Know On Whose Shoulders We Stand

One question I’m getting a lot is about what is my responsibility at Guilford College and what are the things I’d like to see happen. I waffle on both of these fronts. One is because at least some of my responsibilities are still unfolding and being discerned. Others are hard to describe or I’m still learning what they are. Stepping into a role that has been carefully tended to and built over more than 30 years requires more sense of call and self than I first realized.  So with the help of many others, I am asking questions like: What is my work to do? What is to be laid down? What is to be shared? What do I desire to bring to the table that is not yet here?

In terms of vision there is a tension between wanting to have something invigorating to offer, “here is my grandiose vision for what comes next,” and realizing the need to just listen and be a good sponge for a year or more. It is easy for leaders to come in and have a vision for the future without having any sense of the current gifts, or a sense of the history and roots that are buried under the soil of the community. And so I am, with the help of others, feeling my way between these two overlapping circles: learning what is here to build upon and discerning what it is exactly that we’re being called to build.

My friend and colleague, Deborah Shaw, who is the director of the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, offered this bit of wisdom to me that has helped to focus all of this even more:

“Know on whose shoulders we stand.”

And that’s it.

And that may very well be “it” in a nutshell for most of all of our shared work together.

I remember the shock and surprise I had when I learned through the reading of Camas Friends history that for more than 70 years they had the practice of being “midwives of the Spirit,” calling new pastors into ministry and helping them nurture and grow into their vocation.

“Know on whose shoulders we stand.”

It shapes the contours of all that is to come. It’s the rebar that will frame any expansions.

And it’s doubtful we can know this in any real deep way by week four or even month six.

My work, and I believe our work, is to know on whose shoulders we stand. You can’t build unless you know upon which you build. What are the materials, tools, conditions, and the purpose of the act of building?

And so let’s all ask: On whose shoulders do we stand?

We may have really good material upon which to build.

Or we may have material that needs to be tossed into the fire, recycled, or reconciled with in some very real and serious ways.

And so this really has become a primary question for me as I settle into my work here.

Beyond this it occurred to me that there are not only many shoulders that “we” stand on here at Guilford College, or in whatever place I currently find my work, but that I bring shoulders with me. I come already standing on shoulders.

When I was still at Fuller Seminary, Mark Lau Branson encouraged us once to read the acknowledgements of a book carefully even though we would most likely not know the names of most of the people in the book. Why would one do that? Because you get a glimpse into that persons community. Their cloud of witnesses. The shoulders upon which she stands. And this is what I kept in mind when I wrote the acknowledgment for my book. I wasn’t just following a formality, or making sure I covered anyone who might be offended to not be mentioned, but I really took time to name the shoulders of the people who have lifted me up, carried me forward, told me not to give up, inspired me, reminded me to trust God and my calling, and encouraged me not to be afraid to be myself.

And so in this new place, in this new work, I am learning whose shoulders we stand on here within this community, but I am also leaning heavily upon the shoulders I packed and brought with me.

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

3 thoughts on “Know On Whose Shoulders We Stand”

  1. What a wonderful reminder! I just came from a meeting of the ambassadors of my local Chamber of Commerce… so many are retiring that I proposed we create a document (written and video) interviewing those folks so we don’t lose the continuity of our history. I will share this sentiment with them and commit to this project, acknowledging those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand.

    P.S. I ALWAYS read the acknowledgements in a book, word for word!

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