I serve as the rector of two churches, and even though both congregations are similar in many ways, today, they didn’t start out that way. One, St. George’s in Valley Lee, is so old that most of our earliest records are housed in our state Archives in Annapolis, MD. The other, Ascension in Lexington Park, was planted as a mission chapel in 1954 and became its own parish in 1968. Ascension has only had a few rectors – I’m number 4 – and I’m especially grateful that its first rector, the founder of the Mission-turned-Parish, spent a great deal of time near the end of his life writing his memories and reflections.
It’s the season of congregational Annual Meetings, the time to pull out the reports, summarize the year, articulate the ways in which God is making clear God’s preferred future, and enjoy possibly one of the best potlucks of the year. Annual Meetings are an important part of congregational life, and one of the real highlights for church geeks and insiders.
But an Annual Meeting and, more to the point, the diminishing return on investment (time spent on the meeting versus the ways in which it ‘moves the needle’) points to a growing disconnect between a beautiful heritage and critical need. Our church’s representative democracy is a lovely thing, and a heritage I prefer to keep. At the same time, however, we need to admit that we’ve created a cumbersome and top-heavy institution. Simply to carry out the local parochial version of The Episcopal Church, year after year after year, requires a great deal of volunteer hours and oversight and coordination and management and communal good will. It’s been stated elsewhere, and this is no joke, that we’ve finally perfected the perfect version of an excellent 18th century institution. Only problem is it’s the 21st century.
One of the more unlikely recent stories in the business world is the resurrection of Microsoft. Once thought to be out of touch with the modern tech industry, the corporate giant has become (at least for a time) as big as Apple.
There are many explanations given for how that shift has taken place. But, you’re not here for business analysis. Why would we, as the Church, care about a revitalized business?
Karl Barth once famously said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” I think what he realized is that, when put through theological reflection, there’s much we can learn as Christians from the news around us. Including business news.
For the second time in just over a year, my work has focused on hurricanes. Last year it was helping my parish and the city of Houston navigate life during and after Hurricane Harvey. Earlier this month it was waiting and preparing for Hurricane Florence.
Needless to say, storms and flood waters have consumed much of my thinking.
Maybe that’s why I’m so struck by the picture at the top of this post. Something’s wrong there. Who would build a bridge in the wrong place?
One of the most difficult things to do in our congregations and organizations is to make a decision on when to let go. We hold onto programs, buildings and even people. We oftentimes see letting go as failure and therefore hold on to outlived, unnecessary and sometimes dysfunctional ideas.
We hold on to buildings that we cannot afford, that drain us financially and emotionally and prevent us from doing ministry in our communities.
We hold on to programs that have long outlived their usefulness. We blame each other instead of doing the strategic work to determine whether this program that was so effective in the 1980s still works for our congregation today.
We are now in the season of Lent. As the Book of Common Prayer reminds us in the Ash Wednesday service:
… I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature …
Many of us make genuine efforts to follow the practices suggested for Lent but in our humanness many times fall short. I especially remember one story where a parishioner fell in the parking lot of the local bakery right after the Good Friday Service in her haste to buy the cake she had given up for Lent. Though our efforts are not always successful I believe they are certainly worthwhile.
In part one of this post, I asked us to think theologically and, indeed, ecclesiologically about technology, specifically how and whether an emerging technology or media platform may (or may not) align with our self-understanding as Christ’s Body and whether in its core assumptions it might magnify or diminish Christ’s Good News.
That’s how theology works. Nothing is what it seems; nothing is innocuous, merely mechanical, purely technical, alone. When we use the language of theology – the church’s only language, in fact – we learn that things are only what God reveals them to be. This is no less true for the bible as for how we approach Facebook and our Twitter feed.
Technology, and being able to use it well, is vital to the core operations of parish life in the 21st century. I’ve often wanted to undertake a more comprehensive study, both historical and theological, of Christian congregations in America and their use of technology – a book which would be read only by my obliged parents, I’m sure – but I have the hunch that, by and large, Christian congregations in America have always been late adapters to the contemporary technology of their day.
We’re still late adapters. Most of our websites, I’d guess, are text-heavy and insider-focused. Most of our pictures still feature empty buildings and serene churchyards. But, kudos to us, we have websites and email addresses and smart phones and Facebook pages. We’re far from Snapchat and Instagram, and we move slowly. But we’re moving nevertheless.
