I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before here, but when it comes to reading about leadership, I’m a big fan of the author Peter Block. He has some ideas that I find very helpful, such as leadership through asking good questions, rather than supplying answers, leadership as drawing people together and facilitating their discussions, stepping out of the way and letting people make their own decisions. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with me and I say something that makes you think “That’s different,” chances are that I’m either getting it from Peter Block or being a flake. You choose.
I only bring it up because Block’s most recent book has the wonderful title, “The Answer to How is Yes.” What he means by that is that when communities set their minds to a challenge, they will find a way around any obstacle they encounter—if they want to. And if they don’t? Well, they don’t.
Now, it’s important to note right away that Block insists that leaders have to be okay with the decisions made by the people they lead. What he wants is for us to understand that there’s a difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” Can’t is something physically impossible: “We can’t repair the church after the fire because there’s not enough undamaged material left to work with.” Won’t is something we’d rather not do: “We won’t be holding worship at church today; it’s too cold to ask people to come out.”
Very often, according to Block, the problems communities face fall into the category of won’t, but we talk about them in terms of can’t to evade the responsibility that saying “Yes” entails. “We can’t put the food pantry in the parsonage! Our new minister might want to move in there!” really means: “I don’t want to put the food pantry in the parsonage, because I’m hoping our new minister will live in our community, rather than at a distance.” Communities make progress when they can identify these often hidden agendas, evaluate them fairly, and then act on them appropriately. “Most pastors don’t want to live in a parsonage these days, and there’s a very good chance our next pastor will want to commute, rather than live next door. Let’s take the opportunity we have now, rather than wait for a possibility that seems pretty unlikely.” Maybe you had exactly that conversation?
When Jesus rejoices after his seventy disciples return from their missionary trip, it’s precisely because they have said “yes.” For once, nobody argues with him about how they can’t possibly go out on the road because how can you do something like that without money or supplies or Jesus’ guiding hand behind you? They simply say, “Oh, you want us to go out to preach and heal like you do? Okay, yes, we can do that.”
The result of the disciples saying yes is great power and possibility. They report that even the demons submit to them, and he tells them that he watched Satan fall from the sky. They will walk on snakes and scorpions, and confront “the enemy” without being hurt.
Yet Jesus warns the disciples to remain humble:
Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
They have been able to achieve great things because they were able to trust in his command. But that trust translated into a desire to act responsibly, to act in a way that responded to the needs of others. For the church, the answer to how isn’t exactly yes, because I am so able. It’s yes, because God will provide. And God provides despite and even through our weakness. It’s exactly because the disciples are willing to go out in radical trust in God, taking with them nothing but the clothes on their backs, that they are able to accomplish their mission so successfully. When we fall into the arms of God, God not only catches us: he makes it possible for us to catch others. The answer to how for the church is not yes. The answer to how is yes, because I am weak. We are weak.
I spoke a week or two ago about some of my experiences living and working with the homeless in a Mennonite hospitality house in Atlanta. But I didn’t get into how that house came to be, I think. It had been a joint project of the Atlanta-area Mennonite church for many years. They hosted, among other people, Pete Seeger back in the day when he was a pinko peace activist who couldn’t have gotten a room in any respectable hotel in the city. The churches also used it to house black guests during the era of segregation, as well as for visiting church leaders or volunteers.
But when I lived there, it was owned by Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship, a very small congregation of perhaps thirty people. AMF, as we called it, had formed out of a split in another congregation. The church had called a pastor that some people found too authoritarian, so naturally, in an effort to resolve the controversy, he “invited” a group of maybe 10 or 15 members to leave. That formed the core of the new community, and around them they gathered a rag-tag bunch of broken-down Mennonites, liberal Baptists, graduate students and kooks such as myself. (We liked to refer to ourselves as the “Island of Misfit Toys” of churches.)
AMF had no interest at that time in owning their own building; they rented space from a Methodist church and met on Sunday evening. But when the Hospitality House was put up for sale, they didn’t hesitate. They didn’t ask how. They didn’t decide they couldn’t afford it, or that it would be too much work to maintain and keep a ministry going there. They said yes. The last I heard, they were still going strong, now providing housing for immigrants being resettled in the US.
I think they took that challenge on exactly because they were weak, because they couldn’t afford to do it. It made them a wonderful, vibrant community.
We of course do have our own sanctuary, and a parsonage, and a cemetery. We have—thanks be to God and thanks be to them—strong financial supporters of our community and its ministries. But I invite you to consider what weakness we might claim for own. Jesus calls us as disciples to go out into the world like lambs, with “no purse, no bag, no sandals.” How might we find our way to saying yes to God’s calling, yes to being weak, yes to trusting in God as we work humbly and responsibly to the world? How do we say not “No, we can’t,” but “Yes, we will”? To put it another way, what is the “How” to which we can say “yes”?+ + +