A regionally famous billboard along I-65 near Prattville, Alabama reads: “Go to church or the Devil will get you.”
Did a shudder just run down your spine? Mine too.
The billboard makes no mention of God or faith, of selflessness or devotion. Salvation is sold for the price of attendance. It calls to mind the famous words of Johan Tetzel that so troubled Martin Luther in the days before the Reformation: “As soon as a coin in the [church’s] coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” While this billboard’s message feels too transactional for my taste, there are transactional elements to the relationship of the church and its people. People come to church looking for something and the leaders of sustainable churches need to know what that is.
As anyone who has been around during a transition to a new pastor or judicatory leader knows, looking for a new leader can be a lengthy and expensive process. So many things to be done and processes to go through. Surveying members, interviewing current and past clergy and lay leaders to gain an understanding of corporate history, holding listening sessions, working with consultants, developing a profile, and more. All these things and more may be part of your discernment process. Juggling all of them can feel overwhelming at times.
All these things may be necessary parts to finding a new leader.
But they may not be sufficient.
They may help us find A leader.
But they may not help us find the leader we need.
We do not know the history of the shack. It was already well worn in 2011, when the Church of the Advocate became the stewards of the site on which it stands. It has a doorstep and windows, so it is not a shed. It was likely inhabited by a humans along the way, probably sharecroppers, back when the church site was part of a farm. The steps are cement and the nails are made by machine and not by human hands. So it likely does not date to before the 20 century.
I don’t know when we started to notice the vultures. First there was one, then, on occasion, two. It was in 2017, when the Godly Play kids went exploring with their teacher that we started making the connection between the shack and the vultures. As the kids got close to the shack, they heard the vulture rustling about inside, then out she flew, catalyzing cries of fright and delight. The shack had clearly become the vulture’s den.
This month we offer five resources on sharing your harvest with your community. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers, blogs, and the monthly digest.
“What’s going on in the news?” my father asked a shopkeeper on a beautiful summer’s day in my childhood. “Well,” the shopkeeper replied, “not much aside from the hurricane that’s going to hit us tomorrow.”
There was no sarcasm in the shopkeeper’s response. We were staying on a rural island off the coast of Maine in the days before internet and cable news. It was easy to become disconnected. In fact, disconnection was part of the attraction to island life. We received our news through the original social network: Neighbors telling neighbors what they needed to know.
I returned to that same island this summer as part of my sabbatical in the hope of finding another weather report – this time for the church.
It’s a familiar narrative in The Episcopal Church these days: the attendance numbers are shrinking, the children are fewer in number, and the people in the parish want to do something (anything!) to reverse the trend. The question that almost always looms large at the start of any such process is simple and, in its own way, profound: Where do we begin?
I entered a narrative similar to this when I accepted the call to serve as the next rector at Church of the Epiphany in Tempe, Arizona. In fifteen years’ time, the parish dwindled from an average Sunday attendance of 353 to an average Sunday attendance of 182 prior to the pandemic. It was clear that things were not going in the direction that any parish wants to see. It was abundantly clear that we needed to do something, but it was less clear what that something was.
As we begin to really examine the implications and possibilities surrounding the continuation of Virtual Worship (VW) within The Episcopal Church (TEC), there are several significant aspects to such a proposal that bear our attention: logistics, standardizations, and theology, to name a few. Logistical planning is not one of my special skills, and standardization requires far more authority than I possess, so I’m going to stay in my lane and look at the theological basis for the sacraments and explore the possibility of their translation within a virtual setting.
Every month ECFVP offers resources on a theme. This month we've asked 2015 ECF Fellow the Rev. Dr. Reed Carlson to choose five resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
The pondside concert featured a folk duo, “The Chatham Rabbits.” It was the last of their Covidtide “Stay At Home Tour” that started in May 2020, when their regular shows were cancelled. They realized they could keep things going and lift the spirits of others by singing from their van in cul-de-sacs and neighborhoods across the county. And pass a tip jar.
For The Church of the Advocate, the concert served as part of our gradual return to in-person gatherings. We could be outside without masks. We could even sing! The evening also provided an opportunity for folks to invite guests, and many did. My own household invited my daughter’s godparents, including her godfather, whose accelerating dementia increasingly limits his activities to the memory care and assisted living building where he now lives. He gets easily confused, can’t keep his thoughts straight, and his steps are unsteady. Nonetheless, his wife thought a relatively small outdoor concert might work well. It did.
As many cautiously return to church with the loosening of strict pandemic guidelines, church leaders are also facing the issue of congregants being reluctant to return to church.
As with the national conversation on employees refusing to go back to work the knee-jerk reaction is that people are lazy and prefer to stay at home in their pajamas.
Just as the secular world is examining the issues of reluctance so should the church.
Here are a few observations on reluctance:
In all the excitement of regathering, the lack of people signing up to usher barely registers. A few Sundays later, during the prelude, someone asks why the candles aren’t lit on the altar. Suddenly you begin to recognize what’s happening: the church is experiencing a volunteer deficit.
This makes sense after 62 weeks of exclusively online worship. Some have gotten out of the habit of volunteering for various church ministries; others haven’t yet returned; still others may never return.
The reality is that parish ministry will look different in the coming months and even years in ways we have not yet fully realized. Yet this moment offers us an opportunity for a ministry reset, a chance to determine what is essential and, equally importantly, what is not.
