After five years of ordained ministry in parishes, and three teaching in a private school in New York City, I decided I would like to teach in one of the Episcopal seminaries. For that I would need a deeper academic background, so I pursued a Ph.D. in American Religious History at Harvard, specializing in 19th-century Episcopal history. I was especially interested in looking at the interaction of religion and culture. I was supported in this work for three years by a Fellows grant from the Episcopal Church Foundation. For my dissertation, I looked for the story of a church in an anomalous relationship to its diocese, thinking this would open a window into the religion and culture of the period. Soon I discovered St. Philip’s Church of New York City, the second Black Episcopal congregation in the country. St. Philip’s was listed in the annual diocesan journal for decades as “(colored - not in union with the diocese),” with occasional minor variations in wording. But no Episcopal parish can exist outside of the diocesan structure! My dissertation thus became the story of the 40-plus-year struggle of St. Philip’s to move from its founding in 1809, through the ordination of Peter Williams as the second Black priest in the denomination, to a regular worship life with the Book of Common Prayer and visitations by bishops, to only finally having its delegation admitted to the diocesan convention in 1853. It was a fascinating story with a great cast of characters, and after I spent a couple summers re-writing it into a more narrative form, it was published in 2005 by Columbia University Press as Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City.
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.
When is the right time to hand over responsibilities in our congregations and ministries and how to do so effectively are important questions to consider? Whether it is the Vestry, Altar Guild, Diocesan Council or ECW, we need a plan.
In determining when to handoff, for some, term limits are the necessary guardrails to ensure that we do not keep the same responsibilities indefinitely. For others, the term “over my dead body” was created, with a staunch refusal to handoff, threatening instead to leave the ministry or withhold their tithes.
The obvious advantage for letting go is that it allows new ideas and perspectives to be introduced and it makes room for the gifts of others to be exercised. This is especially important as we strive to allow young adults to have meaningful responsibilities and also welcome those who are newcomers to the church or to our faith or existing members who feel left out of church life.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29: 18
Would you give money to a cause not knowing how it would be spent? Most people give to causes that affirm their cherished values, but donors are more likely to give when they know an organization will use their gift wisely … and believe the gift will make a difference. Churches face increasing competition for the time, attention, and money of their parishioners. Donors who care will give when they are moved by your mission, understand your plans, and trust you.
Endowment giving requires a special kind of trust. A donor must know a church will be trustworthy well into the future, beyond the time when the donor is part of the congregation. To inspire endowment gifts, to motivate new gifts and earn recurring gifts, church leaders can carefully build, nurture, and sustain that trust.
We all know that the past two years have been scary and difficult: the pandemic has been like nothing we’ve seen before. More than a million Americans have died, and all our lives have been turned upside-down. The death rate has been worse in the U.S. than in other similar countries, and surprisingly, the main reason is not medical care. Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard and his colleagues found a different explanation: that the levels of mutual trust and cooperation in our country have “rarely been lower” than they are today. (Time magazine, January 11, 2022, with reference to their recent book, The Upswing)
When I arrived as the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in 2014, there was one topic on the hearts and minds of many of the members. The original sanctuary built in 1970, which was converted into the Parish Hall in the early 1990s, was no longer meeting the needs of the congregation. It is too small to hold all of us at one time; we need a more functional kitchen both for our preschool and the church; and we want to add showers and laundry facilities, so it could serve as an emergency shelter when we experience extreme temperatures. Despite these identified needs, I kept coming back to the fact that it would be labor intensive and expensive, only to see the space stand empty most of the week.
Much of what we see in the Gospels happens around a meal or in general food. Whether it was Simon Peter’s home, the wedding at Cana, the feeding of 5,000, Zacchaeus’ house and many others; sharing of food was a common means of sharing the good news of the Kingdom. There is food involved in every resurrection account and Jesus founded the church in a sacramental, covenantal meal. If Jesus had a Day-Timer recording his activities, we would see that he prayed, taught, performed miracles and healings, and he ate.
Somewhere along the way the church lost the centrality of the meal as ministry. Since the Reformation, church became a place you went on Sunday to primarily be taught and sufficiently catechized.
As you may know, FaithX is working with TryTank in a "proof-of-concept" experiment called Episcopal Pulse, the purpose of which is to keep a finger on the pulse of The Episcopal Church through weekly, rapid-response micro-surveys.
Our most recent micro-survey (#16), completed last Friday, asked this question:
In what areas of congregational life have you found hidden opportunities in the disruption caused by the pandemic?
I am formed by the liturgy of camp; by singing to music led by amateur guitarists, pianists, and bongo drummers. We sat on a worn hardwood floor and listened to chaplains tell the stories of their lives and of God’s action in the world, all the while whispering to one another about what came next, telling secrets and laughing under our breath into a space made holy by our half attention and full presence. Each week, we gathered, still seated on that hardwood floor to share a cup of wine and a plate of bread, passing it from one set of dirty, sweaty hands to another. We would laugh and whisper, having no idea what we were doing, but knowing, somewhere, somehow, that this was set aside time. But also, perhaps, that it was time connected to all the rest- to the games, friendship bracelets, canoe trips and picnics where we would sit under shade trees and imagine a different kind of world, to the old table in the back of the main gathering room where generations of us would secretly carve our names into the soft wood with ballpoint pens knowing without knowing that we were a part of something bigger than ourselves. My understanding of church is still rooted under those shade trees, still carved into that old table, still sitting criss-cross on that worn hardwood floor, laughing and learning what it means to be the body of Christ together.
