As we embark on the season of Lent and that of self-discipline, church leaders may want to consider what an organizational discipline for vestries and congregations would include. The following are offered for consideration.Membership List – Lent may be a good time to update the congregation’s membership list and face the stark reality. Perhaps if we have not seen the person in 20 years they need to be dropped from the list? These are difficult decisions. Church Inventory – The insurance companies highly recommend that we compile an inventory of the church’s valuables. If one does not exist, consider Lent as a time to put those smartphone cameras to good use and catalog all items. If an inventory already exists, updates would be in order, especially after the generous donation of a used microwave.
Most people dislike change. It can be hard work, stopping an old habit and starting another. It’s especially hard for an institution or a system to change – a group of people all have to go through the process together.
Church leaders often see a need for a change, whether it's moving the time of a worship service, ending a beloved but no longer needed ministry, or something as big as moving to a new leadership model, but the congregational system doesn't always allow the change to take place.
The best changes happen because we’re watching to discover what God is up to, and partnering in the work God is already doing.
This year, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 14 and ends on Easter Sunday March 31. Lent provides us with the opportunity for self-examination, prayer, fasting and reading the Bible. 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, lesson plans and curricula, bulletin inserts and devotions available in English, Spanish, and French.
2. The United Thank Offering offers Lenten materials with a theme this year of 40 Days of Grateful Presence and a call to giving thanks for the many things in our lives we take for granted. They offer: a daily text message prompt to notice and give thanks for something in your life that you might take for granted; a printable calendar; special materials for children; and a Zoom book group.
As we put away the Thanksgiving tablecloths and start looking for Christmas trees, we invite you to take the time to celebrate Advent. Advent can be a wonderful time to pause and reflect on the miracle that is to come. To help you celebrate this season, we’ve gathered fourteen resources below. From all of us at ECF, we pray that your Advent is filled with peace, health and hopeful anticipation.
1. Find Advent and Christmas resources from The Episcopal Church here, including an updated Journeying the Way of Love Advent calendar and curriculum, weekly collects for Advent and Christmas Day, and Advent and Christmas Digital Invitation Kits. Most of their resources are also available in Spanish and French.
If you're like me, you feel like you're running around all day, every day. I wake up at 4:15am nearly every day, and then it's work and school and sports practices and cooking and housework and everything else that comes with life.
So this past week on vacation I've been learning to waste time. And if I'm right that your busyness often resembles mine, you might need some help in that area, too. Wasting time this week has helped me reorient my sense of self, build and deepen connection with loved ones, and renew my relationship with God.
All sorts of people appreciate Jesus as a healer, or for his remarkable teachings, or as the founder of a movement which swept the world. The story of the baby King born in a stable is widely loved and celebrated. But putting Jesus alongside the Creator and the Spirit can sometimes seem like a stretch. How can we express what we know to be true, that Jesus really is our Savior?
The simple answer comes from a children’s song: “Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.” Many folks won’t be satisfied with that, but I’m most concerned about the people whose lives are a struggle, with darkness and demons dragging them down. I’m searching for something stronger than comforting words, a visible witness to our faith, a message that makes a difference in their lives.
“I can’t watch this.” That was my friend’s comment when she started watching a news special on the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.
We talked about why it was so difficult to watch, and she recounted having heard about the atrocities committed, but what was so challenging to comprehend was what she called the sheer insanity of it.
One man decided to try to recreate a bygone empire and started firing missiles into another country so he could add it to his “kingdom.” In an instant, hundreds of people lost their lives. Thousands were wounded. Millions of others were displaced from their homes. Families were separated. Global food shortages and political instability followed.
