by Jill Crainshaw, Ph.D., Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity
Note: This post is the first in an Eastertide series being offered by a joint task force composed of members from the Church Growth and Transformation Committee and Committee on Ministry or the Salem Presbytery in North Carolina. This post is a revision of a post Jill Crainshaw previously published on her own blog and at Patheos.com. Additional Eastertide posts can be found here .
“Under that tree every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” Ezekiel 17: 23
I rescued an empty nest the other day. In the rain. I don’t know why I rescued the nest. No bird lives in it. It was last year’s nest.
I was in my car, pulling out of the driveway to head somewhere, when I saw the nest in the middle of the road in front of my house. Instead of driving by or driving over it, I stopped the car, stepped out into the springtime deluge, and hurried over to it, looking up and down the street for other cars (and for the eyes of curious neighbors) as I went.
The nest was beautiful, perfect in its construction, with a singular strand of sapphire yarn woven into its middle. I picked it up. It was fragile and soggy. And since I was now dripping from the rain and late for where I was headed, I laid the nest at the base of a tree in the sidewalk buffer and dashed back to my car.
Sometimes I think I spend far too much time rescuing last year’s nests. Perhaps we all do. How do we decide, after all, how much energy to give to preserving last year’s architectural delights, and how much to use building for this year and the future?
There is something to be said, I think, for the intricate magnificence of some of last year’s nests. Those nests held and hold precious, life-shaping memories. They nurtured possibilities and provided launching pads for nestlings’ first flights.
The nest reminded me of Christian congregations today. Many churches are struggling to know how to relate last year’s metaphorical nests to the kinds of Gospel dwelling places we want and need to fashion for today’s hopes, dreams, and challenges. What elements of last year’s nests do we want to keep? After all, the gifts of earlier generations are vital to our identities as Christian communities. But we know that we still have work to do share Gospel news with the world around us, and not everything about last year’s nests lend themselves to that unfolding and evolving work. Indeed, we risk overlooking important opportunities for spiritual growth when we hold on with too much caution and fear to nests that are emptying if not already abandoned. How do church leaders and communities embody Gospel ministries in today’s unpredictable and often ambiguous environments?
Some leadership resources call the worlds we inhabit now worlds alive with “adaptive” problems. What are adaptive problems? Different than “technical” problems, which can often be solved by applying known skills or expertise, adaptive problems resist familiar plans and programs. Adaptive problems instead require leaders’ and communities’ most innovative sources of imagining, thinking, and embodying.
Adaptive thinking is at heart Gospel thinking because it requires deep soul-searching, Spirit-sparked creativity, and Christ-centered relationship-building. Adaptive thinking is also “story” thinking. When leaders embody adaptive thinking, they seek out all of the stories of faith communities—success stories and messy stories—in an effort to ensure that new practices are woven together in authentic ways with the unique DNA of particular and peculiar people and places. This story-grounded approach is based on a belief that a significant part of God’s Story today is our diverse communal stories woven together by God’s ever-present, ever-dynamic Spirit.
What does adaptive thinking require of leaders? One of the biggest challenges to adaptive change is fear—fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of moving away from familiar identities. Adaptive leaders stand with communities in these fears as together they name and embrace the frightening prospects of past and future and seek God’s guidance.
I photographed my rescued nest. The next day I decided to take a few more photos of it. But the nest was no longer where I had left it. Perhaps another critter took it. Then I spotted the nest about halfway up the sidewalk toward my house. Perhaps the wind had blown it there.
The next day the nest was even closer to the house. I noticed that it was smaller, too.
That’s when I realized that this year’s birds were using bits and pieces of last year’s nest to build for this spring season.
Verses from an ancient text, Ezekiel 17, came to mind as I reflected on last year’s nest: “Under that tree every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”
I like the idea of a tree full of every kind of nest.
Doesn’t God invite all of us to nest in God’s tree? Isn’t this invitation the way God sustains the earth and communities of faith? Perhaps this is one of the powerful truths of Eastertide: as God did in the beginning and in the resurrection, God continues to do a new thing in us.
And might it not also be true that a bit of sapphire yarn, and a few choice twigs from last year’s nest, are just what are needed to remind present and future nestlings of the gifts and challenges of the past, and to make the nests we are now building places we can call home?
Virginia O. Bassford. Lord, I Love the Church and We need Help (Adaptive Leadership Series). Abingdon Press, 2012.
Dottie Escobedo-Frank and Rudy Rasmus. Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge. Abingdon Press, 2012.
Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones. Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership. Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2009.