Report from the Acts 8 Steering Committee Meeting

The Acts 8 Steering Committee gathered for its second in-person meeting at Bexley Hall Seminary in Columbus, Ohio from May 5-7. Our agenda was to learn new things from those doing work in all areas of the church, to review what’s worked and what hasn’t over the last year, and to determine ways forward. On this last point, we focused on what Acts 8 is uniquely able to do to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church that does not simply duplicate the efforts of other organizations. We also looked for ways to involve others.

Acts 8 Steering Committee meeting attendees. From left: The Rev. David Sibley, Brendan O'Sullivan-Hale, The Rev. Susan Snook, Holli Powell, The Rev. Steve Pankey, The Rev. Tom Ferguson, The Rev. Adam Trambley, The Rev. David Simmons, The. Rev. Megan Castellan.
Acts 8 Steering Committee meeting attendees. From left: The Rev. David Sibley, Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, The Rev. Susan Snook, Holli Powell, The Rev. Steve Pankey, The Rev. Tom Ferguson, The Rev. Adam Trambley, The Rev. David Simmons, The. Rev. Megan Castellan.

We are grateful to guests who shared their expertise with us about what is going on in the corners of the church and mission field they focus on. Jim Naughton of the Episcopal Cafe and Canticle Communications spoke with us about how the church is getting its message out. Missioners for Fresh Expressions and  in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, The Rev. Jane Gerdsen and the Rev. Kyle Stevens explained how Fresh Expressions can invigorate the church in interacting with the greater culture, but noted that it is a complement to, not a substitute for, the parish model. And the Rev. Tom Ferguson (a.k.a. Crusty Old Dean) gave a wide-ranging presentation on the history of missionary societies in the Episcopal Church. While it is in some ways barely conceivable that at one time the Episcopal Church carried out much of its work through geographically dispersed self-funding voluntary affinity groups, through most of the 18th and 19th century that is exactly what happened – sometimes with good results, sometimes not.

Looking back over the things that have worked over the last year, it seems that the Acts 8 Moment’s strong suit is in facilitating conversations about faith and hope among those doing Christ’s work in the Episcopal Church. We have had two notable successes: The Acts 8 BLOGFORCE and our new podcast, The Collect Call.

The Acts 8 BLOGFORCE, led by fearless Wing Commander David Simmons, which puts out questions to the whole church, seeking a response. These have included the Top 10 Signs of Resurrection in the Episcopal Church and an Elevator Pitch for the Episcopal Church. We see this as an opportunity not only to generate and share ideas, but also as a way to encourage the habits of talking about our faith in new ways. Perhaps most importantly, participation in the BLOGFORCE is open to literally anyone with an internet connection. We’re looking for questions that can capture the imagination of the church. Got ideas? Put them in the comments.

Two of our lay members, Holli Powell and Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, launched The Collect Call podcast (subscribe on iTunes; subscribe using RSS; follow on Soundcloud) as a way to highlight an often-overlooked portion of the Episcopal worship experience, and to share their own stories of faith. We’re thrilled that The Collect Call has received favorable notice, and that what started as an experimental pilot project will continue.

Our efforts going forward will build on these successes. We are working out a more regular BLOGFORCE schedule, and are looking at the possibility of Twitter hashtag parties or other online events to deepen discussion of the questions. We’ll also be looking for opportunities to leverage our podcast learning and infrastructure to introduce new topics in line with our mission to proclaim resurrection.

Over the next year, we plan for more experimentation. Some things will work and others won’t – and that’s ok. But this brings us to how we closed our conversations last month: how do we enable involvement with the Acts 8 Moment? Do we go old school and have a formal membership model with a subscription fee and a newsletter? For now, we’ve decided, no. Our projects over the next year will be very participatory in nature. The more answers we get to BLOGFORCE questions, the better. Holli and Brendan are starting to look for guests to include on the podcast (listen to an episode to learn how to get in touch). So – how to be involved in Acts 8? Participate! We look forward to talking with you online or in person in the coming year.

