June 22, 2015 by Linda Buskirk

When there is so much happening, or so much to do in the present, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine the future. Here’s a fun exercise to move people to envision how their church could make an exciting difference in the world.

Vision is inspiring because it describes impact. To help people understand this concept, start the exercise by asking the question: What are some ways our ministries currently impact the people of our congregation and our neighborhood or community? In other words, what are some results of our ministry in this place?

Record the answers of people on a flip chart. Encourage stories that describe impact. For instance, if someone says the impact is “beautiful worship,” explain that beautiful worship is what we do, but what is the impact of our beautiful worship? Ask the person if s/he can give an example of how her/his life, has been impacted by the worship at the church (which I hereby name St. Alban’s).

This is sometimes a bit of a stretch for people. Asking them to describe impact helps prevent simple listing of the features of the parish.

Next, divide the audience into small groups of 3 to 6 people, and give these instructions:

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Topics: Discernment
May 15, 2015 by Lisa Fischbeck

It took me a while to notice, but summer is a hard season in the life of a church in a university town. People leave. We wish them well, we pray them on their way. And we grieve.

A church with young adults experiences this a lot. A church that embraces change as one of its descriptors experiences it even more. A church that is open to change attracts people who like change, not only in their church, but also in their lives. Off they go. Some to a first job, others to another job, some to be ordained as priests, others to be closer to extended family.

Others drift. They drift away from church altogether. Our church is their last stop, their last attempt at Christian Church. They arrive, excited that there is a church that would accept them on their journey of life and faith and doubt. But the talk about Jesus is uncomfortable. The Creed as declaration of faith feels like a roadblock. They love the community, they say, but the Christian faith just doesn’t ring true. They find their way to Buddhist practices or yoga, to coffee shops or bike trails.

Others drift away because they find the community lacking. They find what seem to be more meaningful communities in their neighborhoods or their children’s schools. Or they don’t feel comfortable around the prisoners in the congregation, or that we pray for the guy in our congregation who was arrested and is now in jail. Not enough lesbians, too many gays, not enough people their age, not enough children. This latter complaint is truly frustrating: How will we ever have enough children to satisfy them if the people with children keep leaving because we don’t have enough children?

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Topics: Discernment
April 7, 2015 by Greg Syler

This is really a book-length issue about which I’m only going to write a few hundred words. Underneath all of this is a library-full of information, plus an entire life’s journey and discernment. I’m thinking about baptism. It’s Easter, after all, and these 50 Days of Easter are the season of baptism.

Christianity’s one big sacrament of initiation has a noticeably wide spectrum of practice and belief and interpretation surrounding it. From Jesus and John in the Jordan River – and the gospel authors’ mild disagreements about what was happening there – to the divergent ways in which Christ’s earliest followers went about baptizing converts, at least according to the earlier chapters in Acts of the Apostles, to the fundamental question that arose much later in the tradition about where and when and how the Holy Spirit shows up, it can be said that baptism has a profound and yet uneasy both/and nature about it: baptism is both initiation and cleansing; something both for believers and for those who don’t yet (fully) understand; both customary practice and a radical, personal, individual decision. In our current baptismal rite, I think the 1979 Book of Common Prayer captures brilliantly such diversity; it’s a rite which allows for believer baptism and infant baptism and, by consequence, renders that other initiatory sacrament – confirmation – somewhat in question. Like I said, there’s a library full of information and a life’s journey to answer questions and question answers.

The point of this blog post, however, is not to delve more deeply into traditions and histories and theologies of baptism but to encourage the pastoral art of, let me call it, theologizing-on-the-ground.

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Topics: Discernment
April 6, 2015 by Jeremiah Sierra

This past weekend I went to an Easter Vigil at a large Manhattan church. It was a lovely service, crowded, with beautiful music and several baptisms. It was not, of course, perfect. There was a microphone that didn’t work and a noisy child sitting behind us, up way past her bedtime, talking and crying through most of the service.

I have to admit I’d prefer a quieter service, but I also want children to feel welcome and at home in church. Ultimately, you just have to let the children be themselves, which means a bit of extra noise.

This is, I've been reminded recently, how life works: we have to live with noise and imperfections. Children are loud and messy. Sometimes they cry. That’s simply something we must accept. So it is with any community or even individual. There are parts of us that are loud and messy. There are times when we will feel anxious and fearful, when we will accidentally break things, and when we will feel sick and sad. There’s no way around this. 

