I believe God speaks to us in confluences. When people from diverse places and backgrounds come to similar conclusions on how a problem might be solved, I listen. When the burdens of a diversity of problems might be lightened by a single program or project, I pay attention to the possibilities.
Three years since COVID rocked our ecclesial equilibrium across the United States, a new confluence is emerging. Many cities and towns are experiencing an affordable housing crisis and a growing homeless population. A tiny homes movement is causing local governments to rework housing codes and permitting processes. At the same time, fewer people are involved in church, and fewer still are attending in person on Sunday mornings. Many parking lots that once were packed with cars now have easy access. Congregations are re-thinking mission in the community, considering anew how God might be calling them to share the resources they have, and realizing resources they had not considered before. Notably land.
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.
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.
When I arrived as the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in 2014, there was one topic on the hearts and minds of many of the members. The original sanctuary built in 1970, which was converted into the Parish Hall in the early 1990s, was no longer meeting the needs of the congregation. It is too small to hold all of us at one time; we need a more functional kitchen both for our preschool and the church; and we want to add showers and laundry facilities, so it could serve as an emergency shelter when we experience extreme temperatures. Despite these identified needs, I kept coming back to the fact that it would be labor intensive and expensive, only to see the space stand empty most of the week.
As you may know, FaithX is working with TryTank in a "proof-of-concept" experiment called Episcopal Pulse, the purpose of which is to keep a finger on the pulse of The Episcopal Church through weekly, rapid-response micro-surveys.
Our most recent micro-survey (#16), completed last Friday, asked this question:
In what areas of congregational life have you found hidden opportunities in the disruption caused by the pandemic?
Jesus came to earth to live among us with his heart wide open. He came to love, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “the Father and I are one.” (John 10:30) At the Last Supper he told his friends that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Living so fully in love led to Jesus’ heart being broken, over and over. He saw children going hungry and elders being neglected. He saw people with disabilities banished from their communities and so-called “outsiders” demonized. He saw systems of power supported by violence, making a few people rich at the expense of many others. He knew that none of this was God’s will, and it broke his heart.
Jesus called his disciples to “be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” (Acts of the Apostles 1:8) That means that we, individually and as communities, should love as Jesus did. It means that when children in school or elders in a food store are gunned down by an assault rifle, our hearts will be broken. Again… and again… and again.
As churches emerge from pandemic practices and take a fresh look at the way we used to do things, many are pondering what aspects of the past two years might carry over or influence our liturgies ahead. Some are committed to continuing worship online one way or another, some are challenged by the thought of returning to the common use of a common chalice. Some are wondering how they will exchange the Peace. The hand sanitizers that appeared in abundance in 2021 are sliding into the shadows. In all these things, the church is being given an invitation to enrich and expand its liturgical practices and understanding. Will we accept the invitation?
Ablutions, ceremonial washing of the priest and people, have been part of worship, or preparation for worship, for centuries. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all have traditions of washing hands, face, and even feet, before prayer. Many Episcopal Churches maintain the ancient custom of keeping a bowl of baptismal water by the entrance to the church for people who want dip their fingers and sign themselves with the cross upon entering the nave. In addition to reminding worshippers of their baptism, this practice is a remnant of the medieval hand-washing before the Eucharist. Another tradition is the use of a lavabo bowl, held by an acolyte who then pours water over the celebrant’s fingers after the altar has been prepared and before the Eucharistic Prayer. Often, while engaging in this symbolic washing, the priest recites a verse from the psalms, “I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord” (Psalm 26) or “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51).
What does it take for a community of faith to see itself in a new way, or to believe that its neighbors could find value inside old red doors?
Episcopal churches in Indiana, small and large, are finding that it takes a type of boldness rooted in knowledge of the good they have to offer: Good mission, good faith, and good space. Self-awareness about these assets is being awakened through the Church Buildings for Collaborative Partnerships project (CBCP).
Funded by a Thriving Congregations grant from Lilly Endowment, CBCP is underway through a partnership with the Episcopal dioceses of Indianapolis and Northern Indiana, along with two other organizations: Partners for Sacred Places and Indiana Landmarks. All 82 Episcopal faith communities in Indiana have the opportunity to participate, each with a team of three to seven clergy and lay leaders.
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).
“This can be the next rector’s problem,” I said to myself.
A silk dossal curtain hung behind the altar at Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis. It measured almost twenty feet tall and fourteen feet wide – a royal blue damask field with gold bands and appliqued image of the ascending Christ. Wippell made the curtain for us in the early 1950s, shortly after Holy Communion moved to its current site. The dossal presided over every Eucharist, offered hope at every funeral, and appeared in every wedding and graduation picture for three generations. But, it had begun to show its age: The fabric was threadbare and the porcelain tone of Jesus’ skin reflected the artistic sensibilities of a former age.
This month we offer five reflections on hybrid church and digital ministry. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers, blogs, and the monthly digest.
The Episcopal Church needs to ask bigger questions.
Pastoral training has long taught us to look for the bigger questions: Is this person really upset about the color of the new carpet or does this person feel that too much is changing too quickly? Is this person really angry about last week’s sermon or is there something going on at home?
We are more effective pastors when we identify underlying issues and address them directly. The same principle applies when we take our place in the councils of the church: If we ask the bigger questions, we will get better results.
In my previous blog, we discussed the absolute importance of eliminating gossip as the first step to transforming ourselves, and in so doing, our parish communities. I mentioned at the close of the blog that engaging the work of eliminating gossip was itself transformative.
If you’ve taken on the challenge of improving parish-wide communication, congratulations. This is a truly significant accomplishment that will yield extraordinarily positive results. As I reflected on the next logical step to help us advance, it occurred to me that perhaps we’ve not fully understood how limiting the past two years have been, and in some ways, continue to be.
Transformation. From a cynical perspective, it’s nothing more than another buzzword that’s been overused by consultants like me.
Yet when I read how various dictionaries defined transformation, my heart softened. When we talk about being transformed, we’re talking about a making a significant change – a radical change – as some sources say, for the better.
As we begin to emerge into a post-pandemic world that will most certainly still include COVID, the church is right to consider what being transformed will look like. How do we transform as a church writ large and as individual parish communities?
My first challenge as a new rector was a common one: How do I make this team into my team?
I would have plenty of opportunities to recruit new staff in subsequent years, but I had to begin my ministry with a team that had been assembled by someone else. My first step was to establish core values: teamwork, dedication, and excellence.
I wish I could say that my new colleagues and I discerned these principles together, but we didn’t. This was my way of letting the existing staff know the new rector’s style, of establishing baseline expectations that would apply equally to all of us, and of reshaping an existing system to achieve new outcomes.
Church growth and vitality will continue to be an issue for congregations in the new year as it is today. Whether congregations are urban or rural, racially diverse or not, large or small we all need to find hope for the future church.
Many are especially concerned with recent reports that the U.S. church membership had fallen below majority for the first time. In 2020, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, down more than 20 points from the turn of the century.
Additionally, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church – Parochial Report Data 2019 reports that the Median Average Sunday Worship Attendance is now 51 congregants.
“No, I did not get ordained online.” Let’s add that to the list of phrases I never thought would hear myself say.
I recently officiated at a destination wedding. About an hour before the ceremony, the audio technician asked me to do a sound check. Needing something to say as he pressed buttons and turned knobs on his control board, I began reciting from memory a passage that we would all be hearing later that evening: “Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of…”
“That’s enough,” he interrupted. “You’re a real pro.”
“Thank you. I am actually a professional. I went to seminary and everything.”
“Really?” he asked with a blend of shock and incredulity. “Most of the officiants I work with got ordained online.”