I’m not a Houston Astros fan. Not at all. But, I realize how much this city is rallying around its championship-caliber baseball team. Watching this playoff run, I’ve seen many parallels to the City of Houston itself, and even one major lesson we in the church world can learn.
A recent sports blog wrote a great profile of this team and this city (I’m not linking to the profile, because the language is decidedly not family-friendly). The article highlights the fabled futility of many professional baseball teams, like the Red Sox, Cubs, and Indians. Stories are shared, movies are made, and identities are solidified around these loveable losers.
But you we don’t talk much about the historical struggles of the Astros. It’s not a part of the team’s identity.
Instead, this team’s identity - and this city’s identity - is in embracing failure and trying again.
Dear Robot Priest,
I have to confess: I began laughing the first time I watched the above video of you. And by laughing, I mean the embarrassing sort of full on, tears-streaming-down-my-face laughing. The kind where people around you wonder what on earth you’re laughing so hard about.
And so now I’m writing to apologize for that initial laughter. And also to let you know that I’m starting to think the joke is on me.
I was in an airport the first time I watched you raise your robotic hands, light emanating from your metallic claws, and utter a traditional blessing in a masculine German voice. Honestly, my first thought was how ridiculous this seemed. I couldn't imagine a world in which people would go to a robot for a blessing.
Within our churches and organizations as the leadership becomes more seasoned the question arises who will take over the responsibilities they now oversee. Many believe that they are irreplaceable and refuse to train or transition to someone new. Others complain that they cannot find anyone to take on their responsibilities. Still others may believe that as seniors they have much more to offer and are being discriminated against in a youth-oriented society. Whether it is the Senior Warden with the 20 year term or the Altar Guild member who has been there for 40 years, our friendly term for some of these folks are Mama or Papa Docs that is, leaders for life.
Last time I briefly mentioned how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg thinks his community shares many of the same goals and attributes of the Church. The response I saw in the media, and among my friends and colleagues on social media, was that Facebook sees itself as a new kind of “church.”
But this - the idea that a corporation could replace (or at least replicate) “church” is nothing new.
This past week my wife and I watched the movie “The Founder,” which tells the gripping story of Ray Kroc, the McDonald brothers, and the McDonald’s Corporation. One part, relatively early on, caught my attention. In selling his vision of expanding McDonald’s franchises around the country (a vision the brothers didn’t share), Mr. Kroc shared a story about his travels around the country.
I’ve used the ride-sharing app Lyft before, so I recently received an email from the company announcing their new charitable donations program. This is a great idea, and a great use of crowd-funding and the gig economy. But one line in the email struck me as off. Lyft has chosen non-profit partners that “align with values that represent the Lyft community.”
I’ve ridden in Lyft, so that makes me part of this community, apparently. But I’ve shared Lyft rides with people that are dear friends, and I don’t know that I would say our values align with each other, not to mention the millions of people around the world that use this service that I don’t know and will probably never talk to.
The church bulletin is arguably one of the most important documents in our congregations. Given our bibles, hymnals and Book of Common Prayer (BCP) that may sound a bit heretical. However the amount of resources that goes into producing it does give our church bulletins very high priority. The original purpose of the bulletin was to provide the order of service including references to the BCP, hymns and readings of the day. We have evolved much beyond the basics.
Bulletin content is the largest issue for us to wrestle with. Bulletins may contain some of all of the following: fundraising and social activities, meetings of church and community organizations, lists of illnesses, birthdays, anniversaries and deaths, special donations, community, diocesan and national announcements, stewardship messages as well as information on a particular saint day, others have information on voting, job posts and apartment rental. So our bulletins, have become newspapers, newsletters and journals all rolled into one. Whew!
On the 2nd day of Ramadan 2017 our senior warden Evelyn and I attended the annual fundraising dinner of the American Muslims for Hunger Relief (AMFHR). We did this at the invitation of Ghani Khan, the Executive Director. The Church of the Advocate and AMFHR have shaped a partnership that fruited in Halal meals being offered monthly at our Advocate Cafe. How wonderful it was that evening of the fundraiser to be immersed in a cultural event outside of the Eurocentric, Christocentric framework, one that propelled me and Evelyn into a sea of colors, textures, tastes, hues and sounds that declared another way of being that nourished and enlightened and spoke to a powerful encounter with the sacred.
