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).
My wife and I had the pleasure of spending Holy Week and Easter in Abilene, Texas, where our son, David, is rector of Church of the Heavenly Rest. In addition to spending delightful time with our three granddaughters, we attended multiple church services with moving liturgy, inspiring preaching, great music, and lots of people. Everyone seemed so happy to be together and, after two years, have “normal” celebrations. Due to the ruling of a federal judge, the mask mandate was lifted on our flight back to New York – yet another indication of normalcy.
Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems as though Heavenly Rest was not unique and that most Episcopal parishes enjoyed robust holiday services which has generated some excitement, enthusiasm and even optimism. Was this just an Easter “flash in the pan” or an indication of new vitality? Might this mean that the pandemic slump in church attendance is finally behind us, and people will be coming back to church as before? Might we even be turning a corner when it comes to numerical decline?
$10.4 billion annually. That’s what the so-called “self-help” industry is worth. By 2025, that number is expected to grow to $14 billion.
Search “what’s my purpose?” and about 6,860,000,000 results will be returned.
It’s a question I’ve long struggled with until this past year. Something came to me during one of my early morning walks with my dog, who is the best meditation partner one could hope for. My purpose, in fact our collective purpose as Christians, is the same: to expand the presence of God on earth by fully sharing the gifts which we’ve been given.
Come Holy Spirit and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”
Not long after I was elected Bishop of Kansas, I was in a small coffee shop not far from Coffeyville, Kansas. There I sat, resplendent in my sincere suit, brand new purple shirt, and the shiny new pectoral cross generously given to me by my former parishioners at Saint Michael and All Angels, in Dallas, Texas. The cross, modest by Texas standards… was very likely the largest golden object in Southeastern Kansas at the time.
Earlier this year, our Board of Directors adopted the “ECF Compass” – a rearticulation of our Purpose, Mission and Vision. This document also highlights who we are, what we do and how we do it. In addition to describing ourselves as Episcopal, Independent and Lay-led, we also state that ECF is inclusive, i.e, “we are anti-racist and committed to social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”
While the process does involve an important missional and strategic conversation, it is fairly easy for an organization to make bold statements about who it is or hopes to be. The challenge becomes whether these articulations are more aspirational than actual. When it comes to being Episcopal, Independent and Lay-led, ECF has a long track record of demonstrating and living out these core qualities of our identity. When it comes to being Inclusive, or more specifically Anti-Racist, we have a much longer way to go. Clearly, our commitment in this area is aspirational but, at the same time, very sincere.
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.
On January 15, 1941, at the Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp, in Görlitz, Germany, a crowd of prisoners and Nazi guards gathered in a freezing hall to listen to a performance.
The make-shift orchestra, made up of four prisoners performing the four instruments available at the camp – a worn-out cello, piano, clarinet, and violin – became one of the most famous compositions to come out of the war years.
At the outset of World War II, French composer Olivier Messiaen was drafted into the French army and assigned to a non-combatant role. Nevertheless, in May 1940, as France was succumbing to the Nazi invasion, he was captured at Verdun and taken to a war camp in a town near the border of Germany and Poland.
While the COVID-19 lockdown over the past several weeks has been difficult for all of us, it has created incredible opportunities to connect with one another in new and innovative ways, even while physically apart. I have truly enjoyed my telephone and video conversations with many of you during which we have shared our struggles, fears and doubts as well as our hopes, dreams and yes, moments of joy. I cherish the many clients, colleagues and friends of ECF struggling to be faithful disciples during an unprecedented period of isolation and stress. This strange and difficult time is bringing out the very best in so many of us and it’s helpful to know that we are not alone.
We are also using this time to think, pray, discern and dig deep. We are trying to put aside those things that seem rather insignificant and rediscover values that lie at our very core – faith, family, friends and partners. Organizations like ECF are also engaged in this process, and we are reconnecting with our core values including partnership. I firmly believe that the only way the Church will move forward during and beyond this crisis is by identifying, developing and nurturing strategic, missional and transformational partnerships. I often say that partnerships are fun because they provide opportunities to meet and connect with other people who share our passion and commitment. But partnerships are also critical to our ability to survive, and even thrive, as the Episcopal Church. As we slowly emerge from this first phase of the pandemic and begin discerning what the Church and the world may look like, partnerships will provide us with the strength and courage to work together and carry us into a hopeful future.
Oliver J. Hart, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania from 1943 to 1963, confessed his struggles at one time with integrating churches in the Philadelphia area, telling The Philadelphia Bulletin: “It’s not just a question of Negro and white. It’s a problem of people moving from one place to another. If you could just put your churches on wheels, it would be much easier.” (Quoted in D. Contosta, This Far by Faith)
It’s a cute idea – churches on wheels. It’s also a compelling question. I wonder if we could at least find a way to put our buildings and received assets on foundations which are significantly easier to shift when, invariably, neighborhood demographics shift. One real asset of The Episcopal Church is our buildings. We have a lot of buildings – parish halls, rectories, other houses, chapels and churches. It may be that we have too many buildings, and too many aging, expensive buildings, at that, but we are quite rich in the asset-holding sector!
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.
At a recent meeting, one of the assignments for our dinner conversation was to answer the question, “Name one thing that you cannot live without.” Given the occasion, many of the answers were frivolous and funny e.g. chocolate, hot water, the ocean etc. It is a question worth pondering seriously and also in turn asking in the context of our life as a congregation, “Name one thing that our congregation cannot live without.”
