Track 3, “Birthing” Final Project, Master of Divinity Thesis
“By Endurance We Conquer: Why The Church Should Be Optimistic About The Future”
Monday, July 9th, 2018
By Andrew Hayward Smith
Should the church be optimistic about the future? The Guardian newspaper ran an article on September 20th, 2017 by Jason Wilson entitled, “We’re at the end of white Christian America. What will that mean?” Wilson wrote, “The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion reports that the number of people attending church in 1990 was approximately 20 percent of the population, and 17.7 percent in 2004, with 94 percent of churches losing ground in the communities they serve.” The reality is that the institution of the church is in decline. This can only be a good thing. Organized religion has been used to manipulate, enslave, segregate, imprison and murder since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. The empire took over and now its time for the rebels to strike back. While society as a whole, including the church, is currently mired in a swirl of cynicism and pessimism we should approach the future as Jesus did, John 2:19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Whether we can be successful in tearing down and rebuilding the church depends largely on our faith and attitude to approaching the future.
Walter Brueggeman writes that, “the Old Testament experience of and reflection on exile is a helpful metaphor for understanding our current faith situation in the U.S. church, and a model for pondering new forms of ecclesiology… That is, exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral and cultural.” (The Word Militant, p.132). Older institutionalized, predominantly white and aging congregations such as First Presbyterian Duluth, in its current state of affairs is in a hostile environment of exile. Parallels could be drawn with the Antarctic and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition in 1914-17 to an environment where very little can survive, cut off from the world, unable to communicate with it, ice cold in its personality and climate, and has been largely unforgiving to those that seek to survive. The American church needs Jesus to tear it down and a leadership style like Jesus,’ Moses’ or Shackleton’s that understands how to lead people out of harsh environments. It can be done.
I would like to use Sir Ernest Shackleton as a modern example of a leadership style that could be adapted to church and village leadership, along with the examples of Moses and Jesus who spoke of a new culture and departing from the old oppressive system. A new Exodus is required. Jesus and Moses formed strong cultural communities while Shackleton’s leadership style built a strong community of 28 people that managed to survive dire adversity for two years on Antarctica. In our uncertain modern times integrated use of Shackleton’s leadership techniques along with hopeful visions of a new modern society as outlined in such documents as The Leap Manifesto and The Vision For Black Lives can help build a model for future leadership roles within the church.
As I head into the world of the church and the city of Duluth the words from the recruitment ad that Shackleton placed in a newspaper prior to his Endurance expedition seem appropriate: “Men Wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” I’ve made a choice and its time to follow Shackleton… “Once his choice was made, Shackleton saw his commitments through to the end.” (Morrell & Capparell, p. 21)
Walter Brueggemann writes his book “The Word Militant,” “Exile did not lead Jews in the Old Testament to abandon faith or to settle for abdicating despair, nor to retreat to privatistic religion. On the contrary, exile evoked the most brilliant literature and most daring theological articulation in the Old Testament. There is indeed something characteristically and deeply Jewish about such a buoyant response to trouble.” (Brueggeman, p 134) In response to the decline and exile, the church needs to be positive and Brueggeman suggests, “six interfaces with the circumstance of exile and scriptural resources. 1) Exiles must grieve their loss and express their resentful sadness about what was and now is not and will never be again. 2) Exile is an act of being orphaned… there is no sure home… Exiles need to take with them old habits, old customs, old memories. 3) The most obvious reality and greatest threat to exiles is the power of despair. 4) Exile is an experience of profaned absence. That is, the “absence of God”… it is important for us, in our exilic situation, to renotice that these [Biblical] texts constitute a major pastoral response to the exilic crisis of absence. 5) Exile is an experience of moral incongruity. The cost of protecting God’s moral reliability is to take the blame for very large disorders. 6) The danger in exile is to become so preoccupied with self that one cannot get outside one’s self to rethink, reimagine, and redescribe a larger reality.” We see here a reflection of the U.S. church in 2018: exiled, resentful, cynical, orphaned, despairing, taking the blame and pre-occupied with itself. Brueggeman outlines a solution: “the primal task (given this metaphor) concerns the narration and nurture of a counter identity, the enactment of the power of hope in a season of despair… to give spine, resolve, courage, energy, and freedom that belong to a counter identity.” (Brueggeman, p 144) And continues, “And then we preachers are summoned to get up and utter a sub-version of reality, an alternative version of reality that says another way of life in the world is not only possible, but peculiarly mandated and peculiarly valid… to make up out of nothing more than our memory and our hope and our faith, a radical option to the normalcy of deathliness.” (Brueggemann, p 152) Deathliness is the nihilistic, cynical and pessimistic version of reality expounded upon consistently in our culture today. If the predominantly negative version of reality were a cliff by the side of the road, keeping our vision on the cliff instead of the safe road will only ensure that we drive off the cliff into oblivion. The way to avoid the deathliness of the cliff is to be fully aware of its existence but not to predominantly focus on the cliff, we must focus on the safe road instead.
