Pray for the Church, by Susan Brown Snook

The Diocese of South Carolina is meeting this weekend in convention to make plans for its future.  This special convention was called after the Disciplinary Board for Bishops certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence had abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church, and this certification triggered a Diocese of South Carolina fail-safe mechanism that took it out of The Episcopal Church.  Here are some letters that came out in the last couple of days:

Bishop Dan Martins of Springfield wrote a blog post begging both sides to back down.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote a pastoral letter to the Diocese of South Carolina.

I am, of course, helpless to do anything to effect reconciliation.  But here is what I can do: I can pray.  And I can ask all of you to pray.  Because it is a heartbreak when brothers and sisters can’t live together in peace, working for their common mission despite their differences.  So pray for the Church.

For the Human Family

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For the Church

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Quantity Prayer…by Adam Trambley

To me one of the most compelling, and indicting, quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict is in Chapter 18.  This chapter lays out which psalms are to be said at what times during the week.  The chapter ends with:

For those monastics show themselves too lazy in the service to which they are vowed, who chant less than the Psalter with the customary canticles in the course of the week, whereas we read that our holy Fathers, strenuously fulfilled that task in a single day.  May we, lukewarm as we are, perform it at least in a whole week!

Such a prayer challenge may seem well and good for 1500 years ago, but we might easily dismiss it as out of step with modern life.  After all, if we do both Morning and Evening Prayer according to the Episcopal lectionary, we get through the psalms every seven weeks.  But Christian Schwarz of Natural Church Development, in his very rigorous research on church health and growth, found that when church leaders prayed 90 minutes or more a day, their groups grew twice as often as those whose leaders prayed 30 minutes or less a day.  Prayer didn’t guarantee results, but people who took prayer seriously found whatever they were leading growing more often, whether a congregation, a Bible study, or an outreach project.  Really, this power in prayer shouldn’t surprise us.

Benedictine monks were steeped daily in God’s promises found in the psalms, expressed in the language of deepest human emotion.  They were led to preserve Western learning, improve farming, and re-evangelize Europe.  If we harbor similar hopes for ourselves and our communities, our prayer life needs to have a similar quality and quantity.

We need to look at what we want to God to accomplish around us.  Turn around dying congregations.  Plant new churches.  Revitalize mainline denominations.  See the lame run, the blind see, and the good news preached to the poor.  Preach the gospel in Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, including the ends of the earth down the street from us.  With these dreams, we need to challenge ourselves honestly with the quantity and quality of prayer needed to open the floodgates of heaven, and be together with one another in prayer at that level.  As this prayer is happening in various communities, God is showing up and amazing things are happening.  May we, lukewarm as we are, do the same, and see God do more than we can ask or imagine in us, around us, and through us.

Keep the Windows Open … by Megan Castellan

This week, Bishop Pierre Whalon published an essay he wrote on on reforming The Episcopal Church over on Anglicans Online, which has garnered some attention throughout our little corner of the interwebz.

The piece was detailing the nature and history of our brand of Anglican polity.  Specifically, he was addressing the concerns of the seven bishops who filed an amicus brief in a Texas court over the summer, and while it can be entertaining to watch bishops bicker, that’s really neither here nor there.

 

More to the point is an observation he made in passing:

“The General Convention is at the top of our hierarchy. Following the principles outlined above, it splits authority for the whole church’s life between the bishops and an assembly of clergy and laity elected to represent each diocese. Both “houses” must agree for any decision to become authoritative. It should be noticed that the legislative model is Parliament, not the U. S. Congress. Convention’s decisions are unimpeachable; there is no court of appeal other than future meetings of the Convention to reverse decisions.

Specifically, the General Convention rules on what is the doctrine of the Church, its discipline (canon law), and its worship. All the clergy pledge to conform to that doctrine, discipline, and worship, and should they decide to do otherwise, they are liable to be barred from exercising ministry. Other decisions are the choice of bishop presiding the college of bishops and the president of the deputies’ assembly, the budget, and matters affecting all the dioceses, such as entering into full-communion agreements with ecumenical partners. It may make pronouncements on issues of the day, but these are not binding on Episcopalians. Until this last Convention, it could also ratify elections of bishops — for no diocese can choose and consecrate a bishop by itself.