There’s a temptation to believe we can fix ourselves and our communities, perhaps even perfect them, but this is not how reality actually works, nor is it the Christian story. The story we celebrated this past weekend does not ignore the pain and messiness of life, but rather blesses it. In Holy Week we commemorate the life and death of a savior who suffered, of a God who suffers. Resurrection does not erase pain and death. There is still a scar in Jesus’s side, holes in his hands and feet. The disciples are still afraid and sinful. The world remains imperfect.

No, in the story we tell every Holy Week, God loves and blesses our misshapen, broken hearts, our unpredictable, loud, and noisy world.

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Topics: Discernment
February 5, 2015 by Richelle Thompson
I’ll be honest. For many years, I saw “professional development” as code for relatively fun junkets away from the office. The idea of taking a retreat or sabbatical seemed like more of an excuse to get out of work than a needed time for reflection and rejuvenation.
I’ve changed my tune. In 2013, I attended Credo, a retreat sponsored by the Church Pension Group as a time to refocus and define spiritual, mental, financial, and physical goals. (Sadly, this was the last Credo for lay employees; the program continues for ordained folks). At about the same time, I began a year-long program through the local Chamber of Commerce for women in leadership. At the close of both, I knew that I had made some important decisions and experienced some needed renewal.
But the real fruits are coming to bear now, two years later. I had no idea the seeds that were planted during this time apart from the stresses of everyday life. But I’m experiencing them now.
In the past two years, I’ve switched careers, finding myself open to a job change after a decade working for an Episcopal diocese. It was a risk in many ways, but I’m finding that I’m happier and more fulfilled in my work than ever, and I believe I’m living into God’s call for my life and gifts. I am learning how to be a manager of people, and I’m certain that I would not have been open to the changes I needed to make in my work style and expectations without these two programs. The time away afforded me the opportunity to really reflect on my strengths and weaknesses, to develop an action plan of how to improve certain areas and to be more cognizant and responsive to others and their particular quirks. Promises that I made about my physical health are finally being realized after two years of gestation.

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Topics: Discernment
September 29, 2014 by Jeremiah Sierra

I begin today with a confession: Sometimes, when I feel like my life is just too full, I skip church. About a decade ago, this is something I would have judged myself pretty harshly for. You go to church not because it’s easy and you feel like it, but because it’s an essential part of a life of faith. Now, I feel I was a little too rigid.

Occasionally, my life just feels too full. Work has been busy lately and I’ve been traveling. I’ve got several to-do lists and several writing and side projects, dozens of emails I haven’t responded to, and of course, I really need to get to the gym. I want to be a good steward of the limited amount of time I’ve got on this earth, but I’ve only got so much bandwidth. I know I'm not the only person who feels this way.

When I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, I often read articles about productivity (instead of actually checking things off my to-do list), and one of the articles I read recently was about information overload. Our brains have a limited capacity for decision-making. We're made to do one thing at a time. Now, we are given more choices than ever and more information than ever and that doesn’t necessarily make our lives easier. We’re meant to be uni-taskers, but we’ve forced ourselves to become multi-taskers.

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Topics: Discernment
September 15, 2014 by Jeremiah Sierra

I’m reading a book this week by the priest, theologian, and amateur cook Robert Capon called Supper of the Lamb. It’s part cookbook and part meditation on life and God. There are recipes and there’s a whole chapter devoted to cutting an onion and there are paragraphs sprinkled throughout on our relationship to the creation.

For example:

"Creation exists in its own right, is no parable, no front, no Punch and Judy show in which God plays all the parts, but a vast and vacuous meeting where each thing acts out its nature, shouts I am I, as if no other thing had being. The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms; wine is to be wine: Things are precious before they are contributory."

In other words (I think), it’s an appreciation of the creation for what it is, not for what it can do for us. It’s a reminder to stop and look closely at things and appreciate them as the gifts they are.

One of the reasons I’m enjoying the book is that sitting with it feels like stepping outside the flow of things happening in my life and in the world. A book with a chapter about peeling an onion is self-consciously not in a hurry.

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Topics: Discernment
September 10, 2014 by Greg Syler

The return of school and these post-Labor Day days seem to have kicked the whole world – and no less the church – back into program mode. Bible studies and Sunday schools and small groups and senior ministries and other programs are in full swing, or at least they’re getting there. That’s a great thing. But why are we doing this, anyway?

