"Calvary" ...a case of misplaced atonement

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

The striking austerity and dramatic contrasts of the Irish coast landscape is the setting for this remarkable film. Like the dangerous beauty of Sligo County, Ireland, this film is a masterful study in the juxtaposition of gentleness and violence, humor and seriousness, life and death, sin and forgiveness.

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is the seemingly gentle priest of a Roman Catholic parish in this rural Irish village by the sea. In the confessional, during the opening scene, an unidentified parishioner tells Father James of his repeated and merciless childhood abuse by a now deceased priest. Father James is then told that he has one week to get his affairs in order before the parishioner will kill him. Father James is to be the sacrificial atonement for the sins of an abusive priest and the neglect of the church to successfully address child abuse on a large scale. We do not know the identity of the threatening parishioner, but it doesn’t really matter. This film is not a “who-dun-it” (or is going to do it) but rather a well-crafted glimpse into the depth of the human heart where both love and hate reside.

calvary.jpeg“Calvary,” beautifully directed by John Michael McDonagh, may be one of the ways Ireland is trying to heal from such a catastrophic breach of trust. The church is more part of the social fabric of Ireland than nearly any other country. The church runs the schools, hospitals, and other social welfare agencies that in other countries are operated by local or state governments.

The struggles of faith in “Calvary” are bluntly visible in the lives of the sometimes comical, but tragically vulnerable people of the village. Yet the priest stays aloof, and demonstrates none of his own vulnerability as he attempts to address questions of faith posed to him by the people. We watch as he experiences this same distancing by a church superior to whom he has gone for advice regarding the threat to his life. As Father James explains the threat, the bishop noisily licks his fingers and gives more attention to the delectable edible in front of him than he gives to Father James, who, by the way, doesn’t seem to notice. No wonder Father James is aloof with his own parishioners, he has a good mentor.

After the threat to his life and his visit to the superior, Father James maintains his “business-as-usual” routine, visiting parishioners and gently confronting them with their sinful behaviors, all the while maintaining a profoundly subtle detachment from them that appears as impenetrable as the seaside rocky cliffs they all inhabit. He mourns the loss of his dog in solitude, we see him pray only in solitude, his decisions are made in solitude. No surprise that the parishioners are non-pulsed as they watch the church burn. It appears there is no tended community of the faithful and it is this aloofness that permeates the relationships between the priest and the people and ultimately between the priest and God.

Calvary, also known as Golgotha or the Place of the Skull, is believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Christ and it is in this contemporary Calvary that Brendan Gleeson (Fr. James) and a fine supporting cast, show us the changing social circumstances of practicing religion in the context of a society that appears to have little use for it.

For Fr. James it’s his own passion week complete with blessing bread and wine, harsh words, flawed characters, and his own agony in the garden (well, actually it’s in a pub). There are acts of violence against the church and its priest. But it’s clear that gospel values of goodness, mercy and non-violence are respected as is the gospel story of an innocent victim atoning for the sins of others.

Even with all that, forgiveness appears to transcend the contemporary social context and remain as a common denominator in the language of faith.

“Calvary” should be seen by most anyone who has served in parish leadership, or been the recipient of or given pastoral care. Victims of clergy sexual abuse, however, may wish to consult their therapist before seeing this.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints-Pontiac, Michigan and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.

Traditional versus ... Growth?

by Rie Linton

The website Patheos.org posted an article on August 17, 2013 written by David Murrow entitled “Why Traditional Churches Should Stick With Traditional Worship”. The article was very well-written and talked about a church that attempts to be inclusive to all varieties of those worshipping. Once a month it has a more contemporary service and the music is “Praise” anthems accompanied by a guitar.

The writer mentioned that most in the congregation do not know these hymns and few sing along, even with the aid of a giant screen that lowers with the words on it. The writer also said the guitarist did not keep a steady rhythm. Interestingly, one of his compliments about this church [which is not his home parish but is a parish in the town where he and his wife live] was that “the people are friendly, but not overly so”.

Mr. Murrow distinguishes between the praise anthems and hymns so perhaps I should first point out that any song sung during the church service can qualify as a hymn. The national church has directives and each diocesan bishop employs these as he or she sees fit but basically, if a song has been approved to be a part of the Eucharist, it qualifies as a hymn. Apparently the writer is one of the few who attends a church where the entire congregation sings. I can assure him that this is not the norm. Also, rhythms change so the accompanist follows the music and contemporary music has syncopation.

Perhaps I should state at this juncture that Gregorian chants are one of my most favorite forms of music. I also do a mean calligraphy copy of some of the earliest printed music so I am not one to want every Eucharist to be a U2charist. That said, I did arrange and direct one of the first folk masses performed in Province IV way back in the early part of the 1970’s. As a youth minister, the youth group wanted to do something for the parish and they wanted to do a folk mass. Most were neither musicians nor singers but their sincerity and faith made the service a beautiful experience for all.

