This year, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 22 and ends on Easter Sunday, April 9th. Lent brings us to a time of self-examination and reflection about our relationship with God, and provides an opportunity for fasting from the behaviors, ideas and objects in life that pull us away from God. Below please find a collection of resources for Lent and Easter with ideas to help make good use of this time of reflection.
1. The Episcopal Church invites us to walk with Jesus in his Way of Love and into the experience of transformed life through Life Transformed: The Way of Love in Lent, which includes videos, adult forum curriculum, calendar, publicity materials, and quiet day curriculum available in English, Spanish, and French.
It’s okay to start backing off the Zoom live-feed and hybrid worship offerings. I remember the refrain, that we’re going to keep live-streaming until Jesus comes home. But now, as we enter a new phase of the pandemic (but still very much with Covid), I believe our opportunity is to reflect critically on our priorities and approach to community-building, especially double-check our use of technology and the goals we’re pursuing as the Body of Christ.
So here are some starter invitations, or questions as we find ourselves at the dawn of a new phase of the pandemic, still walking with Covid (and all those anxieties and opportunities that came along with it):
1. If you’ve got a live-stream team, celebrate them. Your folks who invested in that technology and designed amazing systems have met the future, and they deserve a great celebration. You may wish to ask them about their longer-term plans and thinking. They may have really good ideas about where to go from here. Some may sense it’s time to wrap up the ministry, or their part in helping that ministry. Celebrate them. All of them.
When is the right time to hand over responsibilities in our congregations and ministries and how to do so effectively are important questions to consider? Whether it is the Vestry, Altar Guild, Diocesan Council or ECW, we need a plan.
In determining when to handoff, for some, term limits are the necessary guardrails to ensure that we do not keep the same responsibilities indefinitely. For others, the term “over my dead body” was created, with a staunch refusal to handoff, threatening instead to leave the ministry or withhold their tithes.
The obvious advantage for letting go is that it allows new ideas and perspectives to be introduced and it makes room for the gifts of others to be exercised. This is especially important as we strive to allow young adults to have meaningful responsibilities and also welcome those who are newcomers to the church or to our faith or existing members who feel left out of church life.
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?
In Part 1 we reviewed where to have the retreat and the importance of setting the proper tone with meaningful passages from scripture. In Part 2, we’ll look at some essential components to create a successful experience.
First, begin with making agreements with each other for the day. As with everything that will follow, you can create whatever makes sense to you; you are also welcome to use what is provided here.
Essential Agreements for Meetings:
I always state the request and ask people to audibly answer yes. This immediately creates trust and allows people to share more deeply than they otherwise would.
With the consulting work our firm performs across the nonprofit philanthropic spectrum, my involvement as an active volunteer for the Diocese of Atlanta, and the changes wrought by the last two years of COVID-19, a number of my worshipping friends have inquired about what my predictions are for the Church. With both “fear and trembling” and wild abandon, I offer the following.
First, I think there will be a growing demand for churches to raise the funds necessary to increase the production value of their virtual presentations. As with retail companies, both the storefront and online platforms combine to sustain their business model. Similarly for churches, both physical structures and virtual offerings will work together to feed the members of faith communities. And particularly with regard to the younger, “digital native” members and prospective members, virtual attendees will not long tolerate bad connections or poor visuals before moving to a video game or social media site. It will be a challenging assignment for The Episcopal Church to maintain one’s virtual attention. As an example, standing in line for the Eucharist during worship is not “made for prime time” viewing at all. But interesting, informative pre-recorded virtual segments can hold viewers’ attentions until, say, the choir re-enters the worship service picture. None of the production changes needing to be made will come cheaply.
I’m not sure about you, but I struggle with this stretch of the winter. This part of the year recalls images of Narnia prior to the fulfillment of the Golden Age Prophecy which saw the return of spring to a world suffering in a state of constant winter, never Christmas.
The FaithX Project and the Episcopal Church Foundation are happy to announce that the popular Congregational Vitality Assessment will soon be available in Spanish.
This has been in the works for a couple of months now, first with the questions, ratings, and prescriptive paragraphs of the survey itself and then with the entire website on which it resides. The first step was an AI translation. And because Artificial Intelligence can sometimes be artificially unintelligent with small details like colloquialisms, we sought the help of a translator to find and correct any faux pas. And as we learn more about the languages spoken by CVA users, we plan to bring more translations online. And as always, the Single Congregation Version of the CVA remains FREE.
I try to keep our parish as far away from politics as possible. But, what happens when politics choose to visit us as they did with the question of COVID-19 vaccination mandates?
