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)

Fearless Evangelism … by Charles LaFond

Charles LaFond, the Canon for Congregational Life in the Diocese of New Hampshire, has created a Plenary Address on evangelism for his diocese’s Evangelism Institute. We will be running a 9-part series of excerpts from his address over the next few weeks. Check out Charles’ blog for the full text. And check out the Diocese of New Hampshire’s Evangelism Toolkit, on its website.

Encouragement is a gift from one person to another. It sometimes comes gratefully received such as in the case of one friend encouraging another friend in the midst of a hard season of life – a divorce perhaps, or diagnosis of disease. Encouragement can also be offered, but difficult to receive.

Encouragement may be resisted when it is encouraging us to do something difficult, painful or of new early, new, healthy habit-formation. In my role as the pastor of a congregation, my “encouragement” of a person working through the joys of preparing for a marriage is often well-received. Pastoral encouragement is to provide courage to another by standing with them with a particular awareness that God is at work. My “pastoral encouragement” of a person making a pledge of money or time or effort may not be so well received. It may even be rejected a few times before it is finally accepted for what it is – just help in doing a hard or new thing.

Similarly, the Come and See Membership Growth Ministry requires pastoral encouragement. It may be well-received. It may also face some resistance. We naturally desire to invite people to “Come and See” what gives us joy and peace, connection and meaning, comfort and help. We do this inviting out of both a sense of wanting to share our joy in having found a pearl of great price; as well as out of an act of obedience to a Gospel and a Savior for which and for whom the invitation is a command.

So how do we encourage each other in evangelism? How do we help people to do Come and See Membership Growth Ministry for whom there are both feelings of joy and anticipation at the idea of sharing good news while also feeling fear or dread at the work of reaching out and being vulnerable to a “no?”

When working inside and outside our diocese, I often encounter resistance to Evangelism as a term, a notion and a task. Clergy will say that their congregations don’t like the word “evangelism” and I can understand that resistance. But I also know that the role of a leader is to lead. The effective leader listens to the fears of the people they are seeking to lead – then seeks to understand what is behind those fears and then works to gently and firmly guide those same people into new (even uncomfortable) functions.

Ideally, we share the gospel with others by telling our stories of grace and inviting others to come and see our church community – that tent of meeting in which we find grace. But gently encouraging us behind the joy is a command, not a suggestion. “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.” I would so like to think that I do all the things I need to do out of the love and joy of Christ…but being human…sometimes I need a good, old-fashioned command to get me off the dime!

So we are going to discuss that hard work of leadership in evangelism. The Come and See Membership Growth Campaign Manual is on line. The manual and the 7 minute video summary can be found here.

But once one HAS the manual IN HAND…what then?

The process of managing the campaign is simple and explained in detail with supporting model samples of documents to be used along the way. The problem is not how to manage the program. The problem is how to manage the process of using the program. It is that preparatory process of engaging a sometimes resistant congregation or faction of a congregation that we will discuss today.

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

The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond is the Canon for Congregational Life in the Diocese of New Hampshire.

Trust in the slow work of God, by Victoria Logue

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, really speaks to me this week:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Beta Testers, by Susan Snook

It’s not really news to say that things have changed since the halcyon days of the 1960s, when eager young men flocked to seminaries, graduated to comfy curacies, went on to prestigious associate positions, and ended up ensconced as cardinal rectors.

The Diocese of Connecticut recently suspended its ordination process while it reconsidered ordination for a new time.  Now, it has released new guidelines for a “provisional” process.  Candidates will be “participant observers” or “beta testers.”  They should be “uniquely able to thrive in the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty, and … uniquely open to the creative possibilities of doing discernment and formation in new and uncharted ways.”

Here is how Connecticut sums up the contemporary church scene:

The church in general and the Episcopal Church in particular are facing great challenges as they seek to adapt to the realities of the 21st Century. Church attendance is no longer culturally mandatory. Competition on Sunday mornings is fierce. Denominational loyalty is increasingly a thing of the past. Christianity exists alongside a plethora of other faith traditions. Biblical literacy can no longer be presumed.