The writer of this piece compares a church to a radio station and encourages the church to stay within its “genre”, to “do what you do best”. He concludes by stating: “What has this got to do with men? Guys appreciate a quality worship service — but they are not very forgiving of anything hokey or half-baked.”

Liturgical composer and acclaimed folk mass historian Ken Canedo traces the roots of the folk mass back to Gregorian chant, although it received the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican II. It began in the Roman Catholic Church and slowly grew in popularity and acceptance. Gospel songs became upbeat and rearranged as churches opened their doors to all of God’s children, not a select few of a particular color or social status or neighborhood.


The writer asked “What has this got to do with men?” Fortunately for mankind, the worship service is not about perfection nor is it only for men. The focus isn’t even humankind. The Eucharist is about God and connecting with Him, recognizing the history and elements of our faith and denominational doctrine. It is a time of meditation, confession, supplication, appreciation, and connection.

Hebrews 12: 1-2 compares a spiritual life to running a race. One gets nowhere in a race by standing still or doing the same thing over and over again. Amos and Malachi also address the issue of stagnant churches and stagnant believers. We are all very lucky that God is open to change and forgiving, since many of our daily attempts at living can end up “hokey or half-baked”.

Where would we be today if medicine had decided not to try new things, new procedures, and new cures? How comfortable would we be in our churches if we had none of the advantages of the Industrial Revolution? How many people would come to coffee hour if you had to brew it over an open fire because there was no electricity? I have worshipped in historic churches dating back to the 1730’s. They are lovely with their box pews, etc. They are also chilly, drafty, and the candles needed for light are a great fire hazard.

When we resist learning new things, we limit ourselves. When we limit ourselves, we limit God. No one is born knowing the Nicene Creed or Lord's Prayer. We had to learn it to love it. When we learn to appreciate the language and music of all God's children, then we will love our neighbors as ourselves. Religion may be traditional but we are called to be contemporary in living our faith. It’s called growth.


Rie Linton is a professional musician and conductor, writer, graphic artist, community family values educator and child advocate, a lifelong Episcopalian who has served as Girls Friendly leader, EYC advisor, church school director/teacher, ECW officer, church musician, EfM journeyer, and member of the Order of Daughters of the King. She hosts the blog n2myhead, is currently developing a curriculum on Diversity and lives in Huntsville, AL.

The Lord Provides

by Will Hocker

Reflection on Genesis 22.1-14 for Transgender, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Pride Day

On Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Pride Day — or as some of we older, crotchety minsters of the Good News like to call it — Queer Liberation Day, I can only think to tell you what a queer little boy I was. My parents traveled a lot with their work. When I was free from school on holidays and during those gloriously endless summers-

Remember those?!

They really don’t make those any more, do they?

Anyway. When I was not in school I’d travel the Midwest and the Northeast with my parents. My favorite thing to do as got to be 11 or 12 years old was to find a cathedral or large church that was open through the week.

They don’t make those anymore, either.

So. I’d find a church.

My dad took me several times to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland, Ohio. You know, I’d get there for the 12:10 mass. Then, I’d sit and say the rosary. The side altars beckoned. I never missed the Lady Chapel. Beautiful. Mary standing on an altar of white marble, looking - you know - both perfect and perfectly empty. Above it, the rose window with a dove at its center. That Holy Spirit. Always roosting. Eternally engaged. Always ready to engage anew.

I wanted to be Mary.

No. Not a girl. Not a woman. I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to stop sinning. I wanted my heart to be white as snow, as were both Mary’s heart and her marble. I wanted there to be room only for God in my heart.

I think my joy in the beauty of church art and architecture had something to do with its otherworldliness. It’s not here and now-ness.

Oh. No. A big ol’ Protestant Church just wouldn’t have cut it with me. No iconography.

No out loud, in your face beyond-ness.

Being of this world just seemed so, you know…dangerous. All those sins. Hundreds of them, right? At least to a 12 year old.

Not surprisingly within a year or two of this time, I was quite aware of my gayness. Painfully aware, mostly. Yet I had imagination. I hoped for romance. For a boyfriend.

There was a great Time or Newsweek magazine cover photograph in the early 1970’s of two clasped male hands. It took my breath away. This new idea that gay might be good. That I might be God’s perfect intention, God’s perfect joy, despite how utterly despicable I felt. I would have given away everything to be not who I was.

Except…..There was this boy…..Terry Kavanagh.
___

I don’t know about you. But, I usually can’t get beyond being appalled that Abraham risks his son’s life for God. Abraham, for all we can tell, soon will take his son’s life in order to demonstrate to God his love for God. Abraham is willing to give it all up for God.

We hear first that Abraham “…chopped wood for the burnt offering and started on his journey to the place which God had indicated to him.” Then, we hear that, “On the 3rd day, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.”

So the first seeing is in Abraham’s mind’s eye. In God’s mind’s eye. The next we hear, Abraham finally sees this place way off in the distance. When Abraham finally arrives, he’s already made it. Even though he doesn’t know that yet. Abraham was not led astray by God. Even in such a queer arrangement: to kill his own son.

