When my father was teaching me as a young boy how to play golf he passed along one important adage: “golf is simple but not easy.” Truly, it is a simple game. Get the ball into the hole using the fewest number of shots. But anybody who has picked up a golf club knows that the game’s simplicity lures you into a false sense of security. Golf is anything but easy. One small miscalculation or error has tremendous consequences on where the ball goes, what your score will be, and if you ever choose to play this beguiling game again. Simple, not easy.
I am an old millennial (born in 1985) and a priest, which somehow makes me an expert on the religiosity of a whole generation. Usually the questions about millennials directed at me are veiled angst (“is the church going to survive?”) or latent anger (“why is my granddaughter having a destination wedding?”). The answers about millennials and our relationship with the church are simple, but not easy to swallow.
In our Baptismal Covenant, we pledge that we will “strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” The world is crying for justice and peace, yet controversy lurks even in definitions of terms. Like a squirrel kicking up dried leaves, we scurry through the space provided for conversation, anxious to find our own safe place.
How can we make the conversation space safe enough for everyone? As we consider this, some self-reflection might be beneficial.
In her book, An Altar in the World, acclaimed spiritual writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes about twelve practices that engage us to experience God. The book helps us recognize some of the altars around us, which Taylor describes as ordinary-looking places where human beings meet the divine “More” they are seeking and sometimes call God. For your prayerful consideration about how to live in respectful peace with others, check out Chapter 6, The Practice of Encountering Others.
When I first arrived at one of my parishes, St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland, I found in the center drawer of the desk in the rector’s office a bunch of 3 x 5 index cards, scrawled with handwritten notes. “Visited Mildred X,” read one note, detailing the date and time of visit, location, and how she was feeling. “Took Holy Communion to Cedar Lane,” went another, summarizing the scripture lessons and number of persons present at that afternoon service of worship. The interim priest, a clergyperson evidently gifted with pastoral care, had nourished a rather extensive pastoral care network, and he had developed a fine system of reporting, back and forth, such that he was in the loop but wasn’t the sole caregiver. It was an old-fashioned approach, and the filing system left somethings to be desired (they were just cards shoved in a desk drawer, after all), but it was a beautiful testament to a lovely way of doing church together.
I don’t imagine Paul had any idea that his letters to the people in Corinth or Rome or Galatia would become part of the Christian canon. His focus was not to become a famous author whose words would guide and inform Christian thought for centuries. Rather, he was reaching out to friends, to communities, to urge them through personal invitation to come to Jesus, to learn about mercy and grace, salvation and sanctification.
I’ve been reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans during the Good Book Club, an initiative sponsored by Forward Movement and supported by partners across the Episcopal Church, including the Episcopal Church Foundation. The goal of the Good Book Club is to encourage a daily habit of reading scripture, believing that encounters with God’s Word are transformative. I’m learning a lot from Paul—in part, realizing that I still have a lot to learn. This missive for the Romans is not for the faint of heart; it is profound and complicated and sometimes confusing (Paul might have done well to call upon the assistance of an editor!).
In his letter to the Christian community already established in Rome, Paul provides deep insights about God’s plan for the salvation of all people and its fulfillment through Jesus. Paul longs to travel to Rome to continue teaching in person. But early in the letter, he humbly states that he would benefit from such a visit too: “That is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Romans 1:12)
Mutual encouragement through our faith is a beautiful thing to experience, and to witness. I see it each time I train a congregation’s capital campaign “gift ambassadors” – the volunteers who will meet one-on-one with fellow parishioners to invite them to give to the campaign.
We all know it’s coming. Letters are being written, folks are being asked to share their stories from the lectern, pledge cards are being designed. The annual giving campaign will soon be underway.
Unless it got started months ago. More and more, congregations are recognizing stewardship as an ongoing ministry. Activities occur throughout the year, such as celebrations of gratitude, education about different ways to give, and stories about the impact of gifts. Their communications shine a light on discipleship, not just the obligation of “membership.”
This month we offer five resources on discipleship. 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. What is discipleship? In Discipleship Matters, Richelle Thompson explains what the word means to her and challenges her readers to consider what it could mean to them. Are you growing as a follower of Jesus Christ?
Last week, I was honored to serve as moderator for an Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) webinar on preaching and leadership. Basically, I hosted a conversation among three preachers and fed them some questions of my devising and some from our audience. The panelists were the Rev. Ronald Byrd, rector of St. Katherine’s in Williamston, MI; the Rev. Brenda Husson, rector of St. James, Madison Avenue in NYC; and Mr. Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, layperson from All Saints’, Indianapolis, IN.
I’d encourage you to watch the webinar, which will be an hour well spent if you’re at all interested in preaching. Much of the focus is on sermon preparation and delivery, but there is also some valuable advice for those who listen to sermons. I know I’ll listen to preachers differently because of this conversation.
Autumn’s annual return means that most congregations are starting to put together financial plans for next year. The annual fundraising campaign or pledge drive is about to begin. Alongside this work, and at the same time, vestries and finance committees are undertaking aggressive analyses of the current year’s budget, plus projections for next year’s priorities.
By way of a generous dose of honesty, I think we who are raised up as leaders in the church need to take a good hard look at what’s driving our attention and focus. The mission of the church, as defined in the Prayer Book, is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP p.855) That sounds to me like a very clear call to raise up and equip disciples of Jesus Christ. You’d expect, then, that a church’s budget would reflect that its chief source of income is from those persons who are practicing generosity, including financial generosity, because they are disciples of Jesus. And the second largest income source should be those ministry events that clearly are ministries, not fundraisers. This is true, in large part, but I’m not certain we’re fully investing in making our budgets match our talking points. In too many cases, what’s missing most of all from many congregations is a willingness to line up talk with actions, to make our money speak mission, and to do so clearly and unambiguously.
Take a look, if you will, at overall income trends in your congregation over the past several years. I did this the other week. I looked at nine years from fiscal year 2007 through 2015’s projected numbers (based on financial activity through July). I was amazed at the results.
Here are a few things I learned.