Saturday, December 13, 2014

Climate Change resource list

Walter Brueggemann. Journey To The Common Good. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Jimmy Carter. A Call To Action : Women, Religion, Violence, And Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Bill McKibben. Oil And Honey : The Education Of An Unlikely Activist. New York: Times Books, 2013.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Fifth Assessment Report. available online at

Common English Bible, CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha. (2013)

I found these resources very useful in preparing my remarks for the climate change forum this morning, and quoted from them extensively. The CEB notes on Genesis were very helpful and insightful, especially in looking at the challenging passages about human relationships to creation and Creator.

Copyright © 2014 John Leech. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 12, 2014

stewards of the earth

A Religious Response to Climate Change – II: Living
Advent, Stewardship, and Metanoia
The Episcopal Parish of Saint Michael and All Angels
602 North Wilmot Road, Tucson, Arizona 85711
Saturday, December 13, 2014, 9:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Theological reflections on the spiritual context for environmental action

There was a landowner who put his top employees in charge of his holdings. He said to them, “Take charge of it – and take care of the place. Bring your families to live on the land, and enjoy its produce. Serve it faithfully, and from its care you will live abundantly.”

So the servants came on board. They lived on the land, and raised families there. They were as fertile as the land itself and they grew in numbers. And it was theirs for the taking – to take charge of, to take care of, or to take advantage of – and with the land they served as their home they would live in hope and abundance, or in fear and scarcity – it was up to them.

What will they say when the landlord comes? How will they be with him? As servants entering into joy, or as sad stewards with empty fields, exhausted resources, and mistreated fellow creatures, to show for their stewardship?

We are familiar now with the data and analysis that have exposed to our concern the phenomenon of climate change. It is a transnational challenge that faces us on a global front. Many of the crises and problems facing humanity on occasional or local bases connect to this root phenomenon: we live in the Age of the Anthropocene. Human activity shapes geography, climate, biosphere – and even geology. We are making, through our collected and cumulative activities, a permanent impact on the landscape of our world: its ice and free water, its air and clouds, its land and growing things (including food for ourselves and all other animal creatures), and hence the sustainability of life for ourselves and our fellow beings.

A Turkish seminarian from Istanbul, an exchange student in the United States, told me he’d polled his fellow students: If you saw a cricket in your room what would you do? Ninety percent said, I’d kill it. And these were seminarians! He exclaimed. What became of compassion for all creatures?

Let us not make the Anthropocene the anthropocentric. Let us remember our special mandate as human creatures to care for the earth: not just to multiply and fill it – but to tend it. We are the stewards, the workers in the garden, of this green and gold, and glorious, blue white planet. It is our home, but not as owners – not as exploiters – but as chief tenants. We are the manager of the apartment house, so to speak, not the landlord.

Indeed Advent is the season we turn to that landlord and yearn for his presence. We look forward to Christmas, the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, with joyful expectation but also some anxiety. Our anticipation is mixed, now, with loss and grief – and even guilt. As preparatory work for the hope that is born anew every year at Christmas, we now must acknowledge our failures – perhaps irrecoverable, some of them – as stewards, even brothers and sisters, to earth and our fellow created beings.

But our Christian perspective, even in the kingdom of anxiety, is that we can do something still worthwhile, small and large, in our collective identity and our solitary pursuits, to move toward the day of his coming with rejoicing – a welcome made possible only because we do not stand alone. God is indeed already with us – in our suffering and elation, our watchfulness and neglect.

What we face now with environmental catastrophe is unprecedented in scale, possibly, but not in moral quality or human impact. A famine up close is a hungry village, a starving face, and a child with no solace. A forest fire or a drought is in aggregate a great disaster. But, again, up close it is the tragedy of each creature swept up and away by destructive forces. Each of us has stories to tell, and promises to keep, on the human level – efforts token or tiny that help us forward as we confront the common foe. Together – as we band together – there are large things we can do even yet to make the world a better place.

Maybe the time of changing light bulbs is over, as enough. But the time of the Anthropocene, the human-fashioned epoch, has just begun. A couple of speakers at the American Academy of Religion convention in San Diego this past Thanksgiving – including Bill – had some things to say that are useful to us all, to guide our deliberations, and set a spiritual context for our focus on climate change: sustainable living.

Bill McKibben talked about the comforting whirlwind out of which God spoke to Job. We could distinguish two calls in that voice: One is the call to humility – we are nowhere when it comes to the vast majesty of creation.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
   and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
   on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
   and to make the ground put forth grass?

(Job 38:4-7, 25-27 NRSV)

The other is the call to joy: we are uniquely able to perceive God’s delight in this world. What we can see and touch invites us into a joy just of being – not us exploiting or using – just being.

We need that good-news reminder at times of distress. There is too much goodness to give up now.

Our keynote speaker in San Diego was Jimmy Carter, the former president. Jimmy Carter was there to talk about the plight of women and children around the world. In getting there he had some things to say about religious attitudes that shape our responses and he had some things to say about the effect of climate change on women and children. That effect, I can tell you first, is that the women and the children are in so many places and cultures and traditions the last in line – when food is scarce, medicine is absent, and there is no roof, or a lack of clothing, they are the ones who go with the least, the last, and sometimes completely without. That is only made worse by climate change – as resources become scarce these the least able to cope, the most vulnerable – are first to suffer and last to share in what’s left.

Cultural attitudes persist that somehow some group of people are not as well beloved as all God’s children are – and we are all God’s children – these attitude have played their part in more than one story of human deprivation and prejudice.

The president’s example was from his own childhood. He grew up in a small town in Georgia, playing with other kids, working with them on the farm, and going to school together. That his was the only white family did not seem to matter. Except when experts came to town, to the church, and sought to prove from the Bible that blacks were inferior to whites and deserved a status of servitude. Folks, it’s just not there. It’s not in the book.

That teaching was a willful self-delusion on the part of people who benefited, holding positions of power and privilege on the basis of that notorious falsehood.

