Every month ECFVP offers resources on a theme. This month we've asked James Murphy, Managing Program Director at ECF, to choose five resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
For 13 years, I have been blessed to be a part of the ministry of the Episcopal Church Foundation to lay and clergy leaders throughout the church. My role has been focused on overseeing programs and guiding leaders, as well as many donors, in a variety of areas including planned/estate giving, stewardship, endowment management, and donor philanthropy. I remain encouraged that after the many difficulties and challenges of the past year and a half, I believe that the Episcopal Church continues to be a beacon of hope to many. However, leaders always need to demonstrate they can be trusted with the gifts they receive and oversee.
At this critical time of resurgence after the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, it is important for church leaders to demonstrate to supporters that they can be trusted with the financial gifts their donors make. I am happy to note a small sample of the many useful resources on ECF’s Vital Practices to help Episcopal leaders build confidence among their supporters in the months and years to come.
The dark pandemic storm caught congregations in their own deep and familiar forests. Paths habitually taken to stay safe and comfortable suddenly washed away. Lightning-like bolts of truth jarred the consciences of many in pulpits and in pews.
As the storm subsides, some congregations, realizing they are still in the dark about the impacts of racism, injustice or poverty in their own communities, are heading out with flashlights or even flood lights. They are peering into nearby neighborhoods to discover ministry needs.
Certainly many needs exist, but how are churches to discover what God is calling them to find? One way is to simultaneously turn on another search beam – one pointing inward. This can be just as intimidating because shortcomings have a way of blocking light.
Depending on where you look, or what news you follow, we’re either wrapping up this pandemic or deeply mired in it. Even with increasing vaccinations, there’s trouble on the international stage – dramatic numbers of caseloads in India, for one. U.S. teenagers are now approved to get vaccines, but scores of Americans are still hesitant or altogether resistant. And some fully vaccinated people simply aren’t returning to what used to be perfectly normal, mundane activities – grocery shopping, eating inside a restaurant, going to church among them.
This is already a challenge for the church. It has been, and it will continue to be. Over the next several years, if not decades, these new emerging patterns will pose an even greater challenge for the institutional church. Nowadays, we operate on dual platforms – meeting gracefully those (fewer) who come in-person as well as reaching those who feel safer at home. No one’s said anything about a comprehensive mission strategy, and there’s even less mention of funding models for this uncertain future.
Here is a story about what can happen when the people of a congregation unite around the love of their faith community, a vision to strengthen it, and the joyful inclusion of everyone.
In 2019, the leadership of Holy Family Episcopal Church in Angola, Indiana, faced a sad reality. If the congregation did not rally to financially support their new young and popular rector, they might lose him when the grant funding his curacy ended. So they got busy and creative.
The leadership surveyed of the congregation. All 33 responding households (a large majority of membership) said, yes, we appreciate having a full-time rector. The survey also invited input on new worship opportunities, communication, and asked what people appreciated about their church. Folks were asked if they would be willing to give more to keep their full-time rector.
One year ago, we watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered, those images still scarred in our memories, captured by a strong, faithful witness. We had been in pandemic lockdown for so long, so much festering and boiling over. Then face-to-face with a veritable series of pandemics – deep systemic injustice, especially around issues of race in our nation, and Covid-19, as well.
The Episcopal Church will mark and mourn this anniversary, and rightly so. Our church stood, then, and stands up, now, against “the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” The Episcopal Church, shaped as we’ve been these past several generations by the words of the baptismal covenant, not only knows the words by heart but carries them into the public square. Of this, I am proud to be an Episcopalian: striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human person.
Searching for a new Rector for your parish is a significant undertaking. Searching for a new Rector during a global pandemic amplifies the significance exponentially.
Our previous Rector’s final Sunday was our last in-person gathering for worship in March of 2020. No one knew how long that closure would last; most of us – myself included – assumed we’d be through the worst of the pandemic by last summer. How wrong we were.
Given video conferencing technology, the challenge we faced was not how we, as a Rector Search Committee would meet, but rather how we would define who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become.
I remember my grandmother talking about going to prayer meetings. Some faith traditions still hold them, and maybe some Episcopal congregations do too. It’s a wonderful concept, coming together to pray in community, possibly over something specific.
