhere in the past will work here in the present and future.
We say that we want leaders who have a “compassionate spirit” that incarnates God’s love, but we measure compassion in dollars and cents collected from some and expended on behalf of others whom ‘the some’ never meet.
Commentators tell us that our culture is beginning to react against the materialism of the past century not only as consumers but also in our concepts of leadership (see, for example, chapter eight on “measurement” in Bob Whitesel, Organix: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church [Abingdon, 2011]). We are starting to push the pendulum back in the direction of intangibles over things. While I see some evidence of this, my own sense is that for many who are in the socio-economic classes that predominate in mainline churches they are “post-materialist” only in the way that they are post-modern. They are able to move “beyond modernism” only because modernism is so woven into the givens of who they are. They are able to reclaim the value of the intangible because even after the “Great Recession” they still require the Black Friday sale ads to tell them what they “need.”
But as we move through Thanksgiving week, I would rather focus on giving thanks for the signs that the pendulum is beginning to change course. I would rather Thanksgiving Day be the prelude to the Advent season of hope rather than just the precursor to “Black Friday,” “Small Business Saturday,” and “Cyber Monday.” May true thanksgiving nurture both faith in and faithfulness to God’s love in giving leaders with “wisdom and maturity of faith, … compassionate spirit, … and sound judgment” (G-2.0607a) to both the church and the world.