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.”
Are you a vestry member or church leader interested in practical, spiritually grounded resources for your congregation? Subscribe to ECF Vital Practices for articles, tools, and resources by and for congregational leaders. With a subscription, you’ll receive 12 issues of Vestry Papers as well as the monthly digest delivered to your inbox, all for free.
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:
Strategic planner that I am, I love it when a plan starts coming together with results. One of the readings for Epiphany, Ephesians 3: 1-12, reveals some pretty amazing aspects of God’s plan already in the works.
First, there is Jesus’ role: to bring humankind together into one big family where Jews and Gentiles alike are heirs in God’s Kingdom (verse 6. Accomplished).
Verse 10 explains God’s plan also includes an amazing role for the church. I gasped when I read it:
My wife and I really love New Orleans. The art, music, food, and atmosphere are the perfect place for us to get away. But it’s also a place that makes me think deeply about my work and my call to follow Christ.
I’m a photographer, so I like to get up early and walk around the city taking photographs. When I do so, I inevitably strike up conversations with people. On this trip, I met a jazz musician who plays bars at night, plays in his church band on Sundays, and spends his days playing Gospel music on his trumpet outside Cafe Du Monde. At the end of our conversation, we hugged and prayed with each other...because it is hard to stay strangers too long in New Orleans.
Wanting to better prepare in the wake of November’s church shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX, I recently attended a meeting of faith leaders with the Sherriff of St. Mary’s County, Maryland. As you might imagine, it was a well-attended meeting.
As sobering as the afternoon’s conversation was, the Sherriff drove home our need to be prepared and to regularly reinforce safety plans. Given the specific purpose of our gathering, he shared insight about active shooter situations. But, even then, the Sherriff reminded us, preparing for something as harrowing as that should be grounded in the same kind of thinking that guides our total commitment to safety and survival, no matter what. Knowing primary entrances and secondary exits, having situational awareness, and knowing how import our leadership is in public gatherings were some critical take-aways. At one point, the Sherriff mentioned that the cumulative experience of his many decades of law enforcement, a career which has brought him face-to-face with all manner of life-threatening situations, has made him understand how powerful it is to believe, truly believe that no matter what might happen he is going to do everything in his power to ensure that every person in his care will ultimately survive.
The priest’s prayer was unusual: “Please God, don’t let anyone code during the Christmas services.”
A year ago on Christmas Eve, our pianist was a few bars into “Away in a Manger” when he slumped over. No pulse. No respiration. Thankfully the AED—automated external defibrillator—was in the narthex, and people were trained how to use it. The congregation stayed calm and collected as parishioners strapped the AED onto Dale and the electric charge brought Dale’s heart back to life. The children were ushered into the choir room, the font was moved so EMT’s could bring in the stretcher, and people prayed in the pews.
Today, Dale is a healthy, vibrant octogenarian, tickling the ivories at churches across northern Kentucky and southern Ohio.
You just can’t beat a Christmas pageant for rousing up “the Christmas spirit.” Children don scratchy robes, wooly onesies with ears, or sparkling tinsel halos, transporting them into what is likely the first Bible story they know by heart. Not as in memorizing the first chapters of Luke, but, as in their hearts.
Pageant participants’ pure belief ripples through the congregation. Together, we are corporately living up to what we promised we would do when we witnessed these child actors being baptized: supporting them in their life in Christ. As delighted as we are with the performance, we are warmed by the knowledge that they are learning about Jesus.
This month we’re sharing five of the most popular posts in 2017 on ECF Vital Practices. Help your parish leadership get connected to more great resources by sharing this digest and an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
In part one of this post, I asked us to think theologically and, indeed, ecclesiologically about technology, specifically how and whether an emerging technology or media platform may (or may not) align with our self-understanding as Christ’s Body and whether in its core assumptions it might magnify or diminish Christ’s Good News.
That’s how theology works. Nothing is what it seems; nothing is innocuous, merely mechanical, purely technical, alone. When we use the language of theology – the church’s only language, in fact – we learn that things are only what God reveals them to be. This is no less true for the bible as for how we approach Facebook and our Twitter feed.
Capital Campaign. These two words conjure up all sorts of thoughts. For some it can mean more .. more that you are asking of me, more money, more time, more sacrifice. For others it may mean more .. more opportunity to give, more opportunity to support, to receive, to hear what God is asking of us.
A helpful way to receive the word of God is through indifference. While some take pause with that word, the perspective that Ruth Haley Barton attaches to it in her book Pursuing God’s Will Together is to remain indifferent to anything but God’s will. “We ask God to bring us to a place where we want God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”
If you are discouraged about the long-run sustainability of your congregation, or the overall Episcopal Church, or even if you’re not, give yourself an early Christmas present and read My Church is NOT Dying; Episcopalians in the 21st Century, by Greg Garrett.
Garrett, a professor, writer, and licensed lay preacher, weaves an uplifting review of the most enduring traits and values of the Episcopal tradition. Part history, part love letter, part review of our blessings and challenges, Garrett points us to our strengths as a people united in prayer, community, beauty, evangelism, and justice.
There’s no stink in most Christmas pageants.
There’s none of the droppings from the sheep and cattle that were lowing, as we romanticize in song. If you’ve been in a barn lately, you know that they’re stinky, dirty, cobwebby places. Even freshly cut hay smells, much less after it’s mingled with the leavings on the dirt floor.
Our sweet Christmas pageants are sanitized versions of the nativity story. Children dressed in sheets, kings’ crowns sitting cockeyed on small heads, young Mary holding a wriggly, pacifier-laden infant (or a plastic baby doll).
Technology, and being able to use it well, is vital to the core operations of parish life in the 21st century. I’ve often wanted to undertake a more comprehensive study, both historical and theological, of Christian congregations in America and their use of technology – a book which would be read only by my obliged parents, I’m sure – but I have the hunch that, by and large, Christian congregations in America have always been late adapters to the contemporary technology of their day.
We’re still late adapters. Most of our websites, I’d guess, are text-heavy and insider-focused. Most of our pictures still feature empty buildings and serene churchyards. But, kudos to us, we have websites and email addresses and smart phones and Facebook pages. We’re far from Snapchat and Instagram, and we move slowly. But we’re moving nevertheless.
All my ministry has been bilingual ministry. My whole Christian life has been lived in both languages, since before my baptism at age 20. English and Spanish are woven so deeply together in my faith that they have become difficult to untangle. In Advent, however, I know that my spirituality is shaped in great part by a simple grammatical fact of Spanish.
The word for “to wait” is the same as the word for “to hope.” Esperar.
In Spanish the two words are distinguished by context and usage, but also related. Waiting is tinged with hope through the linguistic connection and hope becomes in part an exercise in patience, an awareness that more is still to come. That is how it works in my mind, anyway, through the lens of a first-language English speaker who has nonetheless discovered quite a few things for the very first time in Spanish over the last thirty years.