We must be fully aware of “the cliff” of white supremacy, the death that’s in individualism, consumerism, patriarchy and “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called them. However, predominantly we must focus on a safe road ahead to survive the future. As 1 Corinthians 13 says, “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends… And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” The church needs to utter into existence a new and better reality; a safe road ahead based in faith, hope and love. “Be the change we want to see in the world” as Gandhi said.
The church faces other cliffs along the roadside: an absence of God in the lives of most of the US population, primarily elitist seminaries teaching a Platonic version of Christianity, graduates of seminaries not able to get jobs as pastors due to waning church attendance and budgets, and the church no longer holding much influence or participation in society. There are also the resulting symptoms from living in an oppressive capitalist society to deal with– stress, and mental illness. Peter L. Steinke writes, “After reviewing more than one hundred reports I had prepared for troubled congregations, five recurring issues emerged: 1) high anxiety, 2) systematic impasse (two parties polarized), 3) lack of a clear sense of mission, 4) poor boundaries, and 5) avoidance of problems. Whether congregations turned things around or addressed their situation depended on the response of the congregational leadership… Were they counting the cost or casting the future?” (Steinke, p. 47) “Congregations that lack a focus are like a sailor on a lake without a destination… Congregations not focused on their mission meander or float aimlessly.” (Steinke, p. 72) The church must provide a place that people can count on for safety and security. For that to occur the congregation in the church itself must come together as a unified whole under a clear sense of their identity, destination and non-anxious leadership. It will hopefully be infectious and a culture that people want to be a part of.
It’s time to get down on our knees and pray for the church’s future. Abraham, Moses and Jesus modeled leadership to depart from oppressive dominant cultures. In our modern times, Shackleton modeled a leadership style that rescued exiles from a hostile land. Sir Raymond Edward Priestley MC, a British geologist and early Antarctic explorer, said about the polar explorers of the age; “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
A brief outline of Shackleton’s impossible ‘Endurance’ expedition is required to give context to his non-anxious leadership. Peter L Steinke in “Congregational Leadership For Anxious Times” calls for leaders to be a non-anxious spirit and writes, “the example of Sir Ernest Shackleton epitomizes the concept of the non-anxious presence.” (Steinke, p 37) Shackleton’s goal was to be the first human to arrive at the South Pole. During Shackleton’s 1907-09 expedition he came within 97 miles of the Pole. But it was Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, who made history and became the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. Shackleton turned his attention to a new goal– the crossing of Antarctica on foot, from sea to sea via the South Pole. On December 5th, 1914, The Endurance sailed from South Georgia Island for Antarctica. January 18th, 1915, The Endurance became stuck in pack ice one day from its landing spot on Antarctica. October 27th, 1915, The Endurance is crushed by pack ice. The crew abandons ship. November 21st, 1915, The Endurance breaks apart and sinks. October 1915 to April 1916, the crew lives on floating ice flows in the ocean. April 9th, 1916, as the ice flows break up the crew is forced to abandon camp and launch three lifeboats in an attempt to sail to the South Shetland Islands. April 15th, 1916, the lifeboats are blown off course, Shackleton changes their goal and they sail for just over a week to Elephant Island. April 24th, 1916, Shackleton and 5 men take one lifeboat, navigating by the stars across 800 miles of open Atlantic Ocean to South Georgia Island. Twenty-two of the men remain on Elephant Island awaiting rescue. May 10th, 1916, miraculously their navigation is perfect and they make it to South Georgia Island but on the wrong side of the island. May 20th, 1916, not willing to risk sailing around the island in rough seas and potentially being cast out towards certain death in the open Atlantic Ocean, Shackleton and two men begin crossing a mountain range that’s never been crossed before, without any climbing gear. They reach the South Georgia Island whaling station where help awaits. All three members of the party feel the presence of a fourth person walking with them across the mountain range. August 30th, 1916, it took three months of attempts in various ships to make it back to Elephant Island where Shackleton finds the remaining 22 men are all alive, and rescues them.
