Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
Join our e-News list to receive our monthly email with new articles from this and other blogs from CTS.
- Hits: 94
The Poetry Foundation, based here in Chicago, publishes a “poem of the day” on its website, a wonderful way to encounter a diverse array of poems from various times and places for those of us not well educated in the literature or inclined to search out poetry books in the library. (see www.poetryfoundation.org) Yesterday’s poem was written by a woman named Will Allen Dromgoole, a popular writer in the South in the first third of the twentieth century where she produced a regular column for the Nashville Banner recounting tales of life in Tennessee. In 1930 she was named poet laureate of the Poetry Society of the South.
“The Bridge Builder” was one of her more popular poems, telling the story of an old man walking on a lone highway at twilight. Having forged the swift and dangerous current of a stream – “a chasm vast and deep and wide” – he stops on the safety of the other side to build a bridge to “span the tide.” At this point he is confronted by a fellow pilgrim who mocks his enterprise:
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”
The old man responds:
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way,
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”
One of the critical tasks of leadership is preparing the next generation of leaders and then knowing when to step aside to make space and opportunity for that next generation to lead. It is a lesson apparently difficult for many to learn. I overheard two professors at the coffee shop one day talking about what sounded like the University’s efforts to encourage senior faculty to retire. Both men were easily in their late sixties or early seventies. Both were adamant that no one was going to push them to retire before they were good and ready, and that didn’t sound like anytime soon! A fine attitude, I thought, for professors preparing PhD students for an abysmal job market while they refuse to consider making space for those very same students.
There’s a special joy and satisfaction to be found in encouraging gifted members of the next generation preparing to take our place. And there is also a great joy in watching that next generation thrive in the spotlight we once occupied. Experiencing those joys requires, however, a humility that is often hard to find or, for ourselves, to summon. Having navigated the stiff currents and found a secure place for ourselves on the other side, it is tempting to claim that space and hold it rather than busy ourselves with bridge building for the younger person following. Ego and the seduction of presumed indispensability conspire to make it difficult to cast the mantle we have worked so hard to earn and have grown so comfortable wearing.
How sad to watch institutions, including congregations, implode because charismatic leaders refused to allow anyone – including themselves – to imagine life beyond their own leadership. The great 50 days of Easter are filled with stories of Jesus’ long leave-taking, stepping away from the disciples he has prepared and equipped in order for them to take up their apostolic ministry. Leaders leave. That’s a consciousness, an awareness not just for the ending of a leadership role, but for the beginning and every place along the way. I can’t lead well if I am not preparing myself to leave well.
To clergy trained to value the ministry of presence, Henri Nouwen once counseled the wisdom of leaving as a crucial pastoral practice. Endless presence fosters dependence, communicating that the wounded person needs us more than their own healing. Leaving reminds others that grace and strength, creativity and possibility endure beyond my presence. The old man was wise enough to know that the journey’s future did not depend on him, but on the safe passage of the young man following across the “chasm vast and deep and wide.”
John H. Thomas
April 4, 2013