The other day, I was talking with a friend. “I’ve got to tell you something,” she said, “I’ve been going to another church!” I heard genuine excitement in her voice. And I also heard a little anxiety. Previously, she and her family had been active in their local Episcopal church. She first found her way into that congregation through their passion for social justice and the food pantry they run in their economically mixed neighborhood. My friend, you see, has a real passion for justice and even though she was raised in a nominally Christian household, she was never drawn to God or organized religion in her 20s. Volunteering with the food pantry, however, led her to eventually make connections with and ground her life in the worship and fellowship of that congregation. In time, her children were baptized at that parish church.

“What’s the new church?” I asked.

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Topics: Discernment
July 28, 2014 by Jeremiah Sierra

Every Sunday at St. Lydia’s we read a poem after prayers. I know, reading poetry at dinner church in Brooklyn sounds a little like your stereotypical hipster church, but I find that it is an authentic expression of our community.

For example, this past Sunday I read Mary Karr’s poem, Disgraceland, which is lovely and funny and bracing. It spoke to me, because of the beauty of the words, the way they surprised me and told a story that was bigger than itself. I don’t pretend to understand every line, but understanding isn’t everything.

Now, I’m not all that qualified to talk about poetry. I wrote a poem once in the fifth grade and I think that’s the last time I tried. But I love how poetry feels to me like prayer, something somewhat mysterious that does not speak to me explicitly, but nonetheless reveals something sacred.

My friend Joel Avery recently wrote this blog entry about science and religion, which I think touches on this same idea. He studied physics and now is in divinity school. People ask him about the conflict between science and religion, and his answer is art. “Art doesn’t trump science or religion,” he writes, “art stands as a reminder that there is no trump.”

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Topics: Discernment
June 18, 2014 by Greg Syler

This past fall, St. George’s took the RenewalWorks survey. Based on the work of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church and adapted by the Jay Sidebotham for purposes of use in The Episcopal Church, RenewalWorks is an incredibly thorough survey that seeks to get at spiritual life and vitality. It presumes that the questions we need to be asking are whether, in fact, people are growing in their walk with God in Christ? Whether people are expanding their understanding of discipleship? (Conversely, it does not ask whether people like their church or are (dis)satisfied with their congregation.) RenewalWorks focuses intently on a given person’s spiritual life and growth trajectory and determines, in turn, whether that person’s congregation is meeting or slowing down or helping propel that overall growth.

If, when someone takes the survey, s/he says such-and-such is absolutely vital to their spiritual life and growth but that item is not found in their church life – or is only there insufficiently – that thing shows up as a big red flag.

In our case, it was music and worship. Specifically, this statement triggered the greatest discrepancy: “The worship and music in my church feeds my spiritual life.”

Most of the survey respondents said that music and the arts of worship are critical to their spiritual wellbeing and growth. And what really set off the survey instrument was that they also said, in successive questions, that the music and worship they were getting as their daily bread in church was not on par with what they were feeding themselves throughout the course of the rest of their lives. Note that the survey did not ask whether they liked or did not like the music in church. It asked them what was working, or not, in their daily, personal spiritual disciplines. And it discovered, through a series of other questions, that there was a disconnect between the two.

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Topics: Discernment
May 14, 2014 by Erin Weber-Johnson

Summer is the perfect time to recruit volunteers. Fewer committee meetings mean more time for the one-on-one visits so important to matching the right person to the job.

Yet, recruiting volunteers for fundraising is more than simply filling a slot. Its an opportunity for mentorship, fostering greater engagement between the volunteer and the parish, and enabling others to live into their calling.

So… what happens when a parishioner’s call doesn`t meet your volunteer opening? ECF financial resources program director, Terri Mathes tells the following story:

“I had two committee chair positions to fill for the foster home my parish runs in Tijuana: fundraising and trip coordinator. This was at the height of the drug wars in Mexico, when the San Diego papers carried photos of corpses left "as a message" along the main avenue of Tijuana. Who on earth would lead monthly trips to the foster home in the middle of that?

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Topics: Discernment
March 19, 2014 by Bob Leopold

At Southside Abbey, we handle sermons a little differently. They are more like conversations born from questions posed to the community at worship. People break into small groups, discussing the readings and responding to these questions. The groups share that work and I (or whoever else is preaching) add a capstone “homilette,” often jettisoning what I have prepared for the week in favor of what the groups have lifted up.

