November 16, 2016 by Anna Olson

Like most of the country, I had never heard of Bean Blossom (also spelled Beanblossom) Indiana, before this weekend. It’s honestly the kind of name someone on the blue parts of the coasts might make up to mock the perceived backwardness or hokey-ness of the center of the country. Bean Blossom.

Last Sunday, the members of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom arrived at their church to find it painted with a swastika, the phrase “Heil Trump” and the phrase “Fag Church.”

I want to be like Bean Blossom.

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November 9, 2016 by Greg Syler

We’re investigating and working to install more energy- and, we hope, financially-efficient HVAC systems at St. George’s. The very comprehensive energy audit taught me a lot, and not just about insulation and ducts. I learned that the most effective way to adjust the temperature in a room isn’t only to force more cold/hot air into the space. “Picture a glass full of water,” our auditor told me, “you can’t get more air into that glass until you get some of the water out of it.” The HVAC principle: you can’t cool a space simply by shoving more cold air ducts into the room; you need to also find a way to get the hot air out.

I’d say that principle also applies to the organizational capacity of churches (maybe even my un-intended pun about hot air), especially now as most of us are looking at next year’s budgets. Few church leaders will be able to change the ‘temperature’, the capacity of our congregations until we also, and at the same time, move out some of the stuff which is standing in the way. Many (most?) clergy and lay leaders in The Episcopal Church are trying valiantly to straddle the line between desiring the emerging ‘new’ and maintaining, or at least not threatening, our conventional and, to date, relatively financially coherent strategy: create members of the local church and ask them to fund its operations. If funding slips, either (a) get more members or (b) get more money out of the ones you have or (c) cut expenses.

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Topics: Change, Stewardship
October 26, 2016 by Greg Syler

This post is about efficiency, for sure, and it’s about a pretty small, seemingly insignificant part of congregational life, but I’m also a believer that paying attention to the little things – and with an eye toward greater efficiency – is a great way to pastor the whole community.

Here’s the problem we were facing: every week, our parish administrator, together with me and our music director, created drafts of the Sunday bulletin and got them to our inboxes by Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest. There was one bulletin for 8 o’clock, another for 10:30am. Both had announcements and information, the same calendar and same scriptures, of course. One had music, the other did not. When all the edits came in, bulletins were printed, folded, stapled, and set out for the various worship services.

Sounds like life in most every parish church, I’m sure.

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October 3, 2016 by Alan Bentrup

A week ago Sunday, churches around the country participated in Social Media Sunday (#SMS16). This day provided an opportunity for people to “use digital devices intentionally to share their life of faith with the world.” If your Facebook feed was anything like mine, you saw plenty of selfies, check-ins, and short videos of worship, formation, and fun.

My background is in journalism, marketing, and public relations. I love that churches around the country are trying to reach out and share the Good News in new ways. From stained glass to the printing press to instrumental music, the Church has a long history of using new technologies and mediums to proclaim the Gospel. Our interactions with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter should be no different.

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September 19, 2016 by Alan Bentrup

Or, how a remake of a remake of a song became a classic

Starting from scratch is usually a bad idea.

Too often, we assume innovative ideas and meaningful changes require a blank slate. When a project fails, we say, “Let’s go back to the drawing board.” When we have habits we want to change, we think, “I just need a fresh start.” However, creative progress is rarely the result of throwing out all previous ideas and completely re-imagining the world.

Take Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” for example.

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August 22, 2016 by Alan Bentrup

Last night’s Olympic closing ceremony was a fitting end to two weeks where that saw outstanding performances, unflinching determination, and constant innovation.

One of the brightest stars of this Olympiad was Houston’s own Simone Biles, who amazed audiences as much as she challenged history. And as this NBC Sports story notes, Biles’ feat highlights just how much gymnastics has innovated since doing away with the idea of the “Perfect 10.”

The governing body of gymnastics decided that it was more interested in innovation than it was in perfection, so it changed the scoring system. The new system encourages athletes to try new things, attempt increasingly more difficult moves, and to be creative. In this world, Simone Biles is pushing the envelope and leading the way.

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July 26, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

Facebook can stir some intense nostalgia with its memories feature. I logged on the other day to see a picture of our church’s Vacation Bible School from three years ago, the last one we held.
The kids were so sweet and little, and I was awash for a moment with nostalgia. I thought, briefly: I wish we still did a vacation bible school.

And then I remembered all the reasons why we moved to a different Christian formation offering. I shared our choice in a couple of blogs last year but thought it might be useful to circle back a year later, kind of like “Child Stars: Where Are They Now” or an update on “Shark Tank.” (Read them here and here.)