Lydia & the Ladies Library Association

A few weeks ago I drove to our diocesan office for a meeting. As I turned onto the main street of Kalamazoo, my eye was immediately caught by the signs attached to the light poles. On each one was a picture of an old-fashioned brick building with a horse and carriage in front of it. Under the picture were the words “Ladies Library Association, est. 1852.”

I confess that when I saw these signs, my first thought was “This organization looks really outdated. Why are they paying for this publicity?”

I had a few minutes before my meeting, so I went to their website. I got my answer quickly: they’re having a capital campaign. I still had time, so I clicked on the History link in their sidebar. And that’s when I discovered there was more to this story.

In the days when colleges only admitted men, the Ladies Library Association was known as “college for women.” They founded the first library in Kalamazoo. They were the first women’s organization in the nation to gain the right to finance and own property.

Against all odds, the Kalamazoo Ladies Library Association imagined and worked for a future where women and men had equal rights. They were willing to dare, to dream and to risk to bring that future into being.

In Acts 16, we meet Lydia, a Gentile who worships the God of Israel. She shows up for prayers on the sabbath day, and hears Paul. She is so moved by Paul’s testimony about Jesus that she decides to be baptized, and her household with her. She is fully welcomed into the church, and she fully welcomes the church: she urges Paul and his companions to come stay with her while they are in town. Not long after, Paul and Silas are arrested for preaching Christianity. They are stripped, beaten with rods in public square, and locked in jail. As soon as they are released, they return to Lydia’s house. She must have quickly realized that being Christian comes with a cost.

The first Christians stuck with the mission they had received from Jesus: to welcome everyone who wanted to live in God’s way, and to teach them the ways of God. They didn’t let anything get in the way of that mission. Being arrested and beaten by the authorities? A minor setback, quickly overcome. Seeing that being Christian can get you thrown in prison? Yup, that comes with the territory.

Against all odds, the first Christians imagined and worked for a future where all knew the saving love of Jesus Christ. They were willing to dare, to dream and to risk to bring that future into being.

At some point in their past, the Ladies Library Association of Kalamazoo made a choice. They decided that preserving their heritage was just as important – or maybe more important – than their original mission. Why do I think so? Their logo includes a horse and carriage, not a woman reading a book. Their capital campaign is to restore their historic building. Once, they focused on creating a new future; now they appear satisfied to preserve a noble past.

On the wall of the Scottish Parliament are these words: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” That’s how Lydia and Paul and the apostles lived. As a result, you and I know about God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Once upon a time, that’s how the Ladies Library Association of Kalamazoo lived, and as a result, a better nation was born.

What would you do if you worked as if you lived in the early days of a better nation?

What would we do if we worked as if we lived in the early days of a better church?

Who Labors? Who Reaps? Who Gives the Growth?


IMG_1412During the recent Acts 8 Moment mission gathering in Scottsdale, we gathered each morning for worship and Eucharist at an outdoor chapel in the desert. Here’s the sermon from the second day of the confe
rence, preached by Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale.  (Readings: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29, Psalm 99, 1 Corinthians 3:5-11, John 4:31-38)

“I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.”

Cup A Joe was in innovator in the locally roasted coffee bean trade in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I grew up. The coffee shop sat on the college town main drag of Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, opposite North Carolina State University. It had two rooms, the more lively of which was a large space with room for a band or poetry readings in the corner, and whose white walls became yellow with cigarette smoke nearly instantaneously after it opened in 1992.

After my freshman year in college in Indiana, I came home to Raleigh. I spent nearly every night in that room, drinking coffee and chain smoking, hanging out with some high school friends who were also home for the summer, but just as often on my own.

Also hanging out at Cup A Joe that summer was another young man about my age, named Dave. Dave was some variety of evangelical Christian, and he was hanging out with an agenda. He was there to save souls.

Over the course of the summer, he and I struck up a sort of friendship. As a painfully shy but very opinionated atheist, I valued Dave because he was someone I could talk to and it was obvious what we would talk about. As I recall we mainly argued about evolution and homosexuality. I alerted him early on that his church probably didn’t want me anyway because I was gay. He made no apologies for his moral understanding of this aspect of my being, but assured me that his church wanted me very much.