I am quite pleased to discover, if only deeply so in my older age, that God does not lead us astray. If only we stop working to behave well. If only we begin listening to the Holy Spirit, who swoops down from the rose window to reside in our very own heart.

The Rev. Will Hocker is pediatric staff chaplain at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital San Francisco, comforter and provocateur, leaning into the interruption of the Gospel.

Overcoming xenophobia ... a Biblical and movie theme

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

Food fights can get pretty messy, but this film, produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey is one Dreamworks product where the mess is downplayed and overcome by personal dignity, unspoken forgiveness and a “can’t we all just get along” appearance where food is the common denominator.

Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) and Oprah Winfrey (“Their Eyes were Watching God”) recently produced this film that, in a small, but significant way, belies what many filmgoers think of as their professional commitment to truth-telling and advocacy for justice.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” for all appearances is a light hearted film that amicably deals with dueling culture foodies.

Set in an idyllic village in southern France, the Kadam family, displaced from India with a son, Hassan (Manish Dayal) who is cast as an ingénue chef, settle across the road from a well established, Michelin-starred French restaurant run by officious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The “immigrants” from India, (although no tasteful French village would overtly label them as such) go about setting up an Indian cuisine restaurant within 100 feet of the established French restaurant.

The film is about the courage and faith it takes for these political immigrants to seek asylum and start over in a new country and the courage for people to welcome “the stranger” into the stayed and comfortable lives of their communities. It is about the ridicule and violence that can be wrought by “respectable people”. And it is about speaking up (or not) about the sins of omission when people of faith witness injustice and racism. To say the least, Madame Mallory could have raised a big stink in the community about the ugly writing on the front wall of the Kadam’s restaurant.

Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat”) directs a luscious production with a superb soundtrack, though some of the colorful sets were a bit Disney-esque. And he seems to gloss over the racial antagonism that the Kadam family faces as they start a new life in a new country.

Yet some will see this movie taking its place with “Chocolat” (2000), “What’s Cooking?” (2000), or “The Mistress of Spices” (2005), in using food as a way of tackling xenophobia. Others will see this as a predictable “feel good movie” neglecting the flat out racism and subtle classism. They will need to settle for the romance, the success of Hassan, the turn around of Mdm. Mallory, the lovely food, the beautiful photography and the picturesque setting.

But we can’t help but wonder, given Winfrey’s and Spielberg’s history of strong stands for justice and righteousness, if they have settled for subtlety in action.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints, Pontiac, Michigan, and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and a former broadcast news executive.

Why I Believe in God and Not in Santa Claus

by Kathleen Staudt

A piece by T.M. Luhrmann in a recent issue of the Sunday NY Times pointed out that we often clarify our faith commitments by identifying the things that we really don’t believe. That is why arguments between “heresies” and “orthodoxies” can be clarifying (so long, I would say, as they don’t involve politics and violence as they so often have in history). I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately about what it means to be what I consider to be a reasonable person who is also a person of committed Christian faith – something a lot of people around me seem to find anomalous. Maybe it will help to try to explain a little about what I don’t believe. Perhaps the best place to start is to say that I believe in God, and I pray regularly and joyfully, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus. Nor do I believe in a God who is anything like Santa Claus. Here are some things, following from that, that I don’t believe:

1. I don’t believe that God is always “making a list and checking it twice,” judging us for every mistake and misstep and condemning us for things that our social group would also condemn us for (not being a good person, however that is defined.). I do believe in a God that in some mysterious way desires our thriving and calls us to be our best selves. That’s a different kind of relationship than the Big Brother God who is always watching to see if we have slipped up and expects us to be sorry all the time.

2. I don’t believe that God gives us what we want if only we’re good enough, pray the right way, find the right words. The whole question of why good and bad things happen is, to me, a mystery. I believe that God is in it but I don’t understand it. It is at best magical thinking – left over from childhood – to believe that I can somehow by my good behavior force the universe to do things the way I want them to be done. On the other hand, I do believe that the resources of Scripture and religious traditions and practice give us some clues about how to seek the will of God in some situations, and align ourselves with that – that is behind my own practice of intercessory prayer, a mysterious practice which in my experience does sometimes seem to bear fruit in a powerful way. But I don’t pretend to understand how.

3. I don’t believe that when bad things happen it is because I or someone else has been bad and deserves punishment. That seems to me like a very magical and limited idea – that I can control the universe by my behavior. On the other hand, the religious tradition I have embraced does include many stories of actions that have bad consequences. Usually the stories wind up being stories about the divine mercy – God ultimately returning and restoring the balance that human beings have upset. That story gives me hope.

4. I don’t believe that the Bible is in any sense the literal, dictated word of God, but I do believe that it is “Scripture’ in the sense of giving us a privileged record of human experiences of God that still has much to teach us today. I wish more people knew more about the context and background of the Biblical stories. In my experience, the more I know, the more the stories speak of the mystery of a God – the God of all the Abrahamic traditions – who keeps trying to get through to us, who has some kind of stake in human history and human moral life, and keeps on inviting human beings to grow into their fullest and best selves, despite mighty resistance and ugliness that often comes from the human side. They are stories, giving shape to something that is beyond story and history, but they are a way into the mystery, for me.