Thus when persons at their ordination(s) pledge to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church, they put themselves under the authority of the hierarchy of the church. Beginning with the General Convention, its Book of Common Prayer, and its canons.” (Emphasis mine)
The entire essay is informative, and worth a read. But this comment in passing, regarding the authority of Convention struck me.
Prior to this Convention, this ultimate supremacy of Convention was something I hadn’t realized, and I dare say, many within the church still don’t realize.  We’ve swallowed the US-government//Convention parallel for so long that it is tantamount to gospel by now, so much so that several resolutions appeared before the Legislative committee for Canons, asking us to decide whether the Title IV changes were within constitutional bounds, as if we were an ad hoc Supreme Court.
As Bp. Whalon points out, TEC has no mechanism to rule acts of Convention unconstitutional, save another act of Convention.

That may seem incredibly boring, and inconsequential. 

 But an effect of the total supremacy of Convention is a real opportunity to be open to the movement of the Spirit.  If we wanted, if we were willing, we could be a singularly charismatic church.  By charismatic, understand that I don’t see my fellow Episcopalians breaking into ecstatic dancing or handwaving in Salt Lake City.  (Though, should we choose to break into a few bars from The Book of Mormon, I would not be unopposed.)  

Rather, I mean that we have the windows of our church, at this very moment, firmly propped open for the winds of the Spirit to blow on through.  The ultimate authority in our church is not a hidebound set of documents our forebears wrote in a fit of angry reforming zeal, or reactionary fervor.  Our ultimate authority can continue to be the guiding light of Christ, speaking to his people through the whispering of the Spirit, in community, and in Scripture, in each new time and place.  

At this moment in our history, our charism may indeed turn out to be our ability to keep our windows open.  

Less Licensing and More Permission…by Adam Trambley

As we think about equipping our  church to equip the saints for ministry, here is a small suggestion.  Eliminate as much licensing as possible in our canons.  By licensing, I am not referring to the wide assortment of “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” merchandise available by your finer purveyors of ecclesiastical goods.  I’m referring to the licenses given by bishops to lay people for certain ministries, a list made significantly longer in 2009.  I think reducing these licenses is important for at least two reasons.

First, licenses are primarily used to curtail activities, not promote them.  Does anyone think that drivers’ licenses are there to get more people to drive?  If we think that we need more evangelists, a licensing system is not the right solution to that problem.  Trainings may help.  Exposing people to effective evangelists might help.  Networks like the Episcopal Evangelism Network would almost certainly help.  Prayer for laborers into the harvest is a definite must.  Licenses — not so much.  Are we really so worried about spreading the good news the wrong way that we need to regulate who does it and how?

Second, a licensing process is not nearly as helpful in most situations as a mentoring process, especially for adults in ministry.  The best way to develop effective ministers in any sphere is to give them a little bit of ministry to do, have a mentor or coach reflect with them and provide the next piece of instruction, then send them out again.  If we want to develop lay preachers, we need to let people preach, give them feedback, and schedule the next time in the pulpit.  At some point, some folks will rise to the level that a bishop may send their name to the parishes in the diocese as a potential supply preacher.  This would achieve the same positives as a license, without hindering folks in a parish who might have something useful to say once or twice a year but really don’t need to take four semesters of a Bible class.

The fewer requirements for lay ministry coming from outside the parish, the easier it is for pastors to unleash people’s spiritual gifts in fruitful ministry. In an Acts 8 moment where the Spirit is leading us into very interesting new opportunities, we can either provide lay leaders with requirements to be met, or ask how we can help them do what God is calling them to do.  I prefer the latter.

Strategic Discernment, Not Strategic Planning … by Susan Brown Snook

I have participated in four separate strategic planning processes in various churches.  They each followed a different methodology, and each had similar results:

A group of dedicated people got together and worked very hard over several long meetings to create a plan.

  • A facilitator led us through a well-organized set of exercises to encourage everyone to contribute her or his ideas for the future.
  • With the facilitator’s help, we took a world of information and reshaped it into a set of goals and priorities, with timelines and responsibility assignments.
  • A beautifully packaged plan was created, summarized, presented, and affirmed by vestry vote.
  • In each case, we looked at the final product and felt in some unidentifiable way that something vital was missing.
  • The plan went onto the shelf and, after some initial attempts to follow up on identified action steps, was never seen again.

I know that the “shelf” is a common destination point for strategic plans in all kinds of organizations, not just the church.  But after the last time I experienced this life-draining process, I started thinking: maybe the church, of all places, is not the place to be doing strategic planning.

This is not to say that the church should just drift along and let happen whatever may.  That’s how we fall into bad habits and start believing that the church exists for the benefit of its members, and everyone who should be a member already is a member.  Our natural human tendency is to serve ourselves before we serve others; it takes vision and planning to remember that we have a broader mission to accomplish.

But the church is uniquely a Spirit-led organization, or should be.  And the Spirit is full of surprises we can’t anticipate or plan for.  It would be difficult to imagine the apostles in Acts 7 sitting down for a strategic planning session and determining that the next logical step would be to go out to the Gaza Road and wait for an Ethiopian eunuch to come along.  Who would ever think to do that?  Who would imagine that that young man holding the coats while Stephen was stoned in Acts 7 would turn into the greatest evangelist in world history in Acts 9?  Who would have suggested that Peter go to sleep and arrange for a dream involving unclean animals on a sheet descending from heaven in Acts 10?

In my church experience, most of the great steps forward I have seen weren’t planned.  They happened: the right person came along, the right location became available, someone heard a call from God they couldn’t ignore.  Yes, we channeled those outpourings of the Spirit in organized and planned directions, but they came to us as gifts from God.

This is why, as the church plant I lead is entering into a vitally important new phase (a move to our first permanent building), we are not doing strategic planning.  We are doing strategic discernment.  Where is God leading us? is the question we are asking.  We are not asking for a list of ideas, or a list of problems to solve, or a list of good stories that highlight the strengths we want to build on.  We are praying and discerning.

The process that we have designed starts with an extended period of meditative prayer (as opposed to what I have often experienced before – a perfunctory one-paragraph petition for God’s guidance before we get down to the real business of the meeting).  It continues with an extended “African” Bible study of Luke 10:1-12 (one of the classic passages on evangelism).  It then proceeds with some creative exercises to encourage people to use right-brain powers to envision God’s plan for the future.  Only after all those exercises do we start working on goals, priorities, and problems.

In other words, this process is our attempt to let our own thoughts and plans take a step back, and ask God to open our minds to God’s thoughts and plans.  It is a process of strategic discernment, not strategic planning.

You can see details of the process we have followed on my blog.

I am not saying that this process is the best possible way to do visioning in the church.  But we have had good results so far.  The group leaders (who are ministry leaders working with their ministry groups) report terrific, Spirit-filled visioning sessions.  The groups have come up with amazingly coherent plans that, without much effort on the part of the vestry, naturally highlight three or four clear, over-arching priorities.  Every group has, in one way or another, identified evangelism and discipleship growth as a clear strategic priority.

How have you done strategic discernment in your congregation?

How should we do it churchwide?

The Rev. Susan Brown Snook is Church Planter and Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, Arizona.

Fearless Evangelism, Part II … by Charles LaFond

This is the second in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond.  Check out this link for Part 1.  Check out Charles’ blog for the full text. And check out the Diocese of New Hampshire’s Evangelism Toolkit, on its website.

II. Start from where you are …the deep, solid encouragement of God in our prayer lives

My home sits on a bluff along the edge of the Blackwater River which flows past it night and day, hour by hour, past my farmhouse. Without the broken ice floes of late winter, it is nearly impossible to see that this river is moving with great power. Calm, deep waters always seem so peaceful and gentle. But the strength – that ancient force of gently flowing water was – in times past, captured up into the wheels of the clothespin factory which once sat on its banks, passed to the huge gears and axles of the mill, and ended in the turning, turning, turning of the great gears which cut wood for clothespins which two generations used to hang clothes to dry- clothespins invented by New England Shakers.

That gentle flowing river, sleepy and majestic as an elderly monarch – flows gently, deep and with great force. No tidal waves. No crashing surf. In no way impeded by the river’s rocks and trees- 24 hours a day. That is power. So gentle. So powerful. That combination of power and gentleness is our calling as leaders of Evangelism in a church whose culture finds evangelism uncomfortable at best and terrifying at worst.

That power and gentleness – that centeredness and “quiet confidence” as our prayer book calls it – is essential in leading Come and See Membership Growth Campaigns and any other “en-courage-ment” we do in leadership in our churches and non-profit organizations.

Next:  Leadership

The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond is the Canon for Congregational Life in the Diocese of New Hampshire.  The Come and See Membership Growth Campaign Manual is and the 7 minute video summary can be found here.

Birthing, not dying. By Amy Real Coultas

There’s a lot of talk of how the church is dying.  I can’t really abide that.   I find the images of a church being reborn resonate more with me these days, and this video from a Presbyterian pastor sticks with me.  I spoke about it in my reflections at the Province IV Synod way back in June, where I served as Chaplain. You can read all of them here, but I offer this excerpt:

 


 

“What if, instead of only talking about the bringing forth of new life as a consequence of dying, we began to talk about it as a consequence of…pregnancy? What if the church were pregnant? What if we are an “expecting” church? An “expectant” church?  The signs are there, she points out.  Fatigue, certainly.  Anxiety: Am I ready? Can I do this? What if I just can’t bear the changes it brings about in my life?  There is even, at times, a bit of queasiness.  During pregancy, time is not your own–you must be patient, you must wait.

 

…We cannot be passive about waiting for new life to come from [a dying church].  We must expect new life.  We must be expectant.  We must prepare for it like any birth.


This new life, this new body, this Emmanuel–God with us here and now–this Jesus, is born in us in the midst of our fatigue, our anxiety, our confusion, our perplexion. In that moment, God puts a clear commandment on the lips of his angel. It is the most often commanded thing in all of scripture–Do. Not. Be. Afraid.”

 

Church Membership, by Sara Fischer

Are you a member of a church? If you live in the Pacific Northwest, Vermont, or any number of other parts of our country, chances are the answer is no.

For a long time, church membership has been defined by certain religious practices and traditional forms of commitment. Baptism, confirmation, profession of adherence to orthodoxy, pledging, filling out a tome-like parish register, participation in all that the church has to offer, attending regularly, and/or conforming to various spoken and unspoken behavioral norms. Any of these traditional membership constructs sound familiar? Many of them are certainly familiar, well-loved, well-lived practices of many participants in worshipping communities throughout the Episcopal Church.

I have been finding it helpful to realize that church is much bigger than our Sunday morning worshipping community, and that living into a new way of being The Church includes expanding our understanding of who belongs.

I serve a community where many people gather in the building throughout the week. They are often unchurched, de-churched, ex-churched, church-phobic, Christo-phobic, or some combination. During the week, they consider our large, tired, messy, mid-century-modern building to be “their” church in the same way that those who are only there on Sundays consider it to be “our” church. What if the “our” of “our church” includes everyone whose spirit is fed when they come into our building?

St. Paul said that we are all members of one body: some teachers, some prophets, some healers, some givers, some leaders. What if the body of which we are all members is a church’s extended community, a community where some teach, some sculpt, some pray, some cook, some play ukulele, some play piano, some sing, some loan tools, and so on? What if the body includes the old-fashioned sense of the word parish: the whole surrounding neighborhood, with all of its quirky connections and non-connections to our traditional liturgy and practice? I like to think that in my community of St. David–a community that is porous around the edges but which ultimately springs forth from the creative, re-creative, and generative act of gathering around a common table to feast and pray on Sunday mornings–all are members.