This last week's readings contained perhaps the most well-known verse from the entirety of Holy Scripture: John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But neither Jesus, nor the lectionary stop there. We also get John 3:17, the “two” of the “one, two punch” of these verses. Jesus continues, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In the South, we hear and see (on t-shirts, bumper-stickers, etc.) much attention paid to John 3:16 – particularly the phrase “eternal life” – with virtually no attention paid to Jesus' non-condemnation bit. The question that spurred our Friday night discussion in light of these two verses was: “What does God saving the world through Jesus look like?”

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Topics: Discernment
February 19, 2014 by Bob Leopold
My previous post on servant ministry generated some discussion on Facebook. Thanks for that! Maybe we can go a little deeper on the topic of servant ministry.
First, I would concede that “servant ministry” and “ministry” are probably just synonyms. I like to use the phrase “servant ministry” because it keeps me honest. By intentionally using the word “servant,” I can keep that aspect of ministry always in my mind.
Second, I was asked to give examples of servant ministers. First and foremost, Jesus is an example of a servant minister who people followed. Often Jesus' ministry leads Jesus to give something of himself away. Sometimes Jesus gives himself away figuratively, as he does when he honors those society deems least. Sometimes Jesus gives himself away more literally, as he does when he heals. Sometimes Jesus gives himself away quite literally, as he does on the cross or when he says to his disciples, “Take, eat. This is my body.” Even in this eucharistic action, Jesus is serving.
Beyond Jesus, any servant-ministers I could tell you about would be tied to our context at Southside Abbey. The activities to which the Spirit calls us give able opportunity for servant ministry. Following the last church year, we have had:

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Topics: Discernment
January 8, 2014 by Nancy Davidge

Welcome 2014! 

That beginning of a new year offers a clean slate: A chance to start over, to rid oneself of unproductive habits; an opportunity to be more of those things one would like to be more of, and less of those things that weigh us down. In 2014, my resolution is to minimize the stress I create for myself – to pay attention to the ways I can unnecessarily complicate things, to teach myself to recognize the triggers, and to learn how to keep things simple.

For many congregations, January brings annual meetings and vestry elections. Changes in leadership teams bring opportunities for new ways of looking at the familiar challenges related to congregational finances, membership, and mission. As new vestries form, fresh perspectives emerge as the group begins their work together to discern what God is calling them to do.

In our January Vestry Papers, we share stories and experiences of congregations and vestries who are facing – and successfully navigating – the realities of a changing world while remaining faithful to God’s call.

Here are their stories:

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Topics: Discernment
January 1, 2014 by Rosa Lindahl Mallow

Nota - Este artículo es disponible en español aquí.

The busy-ness leading up to Christmas has given way to that somewhat uneasy ‘in between time.’ We did all the things we knew how to do to make Christmas Christmas—put up the ornaments and the tree, wrapped presents, made (and ate) Christmas cookies, observed Advent as best we could, and still got stressed out more than once. Maybe there were moments in all that where wonder found us. Whether we were the preacher or a member of the congregation, once again, we heard words wrapped around the mystery of God’s coming to dwell among us. Then almost as soon as it had arrived, Christmas was gone, none of the post-Christmas sales notwithstanding. Now all we see on TV is stuff about the year that was, the new year that’s about to arrive. Life starts feeling like a question: What comes next? What just happened? What does it all mean?

I’ve learned to treasure ‘in-between’ times like the week between Christmas and New Year’s with their ambiguity and the way they leave me feeling disoriented. First, this is an opportunity to ask myself—so how was this Christmas? We are great at adding new pieces, new parts to what we define as Christmas in our family, in our community, even inside our own hearts. It is harder to let go of the things that no longer have the same meaning or space in our lives. After the fact, and without judgment or rush, this may be a good moment to jot down some things to remember not to do next year.

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Topics: Discernment
January 1, 2014 by Rosa Lindahl Mallow

An English version of this article is available here.

Se acabo el corre-corre que lleva a la navidad y ahora nos encontramos en un momento de transición. Hicimos todo lo que pudimos para hacer llegar la navidad. Decoramos la casa, pusimos el pesebre o el arbolito de navidad, empacamos regalos, preparamos (y comimos) los manjares de esta temporada festiva, pudimos guardar momentos de adviento y de todas maneras, hubo ocasiones en que nos sentimos estresados. Ojalá que tambien hubo momentos de maravilla frente al misterio de la navidad. Ya sea como miembros del clero o de una congregación, una vez más escuchamos palabras que exploraban al misterio de un Dios que quiso venir a estar con nosotros. Así como llegó de un momento a otro la navidad, así mismo pasa en un instante a pesar de que seguimos viendo los anuncios en la tele para ventas superbuenas. Ya lo único que se escucha es a los telelocutores hablar de los eventos del año que ya pasó y lo que traerá el año nuevo que se aproxima. La vida parece convertirse en un interrogante estos días:¿y ahora qué? ¿Qué pasó? ¿Qué significa todo esto?

