Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified… for the LORD your God goes with you.
Last week I finally got around to the cleaning of my home office I skipped this spring because I was busy sojourning with the Diocese of Michigan exploring a call to the episcopate. As I plowed through papers, I ran across one of my favorite poems by the great African American theologian and mystic Howard Thurman, “Give me the Courage to Live.”
As I re-read Thurman’s words, the poem spoke to me in a different way given my journey in the bishop’s search, my role in walking with parishes throughout transition processes, and most recently, my time as Canon to the Ordinary working closely with congregations who are determining how they will forge into the future with some of the challenges all parishes face in the swift and varied changes of church life today.
Here is Thurman’s prayer-filled poem on courage:
Give me the courage to live! Really live—not merely exist.
Daring the truth—
Particularly the truth of myself.
Ever changing, ever growing, ever adapting.
Enduring the pain of change.
As though ‘twere the travail of birth.
Give me the courage to live,
Give me the strength to be free
And endure the burden of freedom
And the loneliness of those without chains;
Let me not be trapped by success
Nor by failure, nor pleasure, nor grief,
Nor malice, nor praise, nor remorse!
Give me the courage to go on!
Facing all that waits on the trail –
Going eagerly, joyously on,
Without anger or fear or regret
Taking what life gives,
Spending myself to the full,
Head high, spirit winged, …
Gracious God, hear my prayer;
Give me the courage to live.
As I reflected on these words, I realized that although I wasn’t called to be Bishop of Michigan, I was proud I had applied, that I “entered the arena” as Brené Brown would say. I have been approached before about bishop searches, and have been afraid to say yes to the possibility. The prospect of facing the so-called “walkabouts,” where candidates answer questions in a series of forums, not unlike political debates, just terrified me. There was something about Michigan, though—their passions, their priorities, their courageous ministry—that beckoned me to see what God had in store.
Well, my friend the Rev. Dr. Bonnie Perry was called as bishop, yet I left the process grateful for all I learned about ministry, creative congregational development, and courageous leadership. I wouldn’t have traded the experience for the world. I not only endured the dreaded walkabouts, I was inspired by a process that called me to dig deeper. God gave me the courage, and the words to get through them, and for that I say, “To God be the glory!”
On the other side of the Michigan bishop’s search, I am convinced that courage is paramount to our ministry in congregations—whether it’s parishes embracing a clergy transition process or tackling hard conversations about financial viability and building maintenance. Now more than ever, I believe the key to experiencing turnaround, to addressing and overcoming these challenges, is courage.
Courage to sunset the ministry that served so well 20 years ago; courage to end the beloved Sunday service that now has an attendance of 5; courage to move the whole congregation because that old beloved building is sucking up all the congregational resources.
Courage. That will be my focus personally and professionally over the next year, as we embark on implementing our Diocesan Strategic Plan. I invite you on this journey of courage, Diocese of Washington friends and worshiping communities. Remember God’s exhortation in Deuteronomy 3:6, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified… for the LORD your God goes with you.”
The Rev. Paula E. Clark
Canon to the Ordinary