Servant leadership was a topic that we were familiarized with in seminary. I use the word “familiarize” rather than “learn,” because servant leadership is something that I’m not sure can be learned. I hadn’t heard the term, to my recollection, until I got to seminary many years ago. One can familiarize oneself with the term; learn the definition of servant leadership in a broad context, but to learn how to be a servant leader, I’m not sure is possible at least in a genuine and sincere way.
Bishop emeritus, president of the Servant Leader Institute and author Bennett Sims reflects on the subject of servant leadership as a bishop in the church. He writes, “In actual practice the bishop’s role varies from diocese to diocese, depending on local tradition and the bishop’s personal style, but on the whole he or she must rely on the power of persuasion and example, not on control.”[i]
Bennett Sims does not give a straight definition of servant leadership; you’d have to read an entire chapter to formulate his description of such a person in that role, but in these few words describing his experience as a leader who serves, we find a good sample: “she must rely on the power of persuasion and example, not on control.” A leader who merely makes demands and gives instruction without entering into the work he or she leads is not a servant. But one who leads by example, one who gives direction and follows her own instruction by example and not force, is a servant. And such a servant is a servant-leader. Nell was such a leader.
Nell did not give an instruction that she herself would not follow. As a matter of fact, as an altar guild member in this place since 1960 she not only followed her own instructions, she had already done the task countless times. Nell was a servant leader. We knew what was expected of us and we knew when we fell short of that expectation. It only took a look or maybe just a few words, and you knew where Nell stood on a liturgical practice or an altar guild responsibility or technique. And she never would have you do something in a way that she would not have done herself. A leader, according to Bennett Sims, “must rely on the power of persuasion and example.” Nell led by example. And what an example she set. She not only served on the altar guild for 57 years here, but shaped it and formed it in many ways. Not out of control, but from example.
Now you know that Nell was the consummate Episcopalian; that is, traditional, espousing and expecting the dignity that the liturgical church demands, knowing very well her craft. She shared her knowledge both verbally and by example, but she didn’t necessarily talk about how everything the altar guild does honors Jesus. Even as a devoted thrift shop volunteer, how the thrift shop honored Christ’s presence in the world was not the conversation starter. Perhaps if one did ask how her ministry honored Jesus, she might, just might, have you ask the priest. So that’s what I am going to do. I am going to share with you how Nell’s ministry and the ministry of the altar guild at large, honors Jesus and his Church.
The altar guild in the Episcopal Church is a ministry of the most sacred of things. The vessels, the linens, the cloths, and hangings all work in concert together to honor and give reverence to a man who Christians regard as God with us and among us: Jesus Christ. As the author of John’s Gospel tells us about Jesus, “It is God’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart….” “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
As Jesus gave his very life for his friends and indeed for the world, the Church has instituted the Sacraments of Christ’s Body and Blood as a result of that sacrifice; instructed by our Lord himself that we remember him in this way. The blessed wine, the blessed bread, the vessels, and containers and linens that hold these precious elements, are cared for by the members of the altar guild. The seamless garment worn by the priest – the chasuble – represents the seamless garment worn by Jesus at his Crucifixion. The altar’s fine linen represents the shroud that enwrapped Jesus’ body at his burial. The veil we see at the altar covering the sacred vessels represents the veil that covered Jesus head at his burial. All these are tended to, cared for, and adorn the sanctuary by the altar guild as visuals of the majesty and holiness of God through the person of Jesus Christ. And to the altar guild, this is serious business. As it should be. And Nell made no question about that.
She, with her fellow guild members, served Jesus in this most intimate way. She showed us the proper and most meaningful way to honor Christ through this ministry. How to fold, iron, stow and display these sacred vessels and elements to honor God and to bring each one of us each Sunday and Wednesday and Holy Day, into the presence of the Divine.
One of our Bishops, Jeff Fisher, who oversees pastoral ministries in our diocese, including the altar guild, writes to members, “You are the preparers and keepers and transmitters of some of the coolest stuff we have in The Episcopal Church.” Bishop Fisher goes on to say, “Tell people that altar guild work is not a job. Tell folks that altar guild work is a ministry, a ministry where you are gifted with a rare window into the majesty and serenity of God. Tell people how you encounter Jesus while touching and preparing holy things. You are evangelists!”
The last thing Nell Downum would have thought of herself as is an evangelist. But our own bishop would beg to differ. Her witness and example of teaching and forming those who perform liturgical ministries (which includes me!); and her service – faithful service at the thrift shop where she knew the importance of that ministry to our community, made her one great evangelist. Maybe not always in word, but certainly in deed, she was an evangelist – one who shared the Good News of God in Christ.
If we ever wonder what it means to be a Christian, I’d say we can look to Nell Downum and get a really good idea of what a Christian is. She loved her family. She loved her church. She loved her church family. And she loved serving God in his Church. She did what Christians are supposed to do: she loved and she served. It’s what Jesus calls us all to do. She gave of herself like the good and faithful servant Jesus called her to be. She was a steward of God’s blessings on her life, as she was a blessing to all who knew and loved her. As she herself experienced many seasons in life, her life remained a season of faithfulness and dedication to her Lord; literally until the day she went to her eternal home. In the midst of our grief and sorrow, there is hope and joy, as she takes her place among the saints, shining brighter than ever in Christ’s Resurrection light.
(From the National Altar Guild – the Chalice prayer) Let us pray.
Father, to you I raise my whole being — a vessel emptied of self. Accept, O Lord, this my emptiness, and so fill me with yourself — your Light, your Love, your Life — that these your precious Gifts may radiate through me and overflow the chalice of my heart into the hearts of all with whom I come into contact this day, revealing to them the beauty of your joy and wholeness and the serenity of your peace which nothing can destroy. Amen.
Nell Clark Downum | 1927- 2017