September 23, 2013

“We Are All Called to Be Servant Leaders” Address

Last Saturday I had the privilege of delivering the address at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on the occasion of its 125th Anniversary in the presence of Bishop Prior. Penny and I and sons belonged to St. Martin’s from 1983-1995, and it was a great pleasure to return with so many old friends in attendance. My topic was: “We Are All Called to Be Servant Leaders.” Your feedback is welcome.

“We Are All Called to Be Servant Leaders” Address by Bill George

at St. Martin’s by-the-Lake Episcopal Church on its 125th Anniversary – September 21, 2013

What a privilege it is for Penny and me to return to St. Martin’s for this special celebration of your 125th anniversary. For us it is like “coming home,” as all of you have so graciously welcomed us this evening. The warmth of the congregation and the beauty of this intimate space provides a welcoming home to all who enter through its doors.

Coming back brings with it very special memories of the 12 years we spent as members from 1983-1995. In 1974 we went to Cursillo as members of St. Paul’s Episcopal, and there we met so many St. Martin’s members who became lifelong friends. When we returned from Brussels in 1983, we decided to come to St. Martin’s where we had so many good friends from Cursillo. Our sons Jeff and Jon had many school friends here, went to Sunday School, were confirmed at St. Martin’s, and joined the Youth Group.

In those days we were devoted to Rev. Ed Eilertson (and still are); in 1995 Ed led our group of 12 on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of religious sites in Israel. When Ed became the interim at Plymouth Church, we followed him there. We also formed a couples group that included the McCreas and the Pipers. When Penny was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, I vividly recall the other six members of our couples group joining with me in a room immediately below where she was having her mastectomy – joining hands and praying for her recovery. Following Penny’s breast cancer, she wanted to return to her roots in the Congregational church where her two grandfathers had been ministers so we continued on at Plymouth.

Pope Francis

This week many of us were thrilled by the words of Pope Francis as he tries to bring the Roman Catholic church back to its roots of love, serving the poor and preserving the earth. He is returning the church from its doctrinaire head to its heart of love and compassion. As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The longest journey you will ever take is the eighteen inches from your head to your heart.” Pope Francis is now leading his flock on this long journey. In six simple words, he changed the direction of the world’s largest church when he asked, “Who am I to judge another?” Indeed, we are all formed in our unique way by our Creator with our individual differences that we should cherish, not judge.

St. Martin’s History

The long and enduring history of St. Martin’s, the warmth of this building and this congregation, and the commitment of families over many generations have built an enduring church. In reviewing the history of St. Martin’s, I am struck by just how many members of this parish have been great leaders in our community. They have carried the spirit of St. Martin’s into great corporations, arts organizations, social service organizations, youth organizations and many others. As was said about Bobby Piper, Tad Piper’s father, when he received the Pax Christina award at St. John’s, “He practiced his faith in the marketplace.”

Today the world, and indeed our community, is crying out for leaders who do just that: they practice their faith in the community by serving others through their work. Just as former Reverend Russ Ewald created Minnesota’s greatest foundation in the McKnight Foundation, Virginia McKnight Binger created the St. Martin’s Foundation to provide services to the broader community beyond our church doors.

Examples abound from this congregation: For many years Polly McCrea led Opportunity International, which is dedicated to help poor women around the world create their own businesses with the help of micro-financing. Carol Erickson has created the IMAWA Foundation to help the poor in Kenya. Tad Piper not only led Piper Jaffrey, but is currently chair of the St. Olaf board. Closer to home, Toby LaBelle, who grew up in this church, founded the StepUP program at Augsburg College for youth suffering from chemical dependency. They even have their own dorm. Now this program has become a model that is being adopted by many colleges throughout the U.S.

The Legacy of 125 Years

In 1676 Issac Newton said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” Tonight his words are truer than ever. Indeed, we honor those giants who have built this church for the past 125 years on whose shoulders we  now stand.

Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys, once said, “Longevity is the real test of any organization.” St. Martin’s has not only longevity, but an abiding commitment to its history, its roots and its traditions. I envision the analogy of St. Martin’s to a giant oak tree that has endured storms, winds and draughts for 125 years, yet each year its blossoms return to grow ever more beautiful and reach ever higher toward the sun.

Great oak trees, like great churches and great organizations, are nourished, however, from their roots, which grow deeper and wider under the ground. As the roots grow strong and are healthily nourished that tree will continue to flourish and share its beauty with all who seek it. So it is with St. Martin’s: It has been built on the solid foundation of deep roots.

