In March of 2020, as businesses, churches, and schools began to close, and we started to grasp the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, our former Rector answered the call to become a Bishop in another diocese.
The grand celebration that we had planned to thank him for his 11 years of service to our parish was scrapped. On his final Sunday, after the 11 AM Mass, there were elbow bumps instead of hugs, tears of sorrow and fear instead of joy, and a sense that something ominous was descending on us.
It was lunchtime on Wednesday, May 18, 2016, when I sat in cool red-brick nave of Trinity Episcopal Church in Baytown, Texas. It wasn’t my church, but I found myself desperately in need of a sanctuary—someplace quiet to grieve the United Methodist Church I loved and to pray for its leaders. At the time, I served on the board for Reconciling Ministries in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, and we were facing an uphill battle. Again. It was General Conference—the every-four-year meeting to set the governance of the global Church, and we were in trouble. Conservative factions had managed to pass bills that took the Church back 70+ years to a time before women’s rights. It wasn’t just about the gays this time; the Church was after women. Only a few months into the discernment process, I felt something inside me break that day. I still felt called to ministry, but I knew it could no longer be in the UMC. I remember saying that, even if the Church did want me, I no longer wanted it back.
We have all encountered peculiar churches. In fact, we have been seeing a lot of them lately and we need to see more.
The two churches that were featured in the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, Westminster Abbey in London and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, are literally peculiar - royal peculiars. They have been carved out of the jurisdiction of their local diocesan bishops and placed under the direct authority of the sovereign, who oversees them in her or his capacity as the supreme governor of the Church of England.
How delightfully British. Or is it?
You may be surprised to learn that we have at least one peculiar here in the United States, albeit not a royal one. On the first floor of the Episcopal Church Center in New York City, our Presiding Bishop’s headquarters, you will find the Chapel of Christ the Lord. In its sacristy hangs two certificates from 1963 that serve to carve that little chapel out of the Diocese of New York and transfer it to the direct authority of the Presiding Bishop.
I attended law school in the 70’s and, at least during that period, the entire culture was permeated with a sense of competition and individual success. Other than your moot court partner and maybe your study group, there were few opportunities for collaboration or teamwork. There were winners and losers, students who got the top law firm jobs from recruiters who came to campus and those who had to pound the payment with their hard-copy resumes. Once you became a lawyer, the competition continued even more fiercely for plum assignments, bonuses and, the ultimate goal in a private firm - becoming a partner. While I never made partner, thank God, and decided to work for a nonprofit organization before coming to ECF, it did take me quite a while to embrace a style of leadership that emphasized collaboration, collegiality, and working together for the common good.
“Fourteen parishes,” she told me that afternoon, noting that my jaw just about dropped. “Yes, I’m the Team Vicar of fourteen parishes.”
“Wow, that makes the two churches I serve as part of one parish, and the third as priest-in-charge kind of pale in comparison,” I responded.
My new colleague and I were enjoying lunchtime conversation in the refectory at Sarum College, just across the lawn from Salisbury Cathedral. The site of the former Salisbury & Wells Theological College, Sarum College is very much a working, albeit non-residential seminary. In fact, it’s a remarkable, vibrant center for theological formation and renewal for all orders of ministry! It’s a great place for anyone, including Episcopal priests on sabbatical like me, to spend any time, really. Simple accommodations, great staff, nice meals, a stone’s throw from one of the world’s great Cathedrals, and a dynamic, buzzing place where one can really get a sense of what life is like on the ground in the Church of England.
My seminary was a huge brick building circa 1960 or so. It was originally a seminary for Jesuit priests, and now houses a retirement community and nursing home for Catholic clergy, and functions as a large retreat center for many different groups.
One weekend a month for three years I would ride along as my friend Jan drove down the long, tree-lined drive. We’d park and lug a weekend’s worth of luggage inside, and before we were even in the doors our community would begin to form via shouted greetings in the parking lot and warm hugs in the lobby.
