Luke 16 verse 13
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Personally for many, our financial health is fragile and in some cases dire. A 2017 GOBankingRates survey indicates of the 8,000 respondents 39 percent have $0 (nothing) saved. The reasons are varied for this stark number. It includes chronic unemployment, underemployment, poor money management, insufficient retirement funds, catastrophic illness, government policies etc.
Congregations often want to be all things to all people, jumping on every new idea without considering whether it supports the congregation’s mission to the community. The ideas may be good individually, but how do they align with the congregation’s mission and ministry? When a congregation fragments its mission, it is a recipe for failure.
Another common pitfall is encountered when a project is continued, simply because “it has always been done.” These projects lack support among the congregation and may even have lost their original purpose and intent, making it difficult to find enthusiastic participants. When a congregation can let go of something that has lost its usefulness, it opens itself up to new ideas and opportunities, giving new life and energy to the congregational system. How do you decide what to let go of and what to keep?
As we continue our Good Book Club journey through Luke’s Gospel this Lent, I’m struck by the recurring theme in the upcoming passages from chapters 14 and 15.
Luke 14 begins with Jesus eating at the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, and then he goes into a story about a great wedding feast, and Jesus closes out the chapter by talking about food seasoning. Luke 15 opens with Jesus being accused - by the Pharisees - of welcoming sinners and eating with them. Jesus then goes on to tell a couple of stories, including one about a father who throws a great feast when his wandering son returns home.
I get the sense that Jesus liked to eat.
In addition to my church work, I serve as President of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) at my daughter’s Montessori school. It’s a way I can help give back to a great school. Also, the President of the PTO has far fewer responsibilities than Rector of a congregation, and I love simple, straightforward jobs.
As it turns out, the PTO was re-started a few years ago with a strategic aim. Like many small, private Montessori schools, our school was started by a visionary Montessori educator who wanted, herself, to start a school. She and her husband literally built it out of nothing. And in recent years they began to sense it was time to retire, which meant: time to sell the school. I knew this all along, and I knew as well that re-starting the PTO was envisioned as a helpful contribution to this overall transition. Kickstart a PTO so parents and teachers and the school community have a sense that there’s a place they can go when they have questions. Transitions are difficult enough for everyone.
I’ll be the first to admit: I don’t always want to start our leadership meetings with Bible study.
For the past two years, we have begun our weekly meetings with Bible study, first reading through Exodus and now the Gospel of Luke in conjunction with the Good Book Club. Sometimes I get to the meeting, harried and stressed with an overflowing to-do list, and I just want to get down to business.
And then somewhere in the midst of the scripture reading or the discussion with my colleagues, I am reminded that reading and exploring God’s Word is the foundation of our business as an organization committed to serving the wider church. If I can’t make Bible study a priority, then all else will suffer.
We are now in the season of Lent. As the Book of Common Prayer reminds us in the Ash Wednesday service:
… I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature …
Many of us make genuine efforts to follow the practices suggested for Lent but in our humanness many times fall short. I especially remember one story where a parishioner fell in the parking lot of the local bakery right after the Good Friday Service in her haste to buy the cake she had given up for Lent. Though our efforts are not always successful I believe they are certainly worthwhile.
Luke and Acts are thought to have been written primarily for a Gentile audience. This means that from the very beginning, Luke has a challenge. How does one “set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” when the listening audience does not share a common language of hope and fulfillment? For a Jewish audience, the question, “What are we waiting for?” would have had a fairly clear answer, even if individuals and groups would have argued (and certainly did) over what shape the Messiah’s coming would take.
For a Gentile audience, the question of “What are we waiting for?” is a much tougher one. So Luke starts with hope. For a people who have not imbibed the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures with their mothers’ milk, Luke lays out a number of interlocking statements of hope. In a few chapters, the gospel introduces a whole new people to centuries of shared history and commitment and faithfulness – on the part of both God and the people.
“Your church passed,” the visitor told me.
As part of her ministry, this person visits different church almost every Sunday. Invariably she thinks about the health of the congregation. But she doesn’t use typical parochial report measures—and for that matter, neither do most visitors! Big numbers of people in worship doesn’t automatically merit a passing grade. Neither does an inspirational sermon. She doesn’t count the breadth of announcements for events or the number of heads in the children’s choir.
Nope. One of her key measurements is the cleanliness of the bathroom.
Reading through Luke this Lent is like sitting with an old friend in front of a fire, reminiscing about people and events that have touched our lives. We smile as we remember the willing Virgin Mary, grateful Elizabeth, awestruck shepherds, spirit-filled Simeon and Anna, and on and on.
Luke’s story full of stories provides ideas for how to communicate to and about our congregations. Newsletters, annual reports, bulletin boards, Facebook posts, can be transformed from the basic “who, what, when and where” to creative reflections that people will enjoy writing/creating, and other people will actually want to read/view.
The last Blockbuster in Texas has closed. Which got me thinking (reminiscing) about the Friday nights of my childhood.