Likewise, then, women and children, treated as less than equal, as subservient, inferior or less deserving, as if that was what God mandates in Scripture. Again, folks, it’s just not there. It’s not in the book. It’s self-delusion, a prop for power – power over one’s true equals in the sight of God. The truth is, we are equal before God and equally beloved. To quote the president, “We are all created and loved by God equally.”

Women feel the pain first: climate change will exacerbate their plight in the future.

Finally, a third self-delusion – is this is my own addition to the mix: we are deluding ourselves if we think our self-assumed pose of superiority to creation is something mandated in the Bible. We are chosen, yes, and special, because we are called to self-understanding, to knowledge (as partial as it may be) of our place in the cosmos, and our role as stewards of the earth.

So you can see why this forum has the theme, Advent, Stewardship, and Metanoia. Advent is a season of preparation – it is anticipation of hope but hope built on a foundation in reality. We really have experienced, are experiencing, and will experience, loss and grief as this world changes – but that grief and loss have a purpose and a meaning. As Walter Brueggemann points out, once acknowledged and voiced, it is “the hard, painful, preparatory work of loss and grief that makes hope credible. Without the preparatory work, the offer of hope is too easy and too much without context to have transformative power.”

As to metanoia, that word for a change of heart, two things: Repent means stop doing it. Metanoia means so much more. Metanoia is not just a turning away – it is a turning toward. It is a response to a call to humility and a call to joy. It is a change of heart, replacing a heart of cold stone with a living heart of flesh – vulnerable, real, and alive. As the passages from Job remind us, there is much to be humbled by when we turn our eyes to the stars – or to the smallest element of creation. And in what those same eyes see there is much to respond to with joy – the majesty of the infinite and the delight of the minute. And that humility and that joy are part of what make us human, make us special, and give us a unique purpose in the plan of God.

Genesis 2:15 (CEB): The Lord God took the human being and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.

In other words, we are both to cultivate the land and to take custody of it as servants of the Lord. We are stewards of the earth, caretakers and custodians.

In Genesis 1:26-28 (CEB) God says, Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.

As the notes to the Common English Bible inform us, to take charge – to rule as a master over servants, or a king over subjects – is a way of characterizing human power and authority over the rest of the animal world. But that in itself does not say anything one way or another about how that power is exercised, whether in caring for creation or ruling harshly over it. We are God’s representatives, or images, in creation, so exercising that authority of “taking charge” is a servant role, subservient to the true Lord of the universe. We have power to alter the world but we depend on the earth and its life for survival. Our “rule” is subordinate – submissive to God and God’s will for creation – God’s will, not our own.

Take care, take charge. Fill the earth, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. And delight in it.


New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Common English Bible (CEB)

Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good.
Bill McKibben, The Comforting Whirlwind.
Jimmy Carter, A Call to Action. 

Copyright © 2014 John Leech. All rights reserved. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

road to joy

“In times of great change, we can be mourners of the past or midwives of the future.”— 

If nothing else is certain, we know that Isaiah, and Jesus, lived in times of great change. And so Handel’s oratorio Messiah, which many may take as a symbol of triumphalism, actually communicates a response to uncertainty – and insecurity.

Composed, perhaps, or compiled, from 22 August to 14 September 1741, the oratorio came during a period of consolidation of British royal power. The union with Scotland was new but the hegemony over Ireland – where Messiah had its premiere 13 April 1742 – was by now old.

So as we look at the Scriptures selected for the libretto – the book – the words and phrases of this work, we look at something both eternal and unstable – and new.

A new age now begins – Isaiah proclaims, the gospels proclaim – for God who was absent from our lives is now present right in the midst of them. In his first context the prophet Isaiah anticipated the removal of the people from Jerusalem, the Holy City of Judah, and by the 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah that exile is an accomplished fact – but one about ready to be turned over. In the prophecies beginning “Comfort ye my people” the return of the people to the promised land is just over the horizon – and with confidence the passages we read today (Isaiah 40:1-11) look forward to that deliverance. It is a vindication, not of the people, but of their God.

In the 8th century before our era, the king of Judah, the southern of the two kingdoms of the Jews, had been under siege from two allied kings: the king of Syria or Aram (Damascus) and – get this – the king of Ephraim, that is, the northern kingdom of Israel. Besieged, he appealed for help to the great power of the north – the Assyrian empire – and as a matter of course became their vassal. (The northern kingdom fell in 721 BCE and its people were deported, enslaved, and dispersed.) In 701 BCE the Assyrian king Sennacherib nearly destroyed Judah. But Assyria faded and the empire of Babylon took its place. In 586 the southern kingdom fell and the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judah began. It was only in 539 that they were able to anticipate returning home. And they anticipated a return of Glory – that is, of the presence of God shining in their midst as of old.

The prophets of the book of Isaiah took a bold stance. They proclaimed that Cyrus II (“the Great”) of Persia would be the instrument of their deliverance. He – a foreigner, an unbeliever; a non-Jew – would be God’s anointed one, chosen for this task. And anointed one means Messiah. Sure enough Cyrus proved tolerant (for the time) and as Persia conquered Babylon he allowed the subject peoples of the empire of the Middle East to return to their home territories. The Jews anticipated a great awakening of faith, a joyful triumph, a procession of mirth and confidence, through the desert wastes of (modern) Iraq and Syria, from Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates) right across the hills to Judea, and the recovery of all that they had lost.

It was not so simple, as later sources say: there was much to rebuild. But the point is: God was at work in the world restoring his people to right relationship with himself, and in doing so, establishing a new order of the ages, where God would dwell in their midst and the divine reign of justice and peace would begin.

This all seemed so far away by Jesus’ time. There the kingdom of the north, Assyria, of the east, Babylon – or, following, Persia – and the kingdom of the south, Egypt, had all been swept away, and new powers, of Greece and Rome, had taken their place. Israel – Judah – again was under the boot-heel of a foreign power – and the people again cried out for deliverance.

Some of them even cried out to God. (While others trusted in the strength of their own arms – or the hope of alliance with yet another foreign power.)

