The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori - A Vision for Leadership

Theology Convocation Address at Huron University

London, Ontario

by Katharine Jefferts Schori


The students who are about to leave this place will continue a journey like Abraham and Sarah's - going off to meet surprising people, in unknown communities, and encountering unforeseen challenges, simply because that's where you've been called to go. We're all on that kind of journey into the unknown, if we're trying to be faithful. We're like the explorers who went looking for the places on old maps beyond the known world labeled, "there be dragons." Journeying is an ancient image for honing the skills and gifts of leadership, and this institution exists to equip leaders.

Leadership asks us to be agents of change, and to take others with us. It is always a challenging art of character, yet even more so in times like ours, when each turn in the river shows us a new whirlpool or unexpected beaver dam, or floods its banks, cutting new channels. The voyage is rarely calm these days. These are times for courageous and intrepid leaders, for those who will try seemingly impossible things, and, like Jesus, wrestle with internal demons and more worldly dragons.

In this tradition leadership begins at baptism. Every part of the body of Christ shares that work of exploration, navigation, and encouragement into a new future. Educational institutions like this one are meant to provide challenges that will draw out those gifts. How will your time in this churchy place help you to develop leaders who will spend most of their time outside the ecclesiastical institution? How will Huron help you to nurture another Sarah and Abraham, Moses and Miriam, Magdalene and Levi for the 21st century? How are we both followers of Jesus and leaders of others?

We learn to do things that seem impossible, or at least way beyond what we think we're capable of doing, by being stretched and challenged - physically, spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and intellectually. I'm going to insist that more typically lay activities and vocations, like rock climbing, proving math theorems, and wandering in the desert all have significant things to teach Ecclesastics about leadership in the 21st century.

I doubt that there are many mathematicians in this body. A liberal education is supposed to include exposure to the variety of human spheres of knowledge, but too many liberal arts majors I know are afraid of mathematics - mostly because they've had a bad experience along the way. Mathematics is another lens for seeing the world - not unlike the eyeless synesthete Fr. Clift spoke of this morning.

My husband is a retired math professor, who was formed (50 years ago!) in a school of mathematicians that encourages inquiry-based learning. Students are invited to prove theorems - hard ones that may take months of work to solve - in the belief that what seems beyond us will provide and provoke the most effective learning opportunity. His own work is a good example - in his first academic position, he started on a problem first posed in the 1920s, and worked on it for 7 years. It was a major risk for a new assistant professor - seven years with no publication probably would have ended his research career.

That kind of "transformative experience" challenges people to invest themselves deeply in work they may think is beyond them. It shares a kinship with Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness, and with the Israelites' 40 years of wandering. Those experiences shape and form people who know how to take risks, who trust in something beyond what they know, and who learn how to invite others into similar endeavors.

The same attitude is involved in learning how to climb unclimbed routes on rock faces, or explore new paradigms, or wander into demon and dragon territory. It also has a great deal to do with the kind of leaders being formed here.

What does it take to confront a new challenge, to explore new territory, or in those famous words, "to boldly go where no one has gone before"? Captain James Cook said something very similar long before Star Trek, that he would go "farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it is possible for a man to go." Cook was profoundly skilled technically (an excellent mathematician and navigator), and he combined those skills with personal courage and excellent leadership. He knew when to exceed his orders and how to motivate his crew.

Leaders are those who can envision a new or different future and motivate others to go with them. The word for leading originally comes from German roots that mean to go, or travel, or guide. Leaders envision a journey, though not always with a concrete and highly particular vision of what the goal is - they go looking, encouraging others to join them. Yet they usually have an overarching vision of that future place or state. Scientific investigators see a mystery to unravel, and gather colleagues to accompany them through the labyrinths of discovery. That's what research teams are all about, whether they're focused on hydrothermal vent organisms, the metagenomics of human gut flora, new energy storage technology, or understanding the layers of a palimpsest.

The Abrahamic faiths share a number of traditional images of that future goal: freedom from slavery; a promised land of peace and justice; the blessings of a remembered name, descendants, and a place to root them; a garden where all are fed and live in peaceful relationship with the rest of creation; shalom or salaam. The challenge or leadership problem is how to get there.

Each one of us has the capacity to lead somewhere - in the political or arts community, in technical discovery or business methods, in creative and life-giving responses to our growing environmental challenges. The mission of this institution is to equip leaders - change agents - who can gather others for the journey into an unexpected future, and expand the possibilities by developing other leaders who will transcend the boundaries between those spheres of endeavor.

The great leaders through the ages have often been explorers who have led people into uncharted territory. Rarely have they been solitary seekers - we don't count them as leaders unless they motivate others. The legendary ones, like Odysseus or King Arthur, are remembered for gathering effective teams of colleagues to navigate new challenges. More recent leaders, like Ernest Shackleton or Desmond Tutu, have set out audacious dreams and motivated groups of people to achieve them.