The Academy for Vocational Leadership is an Iona Collaborative school and is made up of many bi-vocational students and staff. On these long weekends we learned Church History, Systematic Theology, the Bible and literally dozens and dozens of practical courses, everything from music in small churches to Asset-Based Community Development.
The other day, my family and I went downtown. There’s only one incorporated town, really village center in the community in which we live. We missed the Taste of St. Mary’s by one hour – all the vendors were packing their tents – so we walked down the block, off the town square to the local pizza place for a late lunch. It’s great pizza; plus it’s fun to run into all sorts of neighbors. Following lunch, which turned out to be dinner, we walked another block over to the new ice cream place that opened last year – a storefront on an old warehouse building; the rest of the building itself now turned into a collection of real-time Etsy shops with an always-full beer garden in the back.
Years ago, none of those options were there. The buildings were there. The pizza place was a run-down seafood joint, and I have no idea what was in that warehouse. Back then, there was a diner, a coffee shop and a French restaurant and that was about it, save for a few funeral homes and florist shops. Now, the town is filled with yoga studios, art galleries, yarn shops, wonderful restaurants, a health food store, cooking studio, and so many more pop-up-shops-turned-creative-businesses.
As we recommit to Stewardship each season with a focus on time and talent, let us reflect on our individual level of participation in the church’s organizations/committees/guilds or ministries. A church colleague highly recommends that we use the word ministries more often in order to 1) distinguish it from the secular organizations’ processes and mindset we adhere to and 2) to continually remind ourselves that any work we do in the church should be in service to Jesus Christ and his teachings. I agree.
On one end of the participation range, there are some in the church that can be described as oversubscribed. They belong to every organization and are either burned-out with too many meetings and commitments or they are participating in name only and do not contribute in any meaningful way. Oftentimes in smaller congregations, oversubscribing can occur with few members that need to wear multiple hats. This situation is increasingly common and challenging.
When is the right time to hand over responsibilities in our congregations and ministries and how to do so effectively are important questions to consider? Whether it is the Vestry, Altar Guild, Diocesan Council or ECW, we need a plan.
In determining when to handoff, for some, term limits are the necessary guardrails to ensure that we do not keep the same responsibilities indefinitely. For others, the term “over my dead body” was created, with a staunch refusal to handoff, threatening instead to leave the ministry or withhold their tithes.
The obvious advantage for letting go is that it allows new ideas and perspectives to be introduced and it makes room for the gifts of others to be exercised. This is especially important as we strive to allow young adults to have meaningful responsibilities and also welcome those who are newcomers to the church or to our faith or existing members who feel left out of church life.
Congregations within the Episcopal Church tend to be loners. We seldom interface with our neighboring Episcopal churches and are often detached from our diocese. While we celebrate similar milestones and struggle with the same challenges, it is rare for congregations to collaborate continuously for ministry.
In 2015, a collaborative ministry was formed within the Diocese of New Jersey to address the challenges and the unique needs of the ten historically Black congregations. The members of this ministry include clergy and lay leaders from these congregations and a Diocesan staff liaison. This ministry was named the Commission on Black Ministry (COBM).
A few years back, the Episcopal Church made an intentional change in its language: “Clergy Deployment” became “Transition Ministry.” The shift was generally a good one and it led to an impressive amount of reflection on lay leadership, congregational life cycles, and the strategies that can support healthy arrivals and departures.
Yet, we still need to be talking about clergy deployment. We still need to be talking about how we get the right people into the right chairs. (Or, to use a more sacred version of that same metaphor: The right people behind the right altars.)
Early this summer, the Church of England’s Vision and Strategy group released a plan addressing the continuing decline in church attendance in England and proposing a path forward for growth and vibrancy. The plan calls for the planting of an ambitious number of churches - 10,000 by 2030 to be exact - that would be predominantly lay-led. The release of this plan hit a very tender spot when it targeted educated, ordained leaders and beloved ancient church buildings as “limiting factors” that are holding back the growth of the church. Following the release of this plan, a social media maelstrom ensued, wounded clergy people cried out in pain, and a movement called “Save the Parish” began to defend parochial structures and fend off the “emergence of a church … not want(ed) or need(ed)” (The Rev. Marcus Walker, Spectator Magazine 8 July 2021). An ocean away, I watched it all unfold on my laptop, feeling ripples of resonance in the diocese that I serve in The Episcopal Church.