The hope that responds to loss and grief was still there, in competition with despair. And some looked for a savior. Now this savior figure could be a nation – or a person. And in the person of various false messiahs they thought they’d found the answer. They expected a deliverer to be a Son of David, political – and military. What they got was a Son of David, obedient, and a shepherd. But we anticipate. What we know today from today’s lesson (Isaiah 40) is that the season of expectation has begun – a season of preparation, of joyful expectation, one in which to make a highway for our God.

Let’s look at the passage as chosen and organized by Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens.

What questions confront us from the text?

How is our own time a time of expectation – and fulfillment?

How are we preparing the way for the Advent of God’s anointed – his change agent – in our own lives?

What does it mean to have a real, deep, grounded faith as opposed to a superficial understanding? Does it mean simply that we have begun to go deeper in our understanding of what was always there – or have we begun to see (God at work in the world) in new ways?

How can we bring this new reality into production in our lives? – as a people, a congregation, a community; as individual persons?

So – what is the good news for us? How is the expectation of Isaiah 40 a message of hope for us?

How can we share it?

Can we see as far as Isaiah saw, that even the most unlikely human could be made an instrument of God’s returning glory?

What does it mean to have GOD WITH US?

A highway for our God: do we make it? do we walk on it? or is it God alone – or his anointed – who travels the way?

How could God allow exile? abandonment? Is it false to hope for salvation?

Does God’s arrival redeem the time?

What do you look for as signs of hope? 


Herbert O’Driscoll – January 31, 2010 (sermon at St Alban's Episcopal Church, Edmonds, Wash.)

Union of Scotland and England

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Angel of the South


The Angel of the South

The Angel of the North
broods beside the motorway
past and future
brought into the present
vast arms wingspread
Spitfire image
a past of glory, a future of hope,
when I saw the Angel of the North.

I would like to see the Angel of the South
brooding witness over the border crossing
metal fences
rework the barriers
wrought into a sign of peace
witness above us the arms widespread
“Come to me all you who are weary”
standing besides the coyotes’ spotters
the smugglers on the hill
overlooking the border
but watching the crossers
south with nothing
but what is in their hands,
north with nothing to declare,
but a few cervezas under the belt,
or a 150 Fords in the railcars
or a memory of the people with nothing
in their hands but beans and rice
and a memory of welcome at el comedor.

El comedor del Kino is a place of welcome
where people fetch up on the shore
of exile, newly deported from el Norte.
Now they have someone
who at least speaks their language
or doesn’t
but speaks the universal sign-language of peace
a plate of food
a chance to be human to human
rather than one to be expelled
or shipped
across the barriers.

So I want to see the Angel of the South
metal re-wrought
from fending off
to sheltering
sky-witness to a new horizon
a border crossing of hope not fear.

Tucson, Arizona
© September 19, 2014.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

everybody welcome

A day's wage ... how does that relate to hospitality?

A landowner recruits some day laborers. He goes down to the marketplace - or the Shell station. There are people standing around, hoping someone will hire them that day, give them a chance to get their daily bread.

Give us this day our daily bread...

So the landowner takes whom he can find and sends them out to work in the vineyard.

It is a hot day, we are told; perhaps they are in Sonoma - or Arizona.

In the heat of the day - here in America - workers get a lunch break. They take it in the shade of the trees by the side of the road. You see them on the way to the tasting room. 

How did they get here? Today - you know. This season - perhaps they live here, perhaps they have green cards, perhaps they "entered the United States by a legal point of entry." 

Perhaps they are among the one-third of vineyard workers who have no papers to show.

But they come and work, anyway.

Are they welcome?

The wine industry, one vineyard owner told me, would collapse without them.

A long time ago there was a harvest in another field. It was the barley harvest and the landowner was Boaz. It was his family farm - near Bethlehem. 

He saw someone out in his field, following his work crew, picking up the grains that had fallen, that they'd missed.

- Who is that gleaning in the field?
- It is a stranger, a foreigner, who walked across the desert, for several days, from the mountains of that other country. 

She is here, a widow, destitute.
- She came alone?
- No, she came with her mother-in-law, to look after her. Naomi.
- Naomi. My cousin.

We are all cousins here, Steven Talmadge the Lutheran bishop said. All of us here along the Borderlands. And in Tucson sometimes you feel that's true. We are all related - to the land, to each other, to our common situation.

Sometimes we are the stranger, welcomed or not. And sometimes we are the host.

Boaz put down his hoe, ran his hand across his forehead, and thought a minute. 

- Let her glean - among the sheaves ... even pull out some grain for her. And let no one bother her - tell the men that.

Later he saw her, and said, 

- I have heard about you, about all you have done for your mother-in-law, since you left your own country and came here to a land you did not know. You sought shelter under the wings of Yahweh. Bless you!

I was a stranger ... did you welcome me?

A stranger comes to town, a man goes on a journey: two stories  - the only two, some say - but they are really one.

Once some years ago I went to call on Cele Peterson in her store. She said she only had twenty minutes as she was expecting a visitor. In the time we had she said of the border, "We've got to stop doing this" - and she held her hands palms-out as if fending off a stranger - "and starting doing this" - and she faced her hands towards each other and interlaced the fingers. And then I opened the door to Gabby.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing .... You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.  

(Deuteronomy 10:19, 17-18, 20)

In Scotland, in Duddingston Village, I was the guest - and invited to a Queen's Jubilee wine-and-cheese party. (We were about a mile from Holyroodhouse and she was in residence.) There in the garden someone introduced me and someone identified me ... Oh, you're the foreigner ... strange feeling.

When the priest takes your offering, you shall make this response before the Lord your God:

"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there..." (Deuteronomy 26:5)

I was a stranger and...
 ... you welcomed me.
 ... you did not welcome me.
(Matthew 25:35, 43) 

Who are we welcoming? By the oaks of Mamre Sarah and Abraham pitched their tent. In the heat of the day three strangers approached. Come stay with us. Let us prepare you something to eat. Here, let me wash your feet. You must be tired...

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

Over and over in the Old Testament we hear stories of hospitality, of welcome to strangers; Lot, in Genesis 19; the father of Gideon, in Judges 6; the father of Samson in Judges 13. Like the father of Isaac (to be) they welcome strangers...

Who are we welcoming?

In the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three men at the oaks of Mamre, what do we see as the ideal of hospitality?

In the story of Ruth, who is the stranger? 

What does the story of the vineyard tell us about the abundance of God? 

In a time of harvest plenty, or of famine, what is fair? just? generous?

What do these stories tell us about fear, hope, longing, joy?

What do they tell us about home?

Come down, Zacchaeus, for tonight I must stay at your house.

"God of unfailing generosity, making no distinctions of wealth or ability, root out from us the spirit of envy and greed, and transform our bitterness into an open-hearted welcome of those we are tempted to despise. We pray this after the pattern of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit." -- collect prayed at the Come and See service, St Philip's in the Hills, Tucson, 4pm Sunday 21 September 2014. (from Jim Cotter,

These are notes for a leading a reflection on the gospel on Sunday 21 September 2014 at the 4pm Come and See service at St Philip's in the Hills, an Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona. JRL+

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Pilgrimage of the Heart

For the last six months I have observed and participated in a variety of border and immigration ministries in southern Arizona and northern Mexico (Sonora) from hospitality (el comedor, Kino Border Initiative, Sonora) to deportation proceedings (special procedures court, "Operation Streamline", Tucson federal courthouse), from keeping vigil at el Tiradito shrine, remembering those who have died crossing the desert, to training with Tucson Samaritans - and serving at the comedor with Samaritans of Sahuarita and Green Valley.

And I have gone to meetings with a variety of pastors and deacons - witnessing in action the Children's Clinic at St Andrews Nogales Arizona with their pastor, coffee house chats with a deacon, and several committee meetings with the Border and Immigration Committee of St Philips in the Hills, as well as lectures by Fr Daniel Groody CSC at the university (a theology of migration) and film (“Who is Dayani Cristal?”).

I have spoken with members of St Michael and All Angels and St Andrew’s Episcopal Churches in Tucson, and with volunteers of the Casa Mariposa/Restoration Project who have been meeting people at the Greyhound bus station in Tucson, people recently released from detention by ICE/Border Patrol ...

This past month the big news had two parts. First, the Tucson bus station began receiving eighty people a night, women with children released with instructions to appear for a hearing within a month at an immigration court - presumably near family already in the United States - lest an order for removal close their case. No warning. Just dropped off.

Second, the incredible news that the Border Patrol has flown a thousand kids from Texas to Arizona and then put them into a warehouse (I've seen it from the road - it is meant for pallets of flour, not people) in Nogales AZ. These are unaccompanied minors from Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) refugees from violence and extreme poverty. The warehouse was empty recently; just reopened it serves as a temporary (promise: 72 hours) detention facility. It is on La Quinta Road near the truck crossing into Mexico.

The local volunteer agencies (including Restoration Project and more recently Catholic Community Services of Tucson) apparently already have more than they need of in-kind donations of supplies (toys, food, water, clothing) to meet the immediate needs of the refugees.

The ongoing need for change in policy and practice, compassionate work for change and a deeper understanding of our fellow human beings, exploited and caught in the middle of a gigantic and ongoing crisis, and the need to reach out in love across boundaries: all this continues.

It helps to see this effort as a pilgrimage of the heart. On my own journey to the border, and to Children's Clinic at St Andrews, Nogales, Arizona, I also visited San Xavier du Bac, the mission founded centuries ago by Fr Eusebio Kino, which continues to function as a place of pilgrimage and a spiritual center for southern Arizona and the surrounding area. The pilgrimage of the heart - from the heart of one human being to another - is the ongoing challenge, and blessing.

One thing I have been thinking about this past week is that this situation is similar to so many others in humanitarian relief and development work. There is an immediate crisis that gets our attention - and an ongoing problem that needs lasting sustained effort. All of a sudden on our own southern border is an immense influx of refugees, in two remarkable groups, women with children seeking to reunite with their families, and unaccompanied minors - mainly teenagers but also younger children - who have been sent north without adults. Preponderantly these people, in both groups, have come north through Mexico from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Why? Besides a sell job by human smugglers there are economic and political reasons for this migration.

People come to Arizona to work, to re-unite with their families, or to find and begin a new chapter in their life.

We need to practice a theology of hospitality - a spirituality of migration. We were strangers once, too - how shall we welcome the new?

So - an ongoing need is there. The need for change - in our national policies, in our practices of welcome, and in our influence on conditions in other countries, as well as our attitudes toward the 'foreigner' - continues.

John R. Leech
Tucson, Arizona
July 2, 2014


(“Sparks of the Light”, Coracle, the quarterly magazine of the Iona Community, Winter 2014, 13-14)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Elderhood in Religious Congregations: the elder among the generations

Since the fall of 2008 I have been engaged in study toward the Doctor of Ministry degree. My dissertation project is entitled, A Heart of Wisdom: Embracing the Vocation of Elderhood within a Congregation. The project seeks an understanding the nature of elderhood within the context of a multigenerational congregation. The study develops an approach for drawing out the voices of a specific population within a congregation, for congregational ministry and for use in developing ministries. And it is intended help us understand how to include members of a particular population as a vital part of congregational life.

I focus this study on a particular group within the congregation: men over fifty-five years of age. This is a group within the congregation who are less often heard on the issues involved in becoming elders. The focus on older men provided a clear limit to the scope of the inquiry. It focuses attention on a less verbal and less transparent population. Despite their reticence in volunteering information about their inner lives, older men have something to say. The diversity of experience found among a relatively focused set of interviewees highlights how worthy they are of attention. Twelve years ago an older group of men at another congregation invited me to join them for their monthly lunch. As I discovered, similar as a group of older men may look to the outsider, the breadth of experience and insight they have to offer can be a part of the pastoral adventure of working with this population.

We need to hear from these people and make their voices more audible. How are they aware of the vocations of elderhood? How they are embraced by and within the context of congregational life?  But – best to ask for elders’ own perceptions.

And so I have been asking older men active in the congregation a few questions.

·      How has your faith developed as you have gotten older?
·      How has the congregation participated in this growth?
·      What calls you now as a vital way to live out your faith?
·      How does the congregation embrace or celebrate it with you?

