Where do you come from? Our history can be a source of strength as we move into the future. I was reminded of this recently when I attended a service for the 100th anniversary of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon, where I live. After the service we attended a breakfast in the church’s brand-new Hellenic-American Cultural Center. Painted on the wall just beneath the ceiling were a number of quotations, including this one: “The branches must not forget their roots, for if they do they will be lost.”
In today’s world it can be easy to want to escape our past. People can move across the country and leave family behind, at least geographically. Institutions must adapt quickly or face extinction. Businesses must be light on their feet or go out of business. But our past always shapes us, even when we don’t think about it. And exploring it can be a source of possibility and hope.
At the Holy Trinity breakfast, several church leaders spoke, including Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco, who spoke of the need for stability and flexibility. He stressed the importance of a firm but not rigid foundation. Flexibility alone is not enough, because we will have nothing on which to build toward the future. Stability alone is not enough, because if we cannot bend, we may break. I was struck by the way these leaders of a very traditional church were both valuing their heritage and looking for ways to make it significant in today’s world.
If you begin to ask questions in your organization, you may find stories of innovation and resourcefulness from the past which will surprise you and inspire those you lead. If you begin to ask questions in your family, you may find stories of adventure and resilience that help you recognize those qualities in yourself. I was surprised to learn about a decade ago that my grandmother (whom I always thought of as a traditional pastor’s wife) went off by herself to teach school in Arizona before she married. I realized that my own adventures were less a break with the past than a continuation of it.
One church I worked with, St. Mark’s Episcopal in Teaneck, New Jersey, found that when they began cooperating with the Catholic hospital next door, everything they did together was successful. The rector, The Rev. Randall Day, learned that Grace Chadwick, the same woman who gave the land for the church in the 1920s also gave the land for the hospital. He says, “As she saw it, these places would serve the community. Their purpose found their original meaning in Mrs. Chadwick’s visionary intention.” The two institutions share a historic connection that makes new things possible in the present.
Who knows the stories? What curious questions can you ask to get them talking? Take note of the strengths and sense of possibility that you hear, and draw on those qualities as you face present challenges.