As far as blogging goes, I’ve been quiet. I haven’t submitted a post to ECF Vital Practices since March of this year, which (not ironically) was around the time I accepted a new call as rector of a new congregation – Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland. While that, in itself, would be good reason to be quiet(er) and focus more intentionally on the new community to which I’ve been called, I also didn’t leave my other job – rector of St. George’s, Valley Lee.
At a clergy conference a friend noticed my name tag gained an extra congregation. “Is this like a game of Monopoly?” he asked, wondering how many other ‘properties’ I could pick up along my way. That’s not at all my goal, but at the time I am curious how far we can push things in our church’s fairly outmoded business model. I’m not at all convinced we, the Episcopal Church, have arrived at a truly gospel-centered, ministry-first understanding of how and why we operate institutionally in the ways we do. Nor am I convinced that we really want to engage a prolonged and serious conversation about some of these fundamental ‘business’ assumptions.
In 2015, Vital Posts recorded the planting of a new Episcopal congregation in Brownsburg, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis (Parachute Drop). Rev. Gray Lesesne, D.Min., Church Planter/Pastor, “parachuted” into this suburban area and worked the coffee shop crowd, discovering what he was called to find: diverse people seeking spirituality.
The small seed of a congregation that Fr. Gray planted has grown to nearly 130 people of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church. He says it is “a Spirit-filled operation that has gone beyond our wildest dreams.” The congregation stays united around a mission and identity rooted in service: Good Samaritan Episcopal Church is a growing community of open-minded Christians who seek to do what Jesus taught us: to include, love, and serve all people without exception.
I’m back home preparing for my father’s funeral at the end of this week, and I’ve learned quite a bit being on the receiving end of pastoral care from a local church.
My dad, Dale Bentrup, is a lifelong Lutheran and a stalwart at the two churches he’s attended in my lifetime. His pastor, a dear friend of mine, has been a source of great comfort for my mom and family. And the outpouring of love and support from parishioners has taught me more about the role of the church than three years in seminary ever could.
Of all the word pictures and metaphors used to describe the church, one has always stuck with me: family. But as I’ve thought about it some this past week, I’ve decided that “family” isn’t a very good metaphor for the church.
For many, their only worship experience or connection with other Episcopalians are in their home congregations. There are churches that are less than a mile apart and as individuals or congregations we have never visited or seen the inside of our neighboring churches.
The reasons given for being strangers to each other are many: we are too busy; they are “high” church and we are “low” church; we didn’t know there was another Episcopal church nearby; their members are of another ethnic or cultural background; it is hard to plan logistically given worship times, etc. How can we be welcoming and inviting to non-Episcopalians when we find it so difficult to exercise that habit among ourselves?
Discussions of crowd size have blanketed the news this past month. Friday’s crowd was small, and Saturday’s crowd was bigger, so we judge the value of these two ideas based solely on audience participation.
The Episcopal Church knows a thing or two about decreasing crowd sizes. Too often, our “success” and significance as parishes (and as a national church) are measured by large numbers and our average Sunday attendance. The average ASA for parishes across the country dropped from 60 in 2014 to 58 in 2015. We can’t dispute those facts. But what if we could provide more meaningful information, by asking alternative questions?
Music has always been a struggle in our Spanish service at St. Mary’s. As we have slowly built membership in our largely low-income neighborhood, we are not anywhere close to generating the kind of offerings that would fully support the clergy time that goes into the service, much less paying a professional musician. We’ve tried different things over the years -- a priest with a guitar or piano, a capella singing, some paid musical help. In recent years, we’ve come upon what I would argue is the best musical situation yet: bartering for band music.
The message heard loud and clear at our monthly UBE (Union of Black Episcopalians) meetings at different congregations throughout the Diocese of New Jersey was how difficult it was to fill all Sunday services with a clergy person. The reasons were varied; the congregation may have been in transition, or the full time clergy was on vacation, on sabbatical, or even ill.
One idea stood out from all of our discussions. A clergy person suggested we re-embrace layperson led Morning Prayer as a legitimate form of Sunday morning worship. Response was mixed. Anglicans from the Caribbean or Africa experienced Morning Prayer often, due to less frequent clergy availability due to the number of congregations to be served. Older members had positively experienced Morning Prayer as common practice in times past. For others it was a harder pill to swallow, as they believed if there was no Communion then we didn’t really have a Service. There was also feedback that Morning Prayer was unfulfilling and it some cases even boring.
Back to school time! Pencils, pencil boxes, notebooks, markers, glue sticks, tissues, hand sanitizer... Lists of required school supplies are long and diverse for each grade, each school. Many churches engage their members to “shop the list” and bring items to be given to families in need, often supplying backpacks too – sometimes several hundred at a time.
Today, we highlight the extraordinary backpack ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church in Logansport, Indiana (Diocese of Northern Indiana). Trinity’s average Sunday attendance is 65. On August 6, many of those folks distributed more than 750 backpacks and all the supplies students needed.
In 2006, when Trinity first realized the community need, the church gave away 40 filled backpacks. School Supply Giveaway project chairperson Deb Miller says the effort grew because of the “generosity of spirit” living in the people of Trinity.
A colleague recently mentioned that she was starting a music project for Christmas. The commitment for participants would be six weeks of rehearsals. She said it seemed much easier to get people to commit to something that had a clear start and finish date, rather than asking for an open-ended commitment.
Her plan got me thinking about how many church commitments are either open-ended, or just really long. Join the choir, and how do you ever get out? Join the vestry and you’ve just given away three years.
Once you’re on the hook for a long commitment, the only way out is to quit. Most people don’t want to be quitters. That alone may be enough to keep some people from joining.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my lifers in the choir. There are some Sundays when I only get up to go to church because I know they will be there, and I will get to sing with them. But not all of us are cut out to be lifers. When the only choices we are offered are an open-ended commitment and no commitment at all, many will opt for no commitment. Over-committed has become a way of life in some demographics. And most people still take commitment seriously. They would rather say no than fail to live up to what they have promised to do. They worry that they may have already taken on too much.
How many of the ministries in your congregation operate on a concrete, manageable timeframe? Do you offer people regular ways in and dignified ways out?
I am reminded again and again that ministry takes time. Relationships take time. Changes takes time. New life takes time. Even resurrection took three days, for heaven’s sake.
We are in a huge hurry in the church these days. In part, we are making up for lost time -- time when we should have been reaching out and were mostly reaching in. But just because we didn’t pay attention to everything that we might have doesn’t mean that new ministries and new efforts will grow overnight. Just because we are worried that we might die before we find ways to grow again does not mean that we can rush the growing process beyond its natural rhythm.
I am blessed to be part of a collaborative ministry that includes a parish I served ten years ago. That parish was struggling then, and it still has its struggles. But it has much of the vibrancy and freedom and depth of relationship that I dreamed and hoped and prayed for it ten years ago, very little of which I saw in the time I was actually there. The people who have hung in there with the ministry see the beauty of the church’s scrappiness and love one another more deeply than they did when I was there. They are more motivated to bridge gaps of culture and language because trust has grown, trust that they are all working with love to build one church.
I’m not sure the Bible mentions the word pluck (other than a few pesky references to removing one’s eye), but Jesus is clear time and again that his followers should exhibit the values imbued in the word.
Trusty Webster defines pluck as a “courageous readiness to fight or continue against odds. Dogged resolution.”
Doomsday scenarios have the church withering on the vine, with statistics showing steep declines in the participation of organized religion. These numbers are sobering and should be cause for serious reflection and change. But I worry we’ll stew so long, that we will see the challenge is too big, that we miss wonderful opportunities in our own communities to be the church for which God is calling us and people are hungry.
Here’s a story of one plucky congregation.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join them.
That’s what the people of Grace, Pomeroy decided.
Each Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of Harley Davidson motorcycles roll into the small Ohio River town for an annual holiday ride.
The revs of the engines drowned out the singing of the hymns on Sunday morning. The members of the congregation had two choices: hunker down and sing louder or complain to the local city officials.
I used to think I belonged to a small Episcopal Church. Both the parish where I grew up, in Lake Geneva, WI, as well as my congregation in New York City probably have about 60 people in worship on Sundays. I’ve known the rectors and their families well. It’s easy to identify the key lay leaders and know almost everyone by name, whether they serve on vestry, choir, Sunday school or outreach ministries. It’s a size I like, manageable in its relationships yet dynamic enough when engaged in the wider community.
