The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County, Maryland recently undertook a study to identify the gaps between the services the County’s social service providers offer and those persons who lack access to resources. The ‘Gap Analysis’ revealed a host of hard-hitting facts and has spurred conversations across multiple sectors in our fast growing, economically prosperous (among a few) formerly-rural community.
For the past six months, I’ve been on a team of people commissioned by our elected leaders to make recommendations about how to translate into action what we’ve learned through the Gap Analysis. We are slowly drilling down near some root causes of the gaps, and truly helpful initiatives are beginning to emerge from our work.
I hope you’ve kept up in our reading of Romans. If so, we’ve been in Romans 12 this week. As I read through this chapter, I’m struck by what Paul is pointing out. He lists several gifts that may be given to some of us: Prophecy, preaching, exhortation, ministry, giving, leading, compassion.
That list isn’t exhaustive, but it is interesting. We’d agree that not everyone has the spiritual gift of preaching or prophecy. But giving? Compassion? Those seem like qualities all followers of Jesus should have. But Paul seems to be saying here that some folks will be particularly gifted in those areas.
But that’s not even the most interesting thing to me in this chapter. After we get through that list of qualities that some folks might have more than others, Paul then hits us right between the eyes with a quality he assumes all followers of Jesus will have in abundance: Love.
I don’t imagine Paul had any idea that his letters to the people in Corinth or Rome or Galatia would become part of the Christian canon. His focus was not to become a famous author whose words would guide and inform Christian thought for centuries. Rather, he was reaching out to friends, to communities, to urge them through personal invitation to come to Jesus, to learn about mercy and grace, salvation and sanctification.
I’ve been reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans during the Good Book Club, an initiative sponsored by Forward Movement and supported by partners across the Episcopal Church, including the Episcopal Church Foundation. The goal of the Good Book Club is to encourage a daily habit of reading scripture, believing that encounters with God’s Word are transformative. I’m learning a lot from Paul—in part, realizing that I still have a lot to learn. This missive for the Romans is not for the faint of heart; it is profound and complicated and sometimes confusing (Paul might have done well to call upon the assistance of an editor!).
I sometimes surprise people by loving Paul. People expect me – as a woman, a feminist, a lifelong fan and (I hope!) practitioner of liberation theology – to squirm at least a bit at the mention of Paul’s name. So I figured that as we as the Episcopal Church embark on reading Paul’s longest contribution to the Biblical canon, I might just share all the reasons I love Paul, just in case your enthusiasm for reading the letter to the Romans needs a little boost.
I’ll start by clarifying that I subscribe to the widely held academic view that the seven letters properly attributed to Paul himself are 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, most of 2 Corinthians and Romans. If Paul was the credible author of some of the later epistles written in his name, we’d need to have a further conversation.
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).