5. I don’t believe that people who don’t believe in Christianity – my version or anyone else’s – are going to hell. A lot of Scripture comes out of tribal contexts, and there is a lot of “us and them” language running through it, but if you look at the overarching Biblical story, it is about a God who desires to gather everyone in. At least that’s how I read it, and how many other wise people in the tradition have read it, in different generations. “Us v them,” “Who’s in and who’s out” doesn’t make sense to me.

6. Lately I think the fear of being heard as exclusive or literalistic has sometimes kept people within the Christian tradition from reading the Bible thoughtfully and from embracing the unique and exciting ideas that Christianity brings to the table in the conversation among world religions. I wish we could reflect more about the unique and positive things that Christian faith has to offer, rather than ceding ground to some of these other ways of thinking about God. I long for a deepening of Christian faith among people who have been drawn to it and raised in it, and for honest and thoughtful listening across faith traditions.

MerryOldSanta.jpgI often say to my seminary classes “If there’s anything to what we say we believe, none of us has got it right. “ If there is a God, especially if there is a God who entered history as a human being to show us the way to a greater wholeness, as Christianity claims, then the whole story is ‘way bigger than anything we can grasp or control or understand. But the invitation to live into the story is there. As are the resources of Scripture and tradition. I am grateful for this.


Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.


"MerryOldSanta" by Thomas Nast - Edited version of Image:1881 0101 tnast santa 200.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

How Does the 40th Anniversary Inspire Us?

by Lisa G. Fischbeck

In July we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Though the first 11 women were ordained before the General Convention of the Church had given its approval (that would come two years later), the ordination of the “Philadelphia 11” was the beginning.

When our nation celebrates the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, on MLK Day each year, we recall the stories of the Civil Rights Movement and of Dr. King’s pivotal role in that Movement. But also we consider how that story might inspire us to carry on the life and legacy of Dr. King in our world today. Many respond by illuminating and crossing, if only for a day, the racial barriers that still exist. Others look for ways to serve and engage with those who are on the margins of our society today, or to take a stand against current injustice.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974, we remember the event. We tell the stories of the women who were called and who were willing and courageous enough to come forward. We tell the stories of the bishops and other male clergy who were willing to stand against the traditional and canonical ways of church polity and culture. We lift up the proponents, and we remember the opponents. We reflect on how those people, and that event, inspire us as a church today. There are many dimensions to that inspiration.

The first is to see the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 as a celebration of women in the Church. We trace the role of women throughout the history of the church, locally and globally. Time lines are created, short and long biographies written. The single event is seen in a context of an historical progression. Any obstacles or barriers to full involvement of women in the Church are illuminated as a focus for our future efforts. Many of these barriers are seen in developing nations, tempting American Episcopalians to become so focused on the church “over there” that we grow distracted from what needs to be done to clean up our own house here.

Second, the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 can be seen as a celebration of inclusion in the Church. The call for inclusion is very much rooted in an understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching. Jesus pitched a big tent. Those who follow Jesus are continuously challenged to consider how God might be nudging us to open the tent of the Church more widely still.

Historically, the work for equal rites for women was closely followed by a call for equal rites for LGBT Christians. Not just access to ordination, but also to the church’s blessing of their loving and committed relationships. There is still a lot of work to be done in this regard. Not only for women and LGBT Christians, and not only for those excluded by our polity, but also for those excluded by our patterns and practices.

Third the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 can be seen as a celebration of justice. The ordination of women followed close on the heels of the women’s movement in the United States, which called for equal rights for women. For many outside of the church, and many within the church, the ordination of women was “a women’s rights issue”. Regardless of Scripture or Tradition, these proponents of women’s ordination believed passionately that women deserved full and equal access to all that men had access to. This, frankly, was off-putting to those who believed that consideration of women’s ordination was theological and not political. That rather than being a women’s right issue, it was a matter of following the teaching of Jesus, or expanding our theological understanding of the priesthood, or reinterpreting the Tradition of the Church. Nonetheless, the inspiration of the Philadelphia 11, calls us to be bolder in addressing issues of injustice in our church and world today. Immigrants, voters, victims of our criminal justice system and more, all cry out for help from a justice-minded Church.

A fourth, and perhaps the most challenging dimension to our celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ordination of 11 women, is to see it as a celebration of change in the Church. Whenever there is change, old ways of doing and perceiving have to die. The ordination of women fundamentally changed the way the Episcopal Church perceived ordination and church leadership. Beyond women, inclusion and justice, the church was called deeply to consider what ordination was all about. Who, and what, is the priest at the altar, and how do we determine who can be ordained? How do gendered appellations for church, God, and “Reverends”, shape our understanding of what is possible, and what is Truth? Even more fundamentally, how do we interpret the Tradition? How do we interpret the Scriptures? This 40th anniversary extends an invitation to us all to reflect on how change happens, or does not happen, in the church.

We know how it happens according to the Canons of the Church. Resolutions of General Convention lead to a re-working of the Constitutions and Canons and/or the Book of Common Prayer. But what happens before those resolutions are passed is not always so clear. Truth be told, change in the church often happens after a faithful few step outside the existing polity and practice of the church, and give witness to another way. ie: they are willing and able to “push the envelope”, as happened in Philadelphia in 1974. There is a certain “chicken and egg” aspect to change in our church. Resolutions of Convention move practice in the church. Practice in the Church moves resolutions in Convention.

The Philadelphia 11, and those who supported and ordained them, inspire us to consider the aspects of our life and polity today that might need to be similarly challenged. How are we being called to step outside our polity, practice and pattern in order to push the envelope? Even more, what are we willing to let die in order for life-giving change to happen, in order for the church to be a more faithful witness in our own day and age?

It could be how we prepare people for ordination, or what is required of those taking on leadership in the church. Maybe it is how we worship, or who has the authority or the license to do what, and how do they gain that authority or license. It likely has something to do with how the Church will faithfully engage with an increasingly secularized society that grows more global and diverse every day, and also more entrenched in one polarity or another.

If the Holy Spirit is alive and well and moving in the Church, as we believe, change will come. The Philadelphia 11, and those who supported and ordained them, inspire us to embrace that change, and be faithful.


The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

13 Tell-Tale Signs of HR Problems in Your Parish

by Eric Bonetti

Do you attend a parish that’s large enough to have multiple employees? If so, you’re lucky—many churches these days have few employees beyond an administrator and clergy, and there’s no guarantee that these are full-time positions.

But how effective are those employees? Do you provide a nurturing environment where employees can grow and thrive? A place where people look forward to coming to work?
On the flip side of the coin, does your staff provide a fun, caring environment in which parishioners feel empowered and loved?

Many times, the answer to these questions is murky, at best. Indeed, churches, which should be models of health and life, often are dismal places to work. And if they’re dismal places to work, you can bet that parishioners are feeling the effects, no matter how vibrant your parish may otherwise be.

If you’re wondering about the answers to these questions, check out these signs that your church may not be the employer you think it is, or want it to be.

1 .Decisions get deferred

Just like for-profits, deferring necessary decisions is a sign of a weak manager and trouble in the offing. Have an employee who’s just not working out? If you’ve been told multiple times that he or she will be going soon, you have a weak leader and quite possibly a trust issue as well.

2. Infrastructure’s lacking

If your parish has been around for more than a few months, you should have written policies and procedures and a personnel manual. And they need to be current. If that’s not the case, someone’ s not doing his job. And you’re really in bad shape if you don’t have a file for each employee, including copies of at least annual performance reviews, continuing education received, and other relevant information.

3. Here’s hoping….

“Maybe if we just give him a couple more months, he’ll do better.” Or, “Let’s hope Fr. Dave retires soon.” Sound familiar? If so, consider that an employee who’s the subject of this much concern already has had plenty of opportunity to solve the problem. Dream on. You’re not giving the person the benefit of the doubt. You’re avoiding the problem. And the longer you wait, the worse you make things for all involved.

4. Bullying goes unchecked

Have someone who likes to raise his voice to try to control situations? Sounds like a Marine drill sergeant when c hallenged? Or screams and yells in anger? If that person is still with you, it’s time to re-read your baptismal covenant (the little bit about the dignity of every human being), then take action.

5. Performance review? What’s that?

If you haven’t done performance reviews in a while, something is seriously wrong. Yes, we get that you are busy, but it’s not fair to deny your employees candid feedback or the opportunity for growth.

6. Letters of agreement haven’t been renewed

If your parish uses letters of agreement to set forth specific terms and conditions for each employee (hope you do!) these should be updated annually. If the last one you can find for a specific employee is several years old, you’re missing a great opportunity to periodically make sure that you’re current with legal and regulatory requirements, and that you’re keeping abreast with changing job requirements.

7. Your parish admin wouldn’t know the FMLA if it ran him over in a pickup truck

It’s unrealistic to think that your parish administrator will be an expert in all aspects of bookkeeping, HR, labor law and facilities management. But she has the right to professional development and training, and should be sufficiently familiar with issues like the recent changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to know when to head off trouble by calling in additional resources.

8. You’re not sure what folks do all day

This one floors me. If you’re reading this article, it’s pretty much a given that you’re very involved in your parish. And even so, you don’t know what someone does all day? You’ve got issues. Serious issues. Leaving aside the fact that a good supervisor manages to results, not to hours, start with communication and collaboration and go from there.

9. Your volunteers complain

Volunteers are the canary in the coal mine for any parish. If they’re making themselves scarce, or they’re visibly unhappy, it’s time to ask questions and get to the bottom of things. And you’re in double trouble if they are unhappy and underutilized. Nothing demotivates volunteers like realizing that they’re wasting their time.

