You’ve probably seen the posts by now about the pay-it-forward movement on Facebook.
“The first five people to comment on this status will receive from me, sometime in the next year, a gift - perhaps a handmade item, some baked goods, a candle or some other surprise. There will be no warning; it will happen when the mood strikes me. Inbox me your address if I don't already have it! The catch is the first five to respond must post this message on their Facebook page and make the same offer.”
Social media is a strange creature, telling us far more sometimes than we want to know (I really don’t care about the color, texture or velocity of a child’s vomit). Sometimes it creates rifts: my husband’s great-uncle recently unfriended both of us. Facebook is not a good medium for him – he comes across spiteful, angry and bigoted, so perhaps the unfriending is a blessing.
But there is also a real power in the way it connects people. Birthday blessings are fun, but it’s also a privilege to offer prayers for the high school friend whose 18-year-old niece died unexpectedly.
You’ve probably seen the posts by now about the pay-it-forward movement on Facebook.
I spent a few hours cleaning my apartment this weekend. There’s something satisfying about caring for your own space, and something almost soul-feeding about the work, about moving a broom across the floor or doing dishes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I attend a church called St. Lydia’s that combines dinner with our liturgy. We meet in a rented space. We cook and clean together, setup the tables with candles and decorated napkins. In a sense we make the space sacred with our work.
In the church we spend a lot of time thinking about our space—the purchase of property or construction and upkeep of a church building. Actually, this is true not only of the church, but of human beings. We are physical, incarnate beings, and to ignore our physical place in the world is a mistake.
This past weekend I had the chance to visit a parish a lot like the one I currently serve. The property featured a beautiful and inspiring church with a cozy chapel; an enormous rectory, and several buildings that made up the parish house. You can imagine the complex must have been truly grand in its day. Yet inside the church pews are no longer full; and outside the neighborhood is facing the challenges of economic hardship: poverty, hunger, and homelessness.
Many of the day-to-day conversations seem to have a recurring theme: the building. How to raise funds to care for the building instead of spending down the endowment? How to get more volunteers to care for the building? How to best utilize the space and bring more of the community into the building? So much of the faith community’s time, energy, and financial resources are poured into their beautiful buildings.
Your local church is a major community asset!
The more common headline is “local church buried in its deficit and had to close.” With church buildings from many denominations being closed, many congregations see their beloved buildings as liabilities rather than assets.
Episcopal congregations are an integral part of their neighborhoods and cities. Churches serve as important outreach partners or the preferred location for civic events or major funerals. Often congregations have not named the ways they partner with their wider community. As mainline church buildings around the country close, the void that closed churches leave behind becomes increasingly apparent within the neighborhood. Often neighbors and city officials are the last to learn of a struggling congregation and are stunned by its sudden closure.
Do you remember the TV show Bewitched?
Samantha, a witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery was married to a mere mortal Darrin Stephens, played by Dick York and later Dick Sergeant. Remember the way Samantha would twinkle her nose and all would be well to every embarrassing or uncomfortable situation. Samantha converted magical thinking to produce her desired states through her magical powers.
Samantha was not a dreamer or visionary. Dreamers and visionaries are active in their communities. Samantha was a magical thinker with her passive hopes magically delivered with no effort but the twinkle of her nose.
Vital congregations flourish with the contributions of dreamers and visionaries! At the same time magical thinking propels congregations into irreversible decline.
What were the characteristics of Samantha’s magical thinking?
[Editor's note: think buildings or changing any long held 'tradition'....]
The spiritually ripe time is when a congregation is in sync with its primary purpose to "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). A congregation's capacity for spiritual freedom contributes to spiritually ripe times to make decisions.
Spiritual freedom occurs when congregations are able to courageously and generously make Spirit led choices that fulfill God's mission. How does a congregation grow in its spiritual freedom?
At one of our Mardi Gras celebrations, a cook set up his fancy digital camera and it shot one frame every five minutes to create a time lapse video of the event, from start up to clean up.
With the program year approaching, I am thinking I might do the same thing to capture a week in the life of St. Andrew’s.
It would take multiple cameras because so many different spaces would be involved. The one in the sanctuary might actually capture the least amount of action. Sunday would be a blur with the altar guild arriving at 7:00 am, followed by the 8:00 o’clock parishioners, then the choir streaming in for practice then segueing into “big church.” A forum might get set up and shut down then a brief period of stillness until the evening worship team came to set up for the 6:00 pm Taize service.
