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.
“What’s going on in the news?” my father asked a shopkeeper on a beautiful summer’s day in my childhood. “Well,” the shopkeeper replied, “not much aside from the hurricane that’s going to hit us tomorrow.”
There was no sarcasm in the shopkeeper’s response. We were staying on a rural island off the coast of Maine in the days before internet and cable news. It was easy to become disconnected. In fact, disconnection was part of the attraction to island life. We received our news through the original social network: Neighbors telling neighbors what they needed to know.
I returned to that same island this summer as part of my sabbatical in the hope of finding another weather report – this time for the church.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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…”
“Don’t discuss them.” That was among the worst advice that I was ever given. (Sorry, mom and dad!) Especially after the past four years, I’ve realized that what we should have been mastering was HOW to discuss religion and politics with integrity.
Think about it: religion is our belief system. It’s how we organize and make sense of the world in light of something far greater than us. It provides us with a way to conceptualize God and our place in the universe. It gives us a community with whom to celebrate and with whom to mourn.
Politics determines how we are governed. As we learned on the 6 of January, our particular form of government is highly fragile and depends on our willingness to actively participate in it. Politics provides us with a forum within which to debate policy and chart the future of our nation.
Many Americans witnessed the siege of the Capitol building on January 6th, just as Congress was certifying the electors in our most recent Presidential election. Irrespective of where you place yourself on the American political spectrum, it was shocking, and a horrible scene of violence. And yet, it must be said, that the insurrection of January 6th 2021 by domestic terrorists was the logical culmination of four years of dehumanizing rhetoric and actions. As the majority religion of the United States, we Christians are culpable and complicit, because far too many of us did not exercise our political values in concert with our baptismal faith to speak out against the President’s reckless words and behavior. Far too many of us preferred to remain silent through these tumultuous four years, and that silence has come home to roost.
Every month ECFVP offers resources on a theme. This month we've asked our own Dr. Sandra Montes to choose 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.
“Save the church from extinction!” cry the books, consultants, webinars, and sermons. Like Old Testament prophets they plead with us to love unconditionally, befriend the poor, and acknowledge our corporate racism in order to bring about reconciliation. In short, we are to examine ourselves, acknowledge our sins, and change.
It’s difficult work, this guilt identifying and change. That’s why there are so many books, consultants, webinars, and sermons about it. As much as I pray for their success (full disclosure, I am a consultant), I have seen a brighter source of light for the future. It is the Holy Spirit’s calling of new people to ordained ministry as deacons and priests.
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.).
Shocked, bewildered, hurt, and angry are just a few words that come to mind when thinking about what I and many others have experienced along with David in 1 Samuel. What do you do when the very institution that you love, trust, and given yourself to, turns against you? Moreover, what do you do when these institutions not only turn against you, but come against the purposes and plans of God for your life?
In 1 Samuel 18, we see the powers that be both bless David and attack his very life. In this chapter David is given armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt of King Saul’s son, Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:4). It is also recorded that David is successful wherever Saul sends him (1 Samuel 18:5). In fact, he is so successful that Saul sets him over the army (1 Samuel 18:5). David’s fame grows to the point where the women of the towns of Israel sing a celebratory song about him recorded in verse 7: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” At this, Saul became angry.
Change is inevitable; and, vestries are the key to the transformation. Governance for the sake of governance gives little attention to transformative leadership; but governance that focuses on missional ministry brings not just new structures but also new meaning. By leading such transformational change, the vestry creates the opportunity for the church to find not only vitality but growth. “The transformation of the church can be accomplished without losing what is precious to it, but it cannot avert change …the real work is to live into and through the dissonance that automatically comes with change, emerging with an even stronger faith.”
At our 2019 Diocesan Convention, citing Jesus in Luke 5, Bishop Gutiérrez urged us to ‘take our boats into deeper water to catch more fish’. Staying safely by the shore, maintaining the status quo, doing only what we knew how to do was not going to bring in the catch we were seeking. Instead he instructed us to “live fearlessly, and …continually reassess if our current structures are working. Let’s reassess and if they are slowing us down, if there are obstacles, if they keep us close to the shore, throw it overboard. Review what people are doing around the world and develop new structures that will help us to be innovative, agile, and keep going deep.” The charge of the transformative vestry is to go deeper into the un-chartered waters of ministry, following the missional template that Jesus gave us, only to discover a church we may not know but to which our faith will lead us.