“As no one had ever imagined a way to walk across the Antarctic and survive, it was up to Shackleton to invent one.” (Ainsberg, p. 4) I find this statement relatable to my seminary and church journey– without accredited Bachelor’s or Masters degrees it feels like I have to invent a way into leadership within the Presbyterian denomination.
In “My Grandmother’s Hands” Menakem expresses his views on what kind of leadership is required: “As leaders emerge, each one can (and should) create his or her own unique style, from both his or her own experience and the collective experience and knowledge of the new culture.” (Menakem, p. 264) My own style of leadership should emerge out of my formative familial history and intersect with the collective experience and knowledge that already exists in any church I may work with. My familial identity is rooted in strong role models such as my mother, my father, my paternal grandfather and Sir Ernest Shackleton. All of them have provided me with an overarching sense of resiliency, gentleness, strength, wisdom, a strong connection to the earth, gut intuition, fun, laughter and the expression of the poetic, especially by my grandfather who was a published poet. Just as “Shackleton learned from his family a broad and sympathetic view of the world” (Morrell & Capparell, p 18) so have I. And from Shackleton I inherit the spirit of adventure.
For any of us to be healthy and survive in our current social climate, for the church to survive there must be a counter narrative, a ‘sub-version’ as Walter Brueggeman writes. A vision for the future based in faith, hope and love, i.e. trust, optimism and love. Some may laugh and think this is impossible, a fantasy world of sorts. However, the people with the passion to at least attempt the seemingly impossible will provoke a reaction in the world. “Shackleton had qualities which produced a ready response… His great passion was an inordinate personal ambition which knew no limits and sometimes… soared… beyond the physical efforts of which he was capable.” Eric Marshall, Nimrod Expedition. The mission impossible, the vision, is to turn the institutionalized church away from abstraction to real-world understanding of Biblical egalitarianism. The mission impossible is that the dying church does have a future, although in a different manner. The mission impossible is the Vision For Black Lives and the Leap Manifesto– culture-changing manifestos of a hope and a Utopia to be strived for. Both have been willing to dream big and take on the impossible mission. So, there are current and present examples of people leading with a positive hope for the future.
As Menakem states, to live into a better future requires creating new cultures along with the passion and determination to see it through. “Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results,” said Sir Ernest Shackleton. The creation of new cultures is possible. Moses and Jesus have shown us the way. “Jesus came among those frozen in narratives of anxiety and alienation, of slavery and fear; he authorized a departure into the new world of God’s governance. And then he acted it out: summoning, forgiving, instructing, cleansing, healing, empowering, feeding.” (Brueggeman, p 163)
“The world– the recalcitrant world resided over by the Roman (I’d like to substitute ‘American’) governor– cannot bear the truth of Jesus, for that truth moves beyond our capacity to control and our power to understand.” The battle is already won. It is uttered throughout the prophetic and apocalyptic books of the Old and New Testaments.
While the truth needs to be spoken to power and justice must occur, I find that there is little real gospel or good news that is offered as a sub-version. People are becoming more and more fragile as they are bombarded increasingly with negative news, a divided country, divided congregations, conspiracy theories, online trolling and arguments, and generally negative perceptions of life. I would equate it to Jesus saying, “You have heard it said,” without providing the additional “but I say unto you” of hope. The truth we’re exposed to today is only half of the story or less, focused primarily on the negative “if it bleeds, it leads.” The majority of society seems to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of fight, flight or freeze responses with very little in the way of rest, recuperation, positivity or healthy living. Thankfully the Bible, The Leap Manifesto and the Vision For Black Lives offer alternative futures to hope for and work towards.