What follows are some thoughts on how to proactively address this moment in ministry.
I don't like to wait. As a matter of fact, I think I’m one of the most impatient people on Earth. Yet I know that I'm not alone in this. Many people don’t like to wait or slow down. Being productive is to be successful to many people. This drive to be productive is often so strong, that when some of us accomplish something notable, we feel pressed to come up with what’s next.
I’m working hard not to feel this way. Lately I’ve been getting a lot of messages that go something like this: “So Nicole, now that you’re finished with school, what’s next?” These messages are sent by well-meaning, loving people who are excited about my future and the possibilities ahead, and I am too. However, as I venture on, I am starting to wonder if it’s the will of God for us to come up with what’s next for our lives.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to examine and adapt our lifestyles across the board- working from home (#WFH) became the new normal, even growing increasingly through new software platforms and new approaches to conducting business. The Church has not been insulated from this, and our reactions have brought forth a great many questions and concerns about the functionality of our place as ministers and shepherds in a landscape so drastically changed. Nearly every single priest friend I have has commented on their personal struggles with how to be a parish priest without a parish present in the pews; how to find meaning in their role as a priest, both in interacting with their parishioners, and in their own personal spiritual nourishment.
Every month ECFVP offers resources on a theme. This month we've asked James Murphy, Managing Program Director at ECF, to choose five resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
For 13 years, I have been blessed to be a part of the ministry of the Episcopal Church Foundation to lay and clergy leaders throughout the church. My role has been focused on overseeing programs and guiding leaders, as well as many donors, in a variety of areas including planned/estate giving, stewardship, endowment management, and donor philanthropy. I remain encouraged that after the many difficulties and challenges of the past year and a half, I believe that the Episcopal Church continues to be a beacon of hope to many. However, leaders always need to demonstrate they can be trusted with the gifts they receive and oversee.
At this critical time of resurgence after the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, it is important for church leaders to demonstrate to supporters that they can be trusted with the financial gifts their donors make. I am happy to note a small sample of the many useful resources on ECF’s Vital Practices to help Episcopal leaders build confidence among their supporters in the months and years to come.
The dark pandemic storm caught congregations in their own deep and familiar forests. Paths habitually taken to stay safe and comfortable suddenly washed away. Lightning-like bolts of truth jarred the consciences of many in pulpits and in pews.
As the storm subsides, some congregations, realizing they are still in the dark about the impacts of racism, injustice or poverty in their own communities, are heading out with flashlights or even flood lights. They are peering into nearby neighborhoods to discover ministry needs.
Certainly many needs exist, but how are churches to discover what God is calling them to find? One way is to simultaneously turn on another search beam – one pointing inward. This can be just as intimidating because shortcomings have a way of blocking light.
Depending on where you look, or what news you follow, we’re either wrapping up this pandemic or deeply mired in it. Even with increasing vaccinations, there’s trouble on the international stage – dramatic numbers of caseloads in India, for one. U.S. teenagers are now approved to get vaccines, but scores of Americans are still hesitant or altogether resistant. And some fully vaccinated people simply aren’t returning to what used to be perfectly normal, mundane activities – grocery shopping, eating inside a restaurant, going to church among them.
This is already a challenge for the church. It has been, and it will continue to be. Over the next several years, if not decades, these new emerging patterns will pose an even greater challenge for the institutional church. Nowadays, we operate on dual platforms – meeting gracefully those (fewer) who come in-person as well as reaching those who feel safer at home. No one’s said anything about a comprehensive mission strategy, and there’s even less mention of funding models for this uncertain future.
Here is a story about what can happen when the people of a congregation unite around the love of their faith community, a vision to strengthen it, and the joyful inclusion of everyone.
In 2019, the leadership of Holy Family Episcopal Church in Angola, Indiana, faced a sad reality. If the congregation did not rally to financially support their new young and popular rector, they might lose him when the grant funding his curacy ended. So they got busy and creative.
The leadership surveyed of the congregation. All 33 responding households (a large majority of membership) said, yes, we appreciate having a full-time rector. The survey also invited input on new worship opportunities, communication, and asked what people appreciated about their church. Folks were asked if they would be willing to give more to keep their full-time rector.
One year ago, we watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered, those images still scarred in our memories, captured by a strong, faithful witness. We had been in pandemic lockdown for so long, so much festering and boiling over. Then face-to-face with a veritable series of pandemics – deep systemic injustice, especially around issues of race in our nation, and Covid-19, as well.
The Episcopal Church will mark and mourn this anniversary, and rightly so. Our church stood, then, and stands up, now, against “the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” The Episcopal Church, shaped as we’ve been these past several generations by the words of the baptismal covenant, not only knows the words by heart but carries them into the public square. Of this, I am proud to be an Episcopalian: striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human person.
Searching for a new Rector for your parish is a significant undertaking. Searching for a new Rector during a global pandemic amplifies the significance exponentially.
Our previous Rector’s final Sunday was our last in-person gathering for worship in March of 2020. No one knew how long that closure would last; most of us – myself included – assumed we’d be through the worst of the pandemic by last summer. How wrong we were.
Given video conferencing technology, the challenge we faced was not how we, as a Rector Search Committee would meet, but rather how we would define who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become.