I’m not a big fan of January. Ever since I was a child, January has been my least favorite month of the year. I’m not quite sure why. I guess it has something to do with the weather and the general let-down that comes after the Christmas holidays. My father always insisted on taking down the Christmas tree on New Year’s Day which I found rather depressing. As an adult married couple, my wife and I much prefer to wait until January 6th or beyond to perform this least favorite task of the year. I am even intrigued by those cultures and traditions that keep the tree up until February 2, Candlemas Day but imagine the pine needles that would have to be cleaned up. Maybe my problem with January is also the frustration about New Year’s resolutions that go unfulfilled, although I have been sticking to my diet so far. It’s not that interesting and even enjoyable things don’t occur in January. Also, in January, the days start to become longer by one or two minutes each day which will be rather noticeable by the end of the month. Nonetheless, I know that when February 1st comes around, I will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
And I’m not referring to Christmas but the annual pledge campaign for your congregation. Actually, this can be a wonderful time of the year if you, the church’s leadership, approaches the campaign with faithfulness, focus and follow-through.
Faithfulness needs to emanate from the top and permeate the life of the local congregation all year round not just when you’re asking for money in the fall. Being faithful involves ongoing communication with your members and constituents; offering quality worship, fellowship, and outreach opportunities; helping people discern their gifts, and engaging them in appropriate ministries and activities. Faithfulness includes sharing your personal faith journey, reflecting on the importance of the local faith community in nurturing your own spirituality, inviting others to join you on the way, and helping form disciples for Jesus. Faithfulness leads to commitment, commitment leads to embracing stewardship, and stewardship leads to generosity and giving. Even if you’ve been a little lax in this area over the past several months, this is the ideal time to be more deliberate about faithfulness.
We live in a glut of information. Practically anyone can find any information or opinion that they wish if they put a few minutes of effort into it. As a result, people tend to mistrust scholarship. “I can think for myself!” is the constant refrain. Or, as I saw recently on Facebook, “We are all theologians by right of our baptism.”
In such a world, why on earth would I put the time, money, and effort into becoming a scholar? Why would anyone listen to a theologian?
The truth is: theological scholarship is so much more than just reading books.
I spent Valentine’s Day weekend surrounded by more love than I expected.
My husband bought flowers, and we spent the day together doing some of our (new, pandemic) favorite things, and it was a wonderful day. The surprise came on Saturday afternoon.
The Daughters of the King, a churchwide organization of women committed to a Rule of Life and a path of faithful discipleship, held a “Conversations with Daughters” meeting. The topic: the Good Book Club and the Gospel of Mark. They had encouraged their 20,000 members to participate in the Good Book Club and wanted an opportunity to come together to talk about the experience and the message of the gospel. They asked if I would participate, and even though I don’t love Zoom meetings on Saturday afternoons, I accepted the gracious invitation. And goodness am I glad that I did.
If it is true that God brought Jesus into the world to turn it right side up, then COVID-19 and the global pandemic seem intent on turning the world upside down once again. The world has changed in radical and deadly ways. Not just for some but for all. This is not hyperbole. It is affecting each and every person from the loss of life, to the loss of jobs, to the loss of everyday freedoms.
Over the past few months I have had many conversations with professionals and volunteers I know in the Episcopal Church. In these conversations there is almost always a point at which we discuss how COVID-19 and the pandemic are affecting their ministries and lives. I have mostly heard their frustrations, their stresses and their anxieties. I have been led to commit to prayer for these people and all those they serve. I have been called to wonder about all those doing the work and ministry of God. I became very curious, in particular, about how those people committed to faith formation are functioning at this moment in time.
I know the day of Pentecost is past but for some reason it has stuck with me this year. Today I noticed something about it. If you are a fan of the original Star Trek series you probably remember than when the crew set off on a mission away from their comfort zone (an away mission) you could tell which crew members were likely to be killed --- they were wearing red shirts!
I love the image that the original Pentecost was when the disciples were ordered by their captain to leave their comfort zone. Like those crew members, when we put on the red for Pentecost, we have reason to be concerned. Most of the red-shirted crew died on away missions. Scripture tells us we are to die (to self) in God’s mission.
But just as the crew members were expected to take the chance of losing their lives for the good of all people, we are expected to take the chance of losing something for the good of other people.
Last month, in a conversation about the theological nuances of whether or not the Eucharist could be celebrated online, a member of my congregation asked, “Is Jesus a Zoom bomber?”