The church can begin with the roadmap provided by Peter L. Steinke, “The positive path is aided by these actions: 1) respecting the sheer strength of survival instincts. The will to survive is extremely strong… 2) Seeking clarity. Ask questions [to learn about others]…. 3) Observing behavior [using] Bowen’s Family Systems Theory… 4) Informing. By communicating forthrightly. 5) Working with the healthy individuals in the congregation. 6) Structuring a process. When people sense that there will be an orderly effort in place, people think things are not totally out of control. 7) Reframing the situation…. Leaders can frame the situation as an opportunity for growth. 8) Building up the congregation’s positive emotional bank account.”
All of the above is congruent with Shackleton’s style of leadership: believing that the crew could survive while always recognizing the reality of the situation, communicating clearly at the correct time, asking the opinions of the crew to help determine his final decision, continually observing the behavior of the crew to ensure that relationships are healthy, working with a strong and capable Number Two at his side, creating orderly routines to ground daily life in structure to create a sense of stability, reframing situations to focus on the next goal to attain to stay alive, and building up the crew’s positive emotional bank account by hosting parties, plays & celebrations.
The importance of ritual must be recognized. Ritual provides an atmosphere of stability, which promotes resiliency. Ritual takes place in the worship service, liturgy, and the uttering of verses, prayers, songs, and ceremony. Ritual also extends to such celebrations as the 150th Anniversary festivities at First Presbyterian Duluth. Shackleton recognized the importance of ritual even as the crew of the Endurance remained exiled on the desolate icescapes off Antarctica. “Holidays such as Christmas were enthusiastically celebrated, and birthdays were honored with gifts, singing and photographs. All of these rituals and celebrations gave the crew a comforting sense of normalcy in a situation that was anything but normal.” (Ainsberg, p 51)
These are all basic foundations of culture building. Menakem expounds on culture building and how important it is, especially for an aging and predominantly white congregation such as First Presbyterian Duluth. Menakem provides good starting points for building a communal culture where little exists. “[White Americans] have little sense of community– and no culture to build and support such a community. This needs to change. White allies must build culture, because culture trumps almost everything else. You can start by creating: a brief but compelling narrative that links the past, present and future; credos that emerge from language, support, love and regard; a system for mentoring people; study groups on radicalization, trauma, healing and psychological first aid; symbols and icons; rituals and ceremonies; practices of rejuvenation and good self-care; rules of belonging and admonishment; names, naming practices, and naming ceremonies; clear roles, positions and titles; a new name for the new culture.” (Menakem, p. 264) We notice that Menakem’s roadmap to culture building aligns directly with the principles in Brueggemann’s roadmap for church leadership, and Shackleton’s leadership techniques.
Communal culture building begins with a strong identity and narrative, providing a grounded and strong instinct for survival. The timing of my internship at First Presbyterian Duluth is perfect for this kind of work as the church enters its 150-year celebrations in 2019. We begin work in Duluth by creating a compelling narrative that links past, present and future with a focus on remembering genealogies, family histories, congregation members’ stories, the church’s history, recognizing the church’s present context, and envisioning a new future to live towards. Listening to a congregation’s stories will hopefully evolve into a solid identity as a church, their purpose, their goals and visions.
This kind of process I currently undertake with Sharp Creative with corporations. It is also the work I did in 2015-16 with a new social networking website called “Seize Your Passion.” During a 2014 visit with FARC guerilla child soldiers in Colombia, I conversed with the teenagers to encourage them to focus on their hopes and visions of the future that they had related to me. It is a vocation I lived into on the 2013 Arctic Ride For Dreams during which I listened to hundreds of people’s dreams, which the church in Miami hung on ribbons around the church building and prayed for. It is the work I did on a project I developed between 2005 and 2007 that I named BioDiversity. The goal was to connect an individual to their core DNA that resides within a person– their soul, their soul nerve, their gut, their particular passions and drive. Everyone has a purpose and an underlying DNA but as Jack Forbes wrote in “Columbus and other Cannibals”, “the world of the wetikos diverts them from their authenticity.” It is this authenticity we must reconnect people with.
