By Michael Sullivan
Four years ago, after almost two decades in a parish, I decided to leave parochial ministry for a position as president of the largest camp and conference facility of the Episcopal Church. The board of Kanuga Conference Center and its past president, realizing a pivotal opportunity, had positioned itself for a new era of leadership. Their shared vision for this new era excited me, as the institution seemed poised to further the mission of the Church for a rapidly changing world.
Personal discernment led me to a place founded in 1928 by a daring bishop, the Rt. Rev Kirkman Finlay. A son of immigrants, way ahead of his time in race relations, and daring and bold in his vision for a gathering place for all people, Finlay had envisioned a center that would lead through innovation and experimentation like no other. Away from the comfort of parish life, I found myself amidst 1,400 acres in Western North Carolina where generations of Episcopalians had inherited the legacy of Finlay and experienced the transformative power of this sacred place.
The first three years were difficult. Kanuga’s operations were inefficient and cumbersome. Siloed programs rarely worked with one another despite the best efforts of management at this home to three camps and conference facilities for upwards of 500 people. The mission of the institution could not be articulated clearly by a single employee upon my arrival. After listening to people throughout the Church and guests who have loved the place for generations, we embarked on a year-long process of defining our core values, vision, and mission statements, and reorganizing our structure.
It was painful. Unlearning is without a doubt the hardest lesson of all. We were definitely living in the “Cloud of Unknowing.” But with the executive coaching assistance of Bishop Brian Prior, the former Bishop of Minnesota, we set out to incorporate change management principles in all that we do. Central to our common work was my training from the Clergy Leadership Project of Trinity Wall Street and Ronald Heifetz, the authority on adaptive institutional leadership.
Since the early 2000s, Heifetz has been a guru for many Episcopal leaders. His approach attempts to harness the leadership potential of groups of people, especially as they address recurring systemic problems. His basic method involves using observation, interpretation, and intervention in a circular, ever-evolving pursuit of adaptation. Drawing on his expertise, our team set out to incorporate his methodology in everything we did. We made great strides and began to adapt.
Then, the pandemic hit. Beginning in March, we watched as more than $7.5 million in reservations were canceled. Summer camps closed. What we naively thought might last three months was forecast to last more than a year. Luckily, the Paycheck Protection Program came our way and staff were retained. But exhausting those resources and painfully realizing that our endowment was legally unable to support the level of employees we normally maintain year-round, about 115 full-time team members, we faced the sobering fact that the majority of our beloved team would have to be furloughed.
Sadness became our constant companion. We opened for limited retreats, gaining some revenue, yet that revenue would not cover expenses. While our advancement efforts yielded our best participation in the history of Kanuga, we faced the inevitable: we had to downsize yet again. We had to preserve the institution. The mission of Kanuga had to become our sole focus. Our goal was to survive as the gathering place for all people in the furtherance of the mission of the church.
I wish I had answers for Kanuga and every other institution facing this shared reality. Instead of answers, I find myself constantly living in the cloud of unknowing. Heifetz has helped, but honestly, I have also seen how adaptive leadership may not be as dynamic in a time of real urgency. Mobilizing people in fear brought about by a seismic shift in culture brings entrenchment and smothers creativity. Employees, boards, vestries, and governing bodies long to cling to the past, hoping for a return and doing only those things that preserve the status quo. The disequilibrium of a pandemic, in other words, moves us toward fearful preservation rather than adaptation.
Heifetz’s method remains helpful, but a pandemic brings changes that require bold leadership that is uncharted, unknown, and non-quantifiable. It requires accepting unknowing, unlearning.
A miraculous shift is now blessing us. Instead of seeing unknowing as a threat, we are beginning to see it as God’s blessing. This is our opportunity to change, to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in the tradition of Bishop Finlay, daring to adapt, grow, fail, learn, and reinvent. While every team member wishes we could go back, we recognize now that we cannot.
Some people will return. Some will not. Our core values, mission, and vision haven’t changed. We remain focused on being a gathering place for all people to engender a world of good for all God’s people. The pandemic does not change that. Rather, we work diligently to adapt to the reality of God’s creation, ever evolving, ever moving toward glimpses of the kingdom. As the one called to shepherd this team through the storm, I commit myself daily to letting God’s mission, not ours, define who we are and who we will become.
While in the grasp of the Depression in 1930, Bishop Finlay wrote this in his journal: “I lifted mine eyes up unto these hills, from whence cometh my help, not knowing what will come of this place we now call home.” Those words echo today, and with the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, I cling to these ancient words in my prayers: “When you first begin, you find only darkness, as it were, a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, and this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God… Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after Christ whom you love.”
Four years ago, I did not actually experience a vocational shift. Rather, it was just another step in the journey of and for the Church. May we all embrace the cloud of unknowing and trusting that we indeed always dwell in this place, pandemic or not, “still go on longing after Christ whom [we] love.”
The Rev. Michael Sullivan is president and chief executive officer of Kanuga Conferences, Inc., Hendersonville, North Carolina.