As our mayor and our governor battled each other in court about what could and could not be required of churches, we had to figure it out for ourselves. Surely, we were going to encourage vaccination, but would we require it? And, if so, of whom?
A recent article in The Atlantic argues that it is harder to run a church in 2021 than it was in 2020. I couldn’t agree more. Our choices were relatively straightforward at the height of the pandemic, but they are far more complicated now. Our approach to vaccination requirements worked for us, and I offer it as a starting place for others facing similar questions.
Episcopalians love to use the word “parish,” as in: ‘parish meetings’, or ‘parish ministry’ or, simply, ‘my parish.’ But as the great Inigo Montoya said in 1987’s The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
For starters, it’s a sweet sounding word. It takes us back to a time no one alive ever enjoyed, although it’s nice to think that someone, somewhere did once upon a time. It sounds simple, pastoral, peaceful, lovely. Etymologically (Wikipedia tells me), it has something to do with living together, “sojourning in a foreign land” (thanks, Wikipedia), and it emerged in the English language right around the time the Church of England parish system also emerged – sometime post-12 century.
This was driven home for me when I was serving as curate (yet another sweet Episcopal word) in a bustling city in a rather large parish, er, congregation. I must’ve mentioned the word when a parishioner – aha! there it is again – said to me, “You keep using that word, ‘parish.’ But that’s not what this is. This is a church and we are a congregation.” At the time, I thought it was an odd response from a relatively cranky worshipper. In the ensuing years, however, I’ve come to realize how spot-on she was. We keep using the wrong word for what we’re really trying to describe. Even worse, I believe our common life has inspired us to actively choose the wrong word – not because we don’t have other words but because it subtly removes levels of personal responsibility for claiming our present moment in leadership. It doesn’t help, and it only furthers my case that the line drawing of that same congregation – a busy urban church set in an active, people-packed neighborhood – features none of the neighboring high-rise dwellings; no cars, no people, no busyness whatsoever. In fact, there’s a grove of trees where streets actually exist – and have always existed, long before that church was built! – suggesting that it’s set somewhere in a field in the countryside.
Imagine that you had a time machine.
Imagine that you could travel back in time and talk with the leaders of your own congregation two or three generations ago. Imagine that you could give advice to your predecessors in a time when sustainability was assumed, pews were full, and every Sunday school was teeming with children. What would you say?
I spent my recent sabbatical asking this question of church leaders in highly secular contexts. My goal was to learn what congregations that are currently in positions of strength might do now to prepare ourselves for a future ministry context that will likely look very different from the one we now know.
As anyone who has been around during a transition to a new pastor or judicatory leader knows, looking for a new leader can be a lengthy and expensive process. So many things to be done and processes to go through. Surveying members, interviewing current and past clergy and lay leaders to gain an understanding of corporate history, holding listening sessions, working with consultants, developing a profile, and more. All these things and more may be part of your discernment process. Juggling all of them can feel overwhelming at times.
All these things may be necessary parts to finding a new leader.
But they may not be sufficient.
They may help us find A leader.
But they may not help us find the leader we need.
“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.
It’s a familiar narrative in The Episcopal Church these days: the attendance numbers are shrinking, the children are fewer in number, and the people in the parish want to do something (anything!) to reverse the trend. The question that almost always looms large at the start of any such process is simple and, in its own way, profound: Where do we begin?
I entered a narrative similar to this when I accepted the call to serve as the next rector at Church of the Epiphany in Tempe, Arizona. In fifteen years’ time, the parish dwindled from an average Sunday attendance of 353 to an average Sunday attendance of 182 prior to the pandemic. It was clear that things were not going in the direction that any parish wants to see. It was abundantly clear that we needed to do something, but it was less clear what that something was.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to examine and adapt our lifestyles across the board- working from home (#WFH) became the new normal, even growing increasingly through new software platforms and new approaches to conducting business. The Church has not been insulated from this, and our reactions have brought forth a great many questions and concerns about the functionality of our place as ministers and shepherds in a landscape so drastically changed. Nearly every single priest friend I have has commented on their personal struggles with how to be a parish priest without a parish present in the pews; how to find meaning in their role as a priest, both in interacting with their parishioners, and in their own personal spiritual nourishment.
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.
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!
This month we offer five resources on visioning. 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) Have you undertaken a visioning process before and not had much success? In Eight Visioning Mistakes to Avoid, Melissa Rau outlines some common mistakes made by congregations and offers helpful solutions.