10. The results aren’t there

Lights still out in your parking lot months or years after the bulb went out or the fixture went bad? Grass doesn’t get cut when it’s supposed to? Print materials have multiple errors in them? Sure signs that you have a performance management issue afoot, as folks are not being appropriately proactive.

11. Exit interviews aren’t happy events

In a healthy, well-run organization, exit interviews are marked with the regret of parting, but also the joyful promise of new opportunities for the person in transition. If instead your exit interviews are marked by lots of discussion about interpersonal conflict and challenges in the workplace, it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

12. People are developing survival strategies

Are parishioners seeking pastoral care over issues with staff? Or your well-adjusted employees hanging out together in order to provide mutual care and support? This shouldn’t have to happen if you’re addressing issues promptly. Time to dig in and ask some tough questions—and take action.

13. Your volunteers are filling the gaps

Every parish has a handful of go-to persons—folks who care enough to do whatever it takes. If you’re seeing that your paid staff is turning to them to get results, or you’re seeing your “Clydesdales” working long hours to keep your bulletins printed and your building in good repair despite the fact that you have staff, it’s time to find out from what’s going on. And if they point to an HR issue, address it immediately. Doing so is simply a matter of respect when you have someone who gives sacrificially.

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

New Church Planting Part 2

by George Clifford

Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 is here)

In the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, The Episcopal Church (TEC) grew both in numbers of members and of congregations. That missionary impetus has dissipated; in 2012, TEC planted only three new congregations. The first part of this essay considered the demographic and theological imperatives for planting new churches and two impediments TEC must overcome. This second and concluding installment outlines practical steps that the TEC can take to recover its missionary momentum.

Attempting to reverse TEC's numerical decline can easily feel like retrenching. Instead, we should adapt an idea from Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who suggests that persons needing to downsize because of financial, health, or other reasons envision the change as a generative opportunity (How to Think About Downsizing Your Life, Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2014).

On a congregational level, small congregations might envision their demise generatively by:

(1) Cherishing the opportunities for enrichment intrinsic to uniting with a larger congregation, even a congregation of another denomination
(2) Swapping the stress of trying to keep the doors open and the priest paid for the joys of engaging in the pro-active missionary endeavors possible in a larger, better funded congregation
(3) Celebrating their obedience as good stewards, easing the time and financial burdens small congregations impose on dioceses.

On a diocesan level, bishops might envision downsizing generatively by recognizing that diocesan clergy, not diocesan staff, are the bishop's primary resource for her/his ministry as chief pastor. Front-line ministry mostly occurs in the parish, yet most bishops tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time with their staff and rarely interact directly with the majority of their parish clergy. (How many rectors receive multiple calls or visits per from their bishop for which the bishop's only agenda is to encourage and to support the priest's ministry? How many bishops regularly attend deanery meetings to be available to their clergy? In what percentage of bishop-priest relationships do priests prefer, whether from suspicion or good cause, to keep her/his distance from the bishop?)

Like most of us, bishops are busy. Bishops, therefore, need to re-focus by intentionally minimizing the time spent on problem clergy, vacancies, etc., to maximize the time they spend energizing, coaching, and encouraging their stronger parish clergy. Effective bishops are chief pastors who become the wind that provides the lift clergy need to soar like eagles. To some significant degree, a diocesan bishop as chief pastor must shoulder responsibility when a congregation well situated for growth either stagnates or declines.

Concurrently, bishops and dioceses will seek to identify people whom TEC (and the larger church!) serve inadequately or not at all. Where we find those people is where we want – need – to plant new churches or to attempt to revitalize dying congregations. Adapting a regenerative focus, with the accompanying changes in priorities, effort, and spending, will provide the resources these efforts will require. Critically, revitalizing and new starts both require expertise as well as adequate financial support.

On a national level, a generative focus will seek to reduce national staff and budget to free resources for dioceses and congregations. Legacy programs continued primarily out of inertia and programs that are minimally effective, regardless of how vocal their constituency may be, need to give way to developing and sharing expertise on church planting. Unlike numerical decline, ending those programs will not pose an existential threat for TEC.

The TEC Treasurer, in his latest report, noted that 42 dioceses have committed to the full 19% of diocesan income asking level adopted by General Convention in 2012 and 39 dioceses contribute between 10% and 19% of their income. The remaining 30 dioceses give less than 10% of their income to TEC. The list recording the percentage that each diocese contributes to TEC is revealing. Some dioceses (e.g., Honduras and Colombia) are essentially missionary dioceses, underwritten by TEC. Some dioceses pledge little, probably reflecting a lingering history of conflict between the diocese (or its parishes) and TEC (e.g., Dallas and Springfield) or conflict within the diocese (e.g., Pennsylvania). And some dioceses are simply poor: ten domestic dioceses report income of less than $500,000 and another 15 domestic dioceses income between $500,000 and $1 million. In short, the declining few increasingly carry the heavy burden of denominational support.