I remember it was a madhouse! I saw people get in a fistfight over the last movie rental (My pick was usually Rad - don’t judge me!), and children (maybe it was me…) throwing a tantrum until their parents bought them the overpriced candy so prominently put on display at eye level for them.
But then came the late 2000s.
Gifts and memorials from departed church members are not a popular topic that gets discussed in our congregations. As a society and as individuals we have an aversion to discussing and planning for our own death and those of our loved ones. However, given the demographics of our congregations, much of our clergy’s time is spent doing frequent funerals. Also as individuals we are often unprepared and are making major decisions during our bereavement or illness which is not optimal. Not only do we miss the presence and talents of our departed members but also their financial contributions which helps to maintain the ministry of our churches.
We do need to reintroduce the topic of Gifts and Memorials for the church leadership and congregation, a few ideas to consider include:
My mom was a school principal. My wife is Head of Lower School at St. Thomas’ Episcopal School in Houston. One of my sisters is a high school math teacher, and the other is an elementary school counselor.
Needless to say, we talk about education a lot in my family.
And we in the Episcopal Church have been talking about it quite a bit these past two weeks. First, All Our Children held their National Symposium in Columbia, S.C. All Our Children started as a joint initiative of Trinity Wall Street and the Episcopal Diocese of New York in response to educational inequality in New York City’s public schools. The nationwide organization now champions “every child’s right to a quality public education by building community, creating partnership, and advocating for justice.”
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This email introduces you to our digest for January, featuring 5 ways to help your newly forming vestry get off to a strong start.
1. The Vestry Goes On Retreat
The Vestry Goes On Retreat shares how to make the most of this invaluable time for fruitful work, honest conversations, and relationship building.
ECF Vital Practices seeks to build online communities of Episcopalians who share their stories, experiences, and best practices, who learn from one another, and who discover support to help sustain their leadership and their ministries. Late last year, we asked the church leaders on our Facebook page a question: What do you wish you had known when you first joined the vestry?
Below are their answers supplemented with ECF Vital Practices resources to help you take concrete first steps towards effective vestry leadership.
Here is a creative way to get visionary juices flowing at your next Vestry planning retreat: Start writing your congregation’s 2023 Annual Report. You’ll need sticky flip chart pages and markers, and room to work in small groups.
Step 1 – Determine 3 or 4 topic areas that seem to be the most pressing right now. Examples might be finding Christian Formation teachers, increasing outreach ministry, and - just a wild guess on my part - finances.
Step 2 – Divide into groups – one group per topic. Assign a recorder (to capture the group’s final work in writing, preferably on flip chart pages easily read by all assembled), and a reporter (to verbally report the group’s findings).
This past New Year’s Eve, as I was awaiting the countdown with my family, I was able to pray with more than 1,000 people just by opening up Facebook.
Ever since Hurricane Harvey, my parish has been hosting morning devotions and Compline every Monday through Saturday on Facebook Live. While it was still raining and streets were impassable, we started offering up these times for folks to come together and pray, with my rector and I taking turns officiating.
When I lead the prayers, I’m usually joined by parishioners, family members, colleagues in ministry, elementary school classmates, and (more often than not) a bishop or two. It has been a wonderful example of how technology can be used to bring people together, which we’ve talked about before in this space.
One purpose of the Kick-Off Celebration in a capital campaign is to create a memorable event in the life of a congregation. Such an event requires hard work by many people of the congregation. Special invitations are mailed to parishioners and if the RSVP is not returned, individuals are called to encourage them to attend.
During this period of preparation, the Advance Phase of the campaign is conducted that requires Gift Worker training and calling on people to make a major pledge to the campaign. The Gift Workers make personal calls on members of the congregation with a brochure that has been carefully prepared. At the Kick-Off dinner a dramatic announcement is made to reveal that between 50% and 80% of the campaign has pledged toward the goal. Often the announcement is welcomed with great applause and hope that the campaign goal can be reached.
Sometimes, the grass does look greener on the other side. When I was a curate in an urban Episcopal congregation, I wanted to serve as rector of a smaller, rural parish. When I was serving on a multi-staff congregation, I wanted to be the solo priest-in-community.
And yet, ironically, the apparent differences between curate and rector, between big urban church and smaller country parish haven’t been all that different, not in my experience. The skills I learned in seminary, the training I received as a parish priest, my formation as curate, and the expectations of how (Episcopal) churches run have been the very same skills, tools, and expectations I needed in every call, regardless of the job, size, or location.
The year 2017 has ended and many of us cannot wait to continue to jump into 2018. Like children at Christmas I guess it is natural to reach out for the new shiny toys and discard the old and used ones without consideration. Now that we are all grown up I think it is worthwhile to do some reflection on the passing year as we prepare for the new. Many congregations do this reflection in the form of Mutual Ministerial reviews, primarily with the Vestry and Clergy. However, I think these reflections should be expanded to the total life of the congregation. Asking the simple questions, should we do more of this or less of this, with the answers helping to make the positive adjustments needed to enhance our corporate lives together. For example: