The Authority of Apology (my Honors Convocation Address at Iliff School of Theology)

My thanks to Deb Creamer and Albert Hernandez for inviting me to speak to you today.  It is an honor to be with you.

I have a special fondness for Iliff because I had such a blast here – mostly because let’s face it, Iliff is like, a super weird place. I loved the people I met which now include two of my best friends. And one time in a paper for Jacob Kinnard I wrote a totally fake first page that contained every grammatical error and idiotic idea I could put in 100 words hoping his blood pressure would rise before getting to the line that said I’m just messing with you Jacob…here’s my real paper. During my time at Iliff I soaked up every single Psalm that Mark George read before class and I loved learning about Christian Mystics and Queen Isabel of Spain, and post-colonialism, and St Paul’s Jewishness.  I learned a ton of awesome stuff here, but honestly one thing stands out in particular and it wasn’t actually in the curriculum. I had signed up for Holly Huer’s Spiritual Preaching class along with about 10 other women. A week or two into the class, Holly had asked this guy, let’s call him Steve, to be a guest presenter for a few classes. Steve was one of these super new-agey guys complete with like, linen draw string pants and painfully good posture and the kind of really “spiritual” way of speaking that sound like a half-whisper that usually comes from a couple doses of Zanax. Anyhow, Steve kept trying to get us to share our feelings and stuff like that and well, that didn’t go so well because we didn’t know Steve and he was maybe a little creepy and several of us were unhappy and we told all of this to Holly. The next week, we gathered in a circle like we did each class but this time Steve wasn’t there and Ill never forget what Holly did. She sat in front of us and very calmly said “I know that many of you were not happy about having Steve as a presenter. So I want you to hear me say this. I made a mistake. That was a bad call and I am sorry” and then she stopped.

She did not say but I knew him in a different setting and he was really great … she did not try to defend herself. She had the humility to just say I made a mistake. And what is fascinating is how much the energy toward her shifted after that. When Holly simply said she made a mistake and did not try to then get us on her side so that we wouldn’t hold it against her , what happened was that She then had the authority to teach that class for the rest of the semester. She was honest and authentic and did not use any of her energy trying to defend or protect her own authority. She taught us about what a new kind of leadership could look like.

It has stayed with me, what I learned from Holly that day.  Not only what a proper apology looks like, but what allows us to have authority these days.

Now I am admittedly a hack at Cultural Theory and am saying all of this as a practitioner and not an academic, But isn’t the question, like, the big question of post-modernity and religion what is the locus of authority. Where does our authority lay? And what makes it tricky is that we are in an in-between time. Meaning, as of now, we still have the institutions of modernity: The promise of the enlightenment and the age of progress brought us an educational system and a health care system and denominations and democratic government all institutions that promised good things: learning, health, spirituality, safety. And yet every single institution has disappointed us. As soon as we realized how maintaining the institution was more important to the institution than providing what it promised in the first place, we became cynical.  It’s as though we’ve looked and behind every single curtain we never found the Wizard of Oz, sometimes we found only scared little men or women pretending to be big.

But, it’s important to note that even though there is a whole generation who is cynical about institutions and presumed authority, it does not mean that we don’t want learning, health, spirituality, and safety. Being suspicious of presumed authority and institutions does not mean we don’t want what they promised in the first place.

It’s like *phonebooths, actually.  15 years ago there were 10s of thousands of phonebooths all across America – they were practically on every city block.  Yet I defy you to tell me where a working phone booth is nowadays.  They’ve practically disappeared. Now, we can look at that data and conclude, well, people obviously don’t care about communicating with each other through phones anymore!

Yes, people are suspicious of the institution of the church these days, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want a religious community. I just don’t think they want re-decorated phone booths. I think people are looking for leaders they can trust who can tell the truth about themselves and our world and about God. And I think this is possible and I think that places like Iliff are raising up this new kind of leader.

When Holly sat in front of us and apologized in the manner she did, when she told us the truth we felt there was no longer a curtain to look behind and we trusted her. Because what we really wanted was someone we could trust who also had the authority to teach us about spiritual preaching.

See, I suspect that leadership looking different is increasingly going to be something to pay attention to and so there are a few things I want to offer as a possible starting point.

