I’ve spent a great deal of my ministry in St. Mary’s County, Maryland – the southernmost tip of the Diocese of Washington – connecting with other leaders in other churches, especially other Episcopal churches. I’ve built collaborative networks with other church leaders and, indeed, churches. In time, we have built a truly collaborative business model – two parishes becoming one parish (merging), something beyond the obvious limitations of the ‘one parish, one priest’ model.
This has been good work. Also, it’s essential work. Anyone who’s served on a vestry in, say, the past fifty years, or any clergy leader in The Episcopal Church today knows how essential this work is. There really is no other way we can keep open, let alone encourage every single Episcopal congregation to thrive unless we work together and find new, more sustainable business models.
That’s the straightforward message, and a message I’ve been crafting and working toward for more than a decade in ministry.
If you say, “We need to make some changes around here,” people get nervous. Less resistance may come if you ask, “What gifts/talents do we have that we can use in ministry?” But even with such an “appreciative” approach to change, congregations may not have the vision or confidence to try something new to serve others outside the congregation.
Let’s face it – inside ministry is easier. Inside our faith communities, we know each other. We have people among us who have needs and we know where to find them and, generally, they look and sound like us. Sure, we can love outsiders, increasing our welcoming to people who walk through our doors. We can give money to or volunteer with agencies who serve those with socioeconomic challenges.
But do these actions involve change to move us out of our comfort zones?
In our congregations as well as dioceses we oftentimes have the opportunity to hire a new staff person whether a youth director, financial officer, musician, administrator or sexton. A question for us all is whether we are using good HR (human resource) practices to hire these individuals or are we filling these positions with “Family and Friends”.
Recently at our commission meeting we compiled a list of best practices for lay positions which are below. Do consider as leaders how well we are adhering to these items.
· Form search committees for appropriate lay positions across the church
· Utilize best practices for the job search process to maximize interest from lay people
· Determine whether positions being considered for clergy can also be performed by lay
· Determine whether lay positions being considered are for Episcopalians only or can be filled by those familiar with the Episcopal church
A few years ago, I wondered aloud about whether, or when, The Episcopal Church would catch up to a growing phenomenon in Christian churches – multisite church planting and multisite church development. It was something I was reading about, especially because I was at the time serving one Episcopal congregation as rector while making plans to take on a second call with our neighbor church. That call developed and, as I’ve also written about, St. George’s, Valley Lee and Ascension, Lexington Park – two courageous congregations in the Diocese of Washington – have moved from conversations with one another to ‘yoking’ (an informal term for sharing everything, just not becoming one church) to merging.
I wondered a few years’ ago whether The Episcopal Church could borrow some multisite thinking. “We tend to see ourselves as one church,” I wrote, “at least theologically and spiritually as set in the landscape of other denominations. …Can this category apply to Episcopal congregations and communities in our church? And, if so, how? If not, why not?”
The latest parochial report statistics are out, and the annual hand wringing over decline has started. With all of the questions being asked (and blame being placed) around the statistics and what it means for us as a church body, I was reminded of a book I recently read.
General Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, discusses how he and his team redesigned Special Operations in Iraq to fight Al Qaeda, and how such lessons can be applied to all kinds of organizations in both the public and private sectors. He didn’t mention the church, specifically, but so much of what he wrote applies to us as well.
What Gen. McChrystal realized was that he was leading an organization that was designed to fight previous wars, and he and his team were wholly unprepared for the new context in which they found themselves.
For many years, books about healthy congregations focused on how to do what we’ve always done better, or at least in a more attractive way. One book capturing attention today asserts that what we’ve always done is not likely to work, no matter how well we do it.
Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership In Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger, takes a frank but hopeful look at the opportunities for adaptive leadership within the church today. The title is a reference to the ways that explorers Lewis and Clark had to adapt to the unexpected reality of the Rocky Mountains as they sought a riverway to the Pacific.
The word “millennial”, once uttered, causes a reflex of eye rolls. I was not particularly eager to hold the title of being a millennial. The thought of millennials seems off-putting with the generations that came before mine.
I am a Navajo, Second Generation “Cradle” Episcopalian Millennial Woman. What does this mean? It means I am full of hope and wear moccasins and a ton of turquoise to national church functions. As Nadia Bolz-Webber said, “You’re winning in the jewelry category,” at the 2019 Episcopal Communicators Conference. My generation adapted through the rapid advances in technology thus we are more accepting of change and our surroundings.
This month we offer five resources on transitions and how to tackle them. 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. In No Time to Hibernate, Victor Conrado and Louisa McKellaston suggest that a transition is an opportunity to develop and grow the whole church - not a time to stay the course. Having strong lay leadership during such an interim is essential.
The “we” I’m speaking of is all of us who make up The Episcopal Church, a church body split politically nearly the same way as all U.S. adults, and the healing I’m talking about is the healing of the division along political party lines.
I find it extraordinary that the denomination of more U.S. presidents than any other faith group, and indeed the place where the Trumps attend major holidays, still looks like the overall U.S. population in terms of political affiliation. The denomination of many early founders of our government, responsible for the good and the bad in our country’s early development, remains over-represented in Congress in terms of proportion of the elected body who are Episcopalian.
The Episcopal Church has an incredible opportunity to leverage our political composition, our level of education, our growing diversity, and our rich history to help our country heal the immense divide we are experiencing and reinvigorate compassionate, critical dialogue necessary for tackling the challenges facing our world.
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.