These and other realities have had a profound impact on the nature and shape of the priesthood. The old mid-20th Century bargain – that if one graduates from seminary and successfully navigates the ordination process, a lifetime of full-time parish ministry is virtually assured – no longer holds. Neither does a system in which newly-minted priests have the option of apprenticing under seasoned ones. Clergy positions are shrinking, in number and in scope, as financially-strapped parishes seek to stretch their resources. These trends are exacerbated in a diocese such as ours where every town has its own parish and many have more than one. At the same time, our parishes are becoming increasingly diverse, culturally as well as demographically. And we are discovering anew that “the church” does not exist for itself, but rather to do God’s work in the world.

 

As I read the diocese’s summary of conditions in the 21st century church, I am struck by a couple of things.  First, Connecticut’s assessment of our situation is true, there is no doubt.  I don’t think it would be helpful at all NOT to take a good hard look at where the church finds itself these days, and it certainly isn’t helpful to go on preparing 1962-style priests for the world of 2012.

But second, what I like about Connecticut’s assessment is not its harsh look at reality, but that it finds at least a few reasons for new hope – increased diversity and more outward focus on God’s work in the world.  These are good things.  Times are harder for the church now than in 1962, it is true.  But I think that’s good for the church.  Who wants to be a leader in a church where attendance is “culturally mandatory”?  Where people attend because they’ve always been Episcopalians, and you know, the Episcopal Church is where all the best people go?  Where the work of Christian education is already done for us by school and society?

I think today’s church is a much more exciting place to be a leader.  Most of the newcomers finding their way to my church these days are people who have been away from any church for a long, long time.  They have questions, they have doubts, they have hurts.  Yet they are spiritually hungry and they want to know where God is in their lives.  I love watching lives transformed by the power of the gospel, especially in our rich Episcopal tradition.

The whole premise of Acts 8 is that the church is not yet ready for hospice – we are not preparing for a long and graceful goodbye.  We are instead in a time when old ways are dying, but that the Holy Spirit is looking to scatter us out into uncharted territory, like the Spirit whisked Philip out into Samaria, the road to Gaza, and Azotus in Acts 8.  In going to new places and new people, the church will find new ways to proclaim the good news of Christ.

 

5:08 p.m. Pray for the Church, by Frank Logue

It shouldn’t startle me, but it always does. The loud crowing of a rooster each day ay 5:08 p.m. The alarm on my wife’s phone has the crowing sound set to go off each day at the same time to remind us to pray for the church. Though I am not always with her at eight minutes after five, an 8:30-4:30 workday and a mile commute home means I am often around for rooster’s always startling call. Sometimes we are at home talking about how our days went. Sometimes he catches us running errands. Sometimes the phone was left at the other end of our apartment and he won’t stop until one of us picks up the phone and dimisses the alarm. Each day, the rooster’s insistent crowing tells us once more that it is time for for us to pray for the the church to be roused to prayerful discernment and action.

Why 5:08? For Acts 8. Acts is the fifth book of the New Testament and then eight for the chapter in which the church responded to a culture hostile to the Gospel with greater faithfulness.

Praying changes the one who prays and I am finding the daily time of prayer for the Church to have the impact of keeping me focused on this Acts 8 Moment in a way I would not otherwise. I pray for inspiration. I pray for discernment. I pray for others to join us. I pray for us all to have the courage to go where the Holy Spirit will send us. I pray for the Church in expectancy. Each day when the rooster crows, I am reminded that we are in a moment pregnant with potential, and I hope for a Church up for being the Body of Christ to a lost and hurting world.

How much I must criticize you, my church
and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone
and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.

I should like to see you destroyed
and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal
and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything
more compromised, more false,
yet never have I touched anything
more pure, more generous and more beautiful.

—Carlo Carretto (1910-1988)

Once you were in darkness, but … by Nurya Love Parish

There is no doubt that, as Susan Brown Snook recently wrote, it is not restructuring that will save us, but reawakening.  Indeed, in Jim Collins’ book How the Mighty Fall (relevant reading for mainline clergy), he notes that restructuring initiatives are often part of the process of decline.