Personally, after we get past the life-saving items (food, water, shelter), the answers should reflect things that are truly important in our life: our family, friends, and yes, most importantly, our faith. Obviously, whatever we think we cannot live without is where we should spend our time and treasure. Experience shows that problems arise when these areas are not nurtured.
The husband and wife were regular participants in the life of the congregation. They were in church most Sundays, in the thick of the chatter in the entrance hall and coffee hour. When the woman began the decline into dementia, her husband took care of her and they still came to church. “Don’t you look lovely today!” she would say. “It sure is a pretty morning!”. She was very cheery.
In time, the husband talked to the clergy about his increasing inability to keep her safe. And eventually, after one too many wanderings or stove incidents, he determined that the time had come to place her in a care facility that could meet her needs better than he could. He came to church the following Sunday without her. Everyone asked where she was, and he told them. People were shocked. “I had no idea!” was the universal response.
I serve a lovely church on top of a hill in a vacation community. The church is surrounded by lakes, and almost doubles its attendance in the summer. I serve as their part-time interim Rector. The church community has been declining; they have lost two thirds of their members in the last 10 years, and much of their energy has been spent caring for their aging buildings.
There are three buildings on the campus: the church building, the rectory and the parish hall. The church is beautiful. It was built in the 1840’s and is a typical New England white church with red doors, stained glass windows and a steep pitched roof. The church is beloved by the community and has been well cared for. The rectory has not been used as a rectory for decades; it is used mostly for office space and meetings, and is in very poor shape. The parish hall is almost as old as the church, is poorly designed and lacks function. The congregation has talked for years about renovating the parish hall, there are plans that date back to the 1960s, but nothing has been done. These three buildings consume most of their energy.
I’ve found a way to make Christmas last all year. Or at least a bit of the spirit of the season.
When I store the decorations for another year, I’m always faced with a dilemma: What should I do with the Christmas cards? It’s the one time of year that folks send a snail mail card, and even if most have a simple signature, they are still a tangible connection to a longtime friend, a faraway relative, neighbors, and fellow parishioners. I hate to throw them away but I also don’t want to become a Christmas card hoarder.
A few years ago, a friend (and Episcopal priest) sent me a handwritten note in the middle of the year and explained that she kept her Christmas cards for a special purpose. Each week, she would draw a card from the pile, add the person to her prayer list, and then write and mail a note.
Vince Lombardi, former head coach of the Green Bay Packers, (supposedly) said: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” For professional sports, winning drives every decision from strategy to personnel.
In the church, mission isn’t everything, it is the only thing! God’s mission (ideally) drives every aspect of church life. God’s mission determines when we say “yes” to certain opportunities, and also when we say “no.”
A clear vision of God’s mission is the heartbeat of a congregation’s movement as a community. And as we enter “stewardship season,” that vision plays a vital role in communication and helps answer the “why should I give” questions that many folks have.
Three months into St. Mary’s commitment to the Safe Parking project, I have a few observations.
One is that it is going well. None of the big problems that people imagine have come to pass. Our vehicle-dwelling neighbors report sleeping better and seem to coexist peacefully and happily with the many other folks who overlap with them at church, including lots of programs for kids and families.
Another is that the concept is very popular. There are lots of people in lots of congregations that think it’s a great idea. There are people working really hard to get the idea through their congregational decision making processes. But so far no other congregation in greater Los Angeles has actually gotten to the starting line. Besides St. Mary’s the other lots run by Safe Parking LA are all on public land.
James Turrell is perhaps my favorite artist. He uses light and space in new ways to help people see new things. Or, rather, he helps people see things in a new way. During our recent visit to Newfield in Indianapolis, a docent invite my wife and me into a room to see one of his works, Acton. I’ve only ever been to his skyspaces before, so I didn’t know what to expect.
As we stood at the back of the room, we looked ahead at a white wall with a dark painting hung in the center. Or so I thought. Acton is one of his “space division” series, which “consists of a large, horizontal aperture which appears to be a flat painting...but is a light-emitting opening to a seemingly infinite, light filled room beyond.”
There was a time when I would have been frustrated with the small scale of our offering. Ten parking spaces when nearly one percent of the population of Los Angeles lives on the streets? I easily count more than ten tent encampments just on my 1.5 mile walk from home to church. Things are bad.
Ten spaces will definitely not solve the problem. However, I have been amazed to discover once again how God can take a small offering and multiply its impact. You might think that the mustard seed parable or the feeding of the 5000 (not counting women and children?!) would have been enough to convince me. Maybe it was growing up in Missouri, the oddly named “show me state”. I have to see things with my own eyes, hear them with my own ears.
After the Missional Voices National Gathering last week, my wife and I spent Sunday afternoon at Newfields (the rebranded Indianapolis Museum of Art). I draw much of my inspiration for MV (and ministry) from art museums and other places and groups that are looking to creatively gather and connect people.
What I found at Newfields was a perfect way to cap off a week of conversation about innovation, creativity, and courage in the Church.
Newfields is working to find the right balance between traditional museum and innovative gathering space. Its director, Charles Venable, is seen as either a visionary or a heretic. And if you read profiles of him or Newfields (here, here, or here, for example), replace the work “museum” with “church” and I think you would find a great discussion of what our future may look like.