He aprendido a valorar momentos entre un evento y otro tal y como sucede entre la navidad y el año nuevo. Son momentos de ambigüedad y desorientación que me permiten preguntar honestamente, ¿qué tal estuvo esta navidad? Nos queda fácil seguir añadiendo cada vez más cosas a nuestras celebraciones de navidad en familia, en nuestra comunidad, incluso dentro de nuestros propios corazones. Nos cuesta más trabajo soltar lo que una vez tuvo significado y ahora sólo nos complica la vida. Como ya pasó la navidad, sin ánimo de juzgar y sin afán, puede que éste sea un buen momento para identificar las cosas que no hay que hacer el año entrante.

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Topics: Discernment
November 14, 2013 by Rosa Lindahl Mallow

Nota - Este artículo es disponible en español aquí.

I had heard that the sky out west was bigger, more bold. I had no idea what that meant until I did my 30 day Ignatian retreat in Tahoe City, California, on the shores of Lake Tahoe. There are fantastic trails all around the lake and I spent a good part of my days out hiking. As I look back on those 4 weeks, what I remember most is looking up at the sky. Except for one day of my retreat, the sky was cloudless, a blue so deep and clear, you thought you could see forever. On some evenings, I went out to the parking lot in front of the small apartment where I was living and I’d lay on the cement to look up at the sky. Along with millions of individual stars, satellites, and shooting stars, I could see the Milky Way, that gossamer cosmic cloud. Stunning!

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Topics: Discernment
November 14, 2013 by Rosa Lindahl Mallow

An English version of this article is available here.

Me habían dicho que el cielo del oeste de este país es más grande, más audaz. No tenía idea de lo que significara esta afirmación hasta que hice el retiro de los Ejercicios de San Ignacio por 30 días en Tahoe City, California, comunidad a orillas del lago Tahoe. Hay caminos maravillosos alredor del lago y hacía caminatas casi todos los días. Al recorder esas semanas de retiro, lo que más se me ha quedado es el cielo. Hubo un día nubaldo durante mi retiro pero en los demás días había un cielo totalmente despejado, de un azul tan profundo y claro que pensaba uno que podía ver la eternidad. Varias noches, salí al estacionamiento en frente del apartamento donde me hospedaba y me acosté en el concreto a mirar al cielo. Había millones de astros, satelites y estrellas fugaces. Se veía la Vía Láctea, esa nube de telaraña cósmica. ¡Quedaba deslumbrada!

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Topics: Discernment
October 28, 2013 by Jeremiah Sierra
Sometimes I feel guilty when I miss Sunday services at my church, St. Lydia’s, and I feel a little guilt when I can’t make it to a small group I’m involved in. This is only heightened by my current position on the Leadership Table (the vestry, basically). I usually miss events and worship services because I have a conflicting event or I’m out of town, but sometimes it’s simply because I have a busy schedule and I need the free evening to collect myself.
I’ve been thinking about this because, due to vacation and a busy schedule at work, I’ve missed a couple of Sundays and some small group meetings that I would usually attend (a meditation group and a theology group).
How often should we be at church to be truly committed to the community? Every Sunday? Most Sundays plus one weekday gathering or class?
This is probably the wrong question. It implies that we attend church because we should, rather than that we attend church because we need to. After a few weeks I feel a little disconnected from my community, and I’m looking forward to going back and participating in worship.

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Topics: Discernment
July 15, 2013 by Jeremiah Sierra

Saturday, as you probably know, George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Since then I’ve been unable to think about much else. I feel saddened and frustrated about the trial and what it means for the state of racism in America.

But that’s all kind of abstract. As a relatively privileged, white person (well, half white and half Hispanic), I have not experienced much racism in my life. What can and should I say? What can and should I do?

First, I’ve realized I should listen. I’ve read a lot of very angry, painful reactions to the trial verdict, especially on social media. Sometimes it’s tempting to tell people who are angry to calm down, or to try and get people who are in pain to see their experience in another light, but that seems to me to be a mistake, another way of telling someone that their experience is not legitimate.

This article by Ed Stetzer, says that those of us who are privileged Christians should remember there are multiple realities in America, and that we should listen and learn:

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Topics: Discernment