After years of declining attendance and waning support by volunteers, we reevaluated how we were offering Christian formation in the summer. Our awesome Christian formation director (who is very part-time so this can be done at any church of any size!) introduced us to Messy Church. The concept, which is all the rage in England right now, is an all-ages gathering with a shared meal, crafts, and simple worship.

Last summer, we offered Messy Church three times, once a month during the school summer break. We wondered how we would fare this year.

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Topics: Change
July 21, 2016 by Anna Olson

What do you do when things don’t go according to plan?

Episcopalians are planners. We like things to be decent and in order, and we like to know who’s doing what well in advance of the liturgy or event we are planning. We make a rota, order the correct number of bulletins, set the correct number of chairs.

Except life isn’t really predictable, is it? I was recently at a very well planned conference, serving as chaplain. A family tragedy meant that the musician who was to have been with us couldn’t come at the last minute. The day before the conference, Orlando happened. Our well-laid plans no longer made the kind of sense they had just the week before.

I am neither a musician nor a fabulous creator of prayer space. But I knew we needed music and a place of remembrance and prayer. So I sang, mostly on key. I asked for a dedicated corner of space and some candles. I printed out the names and pictures of victims. Most importantly, I invited the gathered community to add to my efforts.

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Topics: Change
June 1, 2016 by Nancy Davidge

Change can be difficult. For church leaders – and others in the congregation – change may be particularly difficult when we say goodbye to a beloved rector or parts of our church life we have grown accustomed to.

What relationship does our approach to change have with our experience of it? Is it a threat? An invitation? Our articles this month suggest the latter.

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Topics: Change
May 18, 2016 by Brendon Hunter

In the May Vital Practices Digest, we offer 5 resources for clergy transition in congregations, with the 5th a resource to help in developing year-round stewardship in your congregation.

Please share this digest with others in your church and invite them to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the Vital Practices Digest in their inbox.

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Topics: Change
May 17, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

The conversation about building a parking lot began before I was born. And while I’m not ready for the pasture, I, sadly, no longer qualify as spring chicken.

Welcome to church time, which runs apace with glaciers.

I wonder if you, like us, have a project that’s been brewing for years but can’t seem to move from idea to action. Here’s how we pushed ahead with building a parking lot after years of the idea languishing on a pending list.

First, the rector was clear that the decision lives with the vestry, which would take recommendations from the building committee but would own the final decision and implementation. There’s truth to the adage of too many cooks in the kitchen. Plus, the vestry is comprised of the church’s elected representatives bound as stewards for the health of a congregation, including its buildings and finances.

Second, the rector and the vestry looked closely at the need. What would happen if nothing happened, if no parking lot was constructed? This church has zero off-street parking. Not even one spot. No reserved handicapped spots or places for visitors. It’s catch-as-catch-can on Sunday mornings, especially as the congregation has grown. Try finding a spot on a busy Sunday (we had nearly 400 on Easter) in a residential area. Don’t wear heels because you’ll be walking several blocks. Fortunately, the owners of a nearby funeral home attend the church, and they open their parking lot to members on Sundays. That’s a huge gift, but it’s inside knowledge—only those who attend the church already know they can park there. It’s not helpful for first-time visitors, and it’s too far for handicapped parking and for some of our aging members.

The need, the rector and vestry decided, was clear.

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Topics: Change
May 13, 2016 by Anna Olson

Here’s what Sunday reality looks like on the ground where I am: increasingly unpredictable.

Our English services -- representing the legacy congregation of our historic parish -- are getting smaller by the year. There are fewer people in the universe of church attenders. The people who do attend are increasingly erratic in their habits. Families with kids balance other Sunday commitments and general exhaustion. Elder members who were once the every-Sunday core now experience health and transportation challenges. Empty nesters do triathlons and travel and visit their grandkids.

Our Spanish services -- representing most of our newer neighborhood members -- are growing. But they too are erratic. People are testing the waters. A handful were regulars at other churches and switched to ours. Some of them are still practicing dual citizenship. Most were not church regulars, and they are still figuring out what a Sunday worship discipline would mean: Every week? Every other? Once a month? Many have irregular work schedules in the 24-7 service economy.

Like most Episcopal churches, our worship traditions were built around predictability. We still do things as if we know, roughly, who’s going to be there on any given Sunday: how many of them there will be, what songs they will know, what time they will arrive, how many of them will stay for coffee hour.

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Topics: Change
May 4, 2016 by Nancy Davidge

Since early 2011, ECF Vital Practices has utilized reader surveys. Your responses guide us as we identify ideas for Vestry Papers themes and articles. Over the past two years we’ve watched two topics emerge as areas many of you are looking for help in: change and clergy transition.