I think Dave valued me because I represented a project. That because we remained in relationship and kept talking endlessly about matters of belief and unbelief, I was someone he could get to yes. I’m not aware of whether he belonged to one of the groups that keeps count of the number of souls saved, but as the summer ended, he did not get to add me to his tally. We parted ways, and for more than 15 years, I forgot all about him.

Dave came back to mind for me after the Act 8 gatherings at General Convention last year. The hopeful focus on growth and renewal led me to reexamine my own conversion to Christianity. I had what our Evangelical brothers and sisters would describe as a conversion experience in the fall of 1996. The details of that are not important to discuss today, but suffice to say that I have always described my conversion as happening at a singular moment.

But then, that’s not really true, is it?

Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

For endless hours, Dave remained in relationship with me. And perhaps even more than that, though it is subtler, my grandfather, who was a minister in the ELCA, listened patiently as his impetuous teenage grandson boldly questioned God’s existence. And more importantly, when I came armed for battle when I came out to him at 17, he gave me nothing to train my weapons on, merely offering me his love. It was only after he died a few years later that I learned he had written a book about the unchurched in the 1970s that included among its various concerns the church’s rejection of gay people.

Dave and my grandfather sowed, but they did not reap.

We in the church have now long been in the habit of reaping that for which we did not labor. In some respects this is appropriate. For new converts, for those just returning to the church, for those coming to the church who have been abused by other Christian traditions, a time of rest is appropriate. After witnessing the power of the resurrection, it’s ok to spare some time to sit on the shores of Galilee and let Jesus cook us breakfast.

But this is to strengthen us for what is ahead. Just so with what our forebears left us: our churches and organs and endowments and so on. The burden of them is grievous unto us in some measure because the world has changed, but in large part because of our own failings. We have reaped that for which we did not labor, but we have failed to labor ourselves.

I scarcely need to expand on this to this group. We recognize this. That is why we are here. Some of us have been awake to this for a long time. Some such as myself have only within the last couple years awoken from our slumber.

So Eldad and Medad started to prophesy, unauthorized, in the camp. What are we to say of this?

We have assembled here because we have a love for God’s church and we are prepared to make a commitment to planting, watering, laboring, and reaping.

Thank God that in this church of 3 million people, we ten are not the only ones.

As we work, as TREC works, as various bodies within our parishes and missions and dioceses work, if all we as God’s people are faithful, we should not be surprised to find new seeds starting to grow, and flowers turning to fruit. And they may not have anything to do with us.

These will be ideas maybe we had, or maybe wish we had. These may be things that popped up outside the usual chain of command (as indeed we have). We should be wary of getting too precise in measuring our own success.

We are doing important work, but we are not the only ones. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” says our Lord. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” says Moses.

Dave and my grandfather sowed seeds in me that they did not reap. Presumably they harvested other things. We will sow seeds that we will not reap. We will harvest some things for which we did not labor.

That’s all right. That’s as it should be.

Let us be faithful in planting, faithful in watering, and let us always remember that God gives the growth. Amen.

Why you can’t go home again, by Megan Castellan

Bp. Dan Edwards wrote a blog post back in December that’s been getting wide circulation recently.  It deals with the experience of folks who have stopped going to church (for whatever reason), then show up again, with less than hospitable results.  He gives several examples of church returnees who are passive-aggressively chastised or hazed as they re-enter the fold…only to decide never to enter that particular lion’s den again.

His hypothesis for why this happens:

Our gatekeepers know the people who used to worship with us, so they are better prepared with solid techniques to drive them away. A new person comes in the door. We don’t know him. It may take us awhile to find his vulnerabilities and drive him out. But the folks we know, we can kick out the door in a New York minute. Something else may be going on consciously. Maybe the church folks just don’t know good manners. Maybe there is some personal pathology at work – but it looks to me as if the church system that tries to keep everything the way it is, knows that to keep things stable you have to keep the outsiders outside – even the ones who used to be inside – maybe especially the ones who used to be inside.

 

That systemic pathology can always be trumped by Grace and Gospel.  That’s the good news. So maybe some of us want to live the Gospel graciously. If we truly want to offer spiritual support and nurture to the people who used to worship with us, and if we want to receive the spiritual support and nurture they may be bringing for us, here are a few simple suggestions:

 

First basic suggestion:

 

Instead of going out and trying to persuade all our ex-members to come back, we could just stop being jerks to the ones who come on their own. 

