A Missional Take on Ashes to Go

by Alan Bentrup on February 27, 2017

Ash Wednesday is coming. For at least one day out of the year, we’re going to be reminded that we are dust, and that we’re going to die some day. Fun times!

Over the past several years, this solemn fast day has been infused with a missional fervor in the popular Ashes to Go outings. Part of a church-wide movement, Ashes to Go moves this imposing act from the confines of church buildings to the people in their daily lives. Interested passers-by are marked with the sign of the cross and invited to seek forgiveness and renewal (and hopefully be prayed for!). Locations to receive ashes are designed to meet people wherever they are, including train stations, bus stops, coffee shops, church parking lots, street corners, and more.

But can I be honest here for just a minute? This makes me deeply uncomfortable, but not for the reason(s) you may think. It isn’t some die-hard liturgical issue I have (although I have heard many compelling arguments in that vein). My friend Jason Evans speaks convincingly in defense of the practice.

No, what bothers me is the trendiness of the whole endeavor. The Facebook events, Instagram posts, and hashtags (#ashtag?) Are we taking this ancient ritual to the streets to meet people where they are, or because we think it is something that “good (or cool) churches” do? And do we think theologically, or biblically, about what it means to post a picture of our ash-marked foreheads for the world to see? I seem to recall Jesus giving some advice on that subject.

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Getting Outside of Our Churches

by Annette Buchanan on February 22, 2017

For many, their only worship experience or connection with other Episcopalians are in their home congregations. There are churches that are less than a mile apart and as individuals or congregations we have never visited or seen the inside of our neighboring churches. 

The reasons given for being strangers to each other are many: we are too busy; they are “high” church and we are “low” church; we didn’t know there was another Episcopal church nearby; their members are of another ethnic or cultural background; it is hard to plan logistically given worship times, etc. How can we be welcoming and inviting to non-Episcopalians when we find it so difficult to exercise that habit among ourselves? 

Back in the day, people use to do “pulpit exchanges”, where the choir and clergy from one church would switch with a neighboring church. Are we still doing those? This great idea was an opportunity to experience a different worship leader, music, liturgy, and expand our circle of friends. Also done in the past, and some still participate in today, are joint Lenten programs where congregations share a meal and reflection for Lent, alternating the hosting church. 

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ECF’s 5 Vestry Essentials for February

by Brendon Hunter on February 15, 2017

Are you interested in practical, spiritually grounded resources for your congregation? Subscribe for free 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.

This month, our digest features 5 ways to help your vestry hit the ground running.

1. What Does a Rector Do?

New Vestry Papers article - We’ve added one more article to the February issue!

Vestries have a particular role of working closely with their clergy person. With his own job about to change, Greg Syler explores in "What Does a Rector Do?" what the job of a rector is from perceived expectations to the church-wide Canons.

2. The Vestry Hand-Off: Orientation for New Members

The Vestry Hand-Off: Orientation for New Members” offers suggestions to make the transition from the former leadership team to the newly elected members of your vestry much easier.

3. Five Meeting Tips for New Leaders

Walking into your first meeting as a new leader of a group can be unnerving. “Five Meeting Tips for New Leaders” shares five principles to help your first meeting go smoothly.

4. Vestry Covenants and Norms

Vestry Covenants and Norms” shares examples of covenants developed by Episcopal vestries to help build trust, mutual respect, and the abilty to make decisions.

5. How to Write a Reflection

As a vestry leader, part of your role is communicating to your congregation. “How to Write a Reflection” shares advice on how to make your piece unique and memorable to your readers.

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What a Ballpoint Pen is Teaching Me About the Future of the Church

by Alan Bentrup on February 14, 2017

I’m a simple man, really. I like gadgets and such, but when it comes down to it I do most of my thinking with a paper journal and a ballpoint pen. So when I ran out of pens the other day, I walked into the store to buy my favorite brand. 

That’s when it hit me. There, on the package of Bic Crystal pens (the brand I’ve been using since high school, and which was first made in the 1950s) I saw those big, bold words: NEW & IMPROVED.

Why on earth (and how on earth) could you make a simple, plastic, ballpoint pen “new” or “improved”?

That got me thinking about innovation and the church. I’ll spend the next several weeks sharing what this “New & Improved” pen has me thinking about that. First, the very idea that the best-selling pen of all time can (and should) be improved upon is a lesson for us in the Church.

How can we be “new & improved”?

Now, I already hear the nay-sayers: we don’t need to be “new,” and
“we can’t chase after the latest fads.” Yes, and no. But we, as the Church (and Anglicans, in particular) historically have looked to proclaim the Gospel in new and improved ways.