We begin with stories, we listen, we make it known that we care just as God did. “And now speaks the God who remembers. This God names their names, their family names, the names of most intimate identity, and in so doing mobilizes the precious stories of promise in Genesis, situating these exiles among Jacob and Abraham, who are friend, chosen, gathered… now speaks the mothering God to the motherless exiles: “Fear not… Do not be afraid… I am with you… I am right here.” (Brueggeman, p 160) This is the start of healing– once we have established a strong narrative from past, present and future the church can begin to live into life together as a community, fully aware of its identity and direction.
The community should have basic rules of structure and be egalitarian. We have the example of the twelve tribes of Israel in the time of Deuteronomy & Judges. Communal structure was important then and remains important now. From the Endurance expedition: “Certainly a good deal of our cheerfulness is due to the order and routine which Sir Ernest establishes where he settles down. The regular daily task and matter-of-fact groove into which everything settles into inspires confidence in itself, and the leader’s state of mind is naturally reflected in the whole party.” Captain Worsley of The Endurance crew. Success in a community is about a united spirit. All people must be willing to chip in and work on any task. “Shackleton not only treated his men equally, but individually.” (Ainsberg, p 41) “There was one more personality trait Shackleton considered essential: candidates had to be willing to get their hands dirty, regardless of rank. He could not afford prima donnas on his expedition.” (Ainsberg, p 39)
On the Endurance expedition fostering a structure and a community of people that worked side by side regardless of rank meant that people got to know each other, often becoming friends. Ainsberg writes of Shackleton, “He knew that the more binds of friendship were forged among the crew members, the stronger would be the feeling of unity and comradeship. For the men of the Endurance crew, it’s possible that a powerful sense of mutual warmth and unity made the difference between disaster and survival.” (Ainsberg, p. 40)
For Session and Deacon committee selection in any church the example of the expedition can be used again: “it was also important to put together working teams that could function well without his direct supervision, and could operate on their own if needed.” (Ainsberg, p 39) Shackleton recognized that in building a team, applicable qualifications were important but so was a person’s disposition. When interviewing candidates for the expedition Shackleton asked unrelated questions to their prospective job such as, “Can you sing?” knowing that their answer would tell him a lot about their personal disposition. “Don’t underestimate the importance of personality and disposition for team success.” (Ainsberg, p. 40)
There are certain personality traits that Shackleton embodied and looked for in his crew. His primary character trait was an unwavering spirit of optimism. He placed an emphasis on teamwork, the common good, no person being greater than anyone else, caring for others, and fun to build resiliency. Of his time in school as a boy, Shackleton wrote, “I wanted to be free. I wanted to escape from routine which didn’t at all agree with my nature and which, therefore, was doing no good to my character. Some boys take to school like ducks to water; for some boys, whether they take to it or not, the discipline is good; but for a few rough spirits the system is chafing, no good, and the sooner they are pitched into the world, the better. I was one of those.” (Ainsberg, p 20) I have also wanted to be free of the system and would like to emphasize Shackleton’s character traits in my church leadership.
I am also hoping to draw upon experiences in my past. In 2000 I founded Brand New Minds, a graphic design company. Over time, Brand New Minds has become more of a statement about changing the way people think than a branding or design company. As such, Brand New Minds includes other disciplines such as photography and story telling. In 2005 I began a project called BioDiversity, photographing people and listending to their stories on topics that included family, heritage, beliefs, music, stories behind their tattoos, their dreams and their idea of a perfect life. I am inspired at this time to restart BioDiversity for First Presbyterian Duluth. The proprietary ‘Whetstone’ process I am currently a part of in my position with Sharp Creative is undertaking the same kind of storytelling in the corporate world. The goal is a narrative arc for people’s lives creating a strong sense of identity.
My advocacy for Couch Surfing and my experiences can be used to combat fear and cynicism in society. I am often asked, “How can you stay in a stranger’s home? How can you let a stranger into your home?” My answers challenge– “people are trustworthy and people are inherently good.” This goes against America’s pervasive narrative of cynicism and distrust.
The dictionary’s definition of “optimism” is “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” The word the Bible uses for optimism is “hope” and also “gospel.” Because the very definition of “gospel” is “good news” how can we not be optimistic? Studies show that resilience and healing is tied to optimism. “It is largely due to Frank Wild,” wrote Shackleton about his second in command, “that the whole party kept cheerful all along, and, indeed, came out alive and so well… His cherry optimism never failed… I think without doubt that all the party who stranded on Elephant Island owe their lives to him.” (Ainsberg, p 31) “Wild embodied the two personal qualities Shackleton valued most: loyalty and optimism.” (Ainsberg, p 30) It is equally important that your second in command be experienced, resilient, non-anxious and “someone who won’t be a “yes man” but whose loyalty you can trust.” (Ainsberg, p 34) Laughter is also a healing tool. As Ricky Gervais once said, “If you can laugh in the face of adversity, you’re bulletproof.”