The entire post is excellent, and is here for further perusal.

Is this a phenomenon you’ve experienced in the church or seen occur?

As we seek to become a more Spirit-led, open and welcoming Body of Christ, what is the role of those who have lapsed (and how can we avoid jerk-like behavior towards them?)

 

 

A Contextual Look at Acts 8

Here at Saint Paul’s in Foley, we had a very positive Annual Meeting based on the model of an Acts 8 Gathering (You can read about it here).  The obvious question for us has become: Now what?  How do we capitalize on this momentum to further our little corner of the Kingdom of God?  This weekend, we’ll have our first opportunity as our vestry gathers in retreat where our Rector will invite us into another Acts 8 Moment (with a little Acts 6 thrown in for good measure).

Our second opportunity to dive into what it means to be a parish committed to mission and ministry based on the Church in Acts 8 will come this Lent as I lead our Annual Lenten Series, which this year is entitled, “Acts 8: how God does the impossible through is servants.”  As I began to plan our four sessions, I realized that while Acts 8 is a powerful turning point in the life of the early Church, the constant illusions to Saul and the Stephen affair mean that some context is absolutely necessary.  With that in mind, I’ve set our four topics as:

  1. The Martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:54-8:2a)
  2. The Church Scattered (Acts 8:2b-8)
  3. Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-39)
  4. Saul’s Conversion (Acts 9:1-21)

Life being what it is, I’m nowhere near as far along as I’d like to be 2 weeks removed from Ash Wednesday, but I hope to share my findings here on the Acts 8 blog along the way.  Today’s gem comes from an unlikely change agent, John R. W. Stott, in his concluding statement on the Stephen affair in his commentary on The Message of Acts in The Bible Speaks Today series:

“Stephen’s teaching, misunderstood as ‘blasphemy’ against the temple and the law, was that Jesus (as he himself had claimed) was the fulfillment of both.  Already in the OT God was tied to his people, wherever they were, not to buildings.  So now Jesus is ready to accompany his people wherever they go.  When soon Paul and Barnabas set out into the unknown on the first missionary journey, they will find (as Abraham, Joseph and Moses had found before them) that God is with them.  That is exactly what they reported on their return (14:27; 15:12).  Indeed, this assurance is indispensable to mission.  Change is painful to us all, especially when it affect our cherished building and custom, and we should not seek change merely for the sake of change.  Yet true Christian radicalism is open to change.  It knows that God has bound himself to his church (promising that he will never leave it) and to his word (promising that it will never pass away).  But God’s church means people not buildings, and God’s word means Scripture not traditions.  So long as these essentials are preserved, the buildings and the traditions can if necessary go.  We must not allow them to imprison the living God or to impede his mission in the world.” (p. 143)

I think I like where this study is going.  Stay tuned for more.

Acts 6? … by David Knight

David Knight is Interim Rector of St. James Episcopal Church, Jackson, MS.  This article originally appeared on his blog, Kanite.  

1consecThere is a group of us in the Episcopal church who gathered at General Convention, proclaiming an “Acts 8″ moment for the church.  A recent post on the Acts 8 website asked what questions GOEs (General Ordination Exams) SHOULD pose to show whether seminarians are ready for parish ministry. A good question.

It lead me to thinking more about the role of the Priest. I currently am serving as Interim Rector at the largest church in our Diocese. It’s an amazing place, incredibly busy with a great staff and some of the best people I’ve ever known in the congregation.

As their Interim I have learned a lot about the difference in being the Rector of a large church vs. a pastoral size one. Rector as CEO is the model it seems we’ve adopted for resource size parishes. We have 10 full time staff (including 3 Priests) and several other part timers. Managing staff, working on budget and finance, making daily decisions about use of facilites (ours are really nice and used constantly, 7 days a week), running meetings – this is the stuff of the CEO Rector.

And I wonder about the model….

