October 12, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

The economic news in Dayton, Ohio, isn’t good.

Long a manufacturing hub, the city has acutely felt the national financial woes. One in 10 workers are unemployed, and job loss is among the highest in the state.

But leave it to the Episcopal churches there to find a silver lining.

For the past 2 ½ years, the wardens of the Dayton area have met quarterly. Note: the clergy meet for clericus gatherings as well. That’s pretty common. But what is unusual is the lay leadership committing to regular meetings to find creative ways to collaborate during these troubling times.

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October 10, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

Herb beckoned for my husband to come to the bus door.

My daughter found this book for me, Herb said. It is really amazing. I’m learning all kinds of new things.

Have you ever seen a book like this?

The words “Holy Scripture” scrolled across the hardcover. The book had seen some use, with nicks at the corners and a few dog-eared pages. On the inside flap was a publishing date from the early 1930s. It was part of the Episcopal Church's Teaching Series.

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October 4, 2011 by Anne Ditzler

“If no one else signs up to help, you’ll have to bring me in on a stretcher next week.” This was the closing line of a lay leader’s announcement last Sunday, as she pleaded for more volunteers to make blueberry cobbler for the town’s annual Fall Festival next weekend.

I signed up. Not because this was the best recruitment pitch (far from it), but because I’m new in town and the parish. It sounded like an easy way to get to know a few people, lend a hand, and participate in the Fall Festival as more than just a tourist. (Later, friends told me this Episcopal Church’s blueberry cobbler was one of the highlights of the Festival!)

But after Sunday worship, as a few of us huddled around the beleaguered project leader discussing what needed to be accomplished in the coming week, I heard a vestry member say, “I don’t know if we can continue this next year. If there isn’t enough support, we might have to drop it.” For the moment, they’d do what they could to cook and serve more than 860 portions of blueberry cobbler over two days, to anyone who visited this little New England town.

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September 13, 2011 by Miguel Escobar
This past July, Tim Schenk, Episcopal priest and blogger at Clergy Family Confidential, tweeted “Forget the tea. I should write a best-selling book called ‘Three Cups of Coffee.’ Subtitle: A Day in the Life of Fr. Tim."

As might be expected, I laughed and thought "That's a great idea!" And I agreed with one person's wry response of "Well at least it would be true." 

Oddly enough, however, I'm still thinking about the title of Tim's proposed book. In fact, after mulling this over for a while, I to decided to call Tim last week about a slightly different take on Three Cups of Coffee. (He seemed both thrilled and somewhat surprised that I took his tweet so seriously.) 
In our call, I suggested that Three Cups of Coffee should instead be about Episcopal congregations taking on global concerns, particularly as they appear at the local level. Stories, for instance, of parishes in Louisville, KY and Minneapolis, MN helping to resettle refugees, or that of the Diocese of Spokane, WA making the connection between local and international hunger. A book, in other words, that would be distinct from its more famous predecessor in that these stories would be 1) true and 2) about communities rather than lone heroes, where local congregations discover a passion for global concerns via the more mundane realities of discernment, committee meetings, vestry votes and yes, cup after cup of coffee.
Whether or not Three Cups of Coffee will be hitting the bookshelves any time soon, the idea remains the same. Whatever their size, Episcopal congregations can make a major difference in their local communities around global concerns. Indeed, I believe they can change the world.

August 30, 2011 by Miguel Escobar
How would your vestry's work differ from current practice if the spiritual health of the congregation was its primary obligation?
One of the best kept secrets in the Episcopal Church has to do with the wide range of work that vestries can take on. In the following collection of articles, I've chosen to highlight a few cases in which the spiritual dimension of vestry leadership has been emphasized. 
Beware a Theology of Entitlement
Caroline Fairless has observed how a few members' sense of entitlement can spiritually disable an entire congregation, and highlights vestries' role in countering this theology of entitlement. "A young woman who has asked for a spot on a vestry agenda comes right to the point: 'I speak for those of us who don’t like the changes in the worship service.'”

