Christmas Joy Offering – Supporting our leaders: past, present and future.

The Rev. Dr. José Irizarry, the new president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, discusses how to start well

It helps to have an architect’s view of the existing landscape, Irizarry says on ‘Leading Theologically’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. José Irizarry

STONY POINT, New York — The Rev. Dr. José Irizarry collects turtles and children’s books and is a salsa dancer when he’s not busy with his new job as president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Irizarry, the former Vice President for Education at the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was the guest Wednesday of the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty during “Leading Theologically.” Listen to their 32-minute conversation here.

Irizarry even brought along a question for Hinson-Hasty to ask to get the conversation rolling: What is the life story you celebrate today?

“Today what I celebrate in ways I have not celebrated in past years is community. I have come to value the tie to communities, intentional and deep communities,” Irizarry said. “I was telling my wife the other day that it feels like I have become a congregational pastor again. I knew there would be a pastoral role here, but it’s more than pastoral. It’s being in the midst of leading a community that requests [your] time, time for work and time to be together and to worship together. Worship here at Austin is mind-blowing! It is always a joy to go to worship.”

Irizarry has always taken an interest in what he calls “the aesthetics of space.”

“When you’re new in ministry, you have to consistently look at people and the spaces they inhabit,” he told Hinson-Hasty. “Those spaces are embedded with their stories. … You can feel comfortable, but you have to be aware you don’t own the familiarity. Before you arrived at a place of ministry, God has been there with people inhabiting spaces. You have to enter with the humility of someone who will take his or her shoes off and step into that holy space to encounter some sort of revelation about God.”

Being new enables one to bring “a new lens, a sense of wonder. It’s almost childlike,” Irizarry said. “Things that seem normal to people, for me it’s a moment of wonder. … You are focusing your attention in ways people who live in that context every day are not focusing.”

“Some people think we can start anew and see things anew, but we bring traces from prior ministry and prior life. There’s some Philadelphia that’s framing my vision, some Puerto Rico and some Berkeley,” Irizarry said. “Those traces can hinder the way you engage, or they can be an asset.”

Irizarry told Hinson-Hasty he’s using the term “vernacular” more in conversation. When he chooses that word, it’s how an architect might use it.

“Architects want to build something new. They don’t want to replicate,” Irizarry said. “But you have to recognize that when you build something new, it has to be aligned with the landscape. If it’s not, the vernacular, what’s there already, then the building will be useless. People who live in that context will find themselves out of place in that new building.”

For Irizarry, the focus of leadership is relationships. The first one, of course, is one’s relationship with God. “That has to be the basis of every other relationship,” Irizarry said. “It takes time” to form those when one has taken on a new position. “You look at places in the landscape where you see people working and connecting with your passions and your imagination, making churches places of impact.”

That moment of wonder, Hinson-Hasty said, can for some people be a moment of fear.

“The hopeful and the fearful are not a dichotomy,” Irizarry replied. “Fear and terror are part of encountering the holy. It’s a good catalyst to become closer to the community. … We have to do something together to move into the future, to use the fear as a springboard for more creative work.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

Hinson-Hasty asked: What are good first steps for starting well?

“When people ask me that, I get a little anxious,” Irizarry replied. “There is no formula for starting well, for discovering what you are called to be. It doesn’t matter how many books you read about understanding your vocation.”

“But leadership is relational, and it’s something we forget sometimes,” he said. “We feel empowered by our call and we create self-expectations without looking at how others can help us identify what gifts we have and how we can use them.” Most of us have community around us, and for many that starts with family, he said. “Those conversations help you discover what gifts people see in you so that you can add value to whatever community you want to serve.”

Asked by Hinson-Hasty to provide viewers with a blessing and a charge, Irizarry said this: “Enter into the places of your calling to be encountered by the Holy. Be always prompted by the mystery of God’s presence so that in leading, you are caringly led; in listening, you are attentively listened to; and in loving, you are unconditionally loved. Amen.”

Previous episodes of “Leading Theologically” can be found here.


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