The work of leaders begins with that dream or vision - like Odysseus' dream of going home. That might be an overarching image for all leaders' dreams - a home where there is no more war or dying young or living in fear. Most great dreams partake of that reality, even if the obvious goal is a fuller understanding of the home in which we find ourselves today. It's intriguing to realize that the stories of homecoming from exile in Babylon don't remember individual leaders other than Cyrus, who opened the door. It took a community of leaders, formed in synagogues. Community is both the birthplace of leadership and its goal.

Shackleton dreamed of making a full transit of the Antarctic continent, and when his ship was frozen in the ice and destroyed, the dream shifted to getting his men home safely. Like a modern Odysseus, he led his people through one unforeseen encounter after another, meeting them with creativity, courage, and an ongoing trust that it was possible. He gathered others to his team with a focus on the contribution their gifts would make to the larger goal. He asked the ship's carpenter to join a long and perilous journey in a small whaleboat, even though the man had been insubordinate and challenging. The carpenter rose to the challenge.

Desmond Tutu's dream is founded in the image of the Reign of God, the full dignity of all humanity, and an insistence that all God's children are made to dwell together in peace, with justice. He has been fearless in pursuit of that dream, and he has used his remarkable wit both to outsmart any who would forestall the healing of his nation and of the world, and to make their methods seem absurd or ridiculous. Tutu has an impish and ingenious sense of humor, and he's used it to puncture both arrogant self-importance and the insanity of injustice - yet he treats every single human being with profound respect.

Leaders demonstrate a specific set of character gifts, most of which can be cultivated by exercise - or spiritual discipline - and formation in a particular way of encountering the world. The teaching environment here is part of building leaders who can dream big dreams and approach them with consistency, who have deep courage, abundant creativity; and a sense of connectedness which often shows itself as compassion. Learning to do new and challenging things, whether mathematics and mountaineering, or deciphering Hebrew hiphil verbs, are all ways of honing these gifts.

Consistency is not only being able to keep the main thing the main thing, but it has to do with faithfulness and integrity in pursuing that dream. When an immediate challenge requires a shift in the proximate goal, the overarching vision remains in the mind of a good leader. A worthy goal is not approached by unworthy ends, lest it defeat the purpose of the journey. The use of torture or assassination in the expectation that it will end an ongoing conflict is a fitting and timely example. Nor is the goal of a vibrant economy and healthy populace served by defunding services to the most vulnerable populations in a society - something with which both our nations are wrestling.

The courage that's needed for leadership grows out of the paradoxical awareness of one's own vulnerability. There can be no courage without objective danger - nor is there any courage in foolhardiness. The most effective leadership does not emerge until one has a sense of how that danger is shared by others. The energy for action grows out of urgency, and effective leaders learn how to name the urgencies, knowing that a failure of nerve in the face of danger only produces greater hazards. There are some rock walls where the only way out is up; retreat is not an option. Global climate change is an excellent example, for denial is not going to solve the problem - the only way through is engagement and change. We haven't yet found adequate leadership to make significant change. Entrenched interest groups are still blowing smoke, trying to mask the real dangers of a failure to act. Those who insist that there is no danger are demonstrably failing to act in their own best interest, relying on their perception of what are at best very short-term rewards. We hope and pray that some among us today will find creative ways to expose the smoke for the vanity it is, and effect some transformation.

Creative methods, like Tutu's humor, are both a vision of the divine at work in ongoing newness, and a way to keep us all appropriately humble. I heard him once challenge a group of students to think about their hungry neighbors by saying, "when Jesus said feed the hungry, he didn't mean stand around and wait for pizzas to fall from heaven!" He names the obvious in unexpected images, and invites all present into the desperate reality.

Curiosity is another facet of creativity, a searching after it, and a continual recognition that none of us knows it all, or has all the answers - how boring if we did!

Knowing that you don't have all the answers brings an appreciation of others, and a growing sense of our interconnections. Good and effective leaders discover that the best interest of the leader (loving oneself) is served by attending to the best interest of the whole community (loving neighbor). If part of the community suffers, the whole is limited in what it can do and where it can go. Vulnerability to that suffering - compassion - means that leaders with open and curious hearts will find them wounded occasionally, but expanded as well.

Leaders build community, consensus, and collaboration, calling on the gifts of each part of the community to serve the big dream. The dream and vision require a sense of compassion for those who will find any change difficult - but not an empty sympathy that leaves people where they are. The ability to encourage and elicit hope for the future is essential. When we've remembered the least and the lost and the left out, the nearby and the far away, we've begun to gather the whole body to move into the future.

I hope and pray that every leader in this room today will take the vision planted in you, even if you're still discovering its details, get up and go on out there, and encourage others to join you on the road home. Practice courage, in many spheres of human life, for new life lies in confronting the fears of change and the unknown and your own incapacity. Learn hard new things and you will find courage you didn't know you had. Don't neglect to go in company - we need each other, even those we find hard to bear. And take some pizza bakers with you, for there isn't much falling from heaven these days.

The Convocation Address was delivered by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at Huron University in London, Ontario, Canada. Huron awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree (honoris causa) to the Presiding Bishop as part of the University Theology Convocation Ceremony. The citation was delivered by the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church. Originally posted 5/5/11]