The New Society of Radical Grace

by Rt. Rev. Steve Breedlove on April 29, 2024

It’s full-on spring here in the North Carolina. Having just returned from Bread of Life in Ithaca, NY, I can affirm that spring is showing its beauty in even the most northern communities the DCOH serves. This month’s Out of the Ordinary focuses on a special grace given to Bread of Life which, like the early signs of spring, is beautiful, tender, AND a sign of robust emerging life and fruitfulness. I’m talking about the grace-filled transition of leadership from Rev. Dr. Ryan O’Dowd (the founding rector) to Rev. Dr. David Smith. 

Maybe it’s easiest to describe the basic story of the transition. Three years ago, Ryan and his wife Amy began to wonder if his tenure as rector was coming to an end. His desire to focus on academic theological work (writing, teaching, training national leaders for university study center work) was growing. Ryan had recently published two well-received biblical commentaries and was beginning to frame out two other theological books. For years, he had worked part-time at the Chesterton House, a Christian study center attached to Cornell University, and he desired to seriously consider an invitation to increase his involvement. Coupled with Amy’s settled work at Ithaca College and Emma Clare’s (their youngest child’s) love of friends, sports, and the church, they wondered, “Is there any way to stay involved in the community while passing the baton to a new rector?” (No other Anglican options were remotely available.) 

Ryan broached the topic with me and a few trusted leaders at Bread of Life. After a year of prayer and discussion, and with many unknowns on the table, the decision was made to bring David and Tosha Smith on board with the hope of passing the baton after two years. From the beginning, it was an experiment that many said would never work. Walking this path would require great sensitivity to dynamics in the church family, the feelings and experiences of the O’Dowds and Smiths, and most of all to the voice of the Lord speaking through a team of mature Christians and advisers. The lay leaders at Bread of Life were crucial in this process; Dean Brian Murphy played a significant role. I walked closely with both Ryan and David, and each had their own friends and counselors. Amy and Tosha were at the heart of the discernment process. 

The baton pass was completed in mid-June 2023, and this past weekend I was able to see how things have developed in the past ten months. It is, in a word, remarkable to see the grace of God lavishly poured out on the church through this process. 

Amy is still directing and administering the children’s ministry. Emma Clare is active in the youth ministry and was confirmed this weekend. Ryan continues to teach small group classes for Bread of Life which are always packed (he’s a gifted teacher). Chesterton House, led by Dr. Vivek Mathew (a vibrant leader and an active member of Bread of Life) has grown by 20% in the last year, fueled by the catalytic presence of Ryan’s full-time contribution. Vivek and Ryan are having a creative ball working together. 

In the meantime, David and Tosha are thriving at Bread of Life. As so often happens when the foundations are well-laid and the Spirit is at work, “the new guy” gets to lead significant new growth of the ministry. Bread of Life has grown by 25% in the past year. After a decade of nomadic life, they’ve expanded into new 24/7 classrooms and offices attached to their worship space. The lay leadership team has formed into a normative rotating vestry and the finances are strengthening (aided by consultation with Lee Hilts). David and Ryan both “suit up” for Sunday, and David decides who does what. Ryan gladly takes the roles he is given. Clearly, Ryan and Amy are loved and honored, and David and Tosha are loved and followed by the growing congregation. Multiple people mentioned David’s pastoral ministry in their lives. Open gratitude for the foundational work of the O’Dowds and for the new leadership of the Smiths flows freely among the laity.

Leadership transitions are fragile, requiring skilled care and tending. In this case, there are several principles that I want to note, with gratitude to the Lord, the Master Gardener in charge:

  • Both David and Ryan, and their wives, were sensing a positive call to new ministries, new stages of life in service to Christ. They shared an earnest, honest desire to serve the Lord and his Church, build HIS Kingdom, and protect Bread of Life. 

  • As husbands, fathers, mothers, and wives, all were able to say what they believed would enable their families to thrive, but to submit to the will of God, the wisdom of friends, and voices of lay and diocesan leaders. This was an open, honest, prayerful collaborative conversation. 

  • Humility and gratitude run deep and true in both David and Ryan. Both easily take a place of service. In particular, Ryan was careful to step back and to “disappear” for a couple of months last summer. Back on site, he easily defers to David’s leadership. For his part, David has stepped into the rector’s role but never hesitates to openly thank God for the O’Dowd’s.  

  • Giving glory to God for the miracle of a smooth transition sets a tone within the body fully in keeping with the example of unity, shared leadership roles, deep affection, and mutual respect seen in 1 Corinthian 3:5-11. 

What has happened at Bread of Life is a gift of God’s grace to the Church. It’s not always this way: God’s grace is given to other leadership transitions within his Church that look very different. But I will note that the DCOH has been graced with a number of similar leadership transitions, when the founding leader stays involved and active while stepping aside for the new leader: Christ Church (Winston Salem), Christ the King (Boone), Redeemer (Greensboro), St Francis (Sanford), and Resurrection (Charlottesville). A similar path is emerging at Holy Spirit (Roanoke) for Bishop Quigg and David Sloop. It is certainly the prayer and hope that Bishop Alan and I share for our baton pass later this year. 

I will go on to say that such a collaborative, generous understanding of shifting roles and callings within the body of Christ harmonizes with the vision of the body of Christ that runs through passages like 1 Corinthians 3, 4, 12, and 13, Ephesians 4-5, Colossians 3, and Galatians 5. God intends his Church to be a radically different society, a grace-filled community of love and mutuality. As we mature in years, our ministries shift and grow, our places of service morph. When humility, gratitude, and a determination to serve the Lord of Church in the work of HIS Kingdom dominate our minds and prayers, the New Society of Radical Grace can emerge. By God’s grace, may such experiences be the norm in all of our lives and ministries. 

Previous Page