The Parable of the Three Stonecutters

Let me share with you the well-known story of the three stonecutters: “A man asked three stonecutters them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am cutting stones to earn a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire country.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

The first stonecutter is simply doing a day’s work for a day’s pay, for the material reward he receives in exchange for his labor. The purpose of his work doesn’t matter. The second stonecutter wants to be the best at his craft. His world is competitive and meritocratic. His vision is incomplete because he misses the fundamental interconnectedness of humankind, of communities, and of our world. He fails to see there would be no stones to cut were it not for the community building a cathedral.

The third stonecutter embraces a broader vision. The menial nature of his work is part of a far larger undertaking, a spiritual as well as a physical construction, that aspires to the heavens, transcending the earthbound, for cathedrals are built not in years, but over centuries. His lifetime’s work may last for centuries. It ignites past and future, connects humans across generations and becomes part of a purpose that is far larger than himself.[i]

The Challenge for St. Martin’s Next 125 Years 

That’s how it is with St. Martin’s: We stand on the shoulders of giants, as we build our own intimate cathedral. The church blossoms like that giant oak by serving not only ourselves but the communities around us and, indeed, like Carol Erickson and Polly McCrea, the people of the world. As you nourish your roots, sustain your values, build on the traditions that have made this church great, and honor those on whose shoulders we stand tonight, St. Martin’s can go forth to grow in new directions with new people and new blossoms, reaching ever closer to the Son, Jesus Christ, and our Creator God.

How do you build on your traditions, yet adapt to a new era for your church, your families, your congregation and your community so that you stay relevant with the changing times? In my 2007 book True North, I wrote about leaders who know the True North of their beliefs, their values and the principles they lead by. Organizations like St. Martin’s also have a True North. It is built on your history and traditions, but even more importantly on your beliefs, your values and your principles. The discernment you went through in anticipation of calling Rev. Dave Languille to be your rector demonstrated what those principles are.

The challenge I would put in front of you tonight is: How can each of us follow our True North and collectively enable St. Martin’s to fulfill its True North? How can you create a greater community that serves a more diverse congregation. How can you bring more children and grandchildren into the church as they grow to adulthood. How can each of us be servant leaders who serve others in our church and in our community?

“We Are All Called to Be Servant Leaders”

In the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever among you would be great must be a servant. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for us all.” As Episcopalians, our liturgy calls on us “To love and serve the Lord.”

How do we do that? I believe we are all called to be servant leaders, for to lead is to serve, and to serve is to lead. One of the great misnomers is that leaders are people who sit on top of large organization. Actually, this is not true. Each of us is a leader and each of us is called to lead in our own way:

These are all ways we can lead. We are all called to lead, each in our own way. We do so by serving others. As Robert Greenleaf, the creator of the notion of servant leadership, has written: “Good leaders must first become good servants. Individuals are only chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted servants.” He goes on to say: “The only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led.”

Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller wrote in his book, Leadership is an Art, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

Your Calling to Serve

What is your calling to serve? How are you fulfilling your life purpose?

No one can tell you what it is, but each of us can discover our calling to serve through discernment and being part of a community of fellow seekers who are also attempting to serve in the best ways they can.

The one thing I have learned is that our calling is not in our heads, but in our hearts. We must take that long journey of 18″ that Thich Nhat Han refers to. Our calling calls forth our passion, our compassion, our empathy and our courage, all of which are matters of the heart. By being part of a caring community of fellow seekers here at St. Martins, we can nourish our hearts and our souls and, in so doing, discover our true calling to serve.

As Nobel Peace Prize Winner Albert Schweitzer once said, I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

The Mission of St. Martin’s

The mission of St. Martin’s Is “To Transform Lives for the Gospel.” Looking ahead to the next 125 years, how do we fulfill that mission? I believe we do it by being servant leaders – all of us. We do it by providing a safe place where people can be themselves; be respected for who they are, not what they are; and find their purpose here to serve the Lord through their work.

Whether their destiny is to be bricklayers or CEOs, all are respected, indeed cherished, for fulfilling their unique purpose in life … a purpose that we are given by our Creator at birth, yet that may take a lifetime for us to discern in order to fulfill our purpose.

In a community of fellow pilgrims, each striving to fulfill their purpose through serving in their own way, we can find that safe space to be our authentic selves. We can discover our true calling to serve the Lord through serving others. In this way our lives are transformed. We fulfill the true meaning of the Gospel:


Let us pray. Lord, let us be thy humble servants, devoted to serving You by serving others. Show us the light that leads us to a greater purpose. Help us to find the way, the truth and the life by following your son Jesus.

Let us close with the familiar prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen