October 5, 2015 by Jeremiah Sierra

Sometimes my dog barks.

I know, this is not unusual, but I wish he wouldn’t. We have neighbors. Sometimes he startles me. But he’s a dog so he barks.

In fact, he does all sorts of things I wish he wouldn’t. He growls at other dogs, licks things, sniffs garbage.

My wife and I are working on training him a little better so he barks a little less and plays better with strangers, but there are limits to what we can do. Ultimately, we have to let him lick and bark and be a dog.

This is a lesson I’ve gradually been learning in my life and work: to let other people be themselves. Sometimes people in my life behave differently than I’d like. My coworkers go on tangents during meetings, for example, or my wife might confront someone when I might just let it go. I can make my preferences clear, we can talk and make sure we’re generally on the same page, but ultimately I can’t control other people and I shouldn’t try.

Not that I’m a controlling person, actually. But sometimes when people do things that I wouldn’t—maybe they talk a little loud or say things I wouldn’t—it makes me anxious or grumpy.

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Topics: Conflict
August 4, 2015 by Richelle Thompson

The clubhouse was bigger than we anticipated.

Our plan was to have the guys build the clubhouse in the woods behind our house. We had cleared a flat space and put in some railroad-tie steps down the incline. But the builders nixed the idea. There was no way they could build the shed-turned-clubhouse in the woods. So we punted and had them erect the building in the corner of our yard, with windows overlooking the woods. Problem solved (and likely with fewer spiders and other woodsy creatures).

Until we got a knock on our door at 4:45 pm on a Friday. An inspector from the city’s building department was on the porch. He explained his office had received a call from a neighbor inquiring if we had a building permit. Um. No. The move from the woods to the yard apparently required a permit (Don’t worry; we got it with no problems on Monday morning). The clubhouse/shed had apparently irked an anonymous neighbor.

All weekend, I fumed. Which neighbor? Not the family across the street whose kids have been pining along with mine for a clubhouse. Not the guy who trades beer brewing tips with my husband. Not the new folks who are as friendly as can be.

Why couldn’t the neighbor have talked with us if he/she was concerned? Why were they nosing in our business? It’s not their yard! Why couldn’t he/she been, well, more neighborly? 

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Topics: Conflict
July 24, 2015 by Anna Olson

What do we do with broken history?

There is no going back and fixing the atrocities of the past, nor denying that they play a powerful role in shaping the present. None of us can disentangle as individuals from stolen land, enslaved lives, supremacist ideologies, devastating wars.

We can, and hopefully do, work against injustices and oppression in the present. What to do with the past is harder.

Two recent experiences made me think.

First, my family became Germans.

My husband’s grandparents were Jewish refugees from Germany who made it to the United States after having their citizenship stripped by the Nazis. My mother-in-law has their passports: swastikas on the covers, large red “J”s stamped across the photo page, new middle names that were assigned to identify them as Jews.

Germany has a law that allows the direct descendants of people whose citizenship was taken by the Third Reich to apply for “re-naturalization” or restoration of citizenship. My very American brother-in-law and husband applied, and my children were included in the petition.

I went with them to receive their naturalization papers. The ceremony was very short, and surprisingly moving. The German consular official, born well after the end of the war, sat with two Jewish families and apologized on behalf of his country. He used the story of his own family to speak of how Germany has changed, what Germans have had to give up in order to regain their place in the international community. He said it was an honor for Germany to be given a second chance by families that never should have lost their citizenship to begin with. He was, very simply, sorry. He did not in any way suggest that Germany could fix the past, or reduce the suffering it had caused with any act of restoration in the present.

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Topics: Conflict
May 20, 2015 by Brendon Hunter

Conflict in Congregations

In this month’s Vital Practices Digest, we’re sharing 5 ways congregations can address or manage conflict while also building trust and well-being. Our 5 resource is offered to help congregations strengthen their practice of year round stewardship.

It’s easy and free to connect with these resources for your congregation. Subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this Vital Practices Digest in your inbox each month.

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Topics: Conflict
April 13, 2015 by Linda Buskirk

Alleluia! Gosh, it feels good to say that again. From the darkness of the Easter Vigil it suddenly rang out: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” The victory is won! We are bold and jubilant.

This is so different from the Friday before when we quietly contemplated the evil Jesus endured to take away our own evilness. At Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Rev. Dr. Thomas P. Hansen stopped us from wallowing in our dust. He looked to John’s accounts of the passion which present Jesus in control, not as a victim.

“In John’s description of the crucifixion, evil did not win the day. Jesus did not die the victim. He was victor. He was not a helpless sufferer, but king. With this insight, John carefully crafted his Gospel and his account of Jesus’ death. …Jesus in charge every step of the way.
“The cross was not forced upon Jesus. He willingly accepted it. He did not lose his life. He gave it. He was not killed. He chose to die.”

Father Tom’s Good Friday homily reminded us that our God had a strategy for victory. He had the power and confidence to see His plan through until the resurrection, and until now and to eternity.

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Topics: Conflict
November 18, 2014 by Richelle Thompson

Wouldn’t it be great if we had an easy way to gauge when our churches were in trouble?

Our local utility company sent a letter this week and included a scratch-and-sniff sticker. Yes, you read that right. Scratch-and-sniff sticker. The text encouraged people to smell the sticker so folks would be familiar with the pungent smell of natural gas. This pre-emptive measure would alert people to danger because they would be familiar with the odor of gas.

Before we move onto how to apply the same methodology to our churches, let’s take a second to applaud the creativity of this company. I can only imagine the person who came up with the idea, perhaps hesitantly raising his or her hand, in a squeaky, uncertain voice, recalling the bygone days of sticker books and trading, and offering the suggestion, “Perhaps we can create a scratch-and-sniff sticker.”

Though I wasn’t in the room, I suspect the idea was not initially met with widespread applause and backslapping. After all, it’s a little silly. Except that it’s also kind of brilliant. I scratched the sticker. And so did my kids. And now they’ll know to speak up if they ever smell that stench again.

I wish I could summon the same brilliance pixies and pitch a similarly wacky but targeted solution for our congregations. But I can’t (at least not yet!). 

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Topics: Conflict
October 21, 2014 by Richelle Thompson

The shrill, my-opinion-is-the-only-opinion way of talking, isn't working. 

As a society at large and in the wider church as well as our local congregations, we too often divide into like-minded factions, erecting barricades and resentments against those with different positions on certain issues. 

I wonder if we've become hunkered down so much with like-minded people that we've lost the muscle tone to do the heavy-lifting of engaged, respectful conversation. 

The Episcopal Church is offering a personal trainer--or at least some thoughtful, reflective discussion -- about how we can talk with one another and build relationships even with people who have differing opinions. 

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Topics: Conflict
August 20, 2014 by Anna Olson

I grew up on the line between black and white in St. Louis County.

Michael Brown was killed less than ten miles from my childhood home.

Although I haven’t lived in St. Louis for two decades, I know firsthand the deep, persistent, and toxic segregation that is a part of the backdrop for the heartbreak and anger in Ferguson this week.

My white family lived on the white side of the line that meanders through St. Louis County, separating black from white, but only just. As a result, I grew up in a neighborhood that was about 95% white, and attended 6th-12th grade in schools that were about 80% black.

I remember two black families in my neighborhood, one of whom lived right across the street in a newly purchased parsonage belonging to an African American church on other side of the line. Looking back, I wonder what motivated that church to place their pastor’s family on the front lines of integration, and fear to imagine what the decidedly lukewarm welcome the neighborhood provided meant for their hopes and dreams. I know the church sold the house some years later.

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Topics: Conflict
August 15, 2014 by Donald Romanik

Christ Church in Anytown, USA is an Episcopal congregation with an average Sunday attendance of around 75 and an annual budget of about $150,000 with an aging but beloved physical plant. The parish is facing the usual challenges of finances, and hence stewardship; declining membership; leadership development and quite frankly, relevance. The vestry wants to grow but has no idea what that entails of what that even means. The Rector has been in place for five years. He/she is competent, hard-working but somewhat “stuck”.

Furthermore, like most priests, he is introverted and hence perceived as aloof, and tends to over function. More and more the Rector is being pressured to do something to improve, enhance and energize the life of the congregation. Once again, the vestry has no idea what that actually means but the dialogue and rhetoric continue – “we need to grow, we need to change, we need to engage in our community, we need strategic direction and focus, we need the Rector to lead us, guide us and direct us.”

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Topics: Conflict
April 1, 2014 by Richelle Thompson

I'm sitting on the beach, as my niece and daughter sift for seashells. They find treasure in the triangle of a broken sand dollar, in the top slice of a conch shell, in the marble smooth fragment that conjures God as artist. 

My son and nephew ride the waves, their shrieks rising to the seagulls and blue skies, and I wiggle my toes to the cool layer of sand and lean into the warm sun.   

Never mind that an email is waiting to be answered, one that needs nuance in the pushback. There's a call I should make about a disputed invoice. I've been cc'd on notes that require input and thoughtful replies, and there are manuscripts waiting for shaping. And in the midst of my yawn into beach drowsy, I suddenly realize I've also forgotten to write this blog, which I promised my dear editor I'd file on Monday. Many, many mea culpas.

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Topics: Conflict
March 3, 2014 by Jeremiah Sierra
Preach the truth as if you had a million voices — it is silence that kills the world.” – St. Catherine of Siena
I came across this quote while reading this article about a Catholic nun who ministers to the transgender community, in spite of the teachings of her church.
Whatever your feelings about the issues of gender identity and the Bible, it’s worth reading for a better understanding of what its like to be a transgender person in the Church, and how love and ministry and grow in surprising places. It’s also about knowing when to speak out.
As a fairly opinionated person, I am often unsure about when to speak up--in personal relationships, community, and online. When is the right time to speak up about what I believe? When do I become the negative voice that offers nothing but criticism or is always always spouting my opinions?

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Topics: Conflict
February 24, 2014 by Jeremiah Sierra

As I write this, my fiancée, Denise, is reading over something else I wrote, marking it up. She’s got a big black pen (no red pens on hand at the moment) and she’s even doing some rewriting. It’s a little nerve wracking. But I also know that she loves me, and she likes my writing. Even if she hates the thing I wrote this time, that won’t change.

I worry sometimes about what others think of me. Sometimes I worry a lot about this, especially when I’m expressing opinions or jokes on social media, or sharing my writing, which, inevitably, not everyone will love. If they don’t like what I write or say, does that mean they won’t like me?

Well, sometimes, yes. That’s part of being a human being, I have to remember. We can’t and won’t get along with everybody (which is easy to say and harder to remember). Even in our communities, we’re not all always going to get along.

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Topics: Conflict
August 15, 2013 by Richelle Thompson

At my first visit to a new dentist, I had to fill out paperwork. Among the reams was a surprise: this page asked me questions about my likes and dislikes at the dentist. Do I hate sound of the drill? Do I have a low—or high—tolerance for pain? Do I prefer morning or afternoon appointments? Does it drive me batty to sit in a waiting room, long after my scheduled time?

When the hygienist met me in the chair, she reviewed my answers. The drill hum doesn’t bother me. Bring on the laughing gas. Mornings, please. And yes, it’s a short drive to batty if I have to wait forever.

Over the course of the few years, the staff was attentive to those preferences. They offered morning cleanings and pre-scheduled the nitrous oxide, and if the dentist was running late, they came out to the waiting room and gave me an update on when to expect to be called back.
All of this didn’t make me love going to the dentist. But when I went, it was a good experience. I felt valued and respected.

I attended a leadership workshop recently. We spent a good deal of time at the start establishing a covenant of courtesy. Lots of workshops kick off with this concept nowadays. Essentially the group sets its standards and expectations for the meeting upfront. Sometimes, I think it feels a little hokey, but after spending some more time with the covenant of courtesy, I’m ready to endorse it—particularly for vestries and nominating committees. 

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Topics: Conflict
May 1, 2013 by Nancy Davidge

When I began working on the May Vestry Papers - focusing on leadership during a time of  crisis - it never occurred to me how timely this issue might be. The recent tragedies in Boston and West, Texas, as well as the continuing violence and natural disasters that affect our communities large and small, all impact our faith communities and test our ability to fulfill our role of providing a place of sanctuary and understanding that God is with us even in the midst of a terrible tragedy.

As I worked with our contributors, a common theme emerged: vital and healthy congregations recover more quickly. In each article, you’ll find practical advice and resources developed by congregational leaders in response to crisis situations.

Our articles this month:

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Topics: Conflict
April 22, 2013 by Jeremiah Sierra

A few things have reminded me recently of how inextricably connected we all are, and how easy it is to forget.

The first was a visit from the Rt. Rev. Oge Beauvoir, suffragan bishop of Haiti, to Trinity Wall Street. He told us about the challenges and opportunities in Haiti, about the need for education and training. Haiti is “land rich but cash poor,” he said, and they are seeking ways to reach financial sustainability. “Come and see,” he said many times. Haiti is not another world, as we sometimes forget, it is ours, and it takes just a few hours on a plane to get there.

The second was the tragedy that consumed many of us last week, whether we were in Boston or not. On that same day many people died from bombings in Baghdad as well. These tragedies do not diminish each other, but they do indicate that we are all part of the same world and we face similar challenges, fears, and dangers.

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Topics: Conflict
April 16, 2013 by Tim Schenck

“Run with perseverance the race that is set before you.” This quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews sustained me the one year I ran the Boston Marathon — in 2008. Along with the supportive crowds along the entire 26.2 mile course, this mantra carried me from Hopkinton to Wellesley to Heartbreak Hill and into Copley Square. It is a quote we need now more than ever.

With Monday’s events we have collectively hit the dreaded wall. Unspeakable violence has been visited upon the purest of human pursuits with three dead, 150 injured, and the innocence of an iconic event forever altered. The images of destruction amid what would normally be a scene of unmitigated joy and triumph are seared into our minds as shouts of encouragement morphed into screams of terror.

It would be easy to quit or walk away — that’s the standard reaction when you hit the wall. I hit it pretty hard in my first marathon, a result of the classic rookie mistake of starting too fast. Around mile 18 of the 2005 Baltimore Marathon I started cursing my decision to enter the race. I began walking although what I really wanted was to curl up in the fetal position underneath the table at one of the water stops. Eventually, I snapped out of it and continued on to the finish line. I ended with my inflated time goal blown but was both proud and relieved as I swore off ever running another marathon.

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Topics: Conflict
April 16, 2013 by Steve Ayers

Patriot’s Day Weekend had been going so well. Old North had opened a colonial chocolate shop on Saturday to rave reviews and large crowds. Our Annual Lantern Ceremony on Sunday was virtually flawless. Dr. Jill Lepore’s keynote speech about Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane, who lived directly behind the church, was spot on.

Early Monday morning, I marched in a Patriot’s Day parade from City Hall, laying wreathes at the tombs of Paul Revere and William Dawes, before marching over to the statue of Paul Revere to bless the horse of a modern day re-enactor who then rode off to Lexington. In hindsight my conversations with t local politicians seemed rather mundane. We compared the race to elect a mayor with our own race to elect a new bishop. We talked about coordinating school bus and tour bus parking in front of a new neighborhood elementary school to be established in what was formerly Mitt Romney’s headquarters.

After a couple of hours of construction planning at church, I walked home to take a nap, only to be summoned by a parishioner who was near the finish line when the bombs went off. Shortly thereafter the National Park Service asked Old North to close down early as a security precaution, which we did.

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Topics: Conflict
November 21, 2012 by Melissa Rau

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Then he goes on to say a bit later to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven.”

With the ever-increasing polarization of our society today (think politics, religion, etc.), it’s vital that we, as Christians, understand what it means to be a peacemaker. Christians are drawing lines in the sand. Dioceses, parishes, and vestries are being torn apart. Many Christians find themselves on opposing sides from one another. But a wise friend of mine taught me that an effective peacemaker doesn’t draw a line in the sand, nor do they stand on one side or another; rather “they take their foot and erase the line altogether.”

The Episcopal Church has ALWAYS been a body of all sorts of believers, actively trying to live out their baptismal covenant to “respect the dignity of EVERY human being.” Lately, though, many of my fellow Episcopalians are feeling like they don’t belong, and that’s sad. The truth of the matter is that we all belong. There IS room at the table for YOU, regardless of your political or theological stance, your sexual identity, your race, gender, etc. How can we promote peace among nations if we can’t promote peace in our own backyards or even in our own sanctuaries?

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October 22, 2012 by Richelle Thompson

Congregations die for lots of reasons. The most insidious cause, perhaps, and the most common is death by a thousand cuts.

I love how Wikipedia defines the phrase: “Creeping normalcy, the way a major negative change, which happens slowly in many unnoticed increments, is not perceived as objectionable.”

We probably all have experience in this form of torture: A job that keeps getting duties added to it until you feel crushed under the weight or a relationship defined by snark with each comment eating away at trust and confidence.

In the congregation, the instrument of torture too often is nitpicking negativity.

A common inclination (maybe even part of our human condition) is to dwell on what’s not working. The typo in an otherwise perfect bulletin. A Facebook post that not everyone thought was appropriate. A sermon that didn’t hit the mark or a hymn that no one could sing. 

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Topics: Change, Conflict, Vestry
October 8, 2012 by Richelle Thompson

I figure the joys of managing change land somewhere between trying to hold onto a block of Jello and being thigh-high in quicksand.

I’m in the midst of leading a project – an annual event for our diocese that has been carried out in similar ways for, well, ever. The bishop asked me to take over and to look at the event with fresh eyes. With new leadership, we figured this was a good time to implement some changes.

As you might imagine, we’ve encountered some pushback, internally from other staff and from diocesan participants.

I have learned a few things about how we managed (and are managing) the changes. I should have done a better job identifying all the stakeholders – and sought input from more of them. I thought more about how the internal process of change would need to be carried out than I did about how the changes would impact users. 

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Topics: Change, Conflict