In his letter to the Christian community already established in Rome, Paul provides deep insights about God’s plan for the salvation of all people and its fulfillment through Jesus. Paul longs to travel to Rome to continue teaching in person. But early in the letter, he humbly states that he would benefit from such a visit too: “That is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Romans 1:12)
Mutual encouragement through our faith is a beautiful thing to experience, and to witness. I see it each time I train a congregation’s capital campaign “gift ambassadors” – the volunteers who will meet one-on-one with fellow parishioners to invite them to give to the campaign.
A new calendar year brings renewed resolutions to do things right. When it comes to diet and exercise, common sense generally is the answer (sigh): eat less, move more.
Recognizing a “common sense” for a congregation can be more complicated, especially if you’ve done a good job of gathering a diverse leadership team bringing varied experiences, values and convictions to the table. There may be several options for every issue, from the budget to determining new ministries to advance justice or serve the poor. Oh, why can’t the answer be obvious?
This month we offer five resources to help your congregation prepare for Christmas. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1. This Advent Parish Checklist by Cathy Carpenter is a great tool for churches preparing for Christmas, ensuring they are ready to receive and welcome visitors (among other useful ideas). Check out this handy resource and learn new ways to be better prepared for this festive and important time.
Make room! Clear the way! Jesus is coming, so let His car into your traffic lane.
And onto your calendar too. Make room for good, like baking cookies to deliver to shut-ins, buying gifts for Angel Tree children, staging the chancel for the Christmas pageant, and a hundred other acts of love and joy.
We who are active in the church do this because we made room in our hearts for Jesus some time in the past, and He stayed. When we think about this as we hustle and bustle, we might say, “Now Jesus, there is plenty of room. You sit and keep me company as I finish wrapping these presents.”
Do you have a date set for your next Vestry/leadership retreat?
In our goal-oriented society, it may sound odd, or even dereliction of duty, to replace a monthly decision-making meeting with a retreat to “vision” about “the big picture.” Yet the very difficulty of setting aside pressing issues is what makes a retreat so important. Simply put, if we don’t designate time to think about the big picture, we generally won’t. Here are three ideas for planning a retreat that will help your congregation move forward:
First, set the expectation that an extended annual retreat is important, and all leadership team members should attend. Set the date and far enough in advance for calendar commitment to be made. This expectation should be discussed with potential Senior Wardens and candidates for Vestry.
Is there an emoji for “feeling reflective?” If so, that’s me this Thanksgiving week. Here are some reasons I am grateful for the work to which I’ve been called as a capital campaign and Strategic Solutions consultant for the Episcopal Church Foundation.
As Episcopalians, we’re big on community – on worshipping and praying in community with the faithful around the world. Most of us do that mainly through our local congregation. I get to do it with faith communities around the Midwest and beyond.
It’s still Ordinary Time in the church calendar – that long season after Pentecost so rich with stories of Jesus’ miracles, run-ins with authorities, and teachings about how he is the bread of life, our truth, light and way to God.
For many of us, it’s also a time of return to ordinary… back to the routine of school and less play, of church activities and less heading out of town most weekends. If your coffee hour now returns to speakers or discussion groups, this might be a good topic: Why are we here?
Perhaps this sounds scary to ask. It’s not meant to present a challenge. It is offered as a way to infuse the return of busy-ness with a bit of inspiration. So you might ask it like this:
When I was in my late 30s, I believed I had two vocations: I was a priest, and also a wife and mother. Both of these identities engaged my heart, soul, body and mind. Each fed and nourished the other. Both gave me my greatest cause for thanksgiving and my greatest fulfillment and sense of purpose. Both also prompted my most earnest prayers for guidance and forgiveness. They sometimes, even often, came into conflict, particularly in matters of calendar and clock. I keenly felt that each vocation had been blessed by God, and I believed that by engaging in them I was being faithful in my response to God’s call.
In those years, some 25 year ago now, I self-identified as a “bi-vocational priest.” One vocation came with a cash salary, the other did not.
We Episcopalians are truly blessed by the liturgical touchstones that help us feel our way through Lent, Easter and the entire year. The reading the Word and its interpretation through creative arts – sculpture, statues, stained glass, and all the smells, bells and glorious music - are truly gifts of our worship tradition.
Given this, it seems fitting that we should replicate some of this artful exuberance in our personal faith journeys. In his latest book, Jesus God Among Us, available at Church Publishing, author and artist Roger Hutchison uses one of his own paintings to inspire reflections about finding Jesus. The painting in its entirety “illustrates the full life of Christ.” Segments of the painting inspire Hutchison’s reflections on Christ’s journey “then,” and where we might find or follow Christ “now.” Each reflection is accompanied by questions for further exploration and prayer.
It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with [Jesus] from Galilee followed [Joseph of Arimathea], and they saw the tomb and how [Jesus’s] body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.
I lugged my technology-laden baggage over the stone path and up the wooden stairs to the entrance of my cabin. I couldn't believe I had an entire cabin to myself at Kanuga, the beloved Episcopal conference, retreat and camp center in North Carolina.
I started touring, taking photos to text to my husband. The cabin was sheer rustic charm, including a fire place with a small pile of chopped wood on the hearth!
I intended to review notes for the retreat I would be facilitating the next day, but just had to build a fire. After it was blazing, I called my husband to ask if he had seen my latest pic captioned, "1 match."
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:
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.
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).
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.
I’ve become the chief obituary writer for the family. It started nearly twenty years ago when my husband’s grandfather died. I was a reporter for the metro newspaper, and it was a natural ask. Over the years, even as my jobs have changed, I am still the go-to person for obituaries for the family.
It’s not that I have a golden pen or some magical way with words. Rather I spend some quiet, reflective time thinking about the person, about the qualities that endeared them to others (and the ones that drove others crazy). I work to paint a picture of the person, to suss out those key details that give insight into personality and heart. Here’s a bit of the obituary I recently wrote for my husband’s grandmother:
Thank you to everyone whose honesty invited me to share my truth. I've had a year that has reminded me of the long reach of sexual assault and harassment in my own life, the ways that years later those experiences can still creep up to steal my perspective, my patience, my creativity, my sense of humor. I mourn for the cost of all the healing that our world makes necessary and wonder what we all might do and be if that energy could be turned outward to building the world around us. I struggle to raise daughters who will be strong enough if they must join in saying, "me too" while my heart breaks with hope that they never will.
I posted this on Facebook today. It was harder than I thought it would be to bring myself to do it. Even with way too much company. Even having talked about my experiences to lots of people in lots of contexts over lots of years. I couldn’t have done it without a whole communion of saints who taught me how to do this, how to speak in a healing way about my own brokenness, how to keep the faith that God wants wholeness for all of us.
Already stores urge us to “prepare for the holidays” – as if the whole season depends on us choosing a new color scheme for our Christmas decorations. Right now.
Episcopal sensibilities resist this, of course. We are too busy getting back into the swing of Sunday School, reviving outreach ministries, and conducting annual giving campaigns. Before we know it, the last pot will be scrubbed after the annual community Thanksgiving meal. Dry your hands, sit down, take a breath. Welcome Advent.
Here are five ways to get ready to experience a meaningful Advent.