Now Zoom bombers generally have a negative connotation. They join in on a public Zoom with malicious intent displaying racially charged images or words, for example. Bad stuff. Because of them, most churches using Zoom for their worship in this “stay-at-home” season, have stopped advertising their login links online, thus making Zoom worship less accessible to newcomers. So businesses and churches and Zoom technologists have been working hard to inhibit these imposers. Under these connotations, Jesus is certainly not a Zoom bomber!
But what if we go back to the earlier medium of photographs and photo bombers. Photo bombers are people who show up unexpectedly in a photo of a newlywed couple, for example, or behind a family posing at the beach. They were often simply inadvertent. But even when intentional, they were funny or sweet. Not malicious.
“Nearly every morning, I enjoy morning prayer time with a group of friends.”
Three years ago, those words began my Vital Practices blog post about a virtual community of faithful people who regularly read and comment on Forward Movement’s daily prayer meditations published online at Forward Day by Day.
Today there is a new dimension to my gratitude for this ministry and my friends who meet me there. The constancy of this place keeps me grounded while my home church is closed. Thanks be to God for new platforms for community worship such as YouTube, Zoom and Facebook. But let’s face it, it’s been a learning curve to find them and get used to them.
In our previous post we talked about how a faithful response to the current pandemic involves more than simply live streaming worship services (congregations do not live by worship alone), but involves finding creative and experimental ways to do and be all the things that churches (and other faith communities) are supposed to be and do, and especially how we exercise our “burden of care” to our neighbors and neighborhoods. And that our responses may ultimately lead to our congregations and the communities they serve surviving and thriving together.
Subsequent posts will deal with each of those things in turn. But let’s start with what we learned from our recent experiment with online worship (last Sunday), in cooperation with Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, which reached 51 people on Zoom and 900+ on Facebook Live.
So what did we learn?
The COVID19 pandemic is not the first time Christianity has been faced with the moral question of how to respond in the face of pandemic. In fact, the question is nearly as old as the Church itself. One of the first times was during the third century Roman plague. Something likely akin to Ebola, the so-called Cyprian plague (after Bishop Cyprian of Carthage) which ravaged the Empire from 250-270 CE.
Just as they had in the Antonin plague of the second century, the powerful and well-to-do of the Empire fled the cities for the relative safety of their countryside villas, leaving the rest of the populace to fend for themselves. As attested to by both Christian and secular writers of the time, just as they did in the previous plague, the Galileans (as they were called) did the opposite, staying behind and even coming in from the countryside to feed the poor, care for the afflicted, comfort the dying, bury the dead, and to attend to public hygiene, doing this not just for the faithful but for their entire communities, Christian and non-Christian alike. It was, as Bishop Cyprian put it, their burden of care. Two remarkable things happened: they helped curb the contagiousness of the plague (the death rate was as much as 50% lower in cities with Christian communities) and the plague (or rather their response to it) helped make Christianity extremely contagious, so that it spread rapidly throughout the Empire.
More than ten years ago, when many of us were first learning about the ‘nones’ – those Americans and, among them, increasing numbers of young adult Americans who reported they had no religious tradition whatsoever – the Barna Group revealed that an astonishing percentage of young adults say Christians are judgmental. Drilling down in the perceptions of Americans age 16-29, Barna reported: “…Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative. Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%) – representing large proportions of young outsiders who attach these negative labels to Christians. The most common favorable perceptions were that Christianity teaches the same basic ideas as other religions (82%), has good values and principles (76%), is friendly (71%), and is a faith they respect (55%).”
 “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity,” The Barna Group. September 21, 2007. https://www.barna.com/research/a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity/
The idea was simple: Let’s invite people to read the Bible together every day.
When the Good Book Club began in 2018, we weren’t sure how folks would engage. Organized by Forward Movement, the initiative brought in partner organizations from across the Episcopal Church. Groups prepared free resources for formation and study, everything from podcasts to downloadable Bible studies. That first year, we read through the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. And people responded. By the end of the first session of the Good Book Club, our weekly email list was about 3,800, with an open rate of about 50 percent. To put that into perspective, the national average open rate for emails is 25 percent. Something was stirring.