The Lord Broke Through
Do your vestry meetings include prayer on the agenda? Richard Schmidt recalls tense meetings throughout his career as a priest in which vestries needed the Lord to break through. "Only in my last parish did prayer become part of the vestry agenda. That was also — and I think this is no coincidence — the parish where the vestry focused on mission and ministry rather than arguing."

Cultivating a Culture of Discernment
Blaire Pogue shares how St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, MN has invited vestry members to understand their primary role as a spiritual discernment team. “In order to enable our vestry to focus on the larger, more complex adaptive challenges our faith community faces, we raised up a management team composed of people in our church with expertise in business and human resources. They are able to take many operational items off the vestry’s plate so the vestry can focus on big-picture issues.”

Discernment: A Building Program About More Than Buildings
John Baker of St. Aiden’s in Alexandria, VA shares how a renovation project ultimately led to a rediscovery of St. Aiden’s core values. “For eight years our central question seemed to be: Will we be able to do these renovations? Today, the question has shifted...These days, we are busy learning to ask what God might be inviting in the life of our congregation. We are learning also that asking such a question means being open to answers we may not have expected.”

August 29, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

A crew from Calvary, Ashland, Ky., was supposed to be rolling in late last night, weary but exhilarated from a train trip to Washington, D.C., part pilgrimage to the National Cathedral, part journey on historic rail cars.

But first there was an earthquake, and then a hurricane named Irene. What’s next? Locusts?

So the trip was cancelled, and suddenly, unexpectedly, we had the gift of an unscheduled, uncommitted weekend. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.

We didn’t clean out the garage or prep for next weekend’s yard sale. We didn’t sand the doorframe, which has lingered on the honey-do list since our son was in diapers.

We just spent time with each other and with family and friends. My husband enjoyed the pleasant weather on Friday for a hike in a nearby state park. I caught a movie with a woman who moved into town 10 days ago and visited the church for the first time on Sunday. We ate pirate-themed cake at a party for a 5-year-old – and princess cake the next afternoon for our 3-year-old goddaughter. During worship – a three-parish picnic on a small lake – we sat together. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.

For dinner, we grabbed grilled cheese and piled on the couch to watch the Disney channel, and before bedtime, we played with a new train set. It wasn’t a weekend to make the Christmas letter, but it was perfect in so many ways. And I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.

Don’t get me wrong: I know we were blessed in Ohio to be well out of the way of both weather events, and those of you on the east coast have been in my prayers and thoughts. Our inconvenience of a cancelled trip doesn’t compare.

But I wonder if there might be unexpected gifts even for those bailing out from the storm. A neighbor who lends a hand. A night without electricity, absent the demands of being plugged-in and on. A weekend of people worrying about each other, praying for each other. Maybe even a small spike of Hurricane Irene babies in nine months or so. Who -- but God -- knows?

August 17, 2011 by Anne Ditzler

In college my friends and I became fond of saying “God works in the Housing Office.”

As I entered my sophomore year and returned to a small suite of rooms in the dorm, I realized an immediate connection with the two first-year students placed next door: our faith. They didn’t know each other either, but Lizzy and Ginny had signed up as roommates upon the suggestion of a mutual friend from Methodist church camp. As a young Episcopalian wondering how to pay attention to God during college, I couldn’t believe the coincidence – or Godincindence – of living alongside two people with whom I could share my faith life.

This original God moment still bears fruit in our deep friendship over 20 years. Lizzy is now an Episcopal priest in Atlanta and Ginny is an active lay leader, and treasurer, of her UCC/Presbyterian congregation in Boston. But these formal church roles are ancillary to the foundation of our relationships. What matters is that we’ve been able – then and now – to share the important God moments in our lives, whether joyful or difficult.

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August 9, 2011 by Miguel Escobar
As I mentioned in my post last week, summer is novel reading time. I recently read the first two books of Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, a popular and unnervingly dark young adult novel. In this series a violent society pits starving teenagers against one another in the ultimate zero-sum game, a reality show where friends must turn on one another if they are to emerge as the sole survivor. The victor of these annual games wins food and wealth for her/his family.

Scarcity, survival, competition for limited resources - the core themes of The Hunger Games were very much on my mind last week, and not only because I stayed up late reading these books! Twice last week I found myself reflecting on how scarcity can lock us into a white-knuckle struggle to survive, oftentimes at the expense of more imaginative solutions and potential partnerships.

The first of these moments came when I learned that the stove had broken.

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August 8, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

Episcopalians aren’t the only people God trusts to take the summer off.

At our church, the nursery attendant goes home from college, and the kids join the congregation for the whole service.

During the program year, the nursery is staffed with a friendly undergrad who brings her young charges to the service during the peace. This gives the kids a time with the priest during a brief children’s sermon. They partake in the Eucharist or “God bread” as my children call it. The shorter time period means that most children stay relatively church-behaved – solemn and relatively quiet.

But an entire Rite II service tests the sit-still-ability of even the most sedate child. Goldfish crackers and crayons only satisfy for so long.

Today, a whole retinue of princess dolls lined a pew, with an adorable 2-year-old playing and laughing. In another row, Lego blocks spread across the seat, with a child (truth be told, he was my son) sitting on the kneeler and creating a castle creation. He set aside the Legos to listen to an amazing solo and started clapping until he realized he was the only one. A young toddler wandered the narthex, squealing as he made a break for the communion rail.

It will be nice when the nursery attendant returns, and the kids have a place to run off their energy, to imagine stuffed animals into a flock of friends, to laugh without being shushed. And to be sure, it will be of some comfort to the parents who worry that the noise of their children distracts others from worship.

But I love when we are all together, all ages, gathered for church. And in my opinion, a giggle here and there only makes the worship more sacred, more alive.

June 20, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

The air conditioner died, not with a bang but a whimper.

Because of problems getting the parts, it would be a month before the company could install a new unit. With early June temperatures in the 90s – and the priest already prone to sweating through his vestments, worship was moved into the fellowship hall.

The altar guild had double-duty, transforming the folding tables into a makeshift altar and bringing out the fine linens and silver. The secretary had twice the work of creating bulletins for both the liturgy and the worship music. The organist made due with a practice piano, and the coffee hour guild took pains to quietly prepare the after-service treats.

When the priest announced that the air conditioner should be installed by the end of this week, you would think that the congregation would have erupted into applause. Instead several people asked if we could continue worship in the fellowship hall throughout the summer.

It’s not that the nave is unsuitable space. The worship space at this church is among the most beautiful I’ve seen. The arches stretch across the Gothic-style ceiling like knights mounted on their horses, flags raised to welcome the king. The sun casts prisms of light through the stained glass windows, and the baptismal font, cut from stone, is a work of art. This is amazing space in which to worship our Lord.

But in the confines of the fellowship hall, we are forced to sit next to one another. No one has a designated pew. The choir is among us, and we can actually hear the people around us joining in the hymns.

The space creates community.

As we return to the newly air conditioned nave this week, the question arises: how can we transform the vast expanse of the church into space that encourages rubbing elbows?

Should we rope off the side aisles, forcing folks into the center pews and into closer contact? Should we institute a reverse pew rental system, with the front rows as the cheap seats? How can we couple the beauty of this worship space with intimacy and community?

Look at the spaces in your church. Do they encourage relationship or isolation? For those who have tackled this problem, what advice can you offer?

May 31, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

Campers could share a lot with parishioners when it comes to building community.

We travel frequently with our children – my son was seven weeks old when I flew to New York City for a business trip. I wasn’t ready to leave him yet, so we packed the Baby Bjorn and gave him an early taste of Time’s Square. The kids have been to Disney (World and Land), San Francisco, Niagara Falls, and lots of places in between.

But invariably, when we ask their favorite vacation, the reply is instant and unanimous: camping.

I thought about this over the Memorial Day weekend, as we rented our small slice of the outdoors for a three-day retreat.

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April 18, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

Prepare to lose your regular pew this Sunday.

Churches are full-to-the-brim on Easter Sunday, with twice-a-year, Christmas-and-Easter guests and first-time visitors feeling inspired to make more of the day than egg hunts and candy-swapping.
A lot of regular church attenders look at the influx with derision, considering the visitors as interlopers. But congregations should see this as a great opportunity, not only to see the action from a new pew and perspective but also to witness the joy of being a part of a church family.