Jesus’ teachings will make the church relevant in the modern age because they are eternal. Coffee bars and rock music won’t make the church relevant. Healing, hope, faith, love, safety and security will make the church relevant– a place to go when the rest of the world fails you. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in “Beyond Vietnam, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machine and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.’ As soon as society shifts from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society we will begin to see signs of healing. The shift is already beginning at the grass-roots level with movements such as The Leap Manifesto, the Vision For Black Lives, Standing Rock and the #MeToo campaign. The masses are becoming increasingly discontent with the system and those in power. The church will play a key role in the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. But the church itself is in dire need of re-focusing themselves towards a person-oriented society. As Menakem states, “Instead, we can offer people better ways to belong, and better things to belong to.” (Menakem, p. 148) If the church can build a culture that is person-oriented and offer better things to belong to such as unified communities, then we can build a better future. This new church will transform lives in real ways, but not with abstract platitudes that keep us going for only half an hour after we’ve left the sanctuary on a Sunday.
There must be a change in leadership if the church is to survive. Often the problem with church leadership is that it exists in a Platonic abstract world of masks and acting, to force itself into the unnatural constructs of Western theology and philosophy. This creates a large disconnect with the real-world culture surrounding it. It is my hope that I can gradually re-focus those that I come in contact with, away from an abstract theology to a more Biblical understanding of what salvation really is– being saved from an oppressive dominant culture. A re-education is required which will require optimistic church leaders. This work will require what Peter L. Steinke terms “adaptive change” whereby the church recognizes and accepts the current state of affairs as our starting point. Adaptive change can be summarized in Shackleton’s words; “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.” What is done is done. It’s time to reimagine a better future from this moment forth.
“When we look at how Jesus taught, we recognize that much of what he was saying involved adaptive change… inviting brainstorming and encouraging imagination… and then verbalizing an optimistic future for the hopeless, ‘The meek will inherit the earth.’ (Matthew 5:5)” (Steinke, p 133) Adaptive change can only come from self-regulated, self-differentiated leaders. “Shackleton knew instinctively that every leader sets the emotional tone for his team. If the leader expresses despair or regret, the team will inevitably lose heart. But if the leader communicates confidence, his optimism, too, will be infectious. The calm, positive spirit Shackleton showed his men helped them face what lay ahead.” (Ainsberg, p 60) There will be occasions when we have to give up our goals and change adaptively, or “Need to put footstep of courage into stirrup of patience” as Sir Ernest wrote in “Shackleton: His Antarctic Writings.” “Shackleton’s way of facing challenges exemplifies another aspect of great leadership under duress: the ability to adjust.” (Ainsberg, p 60)
Great leadership takes differentiation, thought, vision, and to have considered the options before acting. A church leader must be aware of potential pitfalls and be prepared with solutions. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” Sir Ernest said. As the expedition watched the Endurance crack and break and sink to the depths, Shackleton wrote, “The disaster had been looming ahead for many months, and I had studied my plans for all contingencies a hundred times.” (Ainsberg, p 6) Moses, Jesus and Shackleton were all differentiated leaders who made firm decisions based on the reality of the situation and knowing what was right to do. We can call this a connection to the Spirit, the small still voice and our gut instinct. “Operating from the gut or intuition isn’t about making random or illogical choices. It’s about being able to bring experience, logic, passion and creativity to bear on the unknown, and, in a split second, make sense of it.” Gary Erickson, founder of Clif Bar & Co. (Ainsberg, p. 22)
“It’s important to be thinking ahead whenever possible, anticipating alternative scenarios and preparing for them.” (Ainsberg, p 61). This is not the same as being indecisive or changing one’s mind. A person can remain committed to a certain path, imagining alternatives, but only putting them into affect if required. “Shackleton was bold in his plans, but cautious in their execution, paying close attention to the details.” (Morell & Capparell, p 34) It is a skill that I have had to hone on my long haul motorcycle rides. There is no room for error in the wilderness of Alaska. Flexibility and adaptive change on my 2013 Arctic Ride For Dreams was essential. It would not have been possible to complete the journey otherwise. Also, patience and caution are invaluable. “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion,” Sir Ernest would say to his wife when he returned from the Antarctic without having completed his goal of walking across it.