But compared to the swelling Catholic and Nondenominational congregations of my hometown, or the tall steeple churches of NYC, they seem small.
In fact, they’re average. Statistical reports show that the median congregation in The Episcopal Church had an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of 65 persons in 2010.
Beyond statistics, new experiences are reminding me that “small” is relative. A few weeks ago I attended the annual meeting of a little rural parish in Western Massachusetts. 17 people sat around two folding tables for a potluck lunch, listening to reports and engaging in a conversation about hospitality. A few things about this little church caught my attention:
Shakespeare was right: Parting is such sweet sorrow.
We are in the midst of these dueling emotions. Christmas Day will be the last service at our current churches. Three weeks later, we begin a new call with a new congregation.
And we’re excited. The new church has lots of children and some amazing programs. The people are energized about mission and passionate about community. The location is two hours nearer to my side of the family. And after six years of telecommuting with a weekly (or more) 2 ½-hour drive, I’ll be three miles from the diocesan office.
God is good.
The call came a few hours after the parish meeting.
A young dad, he wanted his priest to know about a situation, in case it escalated. The diocesan transitions officer was meeting with the people of the parish to talk about next steps since their priest had accepted a new call. We didn’t stay for the meeting – to give people space and time to discuss the transition without the priest at the table – so we didn’t hear about the kerfluffle until the call.
This couple started attending the church around Easter. Two weeks ago, the bishop celebrated their reception into The Episcopal Church. Yesterday, they hosted coffee hour, and the wife is heading up the Giving Tree. In short, they are an answer to what every congregation says it wants: young, involved families.
Who would think that cleaning up graffiti and cracking down on jaywalkers could lower crime rates?
This is the main premise of the broken-windows theory, which posits that a cleaner, more orderly neighborhood is less likely to attract criminals. On the flip side, a neighborhood with broken windows, litter, and graffiti creates an atmosphere of lawlessness and invites crime.
In the 1990s, New York’s police chief Bill Bratton put this theory into practice with a zero-tolerance policy, strongly enforcing the law on petty crimes. During his tenure, the crime rate in New York City dropped significantly. I interviewed Chief Bratton in the late 1990s when I was a young cub reporter. I know some critics have dismissed the broken-windows theory and attributed the decline in crime rates to other factors, but I’ve always thought there was merit to the idea. And I’ll always remember his passion for finding long-term solutions instead of reactive band aids.
Regardless of its worth in crime fighting, I think there are some applicable lessons for churches, particularly when it comes to the upkeep of our facilities.
The economic news in Dayton, Ohio, isn’t good.
Long a manufacturing hub, the city has acutely felt the national financial woes. One in 10 workers are unemployed, and job loss is among the highest in the state.
But leave it to the Episcopal churches there to find a silver lining.
For the past 2 ½ years, the wardens of the Dayton area have met quarterly. Note: the clergy meet for clericus gatherings as well. That’s pretty common. But what is unusual is the lay leadership committing to regular meetings to find creative ways to collaborate during these troubling times.
Herb beckoned for my husband to come to the bus door.
My daughter found this book for me, Herb said. It is really amazing. I’m learning all kinds of new things.
Have you ever seen a book like this?
The words “Holy Scripture” scrolled across the hardcover. The book had seen some use, with nicks at the corners and a few dog-eared pages. On the inside flap was a publishing date from the early 1930s. It was part of the Episcopal Church's Teaching Series.
“If no one else signs up to help, you’ll have to bring me in on a stretcher next week.” This was the closing line of a lay leader’s announcement last Sunday, as she pleaded for more volunteers to make blueberry cobbler for the town’s annual Fall Festival next weekend.
I signed up. Not because this was the best recruitment pitch (far from it), but because I’m new in town and the parish. It sounded like an easy way to get to know a few people, lend a hand, and participate in the Fall Festival as more than just a tourist. (Later, friends told me this Episcopal Church’s blueberry cobbler was one of the highlights of the Festival!)
But after Sunday worship, as a few of us huddled around the beleaguered project leader discussing what needed to be accomplished in the coming week, I heard a vestry member say, “I don’t know if we can continue this next year. If there isn’t enough support, we might have to drop it.” For the moment, they’d do what they could to cook and serve more than 860 portions of blueberry cobbler over two days, to anyone who visited this little New England town.