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March 30, 2011 by Anne Ditzler

“We had an emergency building committee meeting on Thursday. The boiler is failing. But when I left the meeting, after 2 hours, I was so energized!”

That isn’t the usual response from a property committee chair. But it was Liz’s response when I asked her to tell me about one of her best experiences in our parish - a time when she felt really excited or encouraged by the ministries of our congregation.

I asked the question on Sunday during one of our “Appreciative Inquiry” events. Since 2007 I’ve been working with a few others to facilitate, at least annually, parish-wide gatherings when members and others affiliated with the church join a process of inquiry into the best of our mission and ministries, and of visioning for our future. The event starts by having people interview one another about their best experiences, their values, the core values of this congregation, and their wishes for our future. We share our answers in small groups and listen for life-giving themes. We usually end with a creative exercise to envision the future if we incorporated all these life-giving ideas. 

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March 23, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

Have you had 6-8 servings of sacred story? What about the recommended monthly 2-4 servings of Christian action? 

The Soul Food Pyramid outlines what is needed for a healthy, balanced spiritual diet. 

Developed by the folks at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dublin, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, the Soul Food Pyramid plays off the well-known USDA Food Pyramid. And just like that pyramid, the Soul Food one isn’t a “rigid prescription but a general guide.”

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December 8, 2010 by Anne Ditzler

I just got off the phone with a friend who’s been priest-in-charge of a congregation that's grown from an average Sunday attendance of 30 to about 80 in a little less than two years.

"It’s a tough day!" she exclaimed. It was only noon. I'd called out of the blue, just after she finished meeting with a Vestry member – one on the verge of resigning. "It was a good conversation, a necessary conversation," she said. "But a hard one."

Putting aside my original purpose...

November 17, 2010 by Richelle Thompson

The first semester of our experiment ends tonight.

My church is a typical county-seat congregation in the foothills of Appalachia. If only Christmas Eve were our typical attendance on Sunday mornings, we’d be a packed 150. Instead, most Sundays, we’re half that, with each family getting their own pew.

In the past five years, we’ve tried lots of techniques to build up Christian education. Sunday School – on Sunday morning – was a flop (before – and after – the main service). We tried a once-a-month Evensong, with activities. No traction. Our Beer and Bible study had been a hit for three years, but attendance fizzled.

Last school year, we picked up kids from school and brought them to our house for two hours of GodSquad. The kids loved it – but it happened in a vacuum, 20 minutes from church and away from all of the adults (save two teachers). 

We wanted a program that integrated...

November 3, 2010 by Richelle Thompson

The separation of church and state is a key cornerstone of the U.S. government. At the same time, everyone at my noonday meeting on Tuesday had cast their vote in a local church.

This juxtaposition struck me today as we move from one of the most contentious, fractious election cycles in my lifetime into a new era of leadership. Our churches serve as polling stations as a way to support their communities. But we have so much more to offer, especially now.

But we have so much more to offer, especially now.

November 1, 2010 by Richelle Thompson

Faye laundered money. Literally.

At the small, rural church, she collected the offering at the end of the service and hid it in her clothes hamper until she could make it to the bank.

We discovered the occasions when she washed the purse with the rest of her laundry. The ink would run off the checks, and she'd call, asking how much we had given.

Today, on All Saints Day, we remember the guardians and martyrs of the faith, the Saints of The Church.

I also like to remember the saints in my churches.

Faye was nearly 90 years old -- and widowed for half a century, but she turned up at the church nearly every time the doors opened. Her shoulders hunched over and her knuckles looked like walnuts, but she never failed to clean up after potluck dinners or to give a pat to the child who hugged her leg.

She didn't offer herself to the lions or spark a reformation, but Faye and so many others seem to fit the definition of a saint -- a person of exceptional holiness.

Give a shout out to the saints in your churches, in your lives. Post their first names here. Add a sentence or two about how they have been extraordinary examples of the living Christ. And then give thanks for their witness and saint-likeness.