Forget the yellow-page ad.
With 80 percent of church shoppers turning to the Internet first, spending limited marketing dollars on an outdated tool doesn’t make sense.
Our diocese has been looking at ways for the Internet to help connect seekers to congregations. I’ve talked repeatedly in ECF Vital Practices about the importance of social media and active websites. We started a new program this week that I think may put an updated, fresh twist on the yellow-page experience.
We worked with professional photographers (certified Google trusted) to develop an interactive, 360-degree virtual tour of one of our churches. The photographers built the virtual tour and then integrated it into Google Places.
What does this mean? Well, when you search for St. James Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, you’ll see the website pop up on the left side (as usual). On the right is a Google map (still what you’d expect). But underneath the map is a picture of the church with an invitation to “See inside.” When users click that button, they’re taken to a virtual tour of the church, with navigation guides on the top left corner.
Our churches "should be the heartbeat of mission and service, not the heartache of history and loss."
Today Congregational Seasons celebrates The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) for its passion, vision, and pastoral care of congregations that seek to be both vital and viable!
ECBF, you are the quintessential mustard seed story in The Episcopal Church. You have inspired more congregational work through the efforts of two people than organizations with many more staff and team members.
In ECBF's own words:
"The ECBF has developed a process to help congregations identify their place in the community — to understand their relevance; to build mission and value in the world around them, and to use their real-estate assets to develop financial self-sustainability.
Our church buildings are more than bricks and mortar, they should be the heartbeat of mission and service, not the heartache of history and loss. As congregations find a role in their community, they can also find creative and innovative ways to sustain themselves financially. Most congregations believe their buildings are used regularly, but self-assessments of space repeatedly show that is rarely the case. From parish halls to naves, useable space sits empty, seldom used to its fullest potential."
Having bad news appear on the front page of a local newspaper is easy.
Getting the attention of a reporter – and editor – for good news is the challenge.
When our bishop closed a local church in 2008, the handful of members took their fight to the press. Even though attendance had dipped to single digits, the church was important to those faithful few.
Our bishop acknowledged this attachment but felt strongly that the church building and facility could make a more meaningful contribution to the surrounding community. Located in a poverty-stricken neighborhood with high crime and few dreams, our bishop envisioned a place that would work with neighbors to transform the community.
Nevertheless the stories in the newspaper were wrenching tales of people losing their faith home. And the interview and subsequent reporting of the bishop’s comments were disappointing and misleading.
It’s easy for bad news to make the paper.
As this former church building began its new ministry, it was much harder to get the attention from the reporter and editors. Every three or four months, I would send an e-mail to the reporter, copied to the editor, telling them about the progress of the ministry. Now called Gabriel’s Place, the church building was being used nearly every day, instead of just Sundays. A dozen of more community partners joined forces, with an initial focus on food.
The urban neighborhood is known as a food desert, a place where healthy and affordable food is hard to attain. The last grocery store closed in 2008. Today Gabriel’s Place offers garden plots for local residents, a greenhouse, fish hatchery for tilapia, an industrial kitchen and youth cooking classes. This mix of sustainable projects came from direct conversation with residents and leaders about their most pressing needs.
Four years after the initial stories ran – and a dozen or so story pitches, I received an e-mail from the reporter.
“Sorry to have been out of touch. Way too much going on here to stay sane. That said, I was struck and interested in Gabriel's Place when you pitched the idea to me late last summer … I now have a much better understanding of Gabriel's Place and the brilliance of the idea that the bishop and his committee put together.
“I am writing a story for the weekend … and I can't do it justice without a voice from the Episcopal Diocese. In a day and age of mega churches force-feeding their idea of goodwill down a neighborhood's throat, it is so nice to see a religious body listen to a community and work in collaboration to develop a ministry.”
We immediately set up a phone interview with the bishop. I prepped some talking points and at the close of the interview, the bishop asked the reporter about his new book on Haiti. They began to build a relationship.
The interview went well, we thought. But you never know how a story will shake out until it’s printed. So we waited.
Yesterday, patience and persistence paid off. On the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer, above the fold, the headline read, “When Avondale said it needed healthier food and a community center, a church listened and created Gabriel’s Place.”
A How to Help box accompanied the story on the front page, and the jump of the story covered about two-thirds of the page and included a nice picture and great information about the ministry.