Stained glass, musical notation, the printing press, and even a bound collection of common prayers, were all at one time innovative. They were all new and improved ways of worshipping and proclaiming the Gospel, not too long ago.

So why can we be so reluctant today? Why are new technologies often shunned, in favor of other technology (paper is a form of technology, after all)?

There are deep theological discussions to be had around the use of any technology, not just something deemed “new.” And I’m not advocating the abandonment of old practices (the Bic Cristal has the same shape today that it did 60 years ago...but more on that next time!).

But we should be willing to ask the question: are there places in the Church, in our worship, and in our communal life that we can seek to make new?

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Top Ten Traits of a Terrific Vestry Member

by Linda Buskirk on February 9, 2017

In the social profit sector, the leadership role of the board of directors is so important it is considered a “capacity factor” for the organization. If the board is weak in its knowledge, governance and engagement, that weakness will hold back the agency, no matter how dynamic and productive the chief executive and the rest of the staff are.

As a consultant to not-for-profits, I created a list of “ten traits of a terrific board member” for use in governance training. For your consideration, I’ve amended the list for Vestry members:

1. Live by the Spirit. A terrific Vestry member honors God and reflects the fruit of that Spirit, rather than the works of the flesh. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5: 22-23; 25-26)

2. The work is serious – act accordingly. A terrific Vestry member is not casual about his/her service. To reflect this trait, come to meetings prepared, having read advanced materials or articles. Ask questions and listen to answers, respecting and learning from others before coming to your own decision. Pray about your decisions.

3. Understand the mission and what fuels it. A terrific Vestry member loves the mission and understands how the parish is organized to fulfill it. This includes facts such parish demographics, who are potential new attendees, what are the ministries of the church and how much is each utilized, and what are the funding sources of the congregation?

4. Focus on the vision – the IMPACT of your ministries. A terrific Vestry member understands that even in a small parish where it’s “all hands on deck” to provide ministry, the Vestry has a very important “big picture” role. One of the key aspects of this level of leadership is providing the vision towards which all operations are heading. Articulating a vision is one of the most strategic leadership actions a Vestry can take.

5. Commit to spend more time than one meeting per month. When someone is recruited to serve on Vestry, s/he may be told that the time commitment is for monthly board meetings that last an hour or two. If this is the only time expectation set for Vestry members, none will be very terrific. A board member’s fiduciary and leadership responsibilities require more time than 12-24 hours per year. Terrific Vestry members invest time in reading materials in advance of meetings, visit various ministries to see them in action, serve on committees/task forces, help with fundraising or special events, and participate in special extended meetings or annual planning retreats.

6. Think outside the box. Terrific Vestry members rely not on their own understanding nor rest on the rationale that “we’ve always done it that way.” Consider looking outside the doors of the church to discover needs to be served in the neighborhood, community or world. With what interfaith ministries could your parish collaborate? What resources from the Episcopal Church Foundation could you use to help with strategic planning, planned giving or a capital campaign? Are all Vestry members signed up for Vital Practices e-mails? No need to get stuck in a rut with so many easily-accessed resources!

7. Invest your talents. People are often recruited to Vestry because of their profession, expertise or gifts for administration and ministry. Terrific Vestry members look forward to using their strengths to help the organization. Remember Ephesians 4: 11-13: YOU are a gift to the church!

8. Be an ambassador. A terrific Vestry member is a promoter of the parish to everyone s/he knows – inside and outside the church. Keep conversations positive – joyful even! Yes, sometimes serious issues develop, but that is no reason to sow seeds of doubt and anxiousness. We have Jesus Christ on our side, for Heaven’s sake! Promote the wonderful and invite others to get involved in the life of the parish.

9. Understand the spirituality of stewardship. A terrific Vestry member is joyful pledger to the church, and not just for the financial well-being of the parish. Encourage leadership to consider developing stewardship ministry that helps people grow in their faith and discipleship, including the understanding that we do not “possess” anything; we are stewards of the time, talents and treasure with which we are blessed.

10. Promote a healthy Vestry. Terrific Vestry members support each other and the rector/clergy in positive ways. They keep God first without regard to personal power and dominance. They respect fellow Vestry members and do not participate in gossip, hidden agendas or negative after-meeting parking lot discussions. To promote a healthy Vestry, set expectations in writing; explain these in a thorough orientation process. Value transparency and openness to diverse opinions.

I offer this list as a starting point for a very important Vestry discussion: What are our expectations for Vestry members? Do they include regular attendance and showing up on time? Do we have a shared understanding of expectations for stewardship, committee involvement and attending an annual retreat? What traits would we include in our “top ten” for being a terrific Vestry member?

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