This blog was always intended to be a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding of participation in God’s mission. However, the next few posts will be more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.
Here’s the situation: I was recently a nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Granted, I was a “middle of the pack” kind of nominee, but a nominee nonetheless. I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial on whatever level you at which you are open. So here we go. Part One: Fear Doesn’t Make Your Decisions for You–
The Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, elected a new bishop at its most recent assembly in April. I couldn’t be more pleased with the selection of the Rev. James Gonia as our new bishop. Jim is without a doubt qualified, competent, experienced, gracious, humble, and called by God to that position. I am elated that the RMS is in such very good hands indeed.
The process leading up to that election was new for us. It involved months of discernment, prayer, meetings, and reading. Last December, all people in the RMS were invited to consider submitting the name of any ELCA pastor they deemed likely to be nominated for the office of bishop. Bear in mind this wasn’t a nomination, it was a “pre-nomination” of those considered likely to be nominated once the assembly opened in April. Confused yet?
As it turned out, I was among the group of “pre-nominees.” No one was more surprised than me to find that I was on that list with 63 other pastors. Someone thought I was at that level of leadership, clarity, maturity, and responsibility to have submitted my name for consideration on this list. I had, apparently, fooled at least one person.
In order to remain on the list of potential nominees, the 64 “pre-nominees” were asked to submit biographical information by filling out a three-page online form. This information would then be publicized throughout the entire Rocky Mountain Synod. Since I had never seriously considered myself “bishop material,” and had never really aspired to that office, declining this offer to fill out detailed information on my views of the office of bishop, my gifts, my challenges, and more seemed an easy call to make. I intended to save myself the embarrassment and headache of this process by simply removing myself now. I didn’t necessarily feel called by God to be a bishop, knew all too well the gaps in my own leadership, and understood that I had a slim-to-none chance of being elected anyway. Withdrawing seemed an easy decision.
But in conversations with God, my family, and trusted colleagues about all this, here’s what I realized during the intervening weeks. This process for me was less about “winning” an election and more about what God may be up to. Maybe I wasn’t called to be bishop, but perhaps I was called into the process for other non-bishop reasons. If God was doing something, and I was being invited to be part of it, then maybe I should consider going along and seeing what that was about. As a strong introvert and foundational nerd whose default setting is to shy away from any situation that might open me up to ridicule, this prospect was terrifying at a core level. I desperately wanted out.
Up until now all this had been someone else’s doing. I hadn’t sought this out; someone else had given my name to the synod office. But if I submitted the requested biographical information, I was saying in a very public way that I was open to being considered for the office of bishop. I could hear the taunts and jeers now, surprisingly similar to those that haunted me through Junior High and High School. “Hey, everybody, look at Moss! He actually thinks he’s got a chance at this! Ha! Who does he think he is? What a loser.” And I could already hear the sneers and the laughter echoing from all corners of the four states and part of a fifth that make up this synod. Junior High terror again, only now swelled to a multiple state level.
“I can’t do this,” I told my family after several sleepless nights. “This whole thing simply terrifies me. I can’t sleep, I can’t think, I have knots in my stomach. This is worse than when I tried out for the Junior Varsity basketball team in 7th grade. The whole school was laughing at the skinny near-sighted geek who thought he could play basketball. It’s just not worth it.” At that point I was glad I didn’t know who had submitted my name because I was thinking somewhat less than charitable thoughts about them.
Then my 25-year-old daughter had the audacity to remind me that as they were growing up, I had always told my kids that when facing new and difficult choices, “fear doesn’t make your decisions for you.” “Doesn’t that apply to you now, dad?” she asked. Dammit. Parental sayings of wisdom are deliberately abstract and are supposed to be for the benefit of the children. They were not meant to be used as weapons to be hurled back at you when you least want to hear them. Because they are freakishly effective.
I stewed on this for a couple more weeks. I spoke with colleagues, confided with my wife, and prayed some rather unpleasant prayers. I pretended I knew just how Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane, and told God that since the salvation of the world was hardly at stake here, couldn’t I just be let off the hook?
But finally, if for no other reason than avoiding accusations of hypocrisy from my three adult children, I quickly filled out the biographical information form and, with trembling hand and churning stomach, submitted it the evening of the last day it could be accepted. Then I went and threw up.
My closest consolation at this point was that there were 63 other pre-nominees. I was certain most of them would also fill out the biographical information and that my name and photo would then be lost in the midst of them. To my horror, when the bios were published, there were only 17 of us. My name, picture, and hastily drafted biographical information were thrust out into uncontrolled internet space where I was certain the mocking and snickers would be unrestrained. My insecurities were flying brightly high atop the flag pole. Every molecule of self-doubt, nerdiness, and inadequacy had risen up and was standing at full attention. There was, from this point on, no place to hide. What was more, now that it was public, I had to tell my congregation.
Watch for Part Two: “The Presence of God is Revealed in Unlikely Ways”