February 24, 2016

Growing a (Rule of) Life

Although the early numbers for 2016 seem pointed in an even more exciting direction than we previously thought, there are still some issues we need to work through. But working through them as part of an overall church growth strategy, such as we’ve learned to do for so many years, is not what we’re being called to do. Not now, that is.

This past fall, you see, St. George’s, Valley Lee went through a rather intense series of discernment. For one, we kicked off year one of a three-year financial stewardship campaign we’re calling ‘Growing Generous Givers.’ We wanted to be honest about our overall growth patterns – and there has been much growth, and much to celebrate – as well as naming the potential consequences for not continuing to grow, or failing to re-think church entirely. Some folks found this a welcome breath of fresh air – “Finally, we’re naming the elephant in the room!” (meaning, probably that we were finally naming overall financial vulnerability and confronting the need to change) – but a great many people found this campaign too aggressive, too pushy, too much. Honestly, for my part, I get the sense that there are so many issues around financial dynamics and stewardship in the life of a given congregation that any talk – let alone the fairly straightforward talk we were doing this past fall – would set off a whole host of anxiety and hand-wringing.

Another thing we did back in October and November was have a more public discussion about the future of this congregation as a stand-alone, self-sufficient, relatively independent corporate entity. The fact is we’ve been talking for years and years in this part of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington about the need to collaborate more intentionally and, indeed, to collaborate institutionally; that is, to get beyond the restrictions of the mid-20th century “one-parish / one-priest” model. The other fact is that we are growing, and not just in vibrancy and ministry-focus but in numbers; actual people and money and time. Our position is that we need to continue to do this work, and that we need to get ahead of the inevitable demographic curve that’s headed our way, and so we’ve been talking about collaboration at vestry meetings and in region-wide gatherings and with our diocese for at least seven years now. But, to be fair, we never really talked about it publicly, broadly, and with what seemed to be consequences for avoiding the issue.

Which brings us to today, these early days in 2016. The fact is that more money was donated last year than in previous years, and overall numbers are also up and increasing. These trends seem to be continuing, as well, in the first few months of this new year. The lingering sense of anxiety and hand-wringing from just a few months ago seems awfully close to our memory, however; so much so that some folks don’t know how to pick back up the baton and re-ignite the conversation.

I get it. I really do. These issues are, by definition, inherently sensitive. I won’t go so far as to say that someone’s relationships with God is at stake, but it does feel that someone’s relationship with God, at least as its mediated through the church, is on the table.

Which is why I’m so delighted that we are, I think, starting to learn a new language. That language is the only one the church actually has, in store – the language of theology, learning to talk about God and learning to talk about ourselves in relationship to God. In particular in this Lenten season, I’m most appreciative that the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), in their own unique and gifted charism, have given to the church this wonderful series called “Growing a Rule of Life,” replete with Facebook posts and web links and videos and a workbook. Learning to talk about a “Rule of Life” and inviting God into the process of re-examining the shape and contours of my life – extending SSJE’s garden and gardening theme throughout the whole of this exploration – is a kind of language which, for me, is so much more powerful than growth strategies, or even one which has much reference whatsoever to the institution called ‘church’ itself. It’s about life, in general, and the whole shape of this life. More than a mere focus on a ‘Rule’ – which even the monks admit is a fairly off-putting term – this series, this language is all about Growing a Life, in general. 

What I sense, now, is that conversations and languages may very well be converging, and this could be an entirely beautiful meeting. The long result of our focus, lo, these many decades, with the church growth industry is that congregations like St. George’s, Valley Lee will gain increased money and increased participation. But those results, for Christian disciples, may also point to that language’s limitations, and I wonder, in turn, if what we’re trying to do now is find a way to talk again about God and what God is up to in my life; a way to talk in a voice that sounds like a lived prayer, real and holy and a penetrating blessing for the beloved community which surrounds me.

That’s one of the things we’re up to this Lent at St. George’s, Valley Lee, which I believe is really an opportunity to fuse together the work we’ve been about as a church for so long and offer it up to God; offer all of this gift called life up to God. 

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