Shackleton’s mind was always wheeling with new ideas, innovation and challenges. In Chapter 9 entitled “To Challenge or Two Survive” of Steinke’s “Congregational Leadership For Anxious Times” he looks at two types of leadership in the examples of Moses and Aaron. One type of leadership provided by Aaron appeases people just so that he can survive by quieting the masses– survival leadership. Moses on the other hand provides an example of leadership that challenges, to remain committed to a new vision, to endure, to continue, to pursue the challenge of departure towards a Promised Land and things hoped for– what Steinke calls “challenge leadership.” Steinke writes, “Only when we see the crisis before us as not simply a matter of survival but also a matter of challenge is adaptive change possible.” Shackleton’s leadership meant that his whole crew survived. He challenged his party to believe that they would not only survive their time on Antarctica but that they could also make it home. “Challenge leaders are quite different from survival leaders. For challenge leaders, adaptive change is primary.” (Steinke, p 149) “Challenge leaders have the capacity to give power to the future in contrast to survival leaders who give power to the past or to the present.” (Steinke, p 155) We must give power to the future of the church for it to survive.
What will the future of church leadership look like? Most likely as churches have less and less funds church leaders will need to make some of their salaries elsewhere and become bi-vocational. It already is a necessity for me. Again, I feel like I am stepping into new territory, having to invent a way to make church leadership financially viable.
The focus of church leadership will continue to be about the relational aspects of life and to build culture and community. In regards to the relational, Shackleton again provides a role model: “Shackleton took an active interest in what his crewmen were thinking and feeling. He often engaged them in informal or personal conversations, sometimes keeping them company during the lonely hours of a night watch.” (Ainsberg, p 49) These informal conversations will be crucial to building a resilient congregation. “He would get into conversation and talk to you in an intimate sort of way, asking you little things about yourself– how you were getting on, how you liked it, what particular side of work you were enjoying most… This communicativeness in Shackleton was one of things the men valued in him; it was also, of course, a most effective way of establishing good relations with a very mixed company.” (Ainsberg, p 75) This kind of relational work as well as good communication is going to be critical in the church moving forward, to help people feel like they have true value, that they are heard and their existance is valid and counts for a lot. Once people have this sense of value they will be able to turn their attention to others and the common goals of that particular church. Clearly communicating the common goals is crucial to building a strong community that knows where it is going, or trying to get to. “Shackleton also built his teams around common goals… Shackleton’s men always knew what was expected of them. You will find that giving your teams a clear, shared objective can prevent members from moving in different directions.” (Ainsberg, p 44)
If the goal is building strong community, a culture, healing and resiliency then Menakem suggests ways to aid the healing and resiliency work, partly with rocking, singing, humming, somatic therapy, art, theatre, music, reading, meditating and focusing on inspirational role models. Inspirational role models are important to keep oneself focused as Shackleton knew; “He also knew the importance of keeping sources of inspiration close to him at all times, to help shore up his resolve. Literature and poetry books were constant companions on his expeditions. Shakespeare, Browning, the words of his Queen in the Bible– these things nourished Shackleton’s spirit and spoke to his soul. They helped him hold fast to his sense of purpose, even in the most desperate of circumstances.” (Ainsberg, p 21)
Leaders must have enough humility to accept that good and innovative ideas can come from anywhere and credit them accordingly. “So while [Shackleton] did not hesitate to make final decisions on important matters, he always reached out to his crewmen for their opinions.” (Ainsberg, p 76) Innovative ideas can only come out of an honest understanding of current realities. “Shackleton never tried to sugar coat their situation… he communicated the reality of the situation with calm resolution and confidence in his plan.” As The Endurance sank, Hussey, the expedition’s meteorologist wrote, “[Shackleton’s] was a characteristic speech. Simple, moving, optimistic and highly effective.” (Ainsberg, p 76)