Working with the media is an inexact science. What appeals to one editor might be shot down by another. Reporters bear enormous stress to deliver dynamic stories, despite facing diminished news hole, possible lay-offs and competition by bloggers, TV, radio and Internet outlets.
But I learned two important lessons here:
I don't know how many of the newspaper's 170,000 subscribers read the story, and we'll see how many respond. But no amount of marketing or advertising could have better shared our mission of who we are as a church and as a people trying to live into God’s call.
“A church listened.”
It was worth the wait.
There’s a particular scent I associate with Sunday mornings – dust and candle wax, a bit of incense, and aging wood. That was the smell I met every Sunday growing up, at St. Stephen’s, the church in San Antonio where my father was the rector. It is a small, simple building – wood, red carpet, dim light coming in through the stained glass – but it occupies an important place in my spiritual timeline.
I’ve been thinking about sacred space since St. Lydia’s, the church I currently attend, moved to a new building in Brooklyn a few months ago. St. Lydia’s is in a very different place in its life than my childhood church, which had been around for 50 years. St. Lydia’s is just two years old and without a permanent home; but for several months at least we’ll be meeting at the Brooklyn Zen Center. It has a spacious kitchen and large windows, simple furniture, and it feels clean and welcoming and sacred. The Brooklyn Zen Center has blessed us by letting us use their rooms, and is nurturing our new church (and we are helping them as well with the modest rent we pay).
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.
Two nights ago I arrived home to find no power on the property. So much for plugging in the laptop and writing a blog post! But I got the flashlight, managed to warm up some dinner on the gas stove, then went to bed early.
The power outage is a recapitulation of last week when we lost power due to Tropical Storm Irene. Today as I write, driving rain is pouring down for the third straight day, the backyard has become a pond, flash flood warnings are in effect, and we fear the ground is so saturated that more trees will uproot themselves onto surrounding power lines. Hopefully not on the house.
Yet my worries are minor compared to fear and damage in other parts of the country and the world. If you’ve been following the news, you can’t miss the fires, storms, droughts, and human inflicted violence in almost every region. Alongside current news, it’s a time of remembering past disasters of Katrina and 9/11, still trying to find ways through their emotional and physical impacts years later.
In these conditions, I just can’t stop thinking about emergency preparedness. The irony is most of us never want to think about it. We may feel “it won’t happen to us.” Or that we have “more important things to do” today. We may be stuck in fear, preferring to focus on tangible projects in front of us instead of the scary “what ifs.” At least this much is true: planning for a future that may never happen carries little urgency. With so many pressing concerns or joyful activities of congregational life, emergency preparedness almost never makes it to the top of the to-do list.
One thing we’ve learned about disasters – in addition to the fear, suffering and disruption on lives and communities – is the ability of people to pull together in powerful ways.
I learned this on September 12, 2001 when church leaders, neighbors, emergency responders, local businesses, and lots of friends came together at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan to respond to the horrific events the day before. Not only did they provide immediate response to physical needs of safety and food, but they sustained a longer term effort providing rest, prayer, care, and renewal. We see this kind of response again and again after disasters. I’m particularly aware of it this week on the 6th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Virginia, and Hurricane Irene.
But it shouldn’t take disasters for us to pull together and offer safety, connection, and renewal in our communities.
Recently I’ve been inspired by pictures from Portland, Oregon. An organization called City Repair set out to transform one small spot in a city: a street intersection.
This time of year, I feel like my old elementary school principal. It was his job to get old Boardman School whipped into shape for the school year. It was an old, old building but when the kids arrived on the first day of school it smelled new. New paint, fresh coat of wax on the floors, windows washed and door knobs shined. It made a big impact on the mood of the children and the parents and set an important tone for the year to come.
As the principal of St. Andrew’s, I feel I have the same responsibility. So I am walking around our building and seeing what our buildings and grounds volunteers can do to get us ready for Sept. 11, our Kick-off Sunday.
Here is the checklist:
I hate to trim.
While the kids are away for a week at the grandparents, my husband and I are toiling through a long-delayed to-do list.
That includes painting several rooms. Since my husband is at least seven inches taller, he works on the ceiling while I kneel on the ground, painting the baseboards a crisp white.
After what seems like 15 hours of trim-painting purgatory, the first room has sparkling baseboards but little else to show for my back-breaking labor. It’s the wall paint the makes the splash - -that transforms the room from dingy to dynamite.