Reawakening means recognizing that even though we do need to restructure, our life in Christ depends on much more. It includes a certain level of holy indifference: If we live, we live to the Lord… if we die, we die to the Lord… so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:8) It includes a willingness to discern what is true, and look the truth in the face. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.   (Ephesians 5:8-10)

As a member of the search team for our next bishop in the Diocese of Western Michigan, I’ve been studying the data about our diocese. When our profile is published early next month, our major findings will be shared with the world… including our next bishop, whomever he or she may be.

Our data includes both challenging and encouraging facts about our life together. On one hand, only about half of our churches can afford a full-time priest. Even our largest congregations are not the size that are generally considered “resource parishes” – large enough to have resources to share. On the other hand, despite the recent financial downturn, average giving to annual operating budgets of churches held steady across the diocese. Most of our congregations have at least six months of operating funds in savings.

Facts matter, because without facts we cannot make wise choices. It is by wise choices, “pleasing to the Lord,” we may thrive to minister for years to come. Facts serve us well when we see them in their proper place: as servants of our mission to make disciples of Christ and minister to the world in His name. We may not always like the facts before us, but as disciples of Christ we cannot fail to acknowledge them, recognizing that no fact – indeed, nothing at all – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This post is excerpted from Nurya Love Parish’s blog, Plainsong Farm.  Read the full post here.

The Rev. Nurya Love Parish is Associate Priest at St. Andrew’s, Grand Rapids and Communications liaison for the Diocese of Western Michigan Bishop Search Team.  She blogs for www.buildfaith.org, an online Christian education community, and at her own blog, www.plainsongfarm.com. She welcomes your thoughts in response to this article at nuryaloveparish at gmail.com.

Synchronicity, by Frank Logue

As God is doing a new thing in and through The Episcopal Church, we shouldn’t be surprised to see many people reaching similar conclusions all across the church with no evident common source other than the Holy Spirit. This summer at the General Convention, the move for an Acts 8 Moment—in which we stopped to pray, to study the Bible together, to discern, and to dream—was not the only outward and visible sign that something is afoot. The Episcopal Evangelism Network was also present at the General Convention for the first time and there is definitely a connection between the groups. Here is a brief description of EEN from the group’s website

EEN is a network of Episcopalians and friends called to the practice of progressive evangelism and contextual mission. Our passion is for equipping, supporting and networking individuals and congregations desiring to start new Episcopal spiritual communities, to renew existing ones, and to develop new forms of and approaches to evangelistic mission. We have faith that the church’s desire for such renewal and growth is part of a broad-based missionary movement that the Holy Spirit is kindling in and through the Episcopal Church.

At one level, I share in the connection as I was at Trinity Wall Street in May for the Episcopal Evangelism Network’s Missional Development Consultation. I came to the convention excited that others would experience the breath of fresh air that is the work EEN has been doing in progressive evangelism. This was covered well in a recent Episcopal Digital Network article ‘Want Prayer?’ Progressive lay evangelists take church to the streets. EEN is also moving forward with a Missional Development Conference to be held September 20-22 at General Theological Seminary in New York.

In another odd connection, I read with interest the last inerview of Cardinal Carlo Martini who challenged his own Roman Catholic Church saying in part:

Where are the individuals full of generosity, like the Good Samaritan? Who have faith like that of the Roman centurion? Who are as enthusiastic as John the Baptist? Who dare new things, as Paul did? Who are faithful as Mary Magdalene was? I advise the Pope and the bishops to look for twelve people outside the lines for administrative posts–people who are close to the poorest and who are surrounded by young people and are trying out new things. We need that comparison with people who are on fire so that the spirit can spread everywhere.

Synchronicity was Carl Jung’s term for the experience that events which seem to be unrelated, serendipitous or random, may be meaningfully connected. I see this in Acts 8, the Episcopal Evangelism Network, and even these words from Cardinal Martini and so am looking to find what else the Holy Spirit is bubbling up out there across the church. We don’t have to create the new thing. We just need to notice where the Holy Spirit is bubbling up, pray and discern our place in it and hop on board.

For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun!
Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
—Isaiah 43:19