Having now listened to a dozen and a half of the older men active in the congregation, in leadership, worship or service, I am aware of how grateful I am for their participation and their presence in the congregation. As I evaluate what they have said to me, both common themes and unique perspectives, I am glad to be honoring their voices.

In this paper I will discuss what I am learning from listening to elders, in light of social-science theories and theologies of the human person, with an eye to how congregations and their leaders can become better at serving and serving with their older constituents.

In evaluating research interviews for this project, I found that I was dealing with two different senses of elderhood, no matter how closely I had defined the term in the preliminaries of the conversation.

On the one hand, for some of the interviewees, elder simply meant older, as in older than. They identified elderhood with seniority. In other words, they conflated chronos time with kairos time, duration with fulfillment, and persistence with responsibility.

On the other hand, several other interviewees approached a meaning similar to the characterization of a functional elder offered in a recent book on ritual: an elder with a vocational “ministry of wisdom and presence within the faith community.”

In other words, an elder is someone who has gained wisdom based in reflection on experience, and who is recognized and affirmed (however informally) by their community for the call to serve others – in active sharing or modeling of wisdom, or more subtly in their prayerful presence in the consciousness of their community’s members.

Communities affirm calling; the called contribute the gifts of their callings to community.

Church was for some interviewees primarily seen as a type of voluntary association, in many ways a mutual benefit society. This leads to an inadequate vision of church as civic institution, service organization or club. As a friend remarked in conversation, the problem with thinking of church as a family is that it too easily collapses into a club.

Church and pastoral ministry must be something more. As one senior pastor remarked:

The work of the priest is not to produce bulletins, nor administer, nor even visitation. All of these are means to a greater end. The purpose of ministry in a secular world is to proclaim the message: the reign of God has come, which is characterized by love. Some of us clergy used to discuss whether our brethren ‘had a message.’ If we do not have a message, then the institution that we serve becomes a secular organization or a club. [The parish] is not a club, it is a point of light where Jesus Christ is proclaimed and loved and ‘where prayer has been valid.”

The interviewees who saw most clearly elderhood as a vocation shared some characteristics:

  • They had a clear sense of vocation themselves;
  • they actively expressed their vocation in ministry, service, or work;
  • they exhibited a lively seeking faith: faith for them was dynamic and challenging, not static and not always comforting; and
  • they somehow stood apart from the “core” of the congregational family system.

To paraphrase a Eucharistic prayer, they come to the Holy Table not for solace only but also for strength, not for pardon only but also for renewal. (Book of Common Prayer)

In Stages of Faith and other works, James Fowler correlates ongoing growth in faith with stages of the human life cycle. The family system of the study congregation seems to have an established norm of synthetic–conventional faith (Fowler stage III) and these six people appear to have reached the level of individuative–reflective faith (Fowler stage IV) at least. The system will resist this departure from the norm. Indeed most of these people, as much as they have tried to work within the system, have found their most fruitful and creative outlets for the expression of their faith in other venues.

I would look for these characteristics of potential elderhood: sense of vocation expressed in active ministry, experience of transformation, and ongoing growth in faith and life. Growth for which they take responsibility: each is an actor and not simply a recipient in their religious life.

An elder plays an active part, prominent or not, on the stage of life, and does not simply stand by as a supernumerary present to augment the volume of the crowd.

Elders have lively, seeking faith; engaged beyond parochial boundaries in their ministry or expression of vocation, they stand outside or somehow independent of the core family system of the congregation. Even if deeply involved they do not draw their identity from role or relationship within the group. This may indicate a shift from conventional faith to an individuated faith, at least. Certainly they have taken the life of faith as a gift of God to be received and applied rather than taken as personal validation and kept to oneself.

What can we take away from this? An active faith seeking understanding in the company of friends, an orientation toward service to others, and a living curiosity expressed toward life, all are signs of dynamic vocation.

Growth and development can continue throughout life’s changes. Congregations can make room for that growth to occur in a context of faithful community. One opportunity for congregations to encourage that growth is during the character-formative years of young adulthood.

Reading my great-grandmother’s psychology textbook, I came across this observation: “The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way.” William James, writing for college students 120 years ago, was urging his readers to look to their own moral development during their twenties – before character has set like plaster. He saw habits of the body and the mind forming and setting by the age of thirty. James urged his readers to make nature their ally instead of their enemy in this formation of character. (James, William. Psychology. American Science Series, Briefer Course. New York: Henry Holt. 1892. 149.)

The challenge for congregations and pastoral leaders is to encourage throughout the life cycle the development of habits of continuing growth toward God. This can be done through many means. Pastors may create a context by active, in-depth listening. Congregations may create a context for transformation, by establishing a place for worship, fellowship, and prayer, and by collective acts of service beyond their borders.

See also:

Listening to your Elders


American Academy of Religion - Western Region

Psychology, Culture and Religion
Ministering to the Marginalized: Immigrants, Elderly, and Veterans

“Elderhood in Religious Congregations: the elder among the generations”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Integral Years

Embracing the Vocation of Elderhood within a Congregation:

The Integral Years: Psychology of Emerging Elderhood.

Much of the impetus for my study of elderhood as vocation came originally from the teachings of Donald L. Gelpi, S.J., specifically his theology of the human person (Gelpi, 1978). Gelpi outlined stages of faith, as identified by James Fowler, Sam Keen, and others, and connected them to human development theories of, notably, Erik Erikson and Carl Jung.

Gelpi showed how the stages of the human life cycle and the stages of faith development could illuminate our understanding of an individual human person’s growth in faith.  Further, he showed how those individual life cycles could interact through the gifts of the Holy Spirit as well as the temperaments and God-given personality types with which each human person is endowed. Life transformations, and shifts between stages of faith, can occur not only in religious experience but also in moral, social-political, intellectual, and emotional spheres. (Gelpi, 1978)

From that study I came away with an appreciation for the individuality and complementarity of human development, including the possibilities for a variety of experiences of God in and throughout a life cycle. Growth in faith often bears its finest fruit not until late middle age or early late adulthood.

