The Arc of Life

by | Oct 7, 2021

Teach us to number our days, that we might set our hearts to wisdom. 
Psalm 90:12

I’ve learned that one of the most important questions to consider in life and ministry is this: Where am I in the arc of my life, or in the arc of a particular phase of it?

In my senior year of college, I was befriended by a group of young adults, all in their early thirties. We met at a local Catholic Worker House that provided shelter and meals for people experiencing homelessness. Each Saturday we gathered for prayer. On  other days, we would go on outings or work together on a social justice initiative. I babysat their children. My older friends all had meaningful work, either professionally or as volunteer activists. I was in awe of them. They loved me, as they would a younger sibling. 

I wanted nothing more than to leapfrog over my twenties and join them as an equal. But I needed to live my life, not theirs, and to find my own way. After college, I took a job in another city. While I loved those friends dearly, we were on different arcs of life and our paths never crossed again.  

Where are you in the arc of your life? While age is not the only consideration, it is a big factor to take into account when pondering our place. 

I am now nearly 62 years old. On October 2nd, my sister and I hosted a party for our mother, in celebration of her 90th birthday. Several of our own adult children were there, and some of them have children of their own. Of the four generations still alive, I am now an elder. If our mother dies before me, I will take my place among the oldest generation. All this tells me a lot about where I am, what my responsibilities are and what they’re not.

I want to occupy this position of life well, which means loving those around me, but no longer being in charge. (My family will tell you that this is hard for me.) Developmental psychologists tell us that the most important thing to do in one’s elder years is to make room for rising generations and give priority to them. This is the age of generativity–the time to listen well, let go of a lot, delight in others’ accomplishments, and deal with grief. At the same time, I am caring for our mother who is increasingly frail, and spiritually preparing for death.

That’s a brief overview of my life. Again I ask, where are you in the arc of yours? And what does that say to you about what is yours to do now, in the all-too-short time you are given to walk this earth? 

Of course, we never know where we are, in the sense that anything could happen to us. My mother could outlive us all. But as best as we can see, where are we? And where might God be beckoning us as we look toward the horizon? 

These are also questions to ponder in the context of Christian community. I often ask congregational leaders where they are in the arc of their ministry, in general and in relationship to the community they serve. Having some sense of where they are in life and vocation helps discern what’s possible in a given season. It also helps avoid the unfortunate misalignment that can happen when a leader and congregation are in vastly different places in their respective arcs of life and ministry. Early in my time as rector, as we were contemplating a significant fund-raising and building project, the junior warden pointedly asked me “Will you be here to see this through?” He wasn’t willing to take a big risk without knowing where I was in the arc of my tenure. His question underscored the value of stable leadership when asking a congregation to do something brave. 

On November 12, I mark my tenth anniversary as your bishop. From the beginning, I’ve had the sense that I would have a long episcopate, and God willing, I still feel that way. In speaking with diocesan leaders and in my own prayerful discernment, I have committed to serve for five more years, and perhaps longer, depending on what we discern together at the fifteen year mark. All this suggests that I have most likely passed the half-way point, and that informs my thinking nearly everyday. It keeps me focused and lends a bit of urgency, as I hope to accomplish what I sensed God called me to do as your bishop. 

Next time I’ll write more about the arc of ministry as it pertains to the Diocese of Washington, where we are in the arc of our strategic plan, and what to look for in the coming year.