If we don't get busy with these tasks today, a tomorrow very soon will be too late. TEC will have dwindled into an irrelevancy that no amount of heroic life-support efforts can resuscitate. New branches on the vine that is Christ will have replaced the dead and useless branch that TEC will have then become.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Church Planting Part 1

by George Clifford

Part 1 of 2

Incredibly, TEC started only three new churches in 2012, the last year for which data is available according to research by the Rev. Susan Snook (she planted, and is now rector of, a thriving parish in the Diocese of Arizona). Jim Naughton, reporting Snook's research at the Episcopal Café (Why doesn't the Episcopal Church plant more churches?) wondered why The Episcopal Church (TEC) plants so few new churches. Two factors, one demographic and the other theological, underscore the poignancy of his question.

First, the US population grew from just under 180 million people in 1960 to 308 million in 2010. That significant growth suggests that a flourishing church would also have been a growing church during those five decades. Yet the increase in US population sharply contrasts with TEC's decline from 3.4 million members in 1960 to fewer than 2 million today. In other words, during the last five decades, the US population increased about 70% and TEC's membership declined by roughly 42%.

Second, God calls Christians to be a missionary people. In previous generations, the missionary impulse may have derived much momentum from people believing that the only way to experience the fullness of God's love was through Christ. Thankfully, many Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the exclusive path to God.

Yet that shift in beliefs does not leave us bereft of a missionary impetus. We value both TEC and our local congregations, an assessment obvious from hundreds of posts on the internet (including the Episcopal Café!) and comments from people in thousands of pews across the country. We Episcopalians find our liturgy and communal life personally helps us to connect with God and enriches our lives. If words really indicate how Episcopalians feel, why don't we extend a warmer and more persuasive invitation to family, friends, and even acquaintances to explore – if not to join – the religious tradition and community that we allegedly value so highly?

The claim that TEC has a shortage of clergy is a bogus explanation of why TEC is failing to plant new churches. In 2009, TEC had 17,868 clergy compared to 9079 in 1960, or about twice as many as when we had one-third more members. In spite of a sizable number of clergy retirees, we still have ample numbers of active clergy. However, TEC does have a clergy distribution problem. Rural and small town TEC congregations often struggle, both to raise the funds needed to pay a full-time priest and to find clergy willing to serve in those locales (a majority of our clergy, based on their choices about where to reside, apparently prefers to live in more urban areas).

Although we have plenty of congregations, they, like our clergy, are maldistributed. Our approximately 6,700 congregations – if they had an average of 750 members – would comprise a Church of five million. Unfortunately, the US is experiencing significant internal demographic shifts. These changes have left many Episcopal congregations in locations with a static or even diminishing population. Meanwhile, numerous areas with growing populations lack a conveniently located TEC congregation.

So, why doesn't TEC plant more new congregations to proclaim the good news to the growing US population? Scripture plainly depicts Jesus enjoining his disciples to make disciples. At least two impediments exist.

First, TEC utilizes its resources inefficiently and ineffectively. We waste much effort and money keeping small congregations in geographic places with diminishing populations on life support long after any realistic hope of revitalization has faded away. Well-intentioned efforts to develop alternative approaches to theological education to staff these dying congregations will only prolong the misery and drain additional resources. Closing these outposts can cost a great deal of political capital, but not closing them will only expedite TEC's demise.

I've served a congregation with an average Sunday attendance under 20. I know how much those people valued their congregation, its worship, and its other ministries. However, two vibrant parishes were located within a one-mile radius of my small congregation. None of my parishioners wanted to ask, let alone answer, the question of whether we would be most faithful by closing our congregation and joining one of the other parishes. In the meantime, keeping the congregation alive cost a great deal of money and contributed less to the body of Christ than we would have contributed by shuttering the doors and joining one of the neighboring congregations. My parishioners prioritized loyalty to a location, preserving a congregational identity, and perpetuating a dwindling community over doing the most for God's kingdom. As their priest, I failed to realign their priorities more closely with the gospel imperatives. Loyalty to God's purposes rather than loyalty to place, building, or tradition best defines Christian fidelity.

Second, TEC, in common with a great many organizations, finds dealing with small issues easier than dealing with large issues. Numerical decline represents an existential threat for TEC. A growing number of congregations devote a disproportionate (often almost 100%) of their resources to paying a priest and keeping the building open. We find the latter two issues – how to reduce what we pay a priest (e.g., by reducing educational debt) and funding the building – easier to address than the overarching issue of numerical decline.

Blaming the numerical decline on either the ordination of women or the 1976 Book of Common Prayer constitutes a red herring. TEC's serious numerical decline did not begin until the 1980s, well after both of those changes.

The real issue is that the interpretation and praxis of Christianity passed to people in the US in the second half of the twentieth century no longer speaks to people. Theoretically, every generation must claim the faith for itself, putting ideas and practices into wineskins appropriate to that generation. In fact, we tend to change the wineskins only when forced. The wineskins that I received in seminary are an increasingly poor fit in a globalized, electronically connected, scientifically oriented world. Creating new wineskins is no easy task.