Our articles this month focus on transitions and change, with resources to help you navigate the changes your congregation may be facing today or in the future. They include: 

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Topics: Change
April 27, 2016 by Anna Olson

Remember Generation X

If you Google us, here’s what you may get as the first response:

Gen·er·a·tion X
1. The generation born after that of the baby boomers (roughly from the early 1960s to mid 1970s), often perceived to be disaffected and directionless.

For a hot minute, we were all the rage. People were getting a little tired of the Baby Boomers, and their monstrously large generation of offspring had not yet come of age. Then we kind of...disappeared.

I heard that the millennials had recently (2015) become the largest generation in the US workforce. I went to Google to find out when they had surpassed us. Turns out it was the Baby Boomers they surpassed. Gen X’s great moment in the workforce sun was a distant second place.

I was born at the height of the baby bust, right smack in the middle of Gen X. We claim President Obama as our most famous member. He may have been born right at the tail end of the Baby Boom by some definitions, but that “Bucket List” speech? Only a true Gen-Xer would have come up with that (or thought it was that funny!).

For all our smallness, Gen X is moving into our prime leadership years in the church, which as always is slightly behind the rest of the world. A seminary friend commented on the proximity of our 50th birthdays, just five years off in my case. She said, “I guess there is very little we can say we aren't old or experienced enough for anymore.”

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Topics: Change
April 25, 2016 by Linda Buskirk

The far corner of northwest Indiana is a collection of cities and towns at the edge of greater Chicago. Through decades of multiplying suburban communities, Episcopal parishes were established throughout this region. As steel mills closed in a changing economy, many congregations wondered, and still wonder, how long they can sustain their ministries.

In 2010, three such parishes found themselves about to be without rectors due to one priest retiring and two being called to other churches. Bishop of Northern Indiana Edward S. Little invited the congregations into “dialogue and discernment” about their future since none of the churches was likely capable of affording its own priest.

“After much discussion and numerous meetings, a new vision began to emerge: one church in three locations. This is not a merging or yoking of parishes, this is a new way in our times of being Church. This vision is very much like the early Church that we hear about in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's Letters. Each town may have had several house Churches but together they formed one Church in various locations.” - From 

The “one church in three locations” became the Calumet Episcopal Ministry Partnership (CEMP). Later, a fourth congregation joined the partnership, so it now includes St. Barnabas in Gary, St. Paul in Munster, St. Timothy’s in Griffith, and St. Christopher’s in Crown Point.

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Topics: Change
March 17, 2016 by Sharon Ely Pearson

There has been an uptick of inquiries in my inbox as well as voice mail, all essentially about the same question: “Can you help us figure out what to do with our (fill in the blank: children, youth, adult, formation, education, Church School) ministries program?” The difficulty in responding is that I don’t have an answer. Nothing that is a quick fix. Nothing that hiring a children’s minister, youth director, or Director of Christian Formation can solve (at least not on their own). It can only be addressed through community discernment – lay and clergy leaders with parents especially – working together. 

Here’s an example of some of the statements raised, after the initial question:

Children aren’t coming to Church School. Parents are disengaged with talking about faith at home and don’t support their attendance in class (or worship). Our teachers don’t like the curriculum we are using (read between the lines . . . What curriculum can you recommend that volunteers like that is easy?) Youth are bored. We keep reading about putting things online – but who has the time to figure that out?

Anyone who has been involved in Christian formation for the past ten years has been predicting that the future (the present, really) is not the same as it has been in the past. Recent statistics seem to say that an “active” church-goer attends once a month. Experiential learning is best; our children are a “wired” generation; all of us are stretched to the limit (time, money, emotionally and physically).

We are living in a post-Christian society. Yes, people may claim to be members of a church or call themselves a Christian, but living that out by attending Sunday worship (or class) is not part of that picture. There may be many reasons for that – all reasonable: working on Sunday, school or sports activities, custodial parenting, caring for elders, and just plain tired and needing a chance to “sleep in.”

So what’s a church to do?

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Topics: Change
January 13, 2016 by Greg Syler

“Why don’t these younger people start doing more around here?”

It’s a common refrain I’ve heard for years, perhaps one of the most consistent things I’ve heard throughout my ten years of ordained ministry and generally uttered by someone who’s been doing some certain job in the church for a stretch of time. Now, let me be honest. I’m never sure this means that the speaker, in fact, wants to give up what she or he has been doing, and I’m not at all certain that it means that the speaker is willing to let the thing cease being or change if he or she does get let go.

To be honest, when these statements come – and they come surprisingly often – they’re often one of the more turbulent things I experience. Maybe it’s just me, but these moments trigger an odd, nearly full-dose mixture of pastoral sensitivity and strategic thinking. Those aren’t often happy bedfellows, at least not so much in my brain, and I suppose such tensions are what makes a faith life, not to mention a faith community an exciting thing.

