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Andrew White is a favorite speaker at Wheaton College, and he was with us again last week. He is an Anglican priest whose parish is in downtown Baghdad. Yes, Iraq. He's affectionately called the "Vicar of Baghdad," and it's a rough job: In the past ten years, some 1,200 of his church members have been killed. When he travels on pastoral visits, he is accompanied by a couple truckloads of armed guards. Just in case.
I've heard Canon White address our students now three times. And in every case he ends the talk with his pastoral mantra. The students know it so well, they finish it before he can.
White tells how many times people caution him while he's in Iraq. They say "Take care." It annoys him; taking care is the last thing he wants to do. So he thunders to all 2,600 of our students, "Don't take care . . ." and they chime in: "Take risks." He currently has a Wheaton graduate as his personal assistant. One of my students, Sally, may join him this summer as an intern. Imagine telling your parents that your 2014–15 summer internship will be in Baghdad. "But don't worry—the church will supply armed men."
As I walked back to my office after another Canon White chapel, I began to think about risk-takers and how important they are to the vitality of the church, or any organization: a ministry, a college, perhaps any gathering that desires to have vision. We need risk-takers. Sometimes they're called prophets. Andrew White is both a risk-taker and a prophet. And like most biblical prophets, he lives large—and dangerously. He is quite happy to speak boldly and forthrightly about what he believes. He is not a cautious man.
It seems most organizations have a variety of leaders who serve somewhere along a continuum between what I call "custodians" and "prophets."
Let's be clear: Prophets can be annoying. They look at the status quo and wonder why it can't be different. They are impatient for change and are driven by a vision for something better, something clearer, than the rest of us normally see. Perhaps like the biblical prophets, they are driven by a vision for justice or compassion or righteousness that compels them to take risks in order to sound the alarm or heighten the community's consciousness. They like change. And they work even subversively in order to enact it. Some of our greatest social reformers—Wilberforce, say, or King—were prophets. The same is true within the church. In their day Luther and Wesley were nothing less than prophetic.
Custodians, meanwhile, maintain the order of things. They keep the lights on and the trains running on time (the very trains the prophets use daily). They value tradition and prefer a social environment where everyone shapes himself or herself around a mission that has been working smoothly for years. They are risk-averse. In fact, they hire professional "risk managers" to keep an eye on things. For custodians, change is less an opportunity than it is a threat. They look at the status quo and see first what they like and easily describe its critics as cynical or unhelpful. And yes, they do not like prophets. Custodians may want to build an expensive new building; prophets may ask why that money isn't given to the poor or sent to Nigeria instead.
Prophets at the extreme end of the continuum can be unhelpful, even destructive. Custodians at the other extreme will easily fossilize an organization. Healthy organizations need both. They need the stability, restraint, and caution of the custodians, as well as the vision, risk-taking, and energy of the prophets. Someone once told me: Steve Jobs at Apple? A technology prophet. Bill Gates at Microsoft? A technology custodian. I value both companies. But it was Apple that changed the world. I wonder if Microsoft keeps the world going round.
However, when prophets and custodians work within the same organization, they have to figure out how to forge a constructive, helpful relationship. Leaders who eventually become presidents, CEOs, editors, and lead pastors assume a role of preserving the legacy of the institution they serve. They are now in management. They understand the cost of upsetting the constituency (or the congregation). They know how much easier it is to lead without prophets distracting them. And they are often constitutionally cautious and careful. It's not that they dislike change; they just change things slowly.
Prophets, on the other hand, push. They make proclamations. And quite often they are right. But quite often the vessel they sail in cannot handle how they'd like the boat to change course. Custodians need to avoid silencing their prophets. Prophets need to keep from subverting their custodians.
I suspect that all of us, with our unique temperaments, could place themselves somewhere along the spectrum. And to some degree it has to do with our tolerance for risk and the experiences that have shaped us over time. I also suspect that churches and Christian organizations cultivate cultures of risk or caution as well. They are either environments that celebrate the prophetic spirit, or places that celebrate that things haven't changed for a hundred years. When I imagine the prophetic church I think of Saddleback or Willow Creek, or ministries like World Relief or Venture International. Each of these is willing to take on front-edge issues courageously. In fact, their members expect occasional surprises from their leaders. They like to be pushed into new, uncomfortable territory. Christian colleges likewise produce distinct cultures that are either custodial or prophetic. And the students they graduate often reflect those values.
This is our dilemma. We need Canon White to remind us to throw caution to the wind. To "take risks" in the name of Jesus so that the world will be confronted with the gospel, even in the dangerous places. But we also need leaders who will mind the home front. Who build the institutions that will last, the kind of institutions that send money to White when his struggling Baghdad parish needs support.
But the problem is this: So often Canon White (and his friends) are welcomed among us as visitors. We celebrate them as speakers. We enjoy their embarrassing eccentricities. We cheer when they describe their risk-taking lives. We laugh when they poke fun at the powers-that-be. But we are also happy to see them go. It is the rare and remarkable custodial institution that welcomes them in, gives them a home, and encourages them to truly be who they have been called to be. Or that doesn't just relegate them to the margin.
Which made me think about Jesus. And Canon White. Jesus likewise lived large and dangerously. He also spoke to matters that made the custodians of his world uncomfortable. And in the end, inevitable conflict ensued.
Evangelicals are excellent institution builders. We can look back at our history and point to risk-takers and claim them in our heritage. And there have been moments when we have truly moved our society into better places, particularly in the past 20 years. But this is probably less common than we like to admit. We have tended to shy away from the prophetic voice for reasons I have never understood. It's rare that we take risks that raise social concerns or justice issues or put our supporters in an uncomfortable place.
I walked from our "Canon White" chapel last week with a cluster of students. "Best chapel ever." "I love it when he comes." "I wonder if I could be his intern." "How far is Baghdad?!" This generation is eager to meet prophets. And follow them. It is our job to keep that voice alive within our ranks, to open our ministries to them, and to recognize the important role they play.
Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous books on the New Testament and the Middle East, and is a regular speaker at churches and conferences. Only his dean knows how he should be located on the custodial/prophetic continuum.