Character, Chemistry, Competence, Sermon for the Ordination of a Deacon

by | Nov 16, 2019

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,says the Lord.’Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’  
Jeremiah 1:4-9

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’
Luke 22:24-27

We have come together from a variety of places and communities, all here for the same reason: to pray with and for you, Savannah, on the occasion of your ordination to the diaconate. You and I spoke earlier this week how much it meant to you, that so many would be here to take part in this celebration. But it’s also a gift to us–a living testimony to the communion of saints and a glimpse of the kingdom of God. On behalf of all those who have, are, and will be blessed by Savannah’s ministry, I thank everyone here for your part in helping Savannah to grow into the beloved, gifted child of God and emerging leader that she is. 

Savannah, you are adept at learning both in academic settings and the school of lived experience. You earned your Bachelor of Arts Degree in Religious Studies in 2012, Master in Divinity with Religious Education Concentration in 2016, and you are in the midst of an Anglican studies year at VTS. You are married to Matthew, and marriage is a school like no other. You have worked as an intern in a refugee resettlement program, and as a leader in faith development in two national parks, in the L’arche community here in Washington, and in two congregations–all this before your 30th birthday. 

Here is my word to you, and to all gathered: the path of learning, and growing as a result of what you learn, never ends. It never ends, except in the times and places where we get stuck, which we all do from time to time. 

I once heard a family therapist say that all children as they grow pass through nearly every neurosis and character disorder found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). Normally they pass right on through, he said, but where they can get stuck is when a particular behavior is met with a rigid response on the part of their parents. It doesn’t matter what the response is–only that it is a rigid, inflexible one, which is an indication of stuckness in the parent. His message to every parent listening was a powerful one: tend to your own lives, your own issues, your own healing, so that your children don’t get stuck in the ruts of your anxiety. 

What’s true in families is also true in the life of institutions. They get stuck where their leaders are stuck. That’s why it matters, Savannah, for the sake of those you so long to serve in Jesus’ name that you stay on this path of personal growth and learning. The renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright once told a master class of aspiring architects, “As a stream can rise no higher than its source, you can build no greater buildings than you are. So why not work on yourselves, so that you might become what you would have your buildings be?”

Equipped with humility and curiosity, we can learn from anyone and anything. The Jesuit priest that I see for spiritual direction will sometimes say, after I’ve gone on for a while of all that is happening in my life, “What do you suppose God is wanting you to learn from what you’re experiencing?” Or he’ll ask, “Through what’s happening now, how might God be shaping your heart?”

Savannah, you are beginning ordained ministry in the Diocese of Washington at a time when we are all striving to become the people God calls us to be, calling our corner of the Episcopal Church to grow in our capacity to draw people to Jesus and embody his love for the world, to discern what God is up to in our midst, and to follow where the Holy Spirit leads. The learning curve for all of us, myself included, is steep. We’ve apprenticed ourselves to people outside of our Episcopal tribe who have important skills to teach us. 

In August the diocesan staff spent two days in rather intense self-examination and evaluation of our fruitfulness. The person guiding us through this exercise left us with a tool that served a framework for our work. I would like to share it with you, Savannah, as one way to approach the life-long task of tending to the soil of your life and leadership. It has become, for me, one of the most important lenses for self-evaluation and team assessment. 

This assessment tool invites us to reflect upon our lives and ministries in three distinct realms: 

First, our character, which is foundational to everything else. It includes morals, ethics, core values, personality traits, attitudes and behaviors. How honest are we, and how trustworthy? Are we a positive example to others, patient, disciplined? Are we able to accept criticism, allow others to shine? How well can we manage our own anxiety? Are we quick to anger, overly impulsive, defensive when corrected? These are all issues of character.  

The second realm is chemistry, that intangible quality of being able to work well on a team. It’s often referred to nowadays as emotional intelligence, the ability to read a room and work well with all types of people. It includes an awareness of the impact of our behavior and words on other people, having sound judgment, asking good questions before providing answers. 

The third realm is competence, which is essentially how good we are our job. It includes things like self-motivation, diligence, an ability to prioritize, having a strong work ethic and desire to learn. Patrick Lencioni includes the notion of hunger in this realm–our eagerness to grow, our openness to new ideas and ability to innovate in our areas of responsibility. 

Character, Chemistry and Competence: we all have gifts and growth edges in each of these realms. Most of us are stronger in one and weaker in another. All require diligence, continual self-assessment, and feedback from others.

Tending to our character is, as Brian McLaren put it, the daily practice of producing the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow. “In a world like ours,” he writes, “your character, left unattended, will become a stale room, an obnoxious child, a garden filled with thorns. . . . Well tended, your character will become a fragrant garden, an artist’s home . . . You will be good and deep company for others and yourself.” (Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Press, 2008), pp. 11-12.)

Tending to our chemistry goes deeper than stating where we fall on the introversion/extroversion scale and asking others to deal with it. Nor is it to be equated with people-pleasing or conflict avoidance. Healthy chemistry requires a willingness to care about the impact we have on other people and tending to the relational dynamics that makes team-work possible. The more responsibility and authority we assume or are given, the more essential chemistry-tending becomes, for we have disproportionate power to set the tone of a community or group. 

Tending to our competence is, I would argue, more challenging in ministry settings than in other fields because of the broad array of tasks associated with ordained ministry and, in our tradition at least, the reluctance to change patterns of functioning and ways of going about ministry even when what we’re doing is no longer bearing fruit. It’s also true that in many ministry settings, once we’re called to a given position, people have no idea how to go about evaluating our work except in parking lot conversations and rather vague metrics. For that reason, it’s essential for you to establish metrics from which to evaluate your competence, to invite others to help in that work and your continued self-evaluation.  

Savannah, God-willing, you are going to be an ordained leader in our church for a very long time. You have already demonstrated what some have called “a wisdom beyond your years,” which I attribute to both your character and chemistry, and a hunger for learning, which has resulted in a level of competence that is rather extraordinary among those ordained in young adulthood. I affirm and celebrate those qualities and give thanks to God for you and your desire to dedicate your life to Jesus and His way of love in our world. 

Continue on the path God has set before you. Tend to your character, chemistry and competence. When you are in positions of authority over others, help them to grow in those essential areas as well. Know that the God who created you, unconditionally loves you, and has redeemed you in Christ within, around, behind and before you, so that you might grow into the leader you are not yet but will someday become. It is essential for you to do this inner work, so that you might help us all become the church we are not yet, with capacities we not currently have but urgently need to fulfill the vocation God has entrusted to us. The learning curve is steep. But knowing you as I do, I suspect that you wouldn’t have it any other way. Remember that you are among fellow learners, I chief among them. Thank you for saying yes to this call.