Life Span Development

Erik H. Erikson, working with Joan Erikson and others, developed a theory of life–cycle stages, which grew to encompass eight stages throughout the lifespan, from infancy to older old age. Each stage of this cycle represents a particular phase of psychosocial development, including the basic conflicts the personality confronts. Unresolved issues continue to follow the individual through life and color later stages. The basic issues that arise at the earlier stages are recapitulated in the senior years.

The stages, with their basic conflicts and emerging strengths, are:

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

I. Infancy:  Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust.  HOPE
II. Early Childhood:  Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt.  WILL.
III. Play Age:  Initiative vs. Guilt.  PURPOSE
IV. School Age:  Industry vs. Inferiority.  COMPETENCE
V. Adolescence:  Identity vs. Identity Confusion.  FIDELITY
VI. Young Adulthood:  Intimacy vs. Isolation.  LOVE
VII. Adulthood:  Generativity vs. Stagnation.  CARE
VIII. Old Age:  Integrity vs. Despair, disgust.  WISDOM

(Erikson, 1982: 32–33, 56–57)

Hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom: these are the virtues, or ego strengths, which can be gained in each stage, as the individual human person encounters a series of crises, or challenges, which may be resolved positively and build on each other: trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, generativity, and integrity.  Or they may not be. Adverse outcomes may include mistrust, shame, doubt, guilt, inferiority, identity confusion, isolation, stagnation, self–absorption, despair, and disgust. Each of these crises and virtues and potential dangers has its primary phase but all also recur in each stage.

These are the standard eight stages. To them Joan Erikson added a ninth (Erikson, 1997):
IX. Older Old Age, recapitulation of earlier conflicts, possibility of gerotranscendence. Joan Erikson speaks of elders, people in their eighties and nineties, coming “to terms with the dystonic [negative] elements in their life experiences in the ninth stage.” (Erikson, 1997: 114). The hope she holds out is of gerotranscendence, (Erikson, 1997: 124) and she quotes the definition proposed by Lars Tornstam and his colleagues:

Simply put, gerotranscendence is a shift in meta perspective, from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction. Gerotranscendence is regarded as the final stage in a possible natural progression towards maturation and wisdom. (Tornstam)

Stage IX, Older Old Age, can been seen as an extension or refinement of stage VIII, in facing the end–task of preparation for death, preparation for mortality and eternity. But should this be the task of only older old age? Perhaps that is where it most frequently and most compellingly falls, in the course of time, but as part of the work of the church should we not prepare others and ourselves, at all ages of life, for mortality and immortality, through ritual – funerals, festivals (saints’ days) – and preaching? “We proclaim his death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26) 

For our purposes the seventh and eighth stages, and the transition between them, are the most apposite. This transition between adulthood and old age is the time Mary Catherine Bateson describes as “Adulthood II” (Bateson) and Peter Laslett describes as the “Third Age” (Laslett). This can be a harvest time of liberation, a celebration of generativity and a commencement of integration – or, as the Eriksons pointed out, of stagnation and a mounting despair and increasing disgust.

Stage VII. Adulthood: Generativity vs. Stagnation

The seventh stage is characterized by the challenge to overcome stagnation with generativity, developing the personality strength identified as care. This generativity is not simply the creation of biological progeny: it includes any effort to extend the scope of one's creative energies beyond the self to the betterment of others.

“Live first for others” might well serve as the motto for this stage. Perpetuation of something larger than one’s self – a sense of meaning and purpose beyond seeing to the service of one's own needs and desires – becomes a key to life.

Indeed, decades ago I remarked that happy grandchildren were a sign of a well–lived life. The friend I said this to recently introduced me to one of her own happy grandchildren. We can all have “happy grandchildren” if we do not confine the set to our own progeny. This is one of the basic insights to be gleaned from the development through the ages of understanding the promise to Abram that his children would be as many as the stars. “‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He added, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” (Genesis 15:5. JPS)

Generativity is not simply about genetic progeny. The apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, drew on the promise inherent in John the Baptist's remark that God could raise up children to Abraham “from these stones.” (Matthew 3:9) 

“Informing the developmental challenges of integrity vs. despair is the hope ‘that we may gain a wise heart’ (Psalm 90:12) in late adulthood and finish our life span in a manner that is a testimony to our faith.” (Kelcourse: 17)

In Erikson’s view, we live faithfully by negotiating life’s predictable crises and finding in them opportunities for greater trust, a stronger will and sense of purpose, with confidence in our competence and fidelity as we mature.

“Living faithfully in adulthood allows us to love and care, and gives us a heart of wisdom. Through faith we express our capacity for mutuality in relation to others and, ultimately, in relation to God.” (Kelcourse: 36)

Generativity, Erikson writes, “always invites the possibility of an energetic shift to productivity and creativity in the service of the generations.” (Erikson, 1982: 53)

Transition between Stages VII and VIII

Part of the job of moving from middle adulthood to later adulthood – that transition between Erikson’s stages VII and VIII – is coming to accept the life one has had as the life that one will have, and yet understanding that “it is never too late” to develop character and undergo continuing faith transformation (or to grow in faith and wisdom).

This phase of life allows for not only a developmental task transition from generativity to the wisdom born of integrative reflection on, and acceptance of, experience but also offers the potentiality of a faith shift from one earlier stage of faith to another and possibly accompanied by a parallel moral development. The transition from adulthood to old age can be a fruitful time. And it can involve painful realizations and new insights.

Stage VIII. Old Age: Integrity vs. Despair

The challenge of old age, in psychosocial development, is to reconcile the issue of integrity vs. despair. This task, properly accomplished, results in wisdom. Integrity involves the acceptance of the inevitability of the life one has had. Hence “Erikson’s description of an elder as someone who has ‘come to the point of being able to understand his place in the world and the life he has lived in it.”’ (Richmond: 48)

An elder, in terms of psychosocial development, is a person who has achieved (successfully accomplished) the life task of integrity, that is, reconciling the crisis between self–acceptance and despair, which resolves in wisdom.

Others may indeed have rejected – or failed to confront – this developmental task and receded into “dogmatism, a compulsive pseudointegrity that, where linked to undue power, can become coercive orthodoxy.” (Erikson 1997:64) Others may experience this fragile rigidity, and find themselves on the receiving end of angry assertions, which are being brandished as a replacement for considered argument.

