May 2021
The Power of Small Churches

Tension and Release in the Church

“Tension and release” is big in the art forms I connect with, in improvised music, roleplaying games, suspense cinema...and liturgy. Our liturgy is full of tension and release. Structurally, the BCP 1979’s Holy Eucharist is a series of frustrated approaches until the sursum corda establishes us in the “right” liturgical neighborhood for communion – or common union – with the Divine. This tension and release mirrors the “already, but not yet” nature of the Reign of God espoused by the Early Church.

The Netflix series Stranger Things pressed my buttons – nostalgia for my latch-key, Generation X upbringing; creepy supernatural setting; and tension and release. I especially identified with Lucas. Our Vietnam Veteran fathers gave us a complicated relationship with all things military, and while Lucas displays some real sensitivity when his friend goes missing, he is also the one to brandish the “wrist rocket.” This slingshot serves as a good metaphor for the tension and release of the series, but perhaps also for where we are being called right now.

Not to delve too deeply into the Stranger Things universe or 1980s Cold War factors that wrought havoc on a generation of children (me), I do want to lift before us the crises experienced by the children in that series. Their worlds were crumbling around them, institutions they trusted couldn’t help and few grownups believed them. Maybe I’m stretching this metaphor to its snapping point, but can we bring the Episcopal Church into this conversation?

We are also at a convergence of crises. I won’t try to explain this too much, but parts of our world seem to be crumbling around us; the institution we love doesn’t seem equipped to deal; and plenty of the experts entrusted to lead us seem to doubt that any of this is happening.

When what we’ve always done no longer works

In my 41 years of formation in the Episcopal Church (and on the planet), I have seen our church and our world change. Change can be a scary word for Episcopalians. It’s like that old joke: “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?”


Sometimes we don’t like change, but if we think about anything we call a blessing in our lives, it is usually accompanied by change (a new relationship, a job, birth of a child, etc.). Even though change carries with it the possibility of blessing, we resist it. We like our tension and release carefully scripted, like the ordo of Holy Eucharist Rite II.

And then COVID happened. Who could have scripted that?

I live in a part of the country that has been relatively insulated from COVID. I am grateful that our bishop has been protective of her congregations and parishioners. I am also aware that this virus has disproportionately affected people who don’t look like me (age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc.). In my context, the changes that came with COVID have exposed both my privilege and the way I am unprepared to lead when things change.

When I am at my best, I am grateful to God for gently sharing these things with me. I know institutions change, but when I was in seminary (more than fifteen years ago), I was trained to lead an Episcopal Church that hasn’t existed for 50 years or so. Sure, there are some hangers-on, but by-in-large, the 21st century Episcopal Church is quite different from the one I was trained to lead.

We don’t have to look too hard at the numbers to realize that we are in trouble if we expect things to be done the way we’ve always done them. Of all of the mainline denominations: we are the oldest (mean and mode), we have the lowest percentage of members with children under 18 and (while this veers from data to personal experience as someone who grew up in the Episcopal Church) our retention rate for children is pretty rank.

Feeling the tension yet?

Beyond metrics

A friend of mine, Steve Mullaney, serves as the campus minister at the University of Minnesota. He is a lay person and works with young adults, which gives him freedom I don’t have as a parish priest. When he and I talk to folks about the changing Church, I have been blessed to hear him ask, “Do we want to be the last Episcopalians to do church this way? Do we want to be the last Episcopalians?”

Buried in that is a place where I find release from all this tension. If we measure ourselves by the old metrics we are failing, but who said we have to use those metrics? If we are in the relationship business – and I think we are – I take comfort in the fact that relationships can’t easily be measured. For that matter, what metric should we use for love?

This is the gift of COVID. The things that many of us have suspected have been laid bare for us all to see. More than that, we have had (and are still having) the opportunity to question the way we have always done it, because for broad parts of the Episcopal Church, we haven’t been able to do or be Church in ways we have before.

I close by returning to Lucas’s “wrist rocket.” Setting aside the slingshot as a weapon (David fells Goliath with something similar), it is a pretty good metaphor for our times. Tension? You bet. Release? Sure. And if we are intentional about our time now, we might be able to control the speed, trajectory and distance we can go when this pandemic is over.

We are being called to wade into the tension of our times. Ask tough questions. Speak truths we’ve been afraid to utter. Listen to others. We go farther together. Be scrappy. Lift up Jesus in what we do. What are we afraid of? Change brings the possibility of blessing – tension yields release – and that is Good News.

The Rev. Dr. Robert K.Leopold was instrumental in helping start the neo-Abbey movement in the Episcopal Church, serving as founding priest of Southside Abbey in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and also building a network of missional leaders who have helped start or steer other missional expressions around the country. A 2015 ECF Fellow,Bobcurrently serves as Priest-in-Charge at St. Andrew’s in Colchester, Vermont, and Interim Rector at Christ Church in Montpelier, Vermont. He teaches a course each fall through the Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership (CALL) at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP).


This article is part of the May 2021 Vestry Papers issue on The Power of Small Churches