January 13, 2018

Travel lightly? Go into the neighborhood?

Sometimes, the grass does look greener on the other side. When I was a curate in an urban Episcopal congregation, I wanted to serve as rector of a smaller, rural parish. When I was serving on a multi-staff congregation, I wanted to be the solo priest-in-community.

And yet, ironically, the apparent differences between curate and rector, between big urban church and smaller country parish haven’t been all that different, not in my experience. The skills I learned in seminary, the training I received as a parish priest, my formation as curate, and the expectations of how (Episcopal) churches run have been the very same skills, tools, and expectations I needed in every call, regardless of the job, size, or location.

I don’t know if this is good or bad. It just is. In the Episcopal Church in the 21st century, we hold a lot of assumptions about congregational life. I’m not saying that all of this needs to change, and I know I couldn’t change most of it even if I wanted to. If not for the sake of change but only the purpose of marking our present place on the landscape of Christian growth and development, I’d like to be part of a movement in which we give our present set-up some degree of focus.

Some of the assumptions we hold deeply and dearly include these:

  • Ministry takes shape in programming. We even talk about the “program year,” launching in the late summer and wrapping up in the spring, just like the academic calendar.
  • Most ministry programs happen in the parish hall, or in some church property.
  • It’s best if we can have programs and programming reach and speak to different ages, and thus happen at diverse times. Don’t forget to have weekend and weeknight programming for those who work.
  • A priest called rector who lives in the community is essential. If you can’t afford a full-time priest, call a half-time or part-time rector. If that person cannot live in the community, that’s negotiable. Not preferable, but negotiable.
  • There should be a church office somewhere in the church building.
  • There should be some professional staff person called secretary but, better yet, parish administrator. There’s a lot to be done and managed.
  • There should be set office hours. It’s important to have a professional staff person available at those set office hours, physically present in that office in that building. It’s not necessary but nevertheless good to have the rector also physically present in her/his office, too, at least regularly.

These assumptions – and there are others – are standard. There are deviations in lots of different contexts. But as far as standard assumptions go, these work (for many). They give order and a sense of place and purpose. They are well-honed, and I understand the weight and importance of each one of them.

I also want to note, and I’m trying to do so as innocuously as possible, that these are simply assumptions about one model of church, refined into one fairly dominant ecclesiology which emerged within the specific historical context of American Christian religious life in the mid- to late-20th century. That is to say, our Christian predecessors in, say, the 4th century wouldn’t recognize offices with parish administrators, nor ministry programs as essential hallmarks of what makes a church a church. Nor would our American predecessors in the 19th century. Nor, I suspect, will the vast majority of our successors in the latter part of this 21st century, or those to come.

On our way to Thanksgiving, heading from a friend’s house in Raleigh to our destination in Charlotte, North Carolina, my family and I took the backroads, avoiding the interstate as much for travel time as the sheer boredom of interstate driving. In little town after little town, we passed scores of churches, mostly Baptist, some Church of God; during a three hour trip, I saw one sign pointing toward an Episcopal Church. Some of the churches had updated signs out front. A few advertised Thanksgiving Day services, or Thanksgiving Eve worship. Not one had their doors open, although it was Wednesday, mid-afternoon. All were lovely in their own right, fitting expressions of those Christian communities who gather there. Their members, I’m sure, don’t go to another church; they go to ‘their’ church. Ambling by at 45, sometimes 50 miles per hour, I was certain there weren’t set office hours or secretaries or parish administrators or full-time sextons or even residential clergy, and certainly not full-time clergy, in each and every one of those churches. But they were churches in their own right, and I’m certain they housed, more often than not, meaningful expressions of Christian fellowship, worship, and formation.

A few years ago, our Episcopal Church set about to re-structure and, in due course, re-imagine what it might mean to be church in the 21st century and beyond. “Travel lightly” was one catchy phrase; “go into the neighborhood,” another. I’m all for that, but are we prepared to confront the weight of our core operating assumptions in doing so?