The air conditioner repair guys were lazy.
They took the shortest distance to install the exhaust pipes – straight from the basement to the outside wall, right beside the entrance.
Don’t be alarmed: this is being fixed. Today. The National Historic Register and the people of the parish wouldn’t have it any other way.
But still, I think there’s some interesting commentary about how we clean up our messes in the church. Do we take the easy way out – avoiding conflict or perhaps more often, letting off steam in the sidewalk or parking lot conversations? Or are we willing to do the much more difficult work of rooting out the problem, talking with each other, and finding some solutions that may require sacrifice?
Let me clarify...
Two friends recently invited me to attend a Shabbat service at their synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST). CBST worships in at least two different locations in New York City, but their main Shabbat service takes place inside the same Episcopal Church where they first began gathering in 1973, in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
In short, the service was stunningly beautiful. Coming off a particularly hectic workweek, I found myself deeply moved by Rabbi Kleinbaum’s prayer that we fully welcome the joys of the Sabbath into our lives. While there, I also observed two things which I hope will be of interest of ECF Vital Practices readers. The first has to do with Holy Apostles' use of space while the second touches on CBST's slow & steady work of finding a permanent place to worship.
The air conditioner died, not with a bang but a whimper.
Because of problems getting the parts, it would be a month before the company could install a new unit. With early June temperatures in the 90s – and the priest already prone to sweating through his vestments, worship was moved into the fellowship hall.
The altar guild had double-duty, transforming the folding tables into a makeshift altar and bringing out the fine linens and silver. The secretary had twice the work of creating bulletins for both the liturgy and the worship music. The organist made due with a practice piano, and the coffee hour guild took pains to quietly prepare the after-service treats.
When the priest announced that the air conditioner should be installed by the end of this week, you would think that the congregation would have erupted into applause. Instead several people asked if we could continue worship in the fellowship hall throughout the summer.
It’s not that the nave is unsuitable space. The worship space at this church is among the most beautiful I’ve seen. The arches stretch across the Gothic-style ceiling like knights mounted on their horses, flags raised to welcome the king. The sun casts prisms of light through the stained glass windows, and the baptismal font, cut from stone, is a work of art. This is amazing space in which to worship our Lord.
But in the confines of the fellowship hall, we are forced to sit next to one another. No one has a designated pew. The choir is among us, and we can actually hear the people around us joining in the hymns.
The space creates community.
As we return to the newly air conditioned nave this week, the question arises: how can we transform the vast expanse of the church into space that encourages rubbing elbows?
Should we rope off the side aisles, forcing folks into the center pews and into closer contact? Should we institute a reverse pew rental system, with the front rows as the cheap seats? How can we couple the beauty of this worship space with intimacy and community?
Look at the spaces in your church. Do they encourage relationship or isolation? For those who have tackled this problem, what advice can you offer?
The nursery renovation began with a 5-year-old.
Our church is nearly 200 years old, and some of the toys in the nursery surely witnessed the first service. We even considered carbon-dating.
But to be honest, our attention was on the adult stuff – updating the bathrooms, re-painting the choir room.
So it was a surprise to learn that our 5-year-old daughter had organized a bake sale to raise money to buy new toys for the nursery. She had made the rounds in coffee hour and had a sign-up list of treats. She made signs -- Bake sale 4 kids – and hung them around the church. She recruited other kids to help, called the adults the week before the sale to remind them, and made cookies with her grandma as her offering.
On the morning of the bake sale, she directed the placement of the tables and arranged the treats for optimal sales potential. If anyone failed to stop by the table, she made a polite inquiry, asking if they’d like to help buy new toys for the kids. I don’t think anyone turned her down.
At the end of the morning, the Sunday crowd of about 80 had donated nearly $500.
We organized a nursery committee, including the 5-year-old, to talk about renovating the nursery. Another couple who had lost a child earmarked the memorial money for the project. As a group, we talked about priorities: Safety, cleanliness and fun.
We pitched most of the toys and old furniture. We decided to use part of the money to hire an artist who painted a magnificent and inviting mural. And we purchased a pager system so parents could be contacted immediately.
And of course, we shopped for toys. Actually, I served as chauffeur and chief bag carrier, while the 5-year-old headed the shopping brigade.
Led by the determination of children to have their place in church, we celebrated the new nursery with cookies and milk.