Oft times clergy will make the comment, “well I didn’t learn that in seminary”. I certainly said that myself post-Hurricane Katrina. And the same is certainly true for the administrative skills asked of Rectors of large parishes. Fortunately I have had a lot of experience in the secular world managing staffs and other admin duties – but that’s not why I became a Priest! It’s part of the job, though, part of the expectations placed on Episcopal clergy (and other denominations certainly). And even though we have many, many Priests who are quite good at it, very competent in those areas, the question is not “can” they do it, but “should” they do it.

And please hear me clearly – this is not a whine! I love (LOVE) where I am right now and enjoy going to work every day, even with the headaches that are sure to come. I really mean that. However, that still does not mean we have this right. Do we just expect our clergy to have all those gifts – preaching, pastoral care, teaching, sacramental presence, and killer admin skills?

One thing I had promised myself 10 years ago when I was ordained, is that I would not be one of those preachers who waits until Saturday to write a sermon. And recognizing that only I can control my own calendar (in most cases) I am here to confess that is exactly the situation I find myself in most weeks. And I hate it. Now it’s true that I read the lectionary lessons early in the week, that I jot down ideas when they come to me, that I spend some reflection time on what to say, but it is now my typical week to write the sermon on Friday (my day off) or Saturday. This is unfair to my family and to me and really to my church. They need more than that from me, yet the administrative demands of a place like this, with Rector-as-CEO as the norm, has put me right where I swore I would never be. And I mean to change that. I love preaching. I love teaching. I don’t love not being able to give the amount of time required to do both well.

And to be brutally honest what has been pushed further on the back burner in my life than anything else has been the time I spend in prayer! That is obviously a recipe for disaster! Recognizing that, I began last week scheduling prayer time on my calendar (sad to think it takes such steps). Of course I pray at other times and pray often for and with parishioners and folks in need,  and that has not stopped. But dedicated time in prayer, alone with God, well frankly I have let other duties and obligations overshadow that time, and that MUST CHANGE.

In the 6th chapter of the book of Acts, the 12 disciples are faced with some administrative problems. There was a complaint that some groups of people in need were receiving more help than others. Instead of putting this on the vestry agenda or hiring a consultant or building a consensus for a best approach or even just making an administrative decision on how to correct the problem, the disciples call the whole congregation together and tell them, basically, this is not part of our job description. They say, “We should not give up preaching God’s message in order to serve at tables. My friends, choose seven men who are respected and wise and filled with God’s Spirit. We will put them in charge of these things. We can spend our time praying and serving God by preaching.”

Now this may sound like the disciples felt those duties were beneath them. That’s not the case when you see the type of people they wanted to step up to the task. Instead, the disciples recognize what their true role was, what their gifts were, and what God had called them to spend their time on – praying and preaching.

There’s a model for ya!

Some of this is economic in nature. Rectors of most of our largest churches are paid quite well. With that salary comes the expectation, of course, that they will be the chief administrator, the CEO of the parish. I wonder if some of them have managed to move the admin stuff to someone else on staff? I would love to hear about that.

And please hear this – this is in no way saying that Rectors / Vicars of smaller churches don’t get strapped with tons of “non-seminary-trained” stuff. The priests in those places have to wear a LOT of hats, from plumber to pastor and everything in between, including “waiting on tables”. This question applies equally to them.

I am blessed to be at a big church that not only has a great staff, but we also have dedicated lay folks who work very hard with me on budget and finance and other administrative matters. Even so, the Acts 6 message keeps whispering in my ear. Is there a better way? A way that makes more sense to the call and gifts we each have? This is not about being “good at” something. It’s mostly about roles and expectations and how to best allocate the most precious resource we all have – time.

I don’t know. I hope so. Meanwhile, St. James’ folks – here is my promise to you. For the remainder of my time with you, dedicated prayer time, work on sermons and Bible studies and Inquirer’s classes will not be last on my agenda, they will be first (along with pastoral care and the like). You deserve that from me. And I know and understand the current expectations regarding the administrative tasks and they will not be neglected. Most of all, from time to time you will be unable to reach me because I will be praying – in the chapel, in my office, on a walk. I believe I will be a better priest for it.

Altar Guild or Alter Guild? … by Sara Fischer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike a lot of Episcopal churches, ours has an Altar Guild which, like those in most Episcopal churches, consists of a shrinking handful of faithful folk who polish silver, wash and stretch linens, clean candlesticks, tidy, dust, arrange flowers, set up and clean up for Sunday services as well as every wedding and funeral that comes along, and a hundred other things you and I don’t want to know about.

Like a lot of Episcopal churches, we acknowledge that the Altar Guild is a time-honored tradition and provides a necessary service, but—like others—we have a shortage of people willing to serve.

Like a lot of Episcopal churches, we have a not insignificant number of church members, both within and outside of the Altar Guild, who write “Alter Guild” instead of “Altar Guild.” This used to annoy me. Especially coming from people on the Altar Guild. But then, during a week of particular stress and conflict, brought about by the very real scarcity of people equipped and motivated to do the work of the Altar Guild, I started to wonder if an “Alter Guild” might be exactly what we need.

The majority of people in our congregation are under forty. Those who grew up in the Episcopal Church have memories of their mothers’ or, more likely, their grandmothers’ work on the Altar Guild of their childhood. No matter how many times I share from the chancel steps that setting up the altar for worship is one of the best kept secrets of joyful ministry in the church, our congregation has no interest. Nor should they. They’ve got jobs and kids and lives. They’re happy with the mystery of the sacrament; that’s why they’re here. The 40-somethings in our community are stretched even more thin than their younger peers, and the 50+ folks are either already on the altar guild or overcommitted in other parish ministries. Or in the case of some, they’re simply getting too old and frail to serve in that way.

So recently I’ve been thinking: perhaps what we need is an Alter Guild. A guild that helps those of us who do understand the very real behind-the-scenes needs, to open up our imaginations to what could be. Isn’t that what we’re all called to do as followers of Jesus in the twenty-first century?

So the first job of the Alter Guild might be to dream up a way to get the church ready for the sacramental highlights of our common life without the scarcity-drama that plagues our and many other liturgical communities. What else might be the Alter Guild do? Crowd-source the Annual Report? Flash-mob the Christmas Pageant? Craft a choral hip-hop sermon? A Monty Python-inspired stewardship campaign?

What must we keep, in order to be faithful, and what must we let go of, in order to be faithful? Or, to put it another way, what would you do with a cracker-jack parish-wide Alter Guild?

Preemptive poetry…by Megan Castellan

It’s a bit early for this, but it is nearly Epiphany, and I thought this very appropriate for our Acts 8 journeying.
Enjoy, and have a blessed and peaceful Epiphany season.

The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The Burnout Season … by Susan Brown Snook

My Facebook feed is full of people making cheery New Year’s resolutions.  Exercise!  Pray!  Write scintillating articles!  Read the Bible in a year!  Get more rest!  Take long hikes!  Take a Sabbath each week!  Bike 10 miles a day!  Do good deeds to change the world!

I am all admiration for these amazing ambitions.  I just have one question: where do you get the energy?  Especially for those of you who are worn-out, maxed-out post-Christmas clergy like me.  Really?  You can make plans for the future?  It was all I could do to get myself to church on time last Sunday.

Admitted, my Advent this year was more taxing than ever before: after an intense two years of planning, fundraising, and preparing, our congregation moved to a wonderful new building on December 9, with our Grand Opening service on December 16, followed in short order by, you know, Christmas.  Moving into a new church building involves an incredible amount of work, from unpacking boxes to deciding on placement of art to completely re-training the ushers, altar guild, chalicists, acolytes and lectors.  And then re-adjusting everything when it doesn’t work out quite right the first Sunday.  Tell me again about peaceful waiting in Advent?  Sleepy-polar-bear

But it’s not just me and my situation – there are times when all clergy and lay church leaders fall into exhaustion, when we don’t have the energy to think ahead, when one more hospital visit, meeting, or liturgy feels like it might just drive us over the edge.  Not to mention having zero energy left over for getting out into the community and reaching new people in new ways, where they are rather than where the church is.  I believe in doing these things!  But how do I do them when I am exhausted?