A recent Forward Day By Day meditation by The Rev’d Scott Gunn, Forward Movement Executive Director, offered a good reminder that any Vestry or other church meeting can turn to prayer when the way forward seems unclear. He realizes this might seem a bit odd as leaders take seriously their responsibility to find solutions:
“Indeed, we should do our due diligence to ensure we make wise decisions. It’s also true that we need to listen for God’s call to us, whether we are deciding things for ourselves or for our church.”
I find a lot of hope about the changing Church and its role in the changing world in those coming from outside our tradition. What do these folks have to say to us? Lots, it turns out. Can we hear it and respond in ways-appropriate-to-our-context? That's the big question, and much of what I have dedicated my life and ministry to. I issue this warning as when I work with parishes, vestries, bishops, seminarians, or whatever group of Episcopalians will have me, and then I share with them the seemingly bleak news that we must change or go home, believe it or not, they don't always thank me for being such a harbinger. That said, if you can keep an open mind, heart, and, well, ears, I think there is a lot of value, hope, and inspiration for where we are and where we are headed.
A key ingredient for a healthy, vibrant congregation is a strong appreciation for the ministry of the laity as well as the ministry of the clergy. Shared collaborative leadership is critical for the spiritual growth of our congregations. However increasingly, there in an imbalance in our optimal leadership paradigm.
Many congregations are faced with the issue of no permanent clergy leadership and are continuously being served by supply clergy or have no clergy. This situation strains the effectiveness of the lay leadership and worsens the vitality issues of these congregations.
For many search committees, having the opportunity to discern the right clergy is increasingly difficult when there are fewer options. This may lead to a mismatch of expectations and inevitable conflict.
Do you want to have meaningful conversations about spirituality, especially with non-members? If so, I encourage you to consider three principles.
First, avoid jargon. I define ‘jargon’ as any word you have not used outside of church activities during the last week. Certainly ‘exegesis’ applies, as do ‘salvation theory’, ‘eschatology’ and ‘incarnation’. But have you considered ‘narthex’ and ‘Eucharist’? My suggestion is if you find the need to use such words, explain them at the same time. In writing we would say ‘narthex’ (lobby).
I know! We went to school for a long time and want to make sure people know that. When I lead spiritual gifts identification workshops I say the real gift of tongues is shown by an accountant who can explain a balance sheet! Maybe there is a similar statement for clergy.
In my book, Behold What You Are: Becoming the Body of Christ, I suggest defining liturgy as “the work of the people and a public work, expressing and forming of the Body of Christ, given for the world.” As such, whenever we find ourselves planning or preparing for a liturgy, we might ask:
How is this liturgy engaging the people?
How is this liturgy public?
How will this liturgy express who we are as the Body of Christ?
How will it form us as the Body of Christ, given for the world?
We can apply these questions to everything from how we welcome to how we sing, from how we collect the offerings to how we send people forth.
The invitation was simple: “No agenda, just conversation. No pressure, just invitation.”
With these words, the rector and newcomers coordinator at Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis invited the members of St. Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church in nearby Bartlett, Tennessee to a service of Evening Prayer followed by a time of conversation. St. Elisabeth’s was about to close, and Holy Communion was not sure how best to help.
There is plenty of literature about how two congregations can start journeying together, but our story is not grounded in any particular theory. We just listened to each other, and we built a model that worked for us. Other churches in other places could easily do the same.
At long last, the two congregations I serve as rector are now one church – one church, we say, in two locations. Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, MD and St. George’s Church in Valley Lee, MD are now two churches, two campuses of Resurrection Parish: the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s newest parish, indeed the newest parish in our entire Episcopal Church! It’s been a long time coming, not to mention an incredible process; I’ve blogged extensively about our discernment around this initiative on ECF Vital Practices.
To be very technical, we merged two parishes into one parish. That may not seem super groundbreaking unto itself, but let me provide some context. St. George’s in Valley Lee is Maryland’s oldest continuous Anglican / Episcopal worshipping community – dating back to 1638 – and it became the parish church of William & Mary Parish when, in 1692, the colony was subdivided into 30 Church of England parishes (so much for Maryland’s heritage of religious toleration; we, too, got an established church not long after our founding). Church of the Ascension, meanwhile, was planted in a brand-new, post-WWII suburb as a mission chapel in the 1950s – along with so many other Episcopal church buildings and institutions in American cultural life – and it became its own full-fledged parish (Patuxent Parish) in 1968. Thanks, Baby Boom!