Jesus came to earth to live among us with his heart wide open. He came to love, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “the Father and I are one.” (John 10:30) At the Last Supper he told his friends that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Living so fully in love led to Jesus’ heart being broken, over and over. He saw children going hungry and elders being neglected. He saw people with disabilities banished from their communities and so-called “outsiders” demonized. He saw systems of power supported by violence, making a few people rich at the expense of many others. He knew that none of this was God’s will, and it broke his heart.
Jesus called his disciples to “be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” (Acts of the Apostles 1:8) That means that we, individually and as communities, should love as Jesus did. It means that when children in school or elders in a food store are gunned down by an assault rifle, our hearts will be broken. Again… and again… and again.
Jesus was known for working miracles, right? The Gospels say he healed hundreds of people, fed huge crowds with just a little bread, walked on water and calmed a storm. Those “signs” made him stand out from other teachers and spiritual leaders.
For some reason, the Creator’s miracles don’t get as much attention. We often take for granted the way day follows night, the changing of the seasons, the cycles of birth and death and new life. Taken to an extreme, science can seem to reduce all of that to a mechanical system, meant to sustain its human operators. One of our most basic sins (meaning “separation from the Creator”) is acting like we’re in control of the world.
As churches emerge from pandemic practices and take a fresh look at the way we used to do things, many are pondering what aspects of the past two years might carry over or influence our liturgies ahead. Some are committed to continuing worship online one way or another, some are challenged by the thought of returning to the common use of a common chalice. Some are wondering how they will exchange the Peace. The hand sanitizers that appeared in abundance in 2021 are sliding into the shadows. In all these things, the church is being given an invitation to enrich and expand its liturgical practices and understanding. Will we accept the invitation?
Ablutions, ceremonial washing of the priest and people, have been part of worship, or preparation for worship, for centuries. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all have traditions of washing hands, face, and even feet, before prayer. Many Episcopal Churches maintain the ancient custom of keeping a bowl of baptismal water by the entrance to the church for people who want dip their fingers and sign themselves with the cross upon entering the nave. In addition to reminding worshippers of their baptism, this practice is a remnant of the medieval hand-washing before the Eucharist. Another tradition is the use of a lavabo bowl, held by an acolyte who then pours water over the celebrant’s fingers after the altar has been prepared and before the Eucharistic Prayer. Often, while engaging in this symbolic washing, the priest recites a verse from the psalms, “I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord” (Psalm 26) or “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51).
Do you believe in the mission and work of your church? Would you like to help your church ensure that it can serve people for years to come? If you answered yes, then you believe in the benefits of an endowment. An endowment provides financial support that can impact your community far into the future. It can build the vitality of your church and create stronger bonds with your surrounding community through the ministries your church creates and supports.
If your church wants to discuss if this is the right time to start an endowment, contact ECF’s Endowment Management program at firstname.lastname@example.org
What does it take for a community of faith to see itself in a new way, or to believe that its neighbors could find value inside old red doors?
Episcopal churches in Indiana, small and large, are finding that it takes a type of boldness rooted in knowledge of the good they have to offer: Good mission, good faith, and good space. Self-awareness about these assets is being awakened through the Church Buildings for Collaborative Partnerships project (CBCP).
Funded by a Thriving Congregations grant from Lilly Endowment, CBCP is underway through a partnership with the Episcopal dioceses of Indianapolis and Northern Indiana, along with two other organizations: Partners for Sacred Places and Indiana Landmarks. All 82 Episcopal faith communities in Indiana have the opportunity to participate, each with a team of three to seven clergy and lay leaders.
Congregations within the Episcopal Church tend to be loners. We seldom interface with our neighboring Episcopal churches and are often detached from our diocese. While we celebrate similar milestones and struggle with the same challenges, it is rare for congregations to collaborate continuously for ministry.
In 2015, a collaborative ministry was formed within the Diocese of New Jersey to address the challenges and the unique needs of the ten historically Black congregations. The members of this ministry include clergy and lay leaders from these congregations and a Diocesan staff liaison. This ministry was named the Commission on Black Ministry (COBM).
“This can be the next rector’s problem,” I said to myself.
A silk dossal curtain hung behind the altar at Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis. It measured almost twenty feet tall and fourteen feet wide – a royal blue damask field with gold bands and appliqued image of the ascending Christ. Wippell made the curtain for us in the early 1950s, shortly after Holy Communion moved to its current site. The dossal presided over every Eucharist, offered hope at every funeral, and appeared in every wedding and graduation picture for three generations. But, it had begun to show its age: The fabric was threadbare and the porcelain tone of Jesus’ skin reflected the artistic sensibilities of a former age.
My wife and I had the pleasure of spending Holy Week and Easter in Abilene, Texas, where our son, David, is rector of Church of the Heavenly Rest. In addition to spending delightful time with our three granddaughters, we attended multiple church services with moving liturgy, inspiring preaching, great music, and lots of people. Everyone seemed so happy to be together and, after two years, have “normal” celebrations. Due to the ruling of a federal judge, the mask mandate was lifted on our flight back to New York – yet another indication of normalcy.
Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems as though Heavenly Rest was not unique and that most Episcopal parishes enjoyed robust holiday services which has generated some excitement, enthusiasm and even optimism. Was this just an Easter “flash in the pan” or an indication of new vitality? Might this mean that the pandemic slump in church attendance is finally behind us, and people will be coming back to church as before? Might we even be turning a corner when it comes to numerical decline?