Anger, anxiety, frustration, fearfulness, and depression – these accompaniments to loss, decline in health or personal power, and the inevitable advance of mortality – may be reflected beyond the homes of the elderly. While it is those who are coming to the end of their days with an unexamined or static faith who are most likely to arrive at this place of anxiety, the factors that provoke negative emotional responses have an impact on all elderly. Just as those negative responses do. Anger, anxiety, fearfulness, and despair: these are the manifestations of a failure at life’s last developmental tasks.

Review of life – reflection on life’s experiences, taking an inventory of the past – happens for people when they confront their mortality, or personal failure. This can occur earlier in life, if illness or tragedy strikes or external forces intervene. In old age a review of life’s challenges and gained strengths – or accumulated weaknesses and disappointments – may be a prominent feature. Then the challenge will be to accept life as it was and has been – and to welcome the future with hope.

Dag Hammarskjöld, on an early page of Markings, his aphoristic private journal, wrote:

Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I—
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.

But in the meantime how grievous the memory
Of hours frittered away.

But later he came to a resolution, a sense of gratitude and acceptance:

“— Night is drawing nigh—”
For all that has been— Thanks!
To all that will be— Yes!

 (Hammarskjöld: 6, 83)

Structural Development and Stages of Faith

Another, quite different, theoretical school offers complementary insights into human development. Following the work of Jean Piaget, structural development theorists emphasize cognitive development.

The stages of structural change are seen as sequential, logical, invariant, and universal. “Faith in the understanding of structural development has to do with the ability to find and make meanings as the sequential phases of our lives unfold.” (Kelcourse: 25)

Structural theorists have found that stability, not change, is dominant for much of adult life, and for many, progress only goes so far. Is this a tragedy or realism? Accepting others the way they are, where they are, is itself part of the wisdom that comes with the transformation of the aging process into a journey into elderhood, from simply accepting age as fate to embracing elderhood as vocation.  “In a structural system,” Elizabeth Liebert reminds us, “there is no theoretical necessity for change.”

Without sufficient dissonance to require a new structure, the person will not change stages. Therefore, stage change does not inevitably result from advancing age. In fact, substantial empirical data suggests that many adults do not change structural stages after their early twenties. Because stage change in adults is relatively rare, permanent developmental equilibrium is quite possible, and a single transition over the entire period of adulthood is not out of the question. Therefore, though simplistic attempts to move people to more complex stages will most likely prove futile, developmentally sensitive environments can create a context that encourages change. (Liebert: 30)

Structural stages are stable, representing as they do a whole outlook on life; and yet under certain circumstances they may become inadequate to experience, and a new way of seeing life may be sought as a result. “Certain predictable or unpredictable life tasks, such as leaving home or receiving a diagnosis of cancer, may provide a context for constructing a new meaning-system.” (Liebert: 31)

It is the work of the church, not to push or provoke these occasions, but to receive those who experience them in a community of welcome, of hospitality and insight, so as to assist the people undergoing transformation, to help them bear into the world – their world – a new and richer way of seeing that world.

Drawing upon such psychological systems as the aforementioned, including structural development theories, and upon extensive research interviews, James Fowler and his colleagues developed a sequence of stages of faith development.

Fowler's Structural Developmental Stages of Faith (Fowler, 1992a: 16–17)

0. Primal faith (infancy)
1. Intuitive–projective faith (early childhood)
2. Mythic–literal faith (childhood and beyond)
3. Synthetic–conventional faith (adolescence and beyond)
4. Individuative–reflective faith (young adulthood and beyond)
5. Conjunctive faith (early mid–life and beyond)
6. Universalizing faith (mid–life and beyond)

James Fowler puts his finger on the desire to reach a final integrated understanding and conception of life in faith. Yet at the same time as he identifies the stages of faith as sequential, Fowler cautions that this is not a way to judge people who are different from ourselves but a way to understand each other.

One reflection on the Fowler stages of faith is the reminder that not everyone proceeds through every stage of the sequence. Among adult congregation members will be people who have come to rest at any stage beyond the primal. These can be of similar age and appearance. Impatience for all to reach an idealized stage (4 or 5 or 6) will not make it happen. Serenity, courage, and wisdom should be the pastor’s watchwords here.

Properly used, Fowler advises, stage theories should not pigeon-hole or stereotype:

The stage theories should facilitate our understanding of persons whose ways of being in faith may differ significantly from our own. It is possible to point to persons of serenity, courage, and genuine faith commitment who would be described, even as adults, in terms of any stage from intuitive projective to universalizing, inclusively. (Fowler, 1992b: 370)

Present in the same congregation will probably be older people at different stages of faith. In other words, most folks will not be at the same place. Each stage represents a way of making meaning of the world and finding purpose within it. What the pastoral leader may wish to focus on is not expectation that people will “move on” from their current stage but preparedness to guide those people who are experiencing transitions, to making them in a healthy and life–giving way.

Congregations and Stage Theory

Fowler points out that congregations may not only have people within them who are at different stages but asks an important question for further study: “the question of whether congregations exhibit what I have called ‘modal developmental levels,’ expectable levels of development in adult faith.” (Fowler, 1992b: 382) If, then, the characteristic level of a congregation's leaders is stage 3, “the synthetic–conventional stage of faith and the interpersonal stage of selfhood,” this will color the experience of the whole congregation.