What AMFHR does for the Advocate community is less about the Halal meat made available to our patrons. What AMFHR does is remind us that the work before us as Christians is sometimes best done in relationships that cross boundaries to find places of common mission. Our relationship with AMFHR is not predicated upon removal and substitution, we have not substituted any Islamic beliefs or practice for our own, but rather is situated upon a common interest to meet a basic human need; i.e. the need for food. The shock is not in the partnership but in the need.
My only lived experience of the 20 century was in its last twenty five years, and I don’t even remember all that much of it, but I do very clearly remember that one Sunday morning a pastor in my somewhat stiff Congregationalist church announced we were going to do a new thing – we were going to turn to our neighbors and offer, what he called, ‘the sign of peace.’
“Shake their hand, give a hug, look them in the eye and say, ‘Peace be with you,’” he invited the somewhat bewildered congregation to do.
This actually came easily to them, in fact, for in spite of the carefully scripted nature of Congregationalist worship – what I later learned was nothing less than a beautiful, exalted Sunday Morning Prayer service – there was always extended chit-chat and “Good mornings” and “How are you today?” in the large, albeit acoustically-live narthex on our way into the church itself. And so it was on that Sunday, much later in the 20 century than its mid-point, when “The Peace” was introduced at Bethany Union Church of Chicago that I remember my mom and dad turned around to those sitting nearby and said ‘Peace, peace, peace,’ and received from others ‘Peace, peace, peace.’
My daughter’s Montessori school is in transition. The dynamic husband and wife who founded the school more than twenty years ago are devoted Montessorians and have had a profound impact on our local community and, indeed, my own family. But now they are preparing to sell the school, and they have a buyer – in fact, a former teacher at the school, herself a gifted educator, and her husband are getting ready to take the reins.
Even though my siblings and I grew up in parochial Christian schools – my parents made great sacrifices to send us there – I’ve personally never experienced the sale of a school. In and of itself, it’s a strange concept to my mind; our elementary school was connected to a Lutheran congregation, and our high school was part of the Christian Reformed tradition. It’s a strange place in which to be, committed to a school and watching our daughter truly grow and develop, now in the third grade, in the careful and beautiful environment of a Montessori curriculum, while also preparing to go along with what will undoubtedly be change, probably significant change. Even as the new owners promise that the same ethos and standards will continue, I know some kind(s) of change will come.
I’m a simple man, really. I like gadgets and such, but when it comes down to it I do most of my thinking with a paper journal and a ballpoint pen. So when I ran out of pens the other day, I walked into the store to buy my favorite brand.
That’s when it hit me. There, on the package of Bic Crystal pens (the brand I’ve been using since high school, and which was first made in the 1950s) I saw those big, bold words: NEW & IMPROVED.
Why on earth (and how on earth) could you make a simple, plastic, ballpoint pen “new” or “improved”?
“The first significant wave of multisite churches started coming onto the North American church scene roughly two decades ago,” writes Warren Bird, director of research for the Leadership Network, capturing the history of this recent movement. “In the 1980s there were well under 100 and in the 1990s at most 200. During the 2000s growth increased at a rapid pace with the greatest number of multisites being birthed within the last ten years.” (Leadership Network / Generis Multisite Church Scorecard, 2014, p.5; download here.)
A multisite church is defined as one church that meets in multiple locations. This recent category in North American Christianity is the result of megachurches who, for various reasons, struggled with the question about whether to build an even bigger building or plant additional satellite campuses. The shift from mega-turning-mega is, I suspect, also a smart response to the larger demographic and cultural turn away from ‘big box’ anything and toward more boutique and locally-owned, locally-sourced products, Christianity included.
For two days in February 2014, workers on the London Underground went on strike, closing several subway stations and forcing an even larger number of commuters to scramble to find a new route to work. In a study published earlier this year, researchers pulled data from transit cards of commuters before, during, and after the strike. Using this information, they charted how many commuters had to change their routes to work around the station closures.
By necessity, many commuters had to alter their routes during the strike. Since we tend to be creatures of habit, one could reasonably assume that folks would go immediately back to their original route as soon as the strike was over. But that wasn’t the case.