I Must Decrease!
John the Baptist is the role model for thoughtful Christian service.
Don't be put off by the title. This is not an article about weight-loss resolutions. (That would be a cruel thing to publish just before Thanksgiving!)
I am thinking instead of the words of Saint John the Baptist with regard to Jesus Christ (John 3:30): "He must increase, but I must decrease." John's point was simple: he himself was the warm-up act. Now the main attraction was onstage, and that was his cue to step aside.
Jesus Christ must increase: it was time for His ministry to grow and gather followers and garner strength. John must decrease: the mission of the Forerunner had been fulfilled. He had played his part in God's plan and prepared the way. His joy was full (John 3:29) at hearing the voice of the one who was to replace him. But now it was time for his ministry to diminish, for his disciples to join Jesus, and for his audiences to shift from the banks of the Jordan to the Teacher giving sermons on the mount.
I must decrease. These are words of tremendous faith. It takes a believer's heart to "let go and let God" be in charge of His Church, to trust that the future is in His hands, and to relinquish the control that we humans find so addictive.
I must decrease. These are words of tremendous humility. It takes a selfless soul to admit to one's limitations and to accept the loss of the limelight that the ego so eagerly craves.
I must decrease. These are words of tremendous strength and wisdom. It takes a truly mighty man to step aside gracefully and to master his inevitable feelings of rejection. It takes a truly wise man to realize that for everything--and everyone--there is a season, and that one's own seasons come and go; but also to realize that, with every decrease in one arena of life, there is an increase in another, one with the potential to be equally rewarding, equally glorifying to God.
I recently reviewed some new materials from the Archdiocese on parish administration and organization. There was a new emphasis in these materials on the topics of volunteer mentoring and succession. The key concept was this: one of the duties of any parish volunteer is to help prepare the next generation of leadership--and then to step aside when willing workers come forward to offer their service.
No one is indispensable. On the contrary, we have a duty to make ourselves dispensable--by sharing our personal know-how freely, and by giving others their chance to lead once we have had our turn. A widely shared "organizational memory" ensures smooth transition of leadership in all of the parish functions. Who knows? You or I could step in front of a bus any day. As your priest, I certainly anticipate that possibility, and I try to keep the altar and the office prepared to function well in case of my unexpected absence. One of the nicest compliments I ever received was a couple years back, when my Parish Council President recognized my propensity for planning ahead and said, "Father Mark, you always take such good care of us!" Well, that's what fathers do, isn't it?
And that's what all good servants of the Church do--they decrease when the time comes for others to increase. Responsible decreasing is like responsible weight-loss: it is done purposefully and methodically.
Responsible decreasers don't handpick their successors and then play puppet-master from the sidelines. They offer encouragement but not interference. Responsible decreasers don't sit back idly and throw stones of criticism. They help when asked, they accept the demotion from queen bee to worker, and they graciously support the newbies with praise and advice.
Responsible decreasers, above all, don't just "take their ball and go home." Decreasing does not mean disappearing! When things don't go their way, when choices are made they can't support, responsible people don't boycott, don't leave the organization in the lurch.
There is also a need for responsible increasers. These are people who step forward gladly when their turn comes up to take the lead. They don't wait to be courted or cajoled; they answer the call because they love their God and their Church. They don't get discouraged at a little sniping or pessimism from the old guard. They have the humility to listen to advice and the dedication to follow through on their commitments.
As one who has been active in meetings at the diocesan and archdiocesan levels, I have noticed something over the past thirteen years: ours is a "gray" Church. I keep seeing the same faces in lay leadership positions, looking older year by year. In five years, though, almost all of these septuagenarians and octogenarians will be unable to remain in power. The result will be a leadership crisis, as their seats must be filled with people who have no on-the-ground experience. Why? Did they lack faith in the next generation that they couldn't step aside and let younger hands hold the reins? A no-confidence vote in the youth is a no-confidence vote in the elders, who should have been fostering new talent all along.
By contrast, recently our parish held a new fundraiser, the Gyro Drive-Thru Dinner. This event was organized primarily by our younger generation here at Holy Trinity. It was a smashing success by every measure, spiritual and fiscal. The success was a coup for our younger parishioners ... and a credit to our older generation, who were their mentors and examples. It was a beautiful example of responsible decreasing and increasing, for the benefit of the Church and the glory of God.
The demographics of our parish demand that the various parish torches be passed sooner rather than later. But ... someone has to show up to receive the torch! It is my most fervent hope that our younger generation of parishioners will step up more and more and accept the reins of leadership. Their parents and grandparents were wonderful role models in terms of balancing the demands of family life and the needs of the community; we are deeply grateful to them for their service and their example.
"I must decrease!" For his faith, humility, strength, and wisdom, John the Baptist received from Christ the highest compliment imaginable (Luke 7:28a): "I tell you, among those born of women, none is greater than John." They share in this greatness who decrease and increase as he did, at the right time, out of love for the Lord. By the intercessions of the Holy Forerunner and Prophet John the Baptist, may we all, as church volunteers and co-workers in the Kingdom, be enlightened to know when to serve and when to step aside, so that Christ may always increase among us!
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