“Persons best described by these stages feel that their very selfhood is constituted by their roles and their relationships. Such persons long for harmony and conflict–free living in the community of faith. The maintenance of peace and the restoration of good feelings and unity within the community frequently loom as far more important to them than dealing with issues that might cause conflict.” (Fowler, 1992b: 375–376)

“The underlying metaphor for religious community most commonly held by persons described here is that of the ideal or romanticized extended family.” (Fowler, 1992b: 376) This is an attractive, and at the same time limiting, metaphor. Continued protestations by parish leaders, “we are a family,” indicate a strong desire to function at this level. For parishioners at stage 3, an invitation to recognize the possibility of a differentiated perspective may evoke anxieties about the destabilization of identity, of self in relation to others, that might come with a stage transition. “Persons in this stage are likely to experience a special kind of crisis at times of loss or threat to their central relationships and roles.” (Fowler, 1992b: 377)

Implications for pastoral leadership include cultivating an awareness of where people are, as well as a vision of what they might become, as a faith community, and embracing an opportunity to practice the virtues of elderhood, including serenity, courage, and wisdom. As colleague Robert Dietel pointed out to me (in conversation, November 13, 2013) for a congregation to work toward this vision may require substantial innovation and often uncomfortable effort.

Family Systems

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Tolstoy) However, some patterns are discernible. From family systems theory we gain insights useful here. Congregations function like family systems. The question is: how healthily do they function?

The same qualities that allow for ‘familiness’ (that is, stability) in the first place are precisely what hinder change (that is, less stability) when the family system is too fixed. (Friedman, 1985: 25)

Differentiation (maturity) means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we.’ It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) nonanxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being. It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one’s repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis. (Friedman, 1985: 27)

Where inability to remain nonanxious, or to differentiate oneself from one’s peer group, would seem to indicate a lack of the gifts of growth in faith and in maturity required in a ministry of elderhood, the presence of these qualities would point to the possibility of a call to elderhood. It follows that in the family system of congregational life, as in one’s own household, there is a role for leaders, including elders, who exhibit the ability to “maintain the kind of nonanxious presence needed to keep the family on a course for change.” But, Friedman warns, “Anxious systems are less likely to allow for differentiated leaders, while leaderless systems are more likely to be anxious... It is the maintaining of self–differentiation while remaining a part of the family that optimizes the opportunities for fundamental change.” (Friedman, 1985: 29)

An interim minister recently observed:

Churches don’t cling to the status quo just because they’re recalcitrant; they cling to the status quo because change feels disadvantageous. The fear of losing something trumps any expectation of new benefits. In one sense, change is not just a spiritual hurdle, it’s a challenge to something that’s hardwired biologically. (Bullock)

Transition into Elderhood

By age 55 and older, many of life’s developmental tasks have been confronted, with lingering effects – whether in success or failure.

In late middle age, adults begin to turn from the concerns of generativity vs. stagnation and self–absorption, and may have gained the attendant virtue (ego strength) of care for others. This positive task of generativity, provision for progeny, progeny understood in the wide sense of future generations and faraway peoples, gradually gives way in old age to a more interior struggle, a journey to integrity, as the person reflects on experiences of life and comes to terms with them.

The challenge, to all of us who are growing older, is this: Do we accept the life we have lived as the only one that has been given us? Do we have the willingness to accept grace and receive forgiveness, to be blessed however undeservingly and to be willing, further, to extend that blessing to others?

The ongoing quest for the meaning and purpose of life is now in part reflective. The focus is on vocation, calling, in a new phase of life. How have we responded to the calling inherent in our humanity, in manhood or womanhood, and specifically in our calling to become the individual human persons we are called to be? Can we respond to that call, now, as the persons we are, rather than the persons we had hoped to be?

It is true, as it was in ancient days, that there comes a time in life when a man or woman is no longer contending for the highest rung that can be reached on a career ladder, is no longer the householder providing for the comforts of family and the raising of children, is no longer the active executive making day–to–day decisions, but has reached a place with different tasks and callings. These new tasks and callings may be voluntary. As one pastoral elder in his 80s said to me: “At my age a person knows what they are good at and that is what they do.” (Herbert O'Driscoll, personal conversation, January 30, 2010) Others just come. And so some, perceiving the change, step back from active executive leadership and “take their place at the council fire” among the acknowledged elders of the community, offering wisdom and insight gained by reflection on experience.

Some folks will have worked through the issues of maturity as charted by Erik and Joan Erikson. Others will have stopped somewhere along the way. Indeed the Eriksons do not hold out the expectation that all will or even must reach the final stage of the cycle, as if it were the top rung of a ladder, or advancement to top rank. This charting of stages is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive, of human development.

Sources as diverse as the psychologist James Fowler and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor speak of fullness as a benison of living. The letter to the Ephesians refers to the end or goal of life as a growing in faith – until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13. NIV) 

Fullness, completion, perfection in life, a rounding-out of one’s years, in a way still keeping faith and finding joy, is a blessing we hope for, a goal we strive for, and sometimes reach.

In all humility we might call the story of growth in faith a journey toward holiness, seeking completion as human persons. Indeed, Donald Nicholl, as he taught and wrote on holiness in world religions, quoted the saying of Léon Bloy, “There is only one sadness, the sadness of not being a saint.”

Ordinarily we allow ourselves to be saddened by failures of every kind, the failure to become so famous as we had once dreamed of being, the failure to be rich or beautiful or a model of health. All these failures, and endless others, are constant and nagging sources of sadness to us throughout our lives. But when we reach the end of our lives we shall realize that none of these things which have caused us so much heartache are really cause for ultimate sadness – none of them matters any longer. The only sadness, now, is the sadness of not being a saint. (Nicholl: 28)

There is tragedy in human beings not reaching their human potential, not becoming in fullness of being what God is calling them to become. In reaching toward that fullness, however, there is joy.

When I worked in marketing, people would ask me what I did and I would say, “marketing.” They would respond, “Oh! You are in sales.” No, I would respond. In marketing we do not sell anything, we create the conditions in which sales can occur.

When I became a pastor, people would ask me what I do and I would say, “I’m a pastor.” Sometimes they would respond, “Oh! Are you going to try to convert me?” And I might respond, “We create the conditions in which conversions may occur.”

Of course by conversions I did not simply mean the stereotype of instantaneous one–time experiences so often assumed, I would mean ongoing conversion – growth in faith, leading to a continuing and lifelong transformation of experience of God, self, and other.

It is not that we pastors try to convert anybody; we work to create the conditions in which conversions can occur and lives can change and people can keep on growing in faith. These are the developmentally sensitive environments that congregations can become, which will allow people to find their way to broader ways of making meaning.

See also: 

aging resources