Each summer I clear time to read novels about clergy. Such reading provides a diversion from the literature that dominates my in-box at work. It also allows me to step back and look at congregational life, ministry, and my own vocation from various perspectives. Over the years this literary odyssey has led me to encounter classic portraits crafted by Willa Cather, Graham Greene, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and John Updike. It has also exposed me to the potboilers of Andrew Greeley and to send-ups like those of Frederick Buechner. Such books help me to know my world and myself differently.
This summer’s reading included Jan Karon’s At Home in Mitford. The first in a series that now includes six sequels, At Home in Mitford reached bestseller status in the New York Times book section when it appeared in 1994. So I plunged in, seeking to gain another picture of contemporary congregational life—and to see what drew such a large following.
Let me confess at the outset that Karon’s perspective is a bit too rose-tinted for me. The story is set in a bucolic North Carolina community that oozes small-town charm and quaintness in large doses. At times her characters seem almost cartoonish, and the dialogue employs too many clichés for my taste.
Often such responses lead me to set a book aside and move on. But I read on because Karon was describing a precious quality of ministerial leadership—one increasingly difficult to sustain in our complex, fractured, harried, instrumental, and superficial world. Idyllic Mitford serves as a small-scale environment (a rare phenomenon these days) in which we see a kind of leadership easily obscured in our less charming and larger-scale settings.
Father Timothy Kavanagh, the local Episcopal rector, knows things that no one else knows. By virtue of his office and his personality, he knows the people of his community. Karon invites us to eavesdrop on pastoral conversations in Father Tim’s study, home visits to parishioners and town residents, hospital calls, breakfast conversations at the neighborhood diner, and sidewalk encounters that seem to happen more readily in face-to-face communities. As the story unfolds, we watch the rector gain a rare kind of knowledge—let’s call it “relational.” As he moves through the lives of Mitford’s people, the priest learns their stories, their secrets, their heroism, their failures, and their dirty knowledge of sins long buried and sorrows long endured. In vestry meetings, in chats with the altar guild, in conversations with the church secretary and the housekeeper, the rector constantly picks up information on the lives of those to whom he ministers. One of Father Tim’s important qualities is his openness to interruption. No day goes as planned. But as people stop by to chat, or as he bumps into someone in a shop, new realities emerge that set him off in unanticipated directions. By being available, he learns of a beautiful woman’s hidden sickness and of a rebellious youngster’s need for love and acceptance.
Tim is more than a blotter, however. He enters this mix of stories and makes connections. He helps the sick woman gain access to a new kind of medical care. He turns his own home upside down by inviting the homeless boy to live with him. As he moves from one pastoral encounter to the next, we see him leading his community by valuing people’s lives and listening to their stories, changing the future by hearing people’s hopes and connecting them. In one way or another he reshapes the town of Mitford as he creates relationships with its people. The special knowledge he gains through his pastoral practice and relationships allows him a kind of influence that few others possess.
To be sure, Jan Karon tells this story in a light, romantic vein that will strike many as unrealistic. But she taps into a pervasive human longing to be known in a special way, one that is not primarily instrumental (what can you do for me today or tomorrow?), and one that grows over time.
As I closed Karon’s novel, I turned next to some fascinating studies by Daniel Goleman and others at Harvard University on the hot topic of “emotional intelligence.” The principal insight of this new literature is that people are moved to act, achieve, and change not primarily by the rational logic of smart leaders. Rather, it is through the emotional relationship between leaders and people that the people are freed to act.
For me, the irony is that the special kind of knowing that now seems a quaint artifact of Mitford has long been one of the most important capacities of clergy leadership. At a time when congregational leaders find it increasingly difficult to sustain such relationships (one thinks of factors ranging from clergy sexual misconduct to overloaded calendars), the worlds of business and government are working to create emotionally intelligent leaders. The challenge for us is not to attempt to take our congregations back to Mitford. Instead we must find new ways to practice the special kind of knowing that changes lives and builds communities.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.