Over the past 500 years, the perception has been that the old world had all the answers: the science, technology, and advanced ways of living. Can that still be said? Or perceived as truth?
We are facing a monumental moral crisis. Consider these observations:
• The United States is deeply divided politically
• Income inequality is at an all-time high; poverty and homelessness are on the rise
• Pollution of the air, water, and land is contributing to climate change
• Rainforests are being destroyed each day, contributing to global warming, and thousands of native people in South America are being killed for trying to protect the earth
• More and more animal species are becoming extinct
• Violence is glorified on TV—guns are becoming a national pastime—some sports have become barbaric (UFC, WWA)—while mental health is in decline
You won’t find it in the Guinness Book, but we’re setting a world record that hopefully won’t be repeated. Normally the season of Lent lasts for forty days, after which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter. But what I see is that Lent began on February 26, 2020 and never finished. We’ve been locked down in the pandemic for a whole year, and it hasn’t let up yet.
The Book of Common Prayer tells us that for more than a thousand years “it’s been the custom of the church to prepare for Good Friday and Easter by a season of penitence and fasting.” (p. 264) Lent is a time for stepping back to take a look at our lives, often giving up a comfortable habit for a while to see how that feels. In doing that, we’re following Jesus on his forty-day vision quest in the desert, when he was tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. Then after the darkness and agony of the crucifixion the glorious resurrection comes, as reliably as the sun rising in the east.
Picking up some scattered debris around the churchyard, I paused at Kitty’s grave. It had warmed a bit, welcome after too much ice and cold, so I stayed there a while. I remember her fondly, and miss her, too. I said a prayer then carried on with yard cleanup, an unexpected chore that morning, nice to be outdoors. Nearby Kitty’s grave is Betty’s, and on the other side of the belltower is where JoAnn lies in rest. I said a prayer for them as well, and called to mind the picture of their faces, the sounds of their voices. I remembered how truly alive they were, all of them dear, funny, strong, faithful Christian women. They were widowed for some time, all of them. None, I thank God, knew the devastating impact of this past year: pandemic, shutdown, fear and anxiety.
Laughter, games, art activities, punch in little dixie cups, and cookies with cream fillings are what I remember most about Vacation Bible School (VBS) on the Navajo Nation. Churches came in droves to visit and minister to the children and families. It was the place to be for Elementary and Middle School kids. We loved to see all the smiling and welcoming faces of new people from the big cities willing to play with us and read, sometimes ready to teach some kids how to play the piano or the ukulele. The partners all loved to sing bible songs - so loud it seemed the windows would burst.
I was a baptized Episcopalian but VBS and Holidays were mostly the only times I went to church as a child. My parents and most of my relatives in my community follow the ways of Navajo teachings, ceremonies, and prayer. My mother was devout about prayer. Each morning, before the sun began to light up the horizon, she would start her daily prayers.
Every month ECFVP offers five resources on a theme. This month we've asked the Rev. David Peters, a 2017 ECF Fellow and church planter, to choose five resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please find his choices below. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
I’m a church planter that for the first year mingled with people every day, trying my best to get to know them, especially the ones who didn’t go to church anywhere. Then the Pandemic hit, and my ability to mingle ceased. I had a lot of grief about that, some of which was just the fear of failure, fear I would flop as a church planter.
Optimism is high, and vaccines are rolling out. President Biden recently changed his tune, moving forward the timeline to have sufficient Covid vaccines for all American adults by the end of May. The forecast looks good for a lot of American cultural life. Maybe even for Christian churches and religious gatherings?
Maybe. Maybe not. That’s hard to tell at this point, although any increase in in-person numbers would be a welcome sign. How many will return? And how soon? How often? Will we get back to our pre-Covid numbers? When? Has a pandemic unalterably shifted people’s sense of time and connection, and in what ways?
Lots of this will be a “wait and see…”