I have to add that it’s not just clergy who find themselves burned out.  I had a ten-year career in public accounting, and I got plenty burned out then, too.  I have lots of parishioners who work just as hard as I do, and some who work harder for lower pay.  We clergy shouldn’t fall into a poor-me trap of thinking we are uniquely put-upon.  Think about public school teachers if you want to consider a noble, service-oriented, hardworking, and vastly underpaid profession!  But I guess I somehow believed when I embarked upon this career that serving Jesus would make me more joyful, less stressful than serving my accounting clients was.  And it does, most of the time.  But then there come those times of exhaustion.

And oh yes – those times hit Jesus, too.  Witness the gospel stories of Jesus retiring to a secluded place to pray, and being followed by the crowds.  He seemed to react the same way I do – sighing and then pleasantly doing what the crowds required.  I’m not much like Jesus, most of the time – but I certainly identify with him in the stories where he is worn-out and stressed.

So that’s the question, Gentle Reader.  How do we replenish ourselves in times like this? How do we keep on leading our congregations in accomplishing Christ’s mission – that mission we have devoted our professional lives to, in which we passionately believe – when we feel like empty, burned-out vessels, with very little left to give?  Where do we find the spiritual reserves to do that joyful, life-transforming mission that we are called to do?

This article originally appeared on Susan’s personal blog, A Good and Joyful Thing.

By the waters of?….by Megan Castellan

This week on my blog, I wrote about listening to David Kinnamon speak on the Barna Group’s survey of young adults and their attitudes towards Christianity and the church.  The survey results are one thing, much of them found here and elsewhere on the Barna site. The analysis of the results is another thing.

When Kinnamon was talking about where the church found itself, he paralleled the Church’s current situation to that of the Jewish exiles in Babylon: a group of the faithful, devoted to God, but surrounded by a hostile, alien culture.  The exiles had been sent to Babylon to be purified by God, and now their job was to remain faithful, and to avoid giving in to the world around it.  They were to plant gardens, and work for the good of the Babylonian cities, but mainly, their job was to survive unscathed until God sent them home to Israel.
 I tweeted at the time (a tweet that I think the speaker saw, actually.  High-five,  Twitter auto-locate function!) that something was bothering me about the Babylon analogy.  I continued to ponder it, and I finally figured out what it was.
Aside from my innately Anglican dislike of the absolute culture vs Christianity dichotomy, I think there’s a real misread here of what the Babylonian Exile was, and where we are positioned as 21st Century Christians.
The Jews in 586 BCE were violently conquered and dragged from their homes on the threat of death by Babylon.  The temple in Jerusalem was ransacked and burned.  This all caused a religious crisis so deep that most of the prophetic literature in the Hebrew canon revolves around it, if not most of the Hebrew canon itself.  Next to the Exodus from Egypt, it was the single defining event of Jewish history.  (And you could possibly argue that the Exodus, to large extent, gets read in light of the Exile.)
When the Jews ended up in Babylon, and in the diaspora, it was basically that, or die.  Jeremiah doesn’t recommend planting gardens, building houses, and working for cities’ prospering because gardening is fun; he recommends it so that the exiles don’t die.  This is a life and death situation, quite literally. Esther saves her people from a genocide.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego are thrown into the fire so that they will die, as consequence of being on the wrong side of Babylon.
Contrast this to the situation of Christians in 21st century America.  While I recognize that this is meant to be an extended metaphor, I’d like to point out that we aren’t being killed, neither are we being forcibly prevented from worshipping as we choose.  A majority of Americans self-identify as Christian; this number includes the President, all but three of the nine Supreme Court justices, and a full 86% of the US Congress.  People who identify as Christian do not lack access to the levers of power in this country.  The disappearance of Christendom doesn’t come from a lack of power; it stems from a lack of authority.  And authority in the 21st century derives from authenticity: to what degree we live up to what we preach and teach–a very, very different thing from raw power.
What we’re experiencing now is pluralism–one claim among many–not the experience of an oppressed minority.
And so I’m left wondering: what Biblical metaphor is better than Babylon?  We talk about the Acts community a lot around here (for obvious reasons) but are there others?  Paul’s community at Corinth?  Abraham in Genesis?
What metaphor speaks to you about living in pluralism?