“How will we live together?”

The piece that follows is the third installment in a series on conflict. In my reading and writing of late, I’ve been exploring theories of emergence that challenge leaders to attend to what God is bringing to life in our communities. We can’t do that when scrambling to retrieve an unsatisfying business-as-usual. This piece explores what I learned about tensions between “planning” and “being” in recent days, and what their concurrent pursuit might teach us about leadership amidst conflict.

Our family spent the week of Thanksgiving in Venice, Italy. So, that happened.

Not that families have types, but were there such a thing, it would be safe to say that our family isn’t the type that ups and goes to Europe for a week in the middle of an academic year. With our daughter a senior in high school, who has been studying Italian and will soon go to college, we’ve been making extra effort to say yes to opportunities that might not come along again.

Venice is an aesthetic, historic, architectural, and cultural wonder. It’s also a study in how human beings can coexist in close proximity with one another, a topic that’s important globally as the Covid-19 pandemic enters yet another unpredictable new phase. As I continue to explore different dimensions of leadership amidst conflict in communities, Venice offered up ample food for thought. Not to mention ample food, but that’s for someone else’s ‘blog.

Venice is a city built on what was once watery marshland, settled by Italian war refugees in the sixth century. Over 1.5 millennia, it’s grown and changed, and yet not. We have friends living there who followed a guided walking tour written over 100 years ago that’s still eerily, magically, accurate. Because it’s built in such a way that people can’t get away from each other, you’d think Covid hit Venice hard. Of course, Covid’s hit everyone hard, but Venice not especially so. Venetians are proud of their high vaccination rates and disease prevention rule-following.

Similarly, Venice escaped the very worst of the 14th century’s bubonic plague. Then, Venetian authorities instituted the first citywide quarantine in known human history, and religious leaders — notoriously at-odds on everything else — partnered to dispel myths and protect health. Catholic priests consulted with Muslim doctors and Rabbinic teachers to ensure that all were conveying the same messages, something we can’t seem to manage in the US today.

Our family arrived in Venice on the heels of its seasonal art exhibition, the “Bienialle.” The festival’s title is anachronistic given that it happens every year. This year’s theme was the architecture of togetherness. That tells me that Venetians aren’t sleepwalking through questions of what it takes to live in confined spaces. The Bienialle’s title, “How will we live together?” suggests that questions about what it means to be a community are alive in the minds of Venetians today.

My spouse and I marveled throughout the week at the sheer amount of planning Venice must have required. Ironically, the best part for me about traveling in Venice was that which was unplanned. I’d heard this would be so from those who’d been there before. “You will get lost” was advice I thought I understood but couldn’t have fathomed until walking around in circles and finding it to be weirdly thrilling and fun.

On our last day, I took a self-guided tour of Venice’s historically Jewish neighborhood. Here was my so-called plan: navigate to the Jewish quarter, then put away the map until thirty minutes before meeting my family for lunch many hours later. I basically decided to get lost.

The walk from our hotel was 20 minutes, and my visit to what Italians call the Jewish Ghetto didn’t disappoint. Providing a haven as compared with other European cities in the 16th century, Venice still oppressed its Jewish minority community through isolation, control of movement, and discriminatory policies. I could sense a thickness of both cultural vibrancy and sustained suffering in the neighborhood’s air. I encountered a series of bronze friezes depicting the horror of the Holocaust, each of which moved me deeply.

I took in the significance of the history of the spot where I was standing, and then I put away my map. I wandered for two hours without having any clue as to where I was, and without getting remotely bored. When I finally turned my GPS back on… I was twenty minutes away from my hotel.

If asked to describe the great challenge of my leadership life from the past couple of years, I’d say it’s been finding the right balance between planning and presence. I don’t believe the two are opposing forces, and yet they stand in-tension with one another. My next book, coming out from the Pilgrim Press in 2022, is entitled Intentional Leadership In Between Seasons. Planning and presence are among the five tensions named in the book, so you’d think I had a firm handle on which is called for, when. I don’t.

I’ve been honest with my community about how much I’m learning about the shortcomings of planning in times like those through which we’re living. I’ve also come to appreciate anew planning’s importance. When it comes to planning and presence, we now all need to be truly awesome at both to be effective leaders. That reality isn’t fair, but it’s what the job requires.

To travel to Italy during an academic year for a family that includes one educational and religious administrative leader (me), one teacher (my spouse), and one student (our kiddo) required extremely careful planning. Covid adds a whole new layer to to that planning, and protocols vary, both from place to place and over time. We couldn’t have gone if we hadn’t, all three of us, been meticulously careful about details. And yet the best moments were those when we were just… there.

The weekend before leaving on our family vacation, I paid a visit to a church whose leaders had asked me to come for a conversation about leadership. They’ve been in the throes of conflict with one another, and there’s nothing unusual about that these days. What was unusual was their willingness to sit in the discomfort, tell a stranger (me) about what’s been hard for them, and consider being together in a new way.

I thought about my new friends from this church a lot during my trip. They’re asking the question, “How will we live together?” They’re willing to plan, and they’re also willing to tolerate each other as they figure things out. They could self-isolate — it’s been the new normal, after all — but they choose to thoughtfully consider how to be.

Ironic? Sure, and so is everything about the Christian life, where we throw love at hate, throw life at death, and continue to evolve as people and communities from the moment we’re born until whatever comes next after we die. We are both created beings and a new creation, born again and again into new ways of receiving and responding to God’s love and power.

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Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

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Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

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