 

I have the opportunity to travel around as a speaker right now. And I kind of just do my thing, and say my stuff and afterward, like with most speakers, there are people who are wanting to talk to me. And I’ve realized that about 80% of the time they say one of two things and it’s never like, I was seared by your stunning intellect, or Wow Nadia, after hearing you speak I am now going to sell all my things and give the money to the poor. No.  They say some version of these 2 things: 1. Thank you for your honesty. And 2. Your authenticity is so refreshing. This is how high the bar is right now as a leader in the church, that people will wait in line to thank a speaker for not lying to them or trying to pretend to be someone else.

See, I think this new leadership looks like what I learned from Holly about apologizing and it’s related because people just want the truth. We want what we see to be what we get.  The Wizard of Oz smoke and mirrors  thing doesn’t work anymore.

People still want leaders and they are even willing to hand them the authority to preach and teach – they just don’t want any curtains to look behind. The people I know want leaders who, when they screw up, can be  the first to admit it and to then ask for forgiveness. I try as a leader in the church to be transparent about my shortcomings and seriously, my parishioners love that their preacher is never the best Christian in the room, it kind of takes the pressure off, you know?  Pastors used to be the one who were the shining example of perfect piety but now I think people are hungry for leaders who are consistently the same person in every situation they are encountered in.  Clergy who don’t have their pastor personality and their regular personality.  In other words, I think people are ready for spiritual leaders who don’t lie to them or pretend to be someone other than who they are.

So, here’s what I’ve learned from all this: I think there is a sweet spot.  I think there is a space between two things in which this new leadership can thrive – in which new leaders can actually have authority and that is the space between not having to apologize for who you are and yet still having humility. I think being able to apologize for my mistakes and not ever seeing that as a threat to my authority is  critical…but that is different than apologizing for who I am.  Everyone does this but I hear women do it all the time. It’s not helpful. I think trying to pretend to be someone that you are not does nothing but water down your power.  Because in a way, we are most powerful when we are simple who God made us where God put us. Maybe this and only this is where our authority rests. No need to defend it or protect it or apologize for it. Just rock it, brothers and sisters.

But humility, while not a word that usually associated with authority, is so critical right now. Embrace your limits. Celebrate them, even. Because your limits are your limits and in all likelihood, other people see them.  So if you try and pretend they don’t exist…then not only do you have limits but now you also have no credibility.

So obviously as you go from this place today there is good news and bad news.  The bad news is that people out there are a little cynical about institutions and presumed authority, and the old ways of being a leader don’t really work anymore. The good news is that people still very much want learning and health and spirituality and safety. And they are looking to you now. So don’t ever apologize for who you are – but still have some humility and things should go just fine. But seriously…don’t get talked into joining any phone booth re-decorating committees. Thank you.

 

*phonebooth thing shamelessly stolen from Tony Jones

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

    Abso-freakin-fantastic. I can not say enough how transparent and humble leadership is the most powerful. Thanks for this post :)

  • KingGeorge

    Yes, good point, people want transparency in their leaders. But what encouragement or spiritual uplifting occurs in the life of a christian if a transparent leader just lays out his sinful self with no repentance? It just emboldens the admiring hearers to follow footstep with their leader into sin.

    • Kate Johnson

      Nadia points out in her book that the definition of the word we translate into English as “repentance” actually means “seeing differently afterwards” and if you read her book/ follow her long enough, you will notice how often she allows herself to be convicted by the Holy Spirit and her point of view changed as a result of letting that conviction in. There is more spiritual encouragement for me in a transparent message of grace at work in our lives than there is in self-righteous demands that I be super-human.

  • Charlie

    Nadia … I saw on youtube where you mentioned the illustration about the woman who was an atheist that read every one of your sermons; and I am a Baptist who scarfed up all of them in about a week … who needed them more! … in your illustration, you mentioned this lady had no point of reference of what was seemingly drawing her powerfully to “something” … and for me, I had too much of a point of reference … ha … funny how the gospel is so paradoxical … Anyway, this message was so focused, and wanted to thank you for being yourself … funny, I remember in your ‘Reign of Christ’ message you said that people know when they encounter the real thing … Thanks again ..

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