The stress that goes along with an increasingly aging church is no mere perception; it’s a real thing. About as real as it gets. The Episcopal Church itself reports “a large majority (73%) of Episcopal congregations report that more than half of their members are age 50+. 27% … report that more than half of their members are age 65 or older.” Episcopalians are “older than the general population. Overall, 31% of Episcopal members are age 65+, as compared to only 14% of the U.S. population.” Also, we have far more adults and older adults, than children, youth, and young adults. And these skewed demographics impact our overall growth and vitality on the congregational level: “Episcopal parishes and missions with greater proportions of older members (age 65+) tend to be smaller, and are more often found in rural and small town settings.”

The reality is those younger families, youth, and young adults who are members of our congregations not only have increased demands in the whole of their lives, given economic disparity and all the other demands, but they simply cannot live up to the needs and wishes of those aging members of the congregation who (kind of) wish to stop doing what they’ve been doing for the past thirty years.

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Topics: Change
December 9, 2015 by Anna Olson

I was asked yesterday what I thought the most important lesson was in leading change successfully. Our congregation has managed to hang in there for quite a lot of change in recent years, despite a well-earned reputation for having resisted change for many years.

After thinking a bit, I responded that it is essential to stay close to the people with whom you are trying to move, and pay attention at every step of the process. Listen and watch carefully. How are people responding to proposed or developing changes? Who’s with you? Who’s hanging back? Who is actively resisting?

Sometimes as leaders striking out in a new direction, we find ourselves walking alone. The rest of the congregation hangs back; unsure if they want to follow the path we have chosen. They may wish us well, and send us on ahead, even packing us a snack in case we get hungry. But they don’t come along. At that point, it’s good to turn back pretty quickly, and work on coming up with a plan that more people are willing to try. Try to find out what people might need in order to feel like they can come along. A better map? A less steep route? More provisions? More accommodations for those who will struggle with the walk? An entirely different direction? This last may be very disappointing for leaders with vision, but also may be better than remaining stuck in one spot.

Much more troubling than the polite send-off is when we discover that we have struck out ahead on a path of change, and that the people who have stayed behind are not just watching, but rather beginning to build a wall to shield themselves from the disasters they fear will come from the change we are proposing.

The beginning of that wall is a critical moment.

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Topics: Change
September 29, 2015 by Richelle Thompson

When she walked down the aisle, I caught my breath.

We had prayed for this moment, hoped for it. But we weren’t sure if we would ever witness it.

This was forty years in the making. Forty years since she lost a child, an infant whose name she can still only whisper and not without unbidden tears. Forty years since a priest, instead of listening and consoling, criticized and belittled. Forty years since she had taken communion, the rift a chasm her heart couldn’t cross.

For the past three years, on her visit to this country, we have shared meals and attempted conversation. My college German is rusty, and my husband’s is non-existent (except for Gesundheit and schnitzel). Her English is minimal. There are lots of gestures and smiles, yet somehow we have communicated.

On her last Sunday before flying home, she rose during the invitation to Holy Eucharist. When she knelt at the altar and held out her hands, she offered forgiveness to a Church that had deeply wounded her. She accepted a Church that for its divine center is still full of flawed and faulty humans. She bridged her heartache with hope as the priest placed the wafer. 

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Topics: Change
September 9, 2015 by Greg Syler

I’m writing this on my 40th birthday, and it’s been a really fun day. I always like birthdays. I especially love getting to hear from and get caught up, once again, with family and friends. Even on a birthday such as this – one which carries with it such an increasingly large, round number – it’s all the more special to hear from those who’ve walked a lot of my past with me, and, together with them, to remember and celebrate and look forward.

Today, I’ve been trying to figure out if forty years is a long or short time.

On the one hand, it doesn’t really feel that long – and, no, this isn’t my way of deluding myself. It’s simply flown by, and I’m shocked that it came so quickly!

But, on the other hand, forty years does feel kind of long. Like that ancient biblical number which indicated ‘fullness’ or ‘more than sufficient time’, forty years is a good long chunk of time. I’m a father now, for instance, and I constantly find myself comparing my experience growing up and that of my daughter’s. Looking back over my childhood, I see things that I took for granted and which my parents, as young parents themselves, also took for granted but which, today, have completely and totally changed. The Catholic parochial school in my neighborhood, for example, sent the kids home every day for lunch, fully expecting that someone – most likely, the mother – would be home and cooking a homemade meal. Talk about a cultural shift! Church attendance and church membership were still pretty strong and compelling cultural forces forty years ago, and I can’t remember knowing anyone in my neighborhood who didn’t attend church, at least somewhat regularly. My home television set – the only one in our house, mind you – was black-and-white until I was, maybe, eight or nine, and there was no internet, no wireless, no iPad.

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Topics: Change