When I originally shared these thoughts about membership on our parish blog, I got feedback about the centrality to our tradition of adult faith formation and baptism. Yes. That is indeed central. But a thriving, vibrant community needs to have a lot going on around the edges, not just at the center. Otherwise, it’s too hard to get in.

What makes you a member of a church?

Sara Fischer is the Rector of Saint David of Wales in southeast Portland, Oregon, the spiritual-but-not-religious center of the known universe. She blogs at http://www.gotleeks.wordpress.com and dailycup.net.

3rd Mark: Young Adult Missionaries, by Amy Real Coultas

Last week I was part of a small group that met to give feedback to Executive Council as they begin to interpret and enact the budget passed at General Convention.  You can read more background on that in Susan’s post from last week about the group she was a part of.  My group was looking at Mark 3: Responding to human need by loving service.  Our particular focus was on line 79 of the budget, which directs $1,000,000 for “making missionary service available for all Episcopal young people.” (Line 81 grants $200,000 for support of Episcopal Service Corps, but we did not deal directly with that since it is a grant and therefore a different beast altogether.) As Canon Missioner at the Cathedral in Louisville, I serve young adults in the local congregation, serve as a campus minister in my university’s Interfaith Center, and serve as Director of an Episcopal Service Corps intern program.  I’ve also worked directly with 2 of the 4 Young Adult Service Corps missionaries from my diocese (including current YASCer Grace Flint, serving this year in Hong Kong!).  I served as a deputy to General Convention in 2009 & 2012. I was specifically asked to be able to inform the group about the Episcopal Service Corps.

Like Susan, I don’t need to share details of our report as it was offered only as advisory feedback, and was ultimately pretty narrow in scope.

I do think it’s appropriate to share a few things which were primary for me in thinking about the church’s work with young people in general.

1) It was great to have a frank discussion about some of the realities of young adults and implications for ministry with them.  Having young practitioners around the table was very helpful.

2) Those of us who care deeply about lifting up a new generation of leadership must keep pushing, pushing, pushing the need for YAs to be at the table.  We must hold up the expectation that those in the greatest positions of power in the church should work to give it away. We should look for opportunities to be last of all, to be servant of all.  That’s what I expect from Christian leadership.  Good leadership looks around for emerging leaders and gives over resources and power to support their voices.  And if you want to know what resonates with young adults, you have to ask them 🙂

3) We have to get our head around this paradigm shift as we think about mission, whether local or global: we are now living as a post-establishment church.  In many contexts, we will have to take a Luke 10 posture*: one of learner rather than teacher; we will have to begin to depend on others’ hospitality rather than assume they “need” us; we will have to actually seek Christ, rather than assuming we are being sought.

We surrounded our discussions in bible study and prayer, using Luke 4:16-30 as our scriptural ground.  I’ll say more about that in another post…

All of this is to say: in mission work with young people, like all ministry, it’s always better to do the work with someone rather than for/to them.  And if you look around and don’t see the people you know you need/want to be in ministry with, you gotta start approaching it differently.  You gotta get busy seeking Christ.

 

*See Dwight Zcheile’s excellent and very accessible book People of the Way, especially chapter 5, for a deeper exploration of this text as a model for 21st century mission.

