Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible. – Francis of Assisi
This Sunday thousands of churches across the world will hold annual pet blessing liturgies on St Francis Day. There’ll be the usual dogs and cats, less common animals like guinea pigs and ferrets, and the occasional exotic snake or two. I’ve always been careful to keep my distance when asperging such exotic animals. You just never know how holy water might be received in such circumstances. I think it wonderful that the Church holds such liturgies. It’s a celebration of the whole of God’s creation, something our brother Francis daily encouraged.
Yet focusing only on this part of Francis’ witness doesn’t do justice to his genius as a transformational leader of the Church. You’ll no doubt recall that Francis came to adulthood in the early 13th Century in Europe when the Church seemed everywhere and nowhere at the same time. As an institution it controlled vast wealth, but as a movement following Jesus it had grown poor. It was more concerned with keeping people chained to rules than liberating them through the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus. It was like a big, old leaky barge still afloat going down the river, but it needed transformation.
Enter Francis. Whether Francis deliberately set out to be a transformational leader is unclear from the historical record, but he actually followed closely what has come to be known among organizational theorists as Gleicher’s Model for Change. This holds that change happens when there’s dissatisfaction with the way things are, a vision for the way things might be, and then the first few concrete steps toward that vision for change. If all those steps are greater than the resistance one encounters, then the change will occur. Gleicher’s Model for Change is written like this: C = D x V x V1 > R.
Francis first tapped into his personal dissatisfaction with his own life. By acknowledging his own dissatisfaction, he invited others to do the same with their lives. He and they did not need to go along with the way things were. But dissatisfaction alone just produces grumbling and complaining. It never brings transformational change. Francis also had a vision for how things might be. What if we followers of Jesus sowed love where there was hatred, hope in the midst of despair, or pardon where there was injury? That was the vision Francis put before himself and the first folk who gathered around him. They then took steps to incarnate such virtues in their life together. Soon others shared this vision and the movement grew. The old, leaky barge of the Church never did accept Francis’ vision. In fact, he faced powerful resistance from bishops and princes who were threatened by such a simple vision for living the Gospel together.
While Francis didn’t change the whole Church, he transformed some of it. His witness continues today. His vision calls us in the Church to really become instruments of God’s peace in all parts of our lives.