Many of today’s church leaders grew up playing Tetris. (Or, perhaps, watching their children play Tetris!) Tomorrow’s church leaders will have grown up playing Minecraft. Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans suggest that the difference is more significant than it may seem because it reveals an important difference in how older and younger generations understand power.
“[In Tetris,] our role as players was very limited. Someone else had set the rules [and] we all played a version of the same game…Minecraft is an open world. It is up to players everywhere to decide what they want to create, and then they build them together, collaboratively from the ground up. There are no real rules to Minecraft…Everything there has been co-created by players of the game.”
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.
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.
Donald V. Romanik, President, Episcopal Church Foundation:
Hello. My name is Donald Romanik and I am President of the Episcopal Church Foundation. It's been about a year since we've been living with this pandemic of COVID-19. When we locked down about a year ago this time, little did we know that 12 months later we'd still be struggling. Clearly, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. We have three new vaccines that people are starting to get, and eventually we will go back to some sense of normality.
As I look back, clearly it was challenging and frightening, but there also some good things that we have to remember. Personally, I got in touch with a lot of people I haven't spoken to in years, started appreciating the simple pleasures of life, like a meal with my spouse across the table. And in our local faith communities, we learned to pivot and do things in new and different ways, from online services to phone calls, to contacts with people; we really need to celebrate the successes over this past year.
Does it seem to you that, “Happy New Year” is being said more fervently now? As if we are demanding: “Be happy, New Year!”
Congregational leaders are likely praying for the same as the stress of change and survival continue. Five years ago, consultant, coach and spiritual director Susan Beaumont began writing a book about such struggle. It was published in September 2019. By 2020, its title seemed designed for the pandemic: How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season.
“Liminality refers to a quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs during transition, when a person or group of people is in between something that has ended and something else that is not yet ready to begin,” Beaumont explains in Chapter 1.
Apostolic hazing. I know. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Unfortunately in many cases the term is warranted. There are too many stories of aspirants and ordinands coming out of the discernment/ordination process feeling emotionally scarred, financially strained, depressed, angry, discarded, blackballed, humiliated, along with not being able to fully trust others. Some of the hurdles that are put before people seeking Holy Orders are downright cruel. Here are some of the things you’ve might have heard, experienced, witnessed, or actively participated in:
● Constantly moving targets for them to meet, only for the target to be changed up again
● Making people go to seminaries that the bishop is fond of, without considering the life circumstances of the aspirant (job, housing, passport, family, finances, distance, etc.).
2020 has been a year of difficult reality checks. Yes, it’s dangerous out there. Yes, you should wear a mask. Yes, you need to figure out Zoom.
Now there is an opportunity for a vitality check, designed to help focus congregational leadership and planning.
The Congregational Vitality Assessment (CVA), is now offered at no cost thanks to a partnership between the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) and The FaithX Project. The CVA provides congregations with an assessment of Vitality (healthiness) and Sustainability (level of people, financial, and contextual resources necessary to survive and even thrive). The vitality section of the CVA measures ten areas of congregational functioning, such as Vision and Mission, Leadership, Lay Empowerment, Worship, Formation, and Stewardship.
I will never forget a sweet widow I interviewed during a feasibility study for a capital campaign in a parish in Pennsylvania. As we discussed the various proposed projects, it seemed she had a story for each one. Her children were baptized in the sanctuary, she taught Sunday School in those classrooms, she donated china tea cups for fellowship in the lounge. There was no hesitation when asked about her support for the campaign. Of course she would give.
Nothing in the conversation surprised her until I asked if she thought the campaign would be successful. “What do you mean?” she wanted to know. When I explained that questions are being asked to determine how much money could be raised, her bright face suddenly faded.