Many Episcopalians, clergy and laity alike, thus choose an easier option. We find a cause to support: we fought poverty, we fed the hungry, we campaigned for civil rights, we supported the full inclusion of women in church and society, and now we work for justice for gays, lesbians, the transgendered, and bisexuals. In short, we walk some of the Jesus path. We do good things and we should keep doing them; none of those worthy tasks is yet finished. Meantime, we avoid giving too much thought to disturbing questions about who God is, how we connect with God, and how we can discern God's presence and activity in our midst. We love our neighbor, but we do so incompletely because we ignore our post-modern world's pervasive spiritual hunger. We are most faithful and best incarnate the body of Christ (i.e., be the Church) when we integrate loving God explicitly and consistently into our efforts to love our neighbors.

The second part of this post will offer practical ideas for reversing the decline.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Lucy: a film where violence and theology coexist

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

91px-Lucy_%282014_film%29_poster.jpgDon’t let the trailers of “Lucy” deter you. The new Luc Besson film starring Scarlett Johansen and Morgan Freeman is smart, philosophical, and offers great questions about afterlife and evolution. Warning: It is filled with more violence and destruction of property than any of the worst vestry or buildings and grounds committee meetings you’ve encountered.

One has to hand it to Besson, (almost). For a male action writer/director, Besson, keeps trying to get it right with female action leads (La Femme Nikita). But really Mr. Besson, near the close of the film Lucy was using 90% of her cerebral capacity and was smarter than anyone on the planet. Did she really have to ask the gaggle of guy scientists for help?

Aside from that backward slide, Johansson as Lucy, is singularly focused, tough, and violent. An American student in Taiwan, Lucy is unwittingly roped in to being a mule for a crime ring involved in smuggling and selling a synthetic drug that enhances brain power. The blue colored drug is in a pouch sewn into her stomach, then it leaks, and she begins her transformation. It doesn’t kill her. It gives her incredible powers to control time and consciousness.

The film’s special metaphysical effects, time travel, morphed body parts, magnanimous car crashes and lots of gore, keep the film goers who like that kind of stuff grinning happily and only having to use 1% (or less) of their brain capacity.

But the truth is, there is something quite courageous in this film. But you have to watch for it. The film is full of raging action and outrageous special effects, which are gently tempered by the occasional appearance of National Geographic-type clips of animals – doing normal animal stuff but placed in juxtaposition to the bizarre stuff that is happening to Lucy in the film.

It’s a movie about self-awareness, transformation, drug smuggling, eternal life, and even the interconnectedness of all creation. At various times this movie has elements of “2001 A Space Odyssey” (evolution of consciousness), “The French Connection” (drugs and a marathon car chase), “Tron” (human existence in cyberspace), “Phenomenon” (brainpower) and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (for those who like women action figures killing men).

But the film artfully shows the links between humans and nature, and gives filmgoers glimpses of creation spirituality, whether they recognize it or not. The links between Lucy and the ape that appears in the film are particularly profound. As Lucy time travels in the film, she and the ape touch fingers, providing viewers with a strange knock-off version of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”.

For an “in your face” action film, the theological subtleties are even more striking. For example, the ape scenes are subtle, yet critical. The title of the film is the name of a 3.2 million year old fossilized skeleton, discovered in 1974 by Donald Johanson. The fossil skeleton, named Lucy by the crew of archeologists who discovered her, is the first in the Hominid Family Tree to walk upright.

Anyone who has studied Teilhard de Chardin or Matthew Fox will appreciate this movie. As earthly forces continue their greedy journey for power and control, Lucy becomes more aloof to them and more concerned with her deepening consciousness. She wants to share her knowledge as her mortal existence faces a violent end.

A person of faith might see her journey as headed in the direction of the “Omega Point” (de Chardin) or the cosmic Christ consciousness (Fox). A person of science might see it as a natural, albeit speeded up, step in evolution.

“From evolution to revolution”, says Professor Norman (Freeman). “There are more connections in the human body than there are stars in the galaxy”, Professor Norman continues as he drones on about the minimal use of human cerebral capacity (3-5%) and compares humans to dolphins at 20% brain use. At the same time he sets up the filmgoers to anticipate the possibility of what increased cerebral capacity might mean.

During the spectacular car chase the Paris police captain who is helping her confesses his fear of dying. “We never really die,” says Lucy. Immortality for all? Where else have we heard that?

And in the beginning of the film Lucy says,“Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?”

Well, after many special effects, lots of shooting and car chases Lucy gets her full injections of the blue drug. At 100% cerebral capacity, Lucy melts away like the wicked witch of the west.

“Where is she?” they ask. The cell phone vibrates with a text, “I’m everywhere”, it reads.

So is God. That kind of leaves the theologians in the audience (all 2 of us) wondering if the writer/director gets it after all.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints Episcopal Church, Pontiac, MI. She is the immediate past president of the House of Deputies in the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. Dan Webster is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.


"Lucy (2014 film) poster" by http://www.impawards.com/intl/france/2014/lucy.html. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Lucy (2014 film) via Wikipedia

Advertising Space