We met September 24 & 25 in Minneapolis. Roster:

  • Ms. Bronwyn Clark Skov (Co-Convener), Staff, Lifelong Christian Formation & Youth Officer
  • Ms. Anne Watkins (Co-Convener), Executive Council Representative
  • The Rev. David Copley, Staff, Mission Personnel Officer (oversees Young Adult Service Corps)
  • Mr. Jason Sierra, Staff (under 30), Young Adult Leadership & Vocations Officer
  • The Rev. Cn. Amy Real Coultas, practitioner, representing Episcopal Service Corps
  • The Rt. Rev. Brian Prior, Bishop of Minnesota
  • Mr Longkee Vang, practitioner (under 30)
  • The Rev. Cn. Emily Morales, PB&F representative
  • The Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, COO
  • The Rev. J. Sierra Wilkinson (not able to attend), practitioner (under 30)

Opening the Door for Non-Episcopalian Congregations…by Adam Trambley

As we look at structural changes in the Episcopal Church during the next three years, we need to develop some way to allow non-Episcopal/Anglican congregations to affiliate with our church.  This idea may seem odd, or even threatening.  But as we do God’s work more effectively as a national church, we should expect to attract congregations who want to join us but may not want identify as Episcopalian.

We know this happens with people in our pews.  On any given Sunday, our churches are filled with people from a variety of backgrounds.  Some have formally become Episcopalian, some may in the future, and some never will.  But all are part of our ministry and important for our mission.  In the same way, we should expect non-Episcopalian congregations (and even networks of congregations) to play a similar role in the life of our diocesan and national church.

Two sets of experiences have made me realize just how important our flexibility in this area could be.  The first is that a group of congregations from a number of mainline churches have hired a part-time missionary for our county.  A portion of his ministry is being out where people gather, like a downtown restaurant and a college student center, to build relationships with pre-Christians.  If he is successful, as he has been in the past, within a few months there will probably be prayer, Bible studies, one-on-one discipleship, and other ministry taking place in those sites.  They could also develop a group that wanted to worship together and form the core of a new church plant.  When they do, I hope they will be able to have an affiliation with the Episcopal Church, even if they don’t want to use the BCP at every worship service or have every lay worship leader certified by the local Episcopal bishop or sign up their very part-time clergy with the Church Pension Fund.  But we may be doing things at a deanery or diocesan level that could benefit them and that their participation could benefit us.  Maybe they want to be a multi-denominational church (as opposed to a non-denominational one) that maintained close bonds with PCUSA and the Episcopal Church.    We will want to include such communities in the life of our church, even if they aren’t necessarily “Episcopalian” congregations. We won’t need these mechanisms until creative church planting initiatives are successful, but we should assume such efforts will create thriving Christian communities.

My second experience is being part of a prayer group with a number of non-denominational, independent, and congregationally-governed churches.  As I listen to some of their struggles, I find that the Episcopal Church has figured out some things that give them fits.  The Clergy Tax Guide sent out by the Church Pension Fund would be a huge benefit to many independent church pastors.  Safeguarding God’s Children and Safeguarding God’s People would help them address difficult questions all churches face.  Our structured outreach programs from local food pantries to Episcopal Relief and Development can provide a way for smaller congregations to connect to those in need.  Any number of such efforts can lead local congregations into deeper relationships with the Episcopal Church.  These churches may not be interested in giving up their own backgrounds, but they may benefit from being regular participants in discussions we are having at the local or diocesan level about theology, ministry, mission and outreach.   We should be looking for ways to welcome voices of our Christian brothers and sisters as we serve our local communities together.  As our Diocesan and national church programs become less “command performances” and more helpful and life-giving, we should expect them to want to join us.

We have spent decades formulating various ecumenical agreements, and these are all good things.  Yet, not all churches have an ecumenical affairs officer or the desire to spend years in theological discussions.  But they do want to be the best Christians they can be, and the Episcopal Church has many important gifts to give.  What we don’t have now are good structural mechanisms (or the openness) to allow non-Episcopalian congregations to have a role in our diocesan life.  Some of those congregations will be new missions becoming Episcopalian.  Some may be multi-denominational missions.  Some may be churches resembling us who are the only congregation of their denomination in the area that need our support and fellowship.  Some may have structures with very different strengths that need our strengths to succeed.  Some may just discover incense and sanctus bells for the first time and want to learn more about us.  Just as healthy congregations attract new members, a healthy denomination will attract new congregations.  When they show up, we should be prepared.