This form of communication can also extend into a way to preach. The preaching should be a message of recognizing the realities of the world but always primarily uttering the overriding good news– the gospel. The subtext to the preaching should always be to build hope in the future. In the utterance of optimism and God’s vision there is power. As Brueggemann writes, “The word is “gospel.” The good news as gospel is that YHWH as God has just now regained governance. The outcome is that Babylon has been defeated.” (Brueggeman, p 161) And “When Jesus of Nazareth came to say, “repent… the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). He just said it, and some believed and began a new trajectory of existence. Everything begins in the utterance.” (Brueggeman, p 161) And the utterance must be the good news that heals, nurtures and builds resiliency. Expectations of victory and survival are every bit as important in the church as they were on Shackleton’s expedition. “A stable environment provides a firm basis for initiative, imagination, and productivity.” (Ainsberg, p. 51)
In regards to building a stable environment: “Shackleton knew it is important to keep staff and a community well-fed and abundantly supplied.” (Ainsberg, p 51) However, this requires money and often a congregation is not wealthy enough to supply abundantly. If the secular world did not view the church as it currently does– as a house of conversion and manipulation, its own variant of a marketing ploy with a 1-800-BUY-NOW! mentality– but is re-made in the eyes of the world as primarily from which good things come– a place of healing, justice and a communal safe house– perhaps a new reality is possible where the world outside the church sees the value in financially supporting the church. If the church were able to recast itself in the context of an ancient intersection of culture, economics, politics, and religion, i.e. the only holistic organization that exists in modern society– then perhaps corporations or affluent benefactors would support the church’s work as well as theatres, art galleries and non-profit organizations they currently like to support. Mission impossible but it’s worth a try.
Therefore, traditional ideas of evangelism need to change from conversion/persuasion to simply allowing the world to see that there are people who live in a healthier manner, who are largely free of the stresses of the world, who are healed, strong and resilient. It is interesting to note that in the Bible, God and Jesus healed or acted primarily after Israel approached God, or after a person approached Jesus. Evangelism should in essence turn itself on its head and instead of reaching out to the world, should be an acceptance of the world that seeks to be healed. In the Bible, the world reached out to Jesus and they touched faith. As with a person, a church, a product or a company– perception is everything. In “No Is Not Enough” by Naomi Klein we have read of the far-reaching and damaging affects of building an image, i.e. brands. But we can use the world against itself and build an “anti-brand,” a “sub-version brand” by using the world’s marketing techniques to expose the outside world to a healthier way.
I believe one day the church will look back and say that God was with us, as Shackleton did: “When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.” Sir Ernest Shackleton, from “South: The last Antarctic expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance.” The good news is that there will always be endless presence and care for us by a loving God. I am sure God is the fourth presence that walked with Shackleton and his two crewmembers.
In conclusion, our contemporary societal problems are: fragility, people with fractious dispositions resulting in a fractious society, racism, individualism, materialism and militarism. Shackleton’s solution to hostile conditions was to build endurance and a strong community. For the church we must also have an ambitious vision just as Moses, Jesus and Shackleton did. We must have a vision of a better future and a determination to make it happen. There are many things to be optimistic about as bearers of the “good news”. As Thomas Merton said, “Christian hope… begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable.” The rewards of living into hope can be summed up by Shackleton’s words: “We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.” This is our goal as a church, to reach the naked soul of humanity. The correct way to travel the good and wholesome road is not to focus on the dangers of the looming cliff that sits just off to the side of the road to healing. The correct way is to be fully aware of the danger that the cliff represents while focusing primarily on the beautiful road ahead. Should the church be optimistic about the future? No, it should not. The church must be optimistic about the future by its very nature and by endurance we will conquer.
- “Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, Penguin Books, ©2001.
- “Shackleton: Leadership Lessons from Antarctica” by Arthur Ainsberg, iUniverse books, ©2010.
- “The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word” by Walter Brueggemann, Fortress Press, ©2010.
- “Congregational Leadership In Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What” by Peter L. Steinke, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, ©2006.
- “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, SEP, Central Recovery Press, 2017.
- “From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Haymarket Books, ©2016.
- “No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning The World We Need” by Naomi Klein, Haymarket Books, ©2017.