Disciple: The Mission Itself
By the Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman
Collaboration. Of all the priorities we have been working on together in my first two years as your bishop, this one has been the most challenging. Not because people do not like the idea of collaboration. We all have had the experience of many hands making the work easier, the load lighter and the process more engaging. The shared energy can be a source of excitement and even joy.
What can hinder the benefits of working together, really working together, is the side of collaboration that is not all about excitement and joy. There is a shadow side to collaboration also at play when we set out to work together in a deeper and more intentional way. It is rooted in the challenge of sharing power. I often say that everyone likes the idea of collaboration, but actually collaborating is another story.
There are some specific reasons for this. True collaboration goes against the hierarchical systems all around us and in which we live our lives, from the schools we attend as children to the organizations for which we work as adults. It goes against our parochial culture. Most of us have been raised and nurtured in congregations where parish membership and parish loyalty are synonymous. We identify with our congregation, with the community, the name and the building. The idea of expanding this web of relationships can feel complicated, cumbersome and even chaotic.
What will it mean to invite not just a few people, but a whole community into a project we are working on or a proposal we are writing? If involving more people makes a process more complicated, what happens when we invite another congregation or several congregations? The potential for misunderstanding and conflict rises exponentially.
And conflict is something that we, as Episcopalians, often try to avoid at almost any cost. But there is an African proverb I am sure I have quoted before, because it is one of my favorites and such a touchstone for this work. It speaks to the importance of our missional call to do work together as disciples of Jesus. The proverb is this: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
SHARING THE POWER
The call to collaboration is the call to travel the Way of Love together, to recognize the journey is one we take with our brothers and sisters. Collaboration is not just about who we travel with; it is also about how we travel together.
Embedded in each of us is the deep desire for agency and the need to make our own choices. Some might say this is a product of our rebellious nature or a function of our egos. I believe the desire to choose, to decide and to act is related to our call to lead. I believe each of us, as disciples and apostles, is called to lead. Of course, we cannot function in a situation or system where everyone is leading. Not only does it create confusion about who the actual leader is, but in the end, if everyone is leading, who is left to follow? The reality is God calls each of us to develop both the capacity to lead and to follow.
Collaboration is like a song sung in parts. At different times, different voices are featured or carry the melody, while others provide the background vocals, harmonize and set the tone. Or collaboration can be thought of as a dance. At any given moment, the one who is leading may give way to the steps and the direction of their partner, who in turn takes the lead.
True collaboration means sharing decision-making power. It means letting go of our hierarchical mindset, focusing less on titles and perceived roles and more on embracing the gifts we have to offer. It means understanding what happens to one person impacts the others. True collaboration can be messy, conflicted and frustrating. It can even break down. But true collaboration is at the heart of Becoming Beloved Community, it is an essential practice in the Way of Love, and it is an expression of God’s new creation, when our agency and action is not taken over and against our neighbor, but for and with them.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE LOSS
The most difficult dimension of collaboration is that sharing power and decision-making can sometimes feel like a loss, especially to those who have traditionally held positions of privilege in any given system. And, of course, we are trained to equate loss in our society and culture as undesirable, as unhealthy, as a kind of failure.
Jesus, on the other hand, had this to say about loss: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
What is important to remember is what might feel like loss is actually making room for the gifts and great things we gain when we seek collaborations. A large part of the call to collaboration is the call to build partnerships, and partnership is very much at the center of the relationship into which Jesus invites his disciples: partnership with Jesus and with one another.
One image for this collaborative partnership comes from my favorite resurrection story where Peter and some of the other disciples fish all night and catch nothing. Jesus appears on the shore and invites them to try fishing off the other side of the boat. When they do, they can barely haul the nets because they are so full of fish.
It takes intense collaboration for a crew to haul in a net full of fish without capsizing the boat. And the net itself is an image for the power of collaboration. Many strands are woven into one net that, with the help of Jesus, does not break under the incredible weight of the catch.
CREATE THE CIRCLE
Within our own time and context, there are other images from the day-to-day mission we share that represent both the gift and the power of collaboration. In my office there is a large desk where I do my day-to-day work. I am sitting at the desk as I write this. But opposite the desk, the other half of my office is made up of a circle of chairs.
That circle of chairs is where many conversations happen, and it is in that circle much of the decision-making about the mission and focus of our diocese is done. It is a reflection of our collaborative approach. Many voices, many perspectives, all helping us discern together the truth of how we are called to live and move in the world; how the church is being called to embody beloved community and move further along on the Way of Love; how we as a new creation are discovering what it means to share power, responsibility, blame and in the celebration when we are, by God’s grace, able to accomplish what we set out to achieve.
This issue of the Disciple is full of examples of collaboration and the ways we work together as disciples and apostles. As you read these accounts, see them as incarnations of holy collaboration and illustrations of the way the Holy Spirit is already leading us to go deeper together. There is no one way to do it, no one way collaboration must manifest itself. Whether the work is done by the efforts of two or 20, what matters is understanding that what we do together will always be infinitely more than anything we can do alone.
Collaboration is at the heart of the gospel invitation. And collaboration is not only the way we engage in mission, it is the mission itself.
The Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman is the XII Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina.