Our problem with authority

by George Clifford

We Episcopalians frequently have problems with ecclesiastical authority. Here's some anecdotal evidence:

• Clergy and laity do not want bishops (or, for that matter, any other person or group such as a Canon to the Ordinary or Executive Council) providing authoritative guidance. At every General Convention, diocesan convention, or clergy gathering that I attend, I detect an undercurrent of suspicion directed toward our bishops. Admittedly, a few bishops are inappropriately authoritarian. The suspicion, however, extends to all bishops.
• When I mention to a clergyperson or layperson that I think we have a problem with authority, the person invariably agrees.
• The recent brouhaha at General Seminary was at least partially a conflict over authority.
• Debates about denominational restructuring are frequently couched in the language of power and authority.

More troubling, we Episcopalians often have a problem with biblical authority. We're sure (or at least the vast majority of us are sure) that we reject biblical literalism and idolatry. However, we're often unsure in what sense the Bible is authoritative or how to interpret the Bible authoritatively. Our denominational disputes over questions such as the ordination of women and same-sex marriage reflect this uncertainty and unease with the Bible's authority.

Some of the roots of our discomfort with authority are readily apparent. Stories of clergy abused by a bishop are legion. Seminarians are trained to approach both the Bible and life with a hermeneutic of suspicion, asking, in part, who is exercising power and who stands to benefit from that exercise of power. This emulates important aspects of Jesus' ministry in which he challenged the destructive economic, political, and religious power structures of first century Palestine. Yet this also can breed distrust within the Church. Although we are a connectional Church, congregationalism dominates the American religion scene and increasingly taints The Episcopal Church (TEC). Post-moderns increasingly distrust authority, associating it with a proclivity to corrupt, oppress, and exploit.

Let's be honest. Authority is a form of power. And, like it or not, authority has a place in the Church.

In the absence of authority, we would cease to be both connectional and a Church. In the Navy, I met many Christians (and a fair number of chaplains) who had no understanding of what it means to have a connectional polity. They regard the Church as a gathering of independent, local congregations that have only a nominal (or no) direct relationship with one another. The most extreme version of this idea that I encountered was a chaplain who refused to conduct Communion services with anyone in the military because he believed the only permissible setting for Holy Communion was the local congregation of which he was a member.

Pushed to its logical conclusion, congregationalism becomes individualism: each person is the ultimate arbiter of right thinking, behavior, and relationships. In one respect, individualism is unavoidable because no organization or person can dictate what another person thinks or does. In another respect, however, radical individualism displaces Jesus from the very center of Christian life. This type of radical individualism is anarchistic and therefore anti-communal. Any commitment to be together requires a common ordering of communal life incompatible with radical individualism.

John's image of Jesus as the vine and his people as the vine's branches and Paul's image of Christians as the constituent parts of Christ's body are both inherently connectional. In both images, life flows through Jesus to us. It changes and invigorates us, i.e., the flow has a transformative, authoritative power because it is a metaphor for God at work in us.

One option for ordering our common life as the body of Christ is to make decisions based upon mutual consent. The Quakers have traditionally opted for this approach. Much can be said in favor of consensus, but two key disadvantages are that consensus generally requires a great deal of time to achieve and the larger the group, the longer time required. The largely dysfunctional US Senate, with its rules on filibustering and cloture, reflects problems intrinsic to requiring consensus. In some ecclesial situations, I value consensus; as a rule, I find consensus keeps Church groups from taking timely and effective action.

Another option for ordering our common life as Christ's body is to entrust decisions to an authoritative hierarchy. Few Anglicans, regardless of how much they admire aspects of the Roman Catholic Church, want to be part of a branch of Christianity that has such an authoritative (even authoritarian!) hierarchy.

So, we Episcopalians and TEC, as good Anglicans, seek a middle way. We do not want anarchy, nor consensus (we may pay the ideal lip service, but our actions indicate that we think the cost of always reaching consensus far too high), nor an authoritative hierarchy.

To find and then walk a middle way, we can beneficially:

• Cherish our theological diversity. In the Anglican tradition, our unity depends upon common prayer and not uniformity of belief. Thankfully, we have mostly abandoned prior generations' efforts to enforce doctrinal conformity.
• Invest time in developing strong connections. Being a connectional church is costly. The cost that receives the most attention is the money that flows from local congregations to the diocese and from dioceses to the national church. However, the more important cost, all too frequently ignored, is the time required to develop and sustain real connections across congregational and diocesan boundaries. If I spend no time with Episcopalians who are not part of my congregation, then my sense of connection is strictly notional rather than actual. Dioceses typically have a companion diocese in another province of the Anglican Communion. Dioceses could also have companion dioceses within TEC. Similarly, our congregations could engage in real mission partnerships with adjoining TEC congregations. I am willing to bet that currently less than one percent of Episcopalians have any direct involvement or knowledge of either their diocese or the national church. When was the last time that your congregation or diocese initiated a joint meal (aka the Eucharist) with another congregation or diocese? Having failed to spend (invest) the time required to become a connectional Church, we are now reaping a harvest of discontent and disinterest.
• Stop sweating the small stuff (and it's all, or mostly all, small stuff). Ultimately, TEC, its clergy, and its congregations have little real power. Our unity is more valuable than our differences. We cannot prevent God from acting; we cannot start a war (I'd like to think that we could stop a war, but doubt that we have that much power); we're not going to solve any of the world's major problems in the next triennium (or even three millennia). Therefore, let's value our unity and color our inevitable conflicts with the warm hues of love and mutual respect.
• Trust those with whom we pray to make good decisions. In healthy, functional couples, each partner makes some of the couple's decisions unilaterally, usually based upon expertise and interest; the couple makes a minority of their decisions jointly. Some couples intentionally choose who will make which decision; other couples establish the pattern of their decision-making more informally. Over time, as circumstances change, the pattern of decision-making will also change. A similar pattern should exist within a healthy, functional community: not every member has an interest in every decision; involving everyone in every decision is too costly and cumbersome; the pattern of decision-making needs to change as circumstances change. My sense is both that TEC's pattern of decision-making has remained stagnant too long and now is out of sync with circumstances and that too few Episcopalians trust one another to make good decisions about our common life. Furthermore, most of our contentious denominational issues, viewed from the broad perspective of God's creation, is small stuff. Generally, the fight is over resources. That battle masks the real problem, our weak commitment to the mission of Christ, our dioceses, and our national church that manifests itself in terms of a low level of proportional giving.
• Retain only the minimum levels of ecclesial authority compatible with being a connectional Church. What ministries and missions are only possible when we work together? What ministries and missions are best achieved cooperatively? What organizational structures, invested with what authority, will most effectively and efficiently accomplish those ministries and missions? For example, common prayer requires an authoritative set of practices (words and action), i.e., a set of practices actually required and used. This set can encompass a healthy, broad diversity but imposes some limits, e.g., our scriptures are the Bible and not the Koran or the Teachings of the Buddha. Setting these limits does not exalt our practices or demean those of others; instead, boundaries create our identity. The Book of Common Prayer's liturgies are too confining; alternatively, allowing bishops, priests, or congregations to develop their own liturgies would quickly erode both our common prayer and connections. We should keep the Book of Common Prayer and supplement it with a large, fluid collection of resources.
• Adopt an annual Advent discipline of self-examination to discern your personal level of comfort (or discomfort) with authority. The gospel narrative is ultimately a story about authority and power. Genuine dialogue requires participants try to understand their own issues and motivations. To what extent does the authority of Scripture—however understood—grate? Do you read the Bible in the hope that God will illuminate your life and path? When, for this is something we all do, do you read the Bible seeking to find confirmation of what you believe and how you live? When and why do you resent ecclesial authority?

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.

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.

Five Reasons Your Church Buildings Deserve Better

by Eric Bonetti

If you're like most Episcopalians, you value your church building as a place of comfort, warmth and respite--a place of welcome and peace, remote from the stresses of daily life.

Or you think you do.

In fact, it may be that your church building -- whether a splendid reminder of the glories of Anglo-Catholicism, or a modest, modern masonry and glass structure -- deserves better.

Ivy Clad Ruin - geograph.org.uk - 1312612I know what you're saying right about now: "Hey, wait a minute....I pledge generously. I cut the grass every weekend (insert grouchy noises of choice)."

But the reality is that there is more to it than money and mowing.

1. You don't provide enough money

Speaking of money, do you think you give generously to your church? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Consider the Latter-day Saints (LDS) and other faiths/denominations that routinely give a true tithe to their church. While we may have discomfort with the theological underpinnings of a near-mandatory tithe, the outcome is visible, indeed. Just look at the well-kept grounds of any LDS temple to see the results of tithing. Or check out estimates of the corporate wealth of the LDS church and you'll quickly see no one's squabbling about where to find money to patch the roof.

"But I give in other ways," you say.

To that, I point to a small parish in Northern Virginia, one that pre-dates the civil war. Just shy of 70 years ago, that parish realized it had outgrown its current building, so it began plans for a majestic English country gothic church -- a solidly built edifice, designed to stand for the ages. A small group of parishioners mortgaged their homes and businesses -- everything they had -- to finance construction, putting everything they owned on the line.

Risky for my tastes, and probably for yours too, but the parish paid the debt off in just seven years.

Just how financially committed did you say you were?

2. Your financial priorities are wrong

Hand-in-hand with money goes priorities. Many a church has gone pews-up despite having very solid revenue. Why? Because money wasn't being spent in the right places.

The warning light here is if you're seeing too much money being spent internally, and not enough on the building and the community. To be sure, in-reach is vital for any church. But if you're finding that hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars are being spent on special events, but your roof has a persistent leak due to lack of money, or your furnace is about to fail but you can't really afford to replace it, you should be hearing the warning sirens, loud and clear.
Same for your reserve funds.

If you're not saving for the future, you're borrowing against it. And while you're at it, you're betting. You're betting that your parish will have the resources to make needed future capital investments, despite flat attendance at almost all mainline churches. In essence, you've set yourself up as your own banker, and you've structured a transaction with a large balloon payment at the end. And you've done this despite clear signs that you may not have the money when the time comes to pay off the debt. If this sounds familiar, consider that it's probably not just your church building on the line--your entire parish is at risk.

Don't gamble with your future.

3. You don't understand your budget

Another issue is awareness of the actual costs to run your parish and its physical plant.

How often do we run into people who say, "I pledge!" but pay only a few hundred dollars a year?

Of course, there are many of limited means for whom that is all that is possible, and any healthy parish must demonstrate flexibility in its pledging process.

But do you really stop to think about the costs to operate your church? For instance, a church with a $1 million annual budget must bring in almost $2,740 a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, no exceptions for days with Super Bowl games or your summer vacation. That's a lot of money, and if you're giving just $25 a week, your parish no doubt is grateful for the support, but you probably are not paying your full share. And keep in mind that we're presumably talking operating expenses here--your parish also needs to be saving for the future.

If you're on your stewardship committee, consider too whether you provide enough information for others to understand your budget and the importance of pledging. Do you provide clear textual information and easy visual charts? Do you invite your parish to think about a "dream budget" that reflects hopes and dreams and potential growth? Or do you prepare an annual budget that looks like a government production--large, detailed, and crushingly dull?

Have a meaningful budget that helps people understand the realities and priorities of your parish.

4. You're worried about the power

No, not the electric bill.

Years ago, I attended a parish that almost imploded. The issue wasn't the ordination of women (we already had a female rector, thank you). It wasn't about marriage equality, the role of the bishop, vestry elections, revisions to the Book of Common Prayer or any of the usual suspects.

The sickening, shuddering sound of the iceberg scraping the hull came when two elderly parishioners, both well-meaning and generous, decided to prune a row of wildly overgrown plants behind the church.

That's right, prune. Not remove, not tear out, not destroy.

What's wrong with that? I don't know, since the plants had become almost comically large, and were occasionally known to snag and remove sections of shingles from the roof during summer storms. But others felt differently, and soon the parish was in a knock-down, drag-out, who-did-what-to-whom uproar, with calls to the senior warden, angry letters to the bishop, and more. (Triangulation, anyone?)

Apparently, the issue was that the plants had been placed behind the church years earlier in memory of a deceased parishioner. And while the decedent's children had long since disclaimed any responsibility for the care and nurture of these plants, they reserved the right to lurk, like alligators in a golf pond, right under the surface, ready to come roaring out, jaws snapping, at the first sign of an interloper.

While the uproar eventually died down, needless to say, the episode was a powerful disincentive for future maintenance, and giving dropped precipitously in the wake of this debacle. Today, that particular parish has peeling paint, lots of deferred maintenance, lackluster attendance, and a very thin budget. Big surprise, there.

In short, if your priority is protecting prerogatives versus property, the day will come when all you have is your prerogatives, perfectly preserved and meaning nothing.

Set aside differences to make caring for your building a priority.

5. You don't have professional advice and data

This is closely intertwined with giving and priorities. To effectively care for your physical plant, you have to understand its needs and how to corollate your resources with those needs.

Knowing the needs of your physical plant requires more than just spending time at your parish. Instead, it requires a replacement reserve study, done by a professional, typically at a cost of a few thousand dollars every few years.

Correlating the remaining lifespan of your physical assets with their value and projected replacement costs, a replacement reserve study is both a highly reliable barometer of the health of your investment in your physical plant and the overall financial health of the parish. Indeed, many states require condo associations to conduct one and publish it every several years, since the study is a surefire indicator of looming financial and, often, operational issues.

Yet if you are like most parishes, you haven't done a replacement reserve study recently, if ever, or it's a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate you've done internally. If that's the case, you're on thin ice, since 6-10 percent of revenue typically is considered a healthy annual contribution to replacement reserves.

If you really do care about your church building, get the numbers. Get a professional.

Looking ahead

Whether you've largely been indifferent to caring for your church building, you've been supportive but long viewed it as the role of your parish administrator, or you've just never thought about it much at all, the recent changes and discussion about the future of The Episcopal Church offer an opportunity to revisit old issues and identify new opportunities. And if renewal and rebirth are to be effective, what better place to start than close to home, with the care and maintenance of our parish churches?

Think about it: Does your parish deserve better?

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

Ten things you need to know about group bullying

by Eric Bonetti

One of the great tragedies in any church is when it becomes, rather than a place of safety and comfort, a place of pain and anguish due to bullying. And while there are many articles out there on how to deal with individual bullies, group bullying often goes unrecognized and unaddressed, and it is surprisingly common in churches.

Here's what you need to know about this tragic phenomena:

1. There's a great description of group bullying in the Bible

Just look at the events leading up to the crucifixion. A group clamors for the death of Jesus, who is considered an outsider based on the notion that he is king of the Jews. Emotions run high, and the group conveniently forgets that Jesus is, in fact, also a Jew and presumably also suffering under the Roman occupation. Pontius Pilate, who has authority to quash the uproar and clearly is sympathetic to Jesus, is an enabler who goes along with the crowd, despite the pain and suffering his decision causes.

Similarly, in a church setting, the group often is a specific program, ministry, or group of staff members. The victim usually is someone, perceived not as a fellow parishioner and Christian but rather as an outsider, who like Jesus does something, either on a one-time or recurring basis, not to the group's liking. Despite the victim's good intentions, the crowd closes in and acts to punish the victim via a hailstorm of criticism and other bad behavior. The situation quickly gets out of hand if clergy, the wardens, or others in authority "pull a Pilate" and fail to act decisively, or even worse participate in the bullying.

2. Group bullying often involves an array of behaviors

While group bullying may not involve physical violence or threats, there's typically a range of equally troubling behaviors, ranging from the "cold shoulder," to the arched eyebrow and pointed sigh, to threats of suicide and other manipulative and sometimes truly outlandish behaviors. Raised voices are not uncommon, as are hyperbole and speculation about the victim. A favorite: The explosive outburst. The precipitating event is invariably innocuous, since the bully knows that the tantrum works best when it comes out of the blue.

These behaviors may not, as isolated instances, be particularly troubling, but when used consistently and deliberately, can have a profoundly hurtful effect on the victim and, ironically enough, on the bullies, who lose track of our shared humanity and the components of healthy, loving relationships. This is turn leads to a toxic parish, with the result that even those not directly involved suffer.

When you confront the bullies about their behavior, don't be surprised if they try to throw the victim under the bus or question the veracity of others, or resort to tears and other camouflage. Remember, bullies believe the best defense is a good offense!

3. The bullying group often justifies its actions

Just like hate crimes, in which the perpetrator often appears genuinely surprised when apprehended and responds with something ludicrous such as, "But she was a lesbian," or "But he's a Muslim," bullying groups often attempt to justify their actions: "She disrupts my work," or "He didn't ask us first," or "But my grandfather hung that painting there....how dare someone move it?"

The latter, which is the appeal to tradition and the recitation of some personal connection to the issue (typically long forgotten by others), is particularly common in churches. My experience suggests that both group and individual church bullies often see themselves as guardians of tradition, the only persons in the parish who know how things have always been done and, for that very reason, justified in their behavior. This is the case even if those involved have no formal role in the organization. Indeed, this real or imagined lack of power in the organization, in the minds of the bullies, warrants especially strenuous behavior, since others are seen as not appreciating their unique insight.

Another justification that's often used is stress. Bullies respond to stress by offloading on others, which in turn leads to self-justifying behavior. "Just look at all the interruptions I have to deal with!", or "he is always late getting things to me!", the bully proclaims as he or she torments others.

4. Some telltale signs of group bullying

In addition to the "us-versus-them" paradigm and other factors described above, look for situations in which the reaction is out of all proportion to the issue and the focus is not on resolving the underlying issue. Indeed, bullying groups often cite some ludicrously small event or complaint as the reason for their behavior, such as changing lightbulbs in the parking lot, the food for a parish event, or some other issue that, on its face, is inconsequential.

Neither are facts an obstacle. Bullies will claim, for example, that they are physically unable to clean up after themselves, even if they have done so for years and there is no reason to believe that their physical capabilities have changed. And if you ask them to do so, they will explode in rage at your purported lack of compassion.

Also, just as the mob appealed to Pilate to do what it could or would not do, look for triangulation, or reaching out to persons other than the individual involved as folks demand retribution. For instance, vestry members may be the subject of complaints to clergy, or clergy may get complaints about other clergy. But in almost every case the one thing that will be notably absent is an effort to speak directly with the victim of the bullying, at least in any meaningful, positive way.

The victims of group bullying are, sadly enough, often truly gentle people who may be reluctant to complain or fight back. Bullies being what they are, they are most likely to attack those they they sense will pose an easy target.

5. Look for ringleaders

Just as the chief priests begin hurling accusations at Jesus in the hours prior to the crucifixion, so too are there usually one or two key people behind the bullying. These often are strong-willed persons, and not uncommonly hold jobs in which the ability to remain in control is prized, such as teaching and law enforcement. Because these personalities often are high achievers, they may be well embedded within the church and have many friends, as they tend to be very involved.

If the ringleaders don't manage to arrange for their victims to leave the church or suffer a meltdown, they often will turn around and, ironically enough, lead efforts to resolve the problem. While this may seem paradoxical, it actually makes sense. The bullies wrap themselves in the cover of sweet reason, claiming the moral high ground, strengthening their "leadership" within the bullying group, all the while reserving the right to return to the fray down the road, more powerful than ever.

6. Bullying groups often comprise truly decent individuals

Groups that bully often are made up of persons who, as individuals, would utterly oppose bullying. Yet, when a group invokes a common, outside threat, they rally around their friends and quickly join forces, abrogating the responsibility to "respect the dignity of every human being."

Groups that are prone to bullying behavior typically are very close-knit or have an intimate working relationship, often structured around a specific ministry or job function that, rightly or wrongly, perceives itself as essential to the functioning of the church. This sense of camaraderie makes it easy to close ranks and go on the warpath--so much so that folks will make statements like, "You really don't want the food pantry folks as enemies."

Enemies? In a church? This sort of comment speaks volumes about the dynamics behind group bullying.

7. Group bullying may arise in times of crisis or change

Often, a church that has experienced an unexpected death or other crisis will fall into a group bullying situation. Emotions already are running high, and normal outlets for pent-up emotion may be displaced as folks deal with their loss and sorrow. In such cases, groups may transfer their feelings, assigning them to real or imagined slights, then over-reacting, often without even realizing that they are doing so.

This happens, too, in the midst of a major change, such as the retirement of a beloved rector. Without a central focus point, groups begin to jostle for position within the church, and react badly to an interim clergy person or other perceived interloper.

8. If you ignore the problem, you are part of the problem

Let me preface this with a caveat: Bullies, whether groups or individuals, often are good at concealing their presence. For example, some of the most egregious bullies out there are those who would otherwise appear to be sweet, maternal or paternal souls. Yet right beneath the surface lies a tiger, ready to spring into action.

But once you realize that bullying is occurring, you cannot and must not ignore it. Bullying groups tend to repeat their behavior over time, and they cause immense suffering and disruption. Those in power have a duty to act quickly and decisively to shut down the bullying and make it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated--even if that risks having individuals or groups leave the church. Church has no value at all if it cannot be a place of physical and emotional safety.

It's also important to recognize that bullying, especially group bullying, is like a fire and quickly spreads if not extinguished. You may think your issue is in a particular program, office, or ministry, but ignore the matter, and it will quickly pop up elsewhere in your church. And there's no hiding from a bully--even if you aren't personally attacked, the bad karma is more than enough to go around, and it will erode your love for your church, your ministry, and other things important to you.

To make matters worse, rolling back a tide of bullying is a little like dieting: It goes on quickly and imperceptibly, but comes off slowly and only with effort. So don't delay. The longer you do the bigger a mess you will have on your hands.

9. You can help

Besides making clear that bullying behavior is unacceptable, bullies must understand that bullying will result in consequences, whether it is potential loss of employment or, in egregious cases, being asked to leave the church.

It's also possible to head-off both bullying and other forms of trouble by asking those who come to you to complain about others, "Have you spoken directly to this person about your concerns?", or "Why are you telling me this?". Bullies are famous for triangulation and forum-shopping, often going from person to person as they look for a toehold from which to cause trouble.

10. Outside help is available

Bullying is a common change management issue, and there are many experts in organizational, church, and nonprofit management who have specific training in addressing these situations. And because bullying groups often treat their complaints as life-or-death matters, you may save yourself a lot of wear and tear handing the issue off to someone who does not have to deal with the individuals involved over time.

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

Church Arson: facts and prevention

by Eric Bonetti

Arson? In my church? Not likely.

If you're like most people, you dismiss arson as a remote possibility--something that never could happen at your parish. "It mainly happens in urban churches," is heard all too often. Or, "We've never had an issue here."

The reality, however, is very different. Church arsons are commonplace and far more likely than, for example, a fire caused by candles or incense. Additionally, church arsons can be disastrous, wreaking havoc with church finances and the emotions of church members.

Here's what you need to know about church arson, and how you can prevent it.


1. Church arson is common

According to federal crime statistics, arson is a leading cause of church fires, led only by cooking and HVAC fires, and far more likely than candle-related fires, which are the fifth most likely. Approximately 130 churches are damaged or destroyed by arson every year.

2. Churches are particularly vulnerable to arson
Churches often follow a predictable schedule that increases risk. Additionally, churches typically are soft targets, with problematic design and landscaping features and lax attention to security issues.

The risk is exacerbated in the case of churches that are involved in controversial social issues, or that serve at-risk populations -- which describes the vast majority of Episcopal parishes. Consideration also must be given to disgruntled church members or employees.

3. Insurance is no solution
All too often, people say, "But we're insured--we even have full replacement value coverage." But that rarely solves the problem.

Time after time, law enforcement officials investigating church arsons hear people express their profound sense of shock, dismay, and even betrayal that arise when a fire is deliberately set. Such events typically rock a parish to its very core and take years to fully resolve, if ever.

Complicating these matters is the priceless nature of many church contents. Many churches contain beautiful stained glass windows, furniture and other items given in memory of deceased parishioners that carry with them great sentimental value.

Additionally, many churches that suffer a catastrophic fire discover that the skills needed to replace hand-carved stone and wood, mosaics, and other features common in churches are difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

Lastly, a major building project takes a long time and serious project management capabilities. Thus, even with insurance, parishes that have suffered an arson often face a long, uphill battle to recover.

4. Warning signs often abound prior to an arson

Law enforcement, government officials, and insurance carriers all agree that warning signs typically are present well in advance of an arson. These include vandalism outside the building, particularly if several incidents occur in a brief period of time, and if there are signs of activity (trash, debris, footprints) around remote parts of the building, such as basement windows.

5. There's nothing we can do to prevent arson
Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of arson, you can take simple, easy steps to reduce the risk.


Fortunately, it's easy to reduce the risk of church arson, and often costs little. Here's what you can do to make it less likely that your church will suffer a deliberate fire.

1. Assess the risk

Many local police and fire departments, as well as insurance carriers and locksmiths, are willing to conduct a free security survey of your facility. You also can do your own: Look for burned out lighting around the building, plantings or architectural features that create shadows around the building, and locks that are not deadbolts or old and worn. Look for flammable materials around the building, like dead grass, dumpsters full of paper or other risky debris, or containers of gasoline or other accelerants. Mulch also is risky--it's not only flammable, but it carries the added drawback of attracting termites.

When doing your survey, don't ignore the interior of the building. For example, ask yourself the question, "If someone breaks in, how easy is it to get into the sacristy, offices, nave, or other high-value areas?" While even a small fire can cause extensive smoke damage, your goal is to close and, preferably lock, as many interior doors as possible to limit the damage, and to reduce the likelihood of multiple intentional fires.

2. Know who has access

Do you know who has keys to your building and how many copies of those keys exist? If you're like most churches, you have no idea. Re-key locks every three to five years, and mark all keys "do not duplicate."

Don't hide keys on the property. Locksmiths and law enforcement alike will tell you almost every church they visit has one or more keys hidden near the office or sacristy. Such hiding spots become readily known, and are all too predictable. Even if you have an alarm system, someone who discovers keys in an office or elsewhere may have plenty of time to get into trouble before police can respond, even in a suburban church. And control access to your church after normal business hours--there are few legitimate reasons to be in the building between 10:00 p.m and 6:00 a.m.

In the event of lock-ins, vigils, or other legitimate overnight events, consider maintaining security in unused portions of the building. Particularly in large buildings, the presence of people in one area does not mean that other areas are automatically safe.

3. Don't rely solely on one type of security
The best security programs rely on three things: physical security, electronic security, and security awareness. None can fully substitute for the others, although you should of course start with good locks and lighting.

Most locksmiths can provide easy, affordable suggestions to improve physical security. Similarly, alarm system installers can provide recommendations for electronic systems, which are often very affordable. Just make sure that you own, versus lease, any alarm system that you install. Leased systems often involve expensive monitoring fees, combined with terms and conditions that make it difficult to change providers.

Another suggestion: Consider fencing areas around your church that cannot be seen from the street. While costly, fencing can be a powerful deterrent, as it makes it difficult to flee the area in a hurry. Just make sure you use chain link or other fencing that maintains visibility, or you will trade one issue for another.

Security awareness involves enlisting the aid of friends and neighbors, and taking note of anything unusual. See an unknown car in your lot when the church is empty? Get the tag number and call the police to request that they check on the property. But don't challenge questionable individuals yourself. Parishioners who live in close proximity to the church also may be willing to check the exterior of the building at random times, which can be particularly useful if a rectory is not located on the grounds.

4. Keep up with maintenance
Dealing with a difficult door? Get it repaired, before it provides unwanted access to your church. Burnt out lights? Same thing.

It's particularly important to quickly deal with vandalism, which often escalates to more serious issues. Repair any broken windows or graffiti immediately, and notify the police for even the smallest incidents. Even if the culprits aren't apprehended, police can increase patrols and prevent disaster.

Pay close attention, too, to maintaining fire and security alarm systems. Security professionals who work with churches often hear, "We have an alarm system, but it causes a lot of false alarms, so we don't use it much." Or, "But it's inconvenient to lock unused portions of the building!" Possibly true, but arson is a far greater inconvenience.

5. Recognize that prevention carries multiple benefits
Preventing arson involves increasing security, which in itself provides multiple benefits, including reducing the likelihood of vandalism and burglary. Additionally, steps such as controlling keys and access to unused areas of the building comports with many guidelines for preventing sexual misconduct, which recommend eliminating areas where inappropriate conduct can occur unobserved.

In short, while it's important to maintain your parish as an open, inviting place, that are easy steps you can take to reduce risk and maintain a safe environment for all who use the building.

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

Asking too little

by Ann Fontaine

In the course of my interim ministry and training work I have been observing churches and their lives. I am coming to a conclusion that we ask too little of people and the result affects our church growth, both in numbers and in our depth of life in Christ. I do not have any hard evidence or measurable data just my experiences.

My thinking about "are we asking too little," came from a person who started attending church with her husband. He had grown up in the Episcopal Church but she had grown up in what we now call the “none” church. She had no knowledge of or feelings (positive or negative) towards church. After they had attended for a while she wondered to me why they did not ask anything of her. She felt they were nice and welcoming but shouldn’t there be more? I have heard this from others since that time.

This was the beginning for paying attention to what I see as a failure to ask enough of those who are coming to church to find something more than a social club. In the old days church was just a thing people did. They joined to find friends or for business contacts or to look like a good person. Now none of those reasons for church are necessary. At least in the Pacific NW people get those needs met elsewhere. The only thing we have to offer that is different is Christ and a way of life.

As I see growing churches I see churches who raise the bar on membership. Just showing up occasionally and having ancestors who were once active is not enough. All are welcome but to really be a member requires more. Can we be totally welcoming as a church, offering all we have: sacraments, ministry, and care, unconditionally, to those who walk through the doors? At the same time can we ask more of those who want to be part of the decision making and shaping of the life of the church? It is a fine line and one that invites continual reflection.

"Below the fold" is an example of one church's process. The result is increased numbers, more commitment, and increased depth of faith. The essential steps were looking at the core values of the church and if they are the values it wants to continue, developing a mission statement, in the language the church uses, that reflects those values and asking people to make a commitment to be present and support the church through service and giving.

This example is just one way a church can develop a process of deepening faith and life and commitment. Development will vary according to the core values of each church. I believe it is essential to do the work of discovery before any other steps.

What I have come to believe is that we often ask too little of people. And they go away saying, “is this all there is?” Instead let us be bold and share the gift we have been given so people will find spiritual nurture, a place to center their hearts and exercise their gifts.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine lives on the Oregon Coast and oversees communications for her local St Catherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church. She is a trainer and mentor in the Education for Ministry program and an editor for Episcopal Café. Her book is Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on scripture

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Christmas is Easter

by Sara Miles

I used to really love Christmas as a kid, and couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly be surly about it: sparkly stuff everywhere, shiny presents, fabulous blinking lights, way too much sugar, that bright turpentine smell of pine trees, even—at least where I grew up–– real snow. In my twenties, I realized, OK, there might be a few issues with, you know, capitalism. And families. People complained about depression, dysfunction, debt, the whole tacky Christmas-industrial complex…still, I thought the day was kind of fun. Lighten up! What’s wrong with a little tackiness? Have some eggnog!

But then, in middle age, I started going to church, and I got it: Christmas is just really disappointing, compared to, say, Easter. Holy Week, that’s the real thing. Christmas? It’s almost not a Christian holiday.

Or so I thought. But it turns out Christmas is like Easter. As my friend Gabe, who’s eight years old, explained to me a few days ago when we were discussing the similarities, “Both days are when Jesus comes alive.” Christmas is totally about resurrection.

Which means, of course, that Christmas is also about death.

The week before Christmas is the darkest of the year. Last Sunday, there was a lot of crying at church. People sobbed with the weight of their losses: a father in intensive care, a sister dead after terrible illness, a son in jail, beloved friends in hospice and hospital, a long-gone mother whose absence felt painfully vivid. I held one mourner in the kitchen, weeping with her, then walked home as the afternoon light was fading.

On Monday, I ran into one of the teachers from the elementary school across from my house, who was standing on the sidewalk watching parents pick up their kids. “I just miss my mom so much,” he told me, and pulled out a crumpled snapshot showing him, a 62-year old gay man with long black hair, stroking the face of a tiny little 90-year old Chinese lady in a bed jacket lying under a pile of quilts. “I took care of her as long as I could, dressing her, feeding her when she couldn’t feed herself,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I called her my baby at the end. Oh,” he said, “oh, I just don’t want to do Christmas this year without her.” The sun set by five that night.

On Tuesday evening, we sang evening prayer in the chapel, beginning with the O antiphon: O Dayspring, brightness of life everlasting, and sun of righteousness, come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. A bank of candles flickered in front of the icon of Mary, and we sat in darkness praying for a woman who had just died, leaving behind her wife and a six-year old boy.

On Wednesday, it was colder, and the sun set before five. At night, unexpectedly, the doorbell rang: it was a friend of ours who’d been at the bedside of a friend dying of brain cancer. He got weepy as he told us how she gathered the people she loved to say goodbye. “I’ve been so happy,” she told them, “to be alive. And now I’m just falling, falling into death.”

On Thursday, I woke up in the dark, hauled myself out of bed and went to work. A man came by the church who said he’d lost interest in living after his sister died four months earlier: he wanted to play me a message of her voice saying “Te quiero, I love you”, and then he leaned forward to whisper, “I know everyone dies, but my sister? This destroys me. I have some bad words for God: why would he take her?” Then in the evening another man came and told me about making Christmas bread from a recipe passed down from his grandmother to his mother, who’d died earlier this year, and how he started crying when he realized there was nobody alive left to call for help with the recipe. “Maybe I need fewer memories,” he said. By the time I got home, it had been dark for more than four hours.

On Friday the day was even colder and the dark more complete, and then it was Saturday, the solstice, the longest night of the year. I couldn’t sleep. I prayed: O Dayspring, brightness of light everlasting, and sun of righteousness, Come and enlighten us who sit in darkness, and the shadow of death.

Christmas is Easter. We wait for Jesus in Advent the way we wait for Jesus in Lent. And in both seasons, we have to pass through death in order to find him, blazingly alive, the sun of righteousness.

Death is a fact of life that happens all year long, in every time and place and circumstance. But the reason why Christmas and Easter are actually Christian holidays is because they tell us the truth beyond that fact, and reveal the wild, real promise at the heart of our faith. The promise that, as Gabe says, Jesus comes alive. That Jesus is born to us, dies for us, and rises from the dead, trampling down death by death, to pull us up from our graves, to bestow life.

At Christmas and Easter we get to see more clearly how God is always making light and life out of darkness and death. How life can spring from the womb of a humiliated girl on a winter night, how life can rise before dawn from the tomb of a crucified man. How death has no final power. Because at Christmas and Easter Immanuel appears to those who wait in darkness and the shadow of death: to share our suffering, and to share the love of God.

Last week, before the winter solstice, I had a hard time sleeping. I’d go to bed early and be woken with a start in the middle of the night by the brilliance of the nearly-full moon, its cool light pouring through my window and illuminating the whole room. I remembered how, when my daughter was young and I was working as a journalist far away from home, I’d call and tell her to look outside for the moon. “It’s the same moon,” I’d say, missing her terribly, “that I see where I am. Even when we’re not together, remember we’re both looking at the same moon.”

The moon that kept me close to my child is the same moon Mary saw as she waited, pregnant, in the dark; the same moon that Joseph saw when an angel awoke him from sleep. It’s the same moon that Jesus saw in his longest night on earth. For all humanity, the same moon can be a sign of Immanuel, meaning God is with us: we’re not alone.

Because the moon reflects the sun. Even when we can’t see the sun, we know by the light of the moon that it’s there. And even when I’m sleepless or troubled or grieving, I know that God–-the true sun of the world, ever more risen and never going down––is with us: and I can see God’s love reflected by other people, who shine with it and help illuminate the dark. Who hold me and pray with me and give me a Kleenex when I cry, whose bodies help comfort me through the night.

Today, even by a few minutes, the day will be longer. The sun will give a little more light, and the same moon will shine on all of us, reflecting the glory. Another child will be born today, and tomorrow, and on Christmas Eve, and on Good Friday, bringing resurrection, God’s new life to the world.

Arise, shine, for your light has come.

Sara Miles is the author of Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. Her new book is City of God (Jericho Books, February 2014.) Originally preached for Advent IV.

A Pastoral Paradox

by Richard Helmer

In a more provocative moment, I recently posted on Facebook that when confronted with the word "pastoral" I am increasingly tempted to wonder -- if not ask out loud -- if "co-dependent" is what is often really meant. It seems that "pastoral" can be code for mere coddling bad behavior, or simply leaving things dangerously alone.

Approaching eleven years in congregational leadership as a priest, I have heard "pastoral" used in a wide variety of ways by laity and clergy alike. Judging by the responses to my Facebook post, there is little agreement about what we mean by "pastoral." The word seems to hide or embrace a whole host of meanings. And it often too easily gives rise to a whole host of platitudes.

We are often guilty of applying "pastoral" as a judgment:

"She's a great administrator, but a lousy pastor." (As though successfully managing a complex blend of personalities and agendas like a congregation or a staff isn't "pastoral.")

"He doesn't have a pastoral bone in his body." (As though being "pastoral" is something innate, rather than a learned skill.)

Worse, we often leverage "that's not pastoral" when our leaders make difficult decisions, particularly decisions with which we disagree.

One response to my Facebook post talked about "pastoral" only in terms of presence. That is, being "pastoral" means being present for people while not trying to "fix" anything. It is true that much of the work of pastoring in a community is about showing up, listening, and being fully "on deck," as those in our charge approach with the bumps, bruises, and paradoxes of this life. But is this way of being pastoral enough when the community is threatened by a toxic personality or two? Or when the most well-intentioned souls, if left simply to their own devices, might wreak havoc on the shared trust and integrity that the community relies upon to work out its mission in Christ? Sometimes being "pastoral" means holding firm the boundaries, plans, and structures of the community. Saying no can be just as pastoral -- sometimes even more so -- than simply listening. It is certainly more pastoral than the co-dependent "yes" that sometimes gives bad behavior permission to thrive, that allows the wolves to have their way among the sheep.

A well-seasoned priest once reminded me that sometimes no pastoral care is the best pastoral care. How do we as leaders decide what is important and what is the ordinary static of human relationships? And when does our attention to an interpersonal conflict magnify the difficulties more than resolve them? When is simply moving through the ordinary bumps of relationships -- as many healthy friends, spouses, and communities learn to do -- better than holding a "pastoral" conversation over a perceived problem? When do we back away enough to allow people to grow up in Christ in their own rough-and-tumble way?

I wonder at how sometimes we expect "pastoral care" to be some kind of therapeutic "I'm okay, you're okay" -- a mere validation of our feelings or, worse, a coddling comfort when we have erred. In my experience, that's not good pastoral care. It's not even good therapy. We need help to find our ways out of our bad behavioral binds, our emotional mazes, and sometimes our addictive patterns. Like lost sheep, we need pastoral care that guides us back to the green pastures and still waters that nourish us. We need to be told to get up and walk out of abusive situations and stand tall over and against the wrong, the hurtful, and even the outright evil that will inevitably come our way. We need to be supported by pastoral care in doing what is right, even when it is unpopular or profoundly difficult.

It's taken me eleven years to learn to pray (a lot!) into some hard-knock, paradoxical learnings:

We need -- whether we expect it or not -- pastoral leaders who tell us hard truths and have the fortitude to bear the hostility that will sometimes be the response; to remember, in the words of a spiritual director of mine, that what others think of us is not really our business.

At the same time, we need -- whether we expect it or not -- pastoral leaders who are sensitive and vulnerable enough to work at discerning how best to disclose the truth in ways that we might be able to hear.

We also need pastoral leaders who will take tough stands on behalf of the community: leaders who will prayerfully discern when people need to be shown the door; when people need to be allowed to depart in peace; and when it really is time, in Jesus' words, to leave the ninety-nine and go after the lost one.

Most of all, we need -- whether we expect it or not -- whole pastoral communities that are more than sacramental grocers or spiritual retailers. We need pastoral communities that hold their members accountable; that set expectations; that challenge us all to grow in the paths of our most faithful Pastor, and disclose the divine shepherding at work in our midst.

Br. Richard Edward Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA, and a professed member of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. In addition to full-time parish work, he serves as a Deputy to General Convention and Secretary of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of California. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs occasionally at Caught by the Light.

Across the Church, From Ghost to Ghost

by Eric Bonetti

Every evening, as night falls and darkness spreads its long, icy fingers across the land, silence descends like a pall upon the cathedrals, churches and graveyards of The Episcopal Church. Buildings that, only a few hours earlier, were bustling and full and life, stand empty in the dark.

Or do they?

Some say that our majestic houses of worship welcome not just the living, but the souls of the dead as well.

Why would the dead return? No one knows. Some say they seek to visit those they love. Others believe it is to attend to unfinished business, to right a wrong, or to seek solace among the living. Others say it is to check on the welfare of the church they loved deeply in life, and continue to love, even in death. Some even think that wraiths visit the church to express their dislike of changes in the church--an explanation that many will find all too plausible!

Whatever the reason, tales of hauntings abound in The Episcopal Church. Predictably enough, many of these tales come from the east coast, where the church dates back hundreds of years. At the same time, tales of ghostly activity exist all across the church, at churches both great and small, old and new, rural and urban.

Read on, and enjoy a brief, pre-Halloween visit with just a few of the ghosts of The Episcopal Church.

St. Mary's-in-Tuxedo, Tuxedo, NY

A gloriously beautiful church, one of the hallways in the building has been the source of reported ghostly sightings since at least the 1940's. Witnesses report that the phantom is that of a clergy person associated with the parish.

Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, NY

Home to breathtaking beautiful stained glass windows, the church is said to be the scene of numerous visits from the beyond, including shadows near the altar; the benign specter of an elderly and loving parishioner, now long gone; and even an irritated wraith, reportedly angry about changes to the building.

St. Paul's Chapel, New York, NY

Given its proximity to Broadway and the theater's long association with the supernatural, it is no surprise that the cemetery is said to be haunted by the headless ghost of an actor, who donated his head to science. Today, he is thought to wander the earth, seeking to have his skull reunited with his other earthly remains.

St. Andrew's, Staten Island, NY

The scene of a recent paranormal investigation, visitors are reported to have experienced loud, unexplained noises in the middle of the night, as well as heavy chimes that rang with no visible cause.

St. Stephens, Mullica Hill, NJ

Located in one of the most historic areas of New Jersey, the second floor is a favorite stop for those hoping to photograph unexplained activity, including eerie lights that are said to represent the souls of the departed.

Christ Church, Alexandria, VA

This beautiful church, where notables have worshipped including George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Winston Churchill, is home to a cemetery bearing some of the oldest legible headstones in the area. Legends tell of ghostly activity in cemetery, including a recent instance of a ghostly face unexpectedly appearing in a photograph taken at the gate to the cemetery.

St. John's, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC

The so-called "church of the presidents," is home to a bell cast by the legendary Paul Revere, as well as a pew that, by tradition, is reserved for the president of the United States.

Over the years, many have reported that, when the bell tolls for the death of someone famous, six ghostly male apparitions appear briefly in the president's pew at midnight, only to quickly vanish.

Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA

This lovely stone church, built in an English country style (and home parish of this author) is said to be haunted by the apparition of a man in robes, seen in the hallway near the church library. Additionally, there are reports of loud footsteps in the third floor hallway late at night, after the building is secured. Upon investigation, no reasonable explanation for the heavy footfalls is ever found.

Aquia Episcopal Church, Stafford, VA

This church, which predates the civil war, is said to be haunted by the specter of a soldier killed during the war, with activity focused on the church tower. Others report that ghostly activity relates to a young woman who was murdered on the property. In any case, tales of unearthly lights and sounds in the church date back many years.

St. George's Church, Fredericksburg, VA

Another church with roots deep in history, St. George's is said to be visited by the ghost of a woman in white, who appears in the second-floor gallery. Indeed, some claim to have photographed this shadowy figure!

Old Trinity Episcopal, Mason, TN

This small, clapboard church, scene of vandalism in recent years, is said to be haunted by the souls of those whose final resting places have been disturbed. Numerous reports exist of eerie sights and sounds in the cemetery, as well as unexplained phenomena relating to a statue of the Virgin Mary located near the church.

St. Luke's, Cleveland, TN

Famous among local residents, the Craigmiles family mausoleum, located in the church cemetery, built of white marble, is reportedly streaked with red, reflecting various tragedies the family has suffered over the years. No explanation for these red streaks, or their return following various attempts to remove the ghastly markings, has ever be given.

St. Paul's, Key West, FL

Tales abound of ghostly presences in the church's graveyard, including an apparition dressed in clothes of many, many years ago. Visitors also report seeing the ghost of a long-dead sea captain, as well as those of several children. Recent visits also have resulted in unexplained phenomena in photographs taken at the site, including ghostly balls of light that manifest at night.

Chapel of the Cross, Mannsdale, MS

This beautiful gothic church, built around 1850, is said to be haunted by not one, but two, ghosts. One is believed to be the wraith of a governess who died years ago in a house fire; the other is said to be the inconsolable phantom of a young lady whose fiancee was killed in a duel and buried at the church.

St. Paul's, Leavenworth, KS

The first Episcopal church in the area,some report hearing other-worldly music coming from the church late at night, long after the church is empty.

Nashotah House, Nashotah, WI

Established in 1842, this seminary is said to be haunted by various phantoms, including a "black monk," thought to be the ghost of a priest who committed suicide on the grounds, and who now walks the grounds late at night.

St. Andrews, Nogales, AZ

Rumored to be built on the site of a Native American burial ground, this contemporary church building is said to be haunted, indeed. Tales abound of candles that light themselves, unexplained footprints in the building, and even a full apparition of a Native American, said to walk among the pews.

St. Mark's, Cheyenne, WY

Hauntings here are said to center on the bell tower, which allegedly has been the scene of mysterious noises including banging sounds and muffled voices. Legend has it that the phenomena are caused by the death of a stone mason, who fell to his death during construction.

Trinity Russian Hill, San Francisco, CA

Said to be visited by an ethereal figure in grey, the church also is said to be the site of inexplicable cold spots and mysterious noises.

Christ Church, Portola Valley, CA

The road near the church is said to be haunted by a ghost that appears in front of startled drivers, only to vanish without a trace. Tales of this haunting are of relatively recent origin.

Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Of course, no collection of ghostly tales would be complete without reference to the glorious Washington National Cathedral. Towering over the nation's capitol, the cathedral is one of the largest in the world, and home to not just scores of creepy gargoyles and a gloomy crypt, but supposedly the ghosts of both a president and an church employee as well.

Visitors report that Woodrow Wilson, the only US president interred at the Cathedral, rises at night to walk the cold marble floors, the cane he used in life making a gentle tapping sound as walks the deserted building.

Even more chilling is the library building, the site of a 1946 murder. While no reports of an apparition exist, it is said that some sense a restless soul lingering near the basement site of the homicide. Feelings of unease, as well as a sense of being watched by an unseen force, are thought to emanate from the shadowy corners of the basement.

Happy Halloween!

(editor's note - add your stories in the comments)

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

The angry priest or the boorish photographer?

by Andrew Gerns

Nearly everyone has experienced the insensitive photographer. Especially if you’ve ever presided at a wedding or a baptism.

My favorite moment came when I was doing a baptism and as the infant-candidate, the parents and sponsors gathered with me around the font, and after I invited all the children in the room to come forward and join us there, I looked up to see nearly every single adult friend and family member holding up a camera, video camera or phone.

My first thought was “I wish I had a picture of this…!”

Here was an image of how we have come to mediate our experience of the world: through a screen. We see only what we record.

But there have been times when things were more annoying. When a photographer
searches for the perfect shot but is completely unconscious of his or her context, they end up just getting in the way.

I once did a wedding where, just as the wedding party was gathered around the couple, a guy with a video camera was prowling around the group like a tiger getting reaction shots of not only the bride and groom but each member of the wedding party. I could see faces of each member of the wedding party as they reacted to the lens. The act of recording the moment had become the moment.

I was lucky. The mother of the bride, using nothing more than “The Look,” firmly directed the guy to “Sit! Stay!”

So when a video went viral showing an Episcopal priest telling a videographer, who had been shooting over his shoulder, to leave, I was sympathetic. First of all, it is clear from the video that the wedding was not in a church but at a park or catering facility, so he was doing a sacred rite at a secular location. This can be awkward because the priest tends to be seen as nothing more than 'hired help.'

When he said that the ceremony was not about the pictures but “about God,” I knew what he was saying: that this is a sacred moment, and the videographers were stealing from that by their intrusion. So part of me cheered a bit because the videographer earned the admonition.

On the other hand, the only image we have is of “The Angry Priest,” and the meme is the ruined wedding. That has become “The Story.”

The on-line comments appear to split 50-50. I have seen blog posts taking both sides. Interestingly, while there are lot of people mad at the priest for tossing out the cameraman and ruining the couple's wedding, no one appears to be mad at the cameraman for posting the altercation on YouTube and defining forever how the wedding is remembered.

Mark Twain once said “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” These days, when electrons are cheap and when everyone can be both a producer and publisher of content, it will not do to make a frontal assault against a culture that mediates experience through the screen. All it does is makes us look angry.

Although this never occurs to us when we are tripping over an over-zealous shutterbug, the truth is that we can’t be angry at the photographer one day and then the next bemoan that our message is not getting out. We can’t have it both ways.

Christians are in the story-telling business. And our story is Good News! We want to use these tools to communicate. As a parish priest, I love having pics and videos of worship because, well done, they tell people what we do and who we are. That means we can't snarl at photographers while expecting to use their product.

So I try to negotiate and educate. Sometimes it even works.

During the process of wedding and baptismal preparation, I direct the couple or family to tell their guests to limit their photography so that everyone can give their full attention to the moment. They should tell their friends that there will be one or two official photographers and that there will be pictures of the liturgy available later from them via e-mail, Facebook, Pinterest or some other form.

For weddings, I also have the couple give me the names of the photographers and I call them and invite them to the rehearsal as well as the wedding. This helps the photographer understand the blocking and timing, it also helps me clarify expectations and solve any unique problems. And it gives the photographer a wealth of candids.

Additionally, I have developed a list of photographers that we recommend, just as we do florists. They know our space and how we work and will make life easier for the couple.

And lastly, I ask both official and unofficial photographers to send me the pictures and grant the church the right to use them for our own communications.

All of this still doesn't prevent an intrusive photographer from happening. Just two weeks ago I did a wedding where the bride’s son, all 6'4" of him, was trying to catch the action on a pocket video camera. It was a small church and his large frame was going to block everyone's view. Of course, everyone was looking at him and not what was happening. Also, the official photographer--who was doing as I asked-- did not appreciate that she was being limited while this unpaid visitor was doing as he pleased. I did not stop the liturgy, but I did walk over to him (and, yes, still in full view of the group) at the first “break” in the action and quietly asked him to step aside and park himself in a spot where he could still take the pictures of his mother and not distract people from witnessing and blessing her marriage.

In a world where we more and more mediate experience through screens, one of the things we can do as a church is remind people that the best photographs, films and videos describe, highlight and interpret a much bigger world. The idea is to both communicate and take us back to a moment in time that is bigger than our perceptions and means more to us than we even realized in the moment. In other words, what photography does is very much like what liturgy does.

Both can connect us, aid in interpreting our experience, and help us makes memory.

Both liturgy and media help us know, tell and live our story.

But bad photography (and unconscious photographers) can like bad liturgy (and unconscious celebrants) get in the way. This is what happened in the video when it went viral: the conversation became about “The Angry Priest vs. The Boorish Photographers” when we should have been celebrating the couple’s marriage.

Photographic technology is so accessible that we forget all the work that goes into a good production. Similarly, a good liturgy should look easy because all the practice has paid off. One of the pastoral challenges of our day is to bring the two together in ways that allow us to see more deeply into the world God has placed us in and contribute to the ongoing story of God’s unfolding, creative love.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and a member of the newsteam of the Episcopal Café.

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Ten tips on addressing conflict within the church

by Eric Bonetti

Conflict. Even the word itself makes us cringe a little. It has a hard, biting edge. In the back of our minds, the word conjures up unsettling images -- of dentists' drills, of that last really bad cold, of falling out of a tree as a child.

Fortunately, when we understand conflict, we learn to take a deep breath, to relax a little, to move past the immediate issues, and to view conflict as perhaps even a stepping stone to positive change. We may never come to enjoy conflict, but with perspective we learn to put it in its proper place.

So, next time you feel like you're about to be run over by a truck named conflict, here are ten tips to help you understand and work through conflict:

1. Conflict is inevitable -- Much as we'd like to pretend otherwise, conflict is as old as humanity. It happens among the closest friends, even among Jesus and the disciples. And like death and taxes, it comes to us all. So don't panic when you see conflict coming--it's just part of life.

2. Churches may be particularly susceptible to conflict -- Avoiding conflict is easy when we get to pick and choose those around us. But in an environment that embraces diversity, there will, by definition, be a wider array of perspectives and viewpoints. As a result, there will be a greater likelihood of conflict.

3. Conflict doesn't make you bad -- Conflict, in and of itself, has no moral implications. Just because there's conflict afoot doesn't mean you're a bad person. Similarly, the presence of conflict doesn't reflect badly on your parish, your vestry, your priest, or your bishop.

4. Conflict can be healthy -- Growth requires change, and change engenders conflict. Handled appropriately, conflict can be a sign of positive change and growth. So next time you feel tension in the air, consider the possibility that something good is in the works.

5. Suppressing conflict is unhealthy -- Suppressing or ignoring conflict inevitably spells trouble. The underlying issue doesn't go away. Instead, like a locust, it goes underground, only to emerge later in spectacularly noisy fashion.

6. It's all about how we handle conflict -- Moral meaning attaches not to conflict itself, but to how we handle conflict. Remembering that we all are made in the image of God, assuming good intent, and avoiding "scorched earth" responses can go a long way towards de-escalating even the most difficult situation.

7. Choose engagement over fight or flight -- The old axiom about fight or flight as a response to threats misses the third option: Engagement. When conflict rears its ugly head, take a deep breath, relax, and "lean into" the issue. Promote engagement through use of "I" statements versus "you" statements, and by avoiding sweeping generalities. For example, "I feel like you are often late to meetings," is better then "You are late to every single meeting!" Test for understanding by reflecting back the other person's comments, "So you are saying it would be easier for you if the meeting were a half hour later?"

8. Get outside help when needed -- Sometimes, a neutral third party can be invaluable in breaking through layers of anger and misperception. If you're just not connecting with the other person, consider asking your priest, a professional mediator, or other trusted person for help.

9. Know that some situations require an immediate response -- Situations involving bullying or workplace violence, whether verbal or physical, require an immediate response to avoid potential damage to people or liability. Similarly, potential violations of fair employment laws, the canons, or issues involving sexual misconduct warrant a special response. When in doubt, act immediately to protect the vulnerable.

10. Persistent, high-level conflict is a warning sign -- Church, like work and home, should be something to which you look forward. If you find yourself dreading that next vestry or altar guild meeting, or you routinely dash out after services to avoid coffee hour, consider the possibility that a larger, more serious issue is afoot, and take steps to address it before it becomes even more toxic.

In short, while no one enjoys conflict, there's much that you can do to manage conflict, to reduce anxiety, and to move towards successful outcomes.

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

The laws of thermodynamics and the church Part 3

by Maria L. Evans

Part 3/3
"The entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches zero. The entropy of a system at absolute zero is typically zero, and in all cases is determined only by the number of different ground states it has. Specifically, the entropy of a pure crystalline substance at absolute zero temperature is zero."
--Third Law of Thermodynamics

In our last installment, we opened up to the possibility that "holy randomness," aka entropy, is not a bad thing--just an uncomfortable thing. The third law of thermodynamics points out a very simple fact--that there's no entropy of a pure crystallized substance at absolute zero temperature.

As a parable of the church, I think this calls us to look around at the things in our faith community that are crystallized, and the places where the temperature is dropping, and ask ourselves, "Where could we make this a little more fluid?" and "where could we up the temperature a little bit?"

I suspect the discomfort here lies in the fact that those of us who have come to embrace the theology and worship of The Episcopal Church have in some form, come to embrace the beauty of our beloved Book of Common Prayer and our Hymnal. However, to an outsider, in a very cool place, to be honest, it looks very, very crystalline. I actually feel sorry for any first time visitor who shows up in Lent or Advent, or even at a normal early Sunday service, when we sometimes get enamored with Rite I. Don't get me wrong...there's a beauty I appreciate in Rite I...now. But when I was out there in that vast land of "spiritual but not religious," I would have thought I'd bumped into a living dinosaur...and promptly, quietly, backed out the door and left folks to it. Sometimes I wonder if, when we're doing Rite I, we shouldn't put a warning sign on the door that says, "Caution: We don't always act this way. Please stay and see what we're up to after the service."

It's only upon close inspection that we even begin to realize that these gems of the church are not nearly as crystallized as they appear. It also takes a while for a newcomer or beginner to gain an appreciation for our music, our inclusiveness, and our incarnational theology. What I am learning about that generation we call the Millennials is that they have an appreciation for anything they perceive as "real"--they are quick to perceive a fake--but as with all of us when we were 20something, young age and lack of life experience hasn't expanded the possibilities of the boundaries of that perception of reality. What seems fake at first, with education and time, can become a new level of reality. In a world, though, where the new normal is to surf briefly and move on, I think that puts mainline denominations at a disadvantage.

The reality is that there is a wonderful fluidity inherent in our Book of Common Prayer that has been illustrated with each revision, the modern hidden gem being what we colloquially refer to as "Rite III"--the instructions on page 400 of the Book of Common Prayer. It even says right at the start it's designed for something OTHER than the principal worship on Sunday. (Hint hint.) We have tools to bring the church outside its own doors in our rich calendar of feasts, in Rogation Days, and in liturgical and musical materials created to reach historically marginalized populations. We have supplemental musical materials that expand our liturgy beyond "a bunch of long dead European white guys." It just requires some re-imagining, and some tolerance of discomfort. We see evidence of this re-imagination in things like "Ashes to Go," and there is still much more to re-imagine.

I invite folks to join the re-imagining conversations that are taking place at venues such as TEC's "re-imagining" Facebook page, or places like the Acts 8 moment.

Where are the places that you envision our theology and worship to be less crystalline, or less chilly?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

The laws of thermodynamics and the church Part 2

by Maria L. Evans

Part 2/3
"An isolated system, if not already in its state of thermodynamic equilibrium, spontaneously evolves towards it. Thermodynamic equilibrium has the greatest entropy amongst the states accessible to the system. Perpetual motion machines of the second kind are thus impossible."
--Second Law of Thermodynamics

As everyone saw from my previous post, we're exploring the possibility that the Laws of Thermodynamics can be an apt parable for the church. Here's the lay version of the Second Law: "Everything gets more random."

That notion of "randomness" has both personal and communal implications. I always figure that at a personal level, death is about as random as we all get. We become the dust of the cosmos physically, and whatever that thing called our soul is, it is delivered back to God. At a community level, it means we have to both love our most put together moments--those moments when we are touched by a perfect liturgical experience, a hymn sung right at the time we need it, a ministry that opens the door to a wonderful or touching surprise--and simultaneously grieve its fleeting, ephemeral nature. As mysteriously beautiful as they are, they don't last as is. They only last as a collective of all the similar moments we never saw ourselves, and all those yet to be.

I'm afraid we don't understand the power of our own journey to randomness as well as we understand the pain of it. We tend to understand it in our bad behavior and the bad behavior of others. For instance, an old saw that gets bantered around in recovery circles is that on average, one alcoholic intimately affects the lives of eight other people. Those eight people affect eight other people, those eight...well, you see where I'm going with this. One person's pain and suffering that was transformed into heat instead of work spreads into this random pall of pain...and the world is full of layers upon layers of sheets of pain. It's how I understand what composes our broken world.

If we flip it around, though, look what we get when we believe in the story of the ultimate positive transference of God's energy through the work of Jesus. Suffering and death, transformed into resurrection and ascension, affected his apostles, his mother, and Mary Magdalene for sure, and we can assume at least a few others by name. Using the same understanding of randomness, if each of those people had only spread the Good News in Christ to eight people, it is a random display of power that can outdo all the pain and suffering in the world multiple times over...and we know several of them spread that news to considerably more than eight people each.

The power of the random state created by Christ, spread through us, can't be measured with the classic yardsticks of church growth and development. You can't put a value like an average Sunday attendance on this. It requires a leap of faith--letting go of what's "ours." As much as we like to attribute a good work to something we did, we are instead invited to trust that the collective of good works is capable of bearing their own fruit. Our baptismal covenant calls to us to do something that is impossible for each of us to do as individuals to the level we can do it as a group, and to let that groundswell of collective random goodness be the thing that moves people's hearts to long for a piece of that action through belonging to an institutional church.

Despite news reports that claim Christianity is dying, I don't totally buy it. Oh, I think Christianity connected to empire is certainly dying. But so much of what I read from researchers such as Elizabeth Dreschler tell me that there is a huge layer of the religious "nones" out there--believers, too be sure--but unchurched and with no reason to see worth joining one. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says it right at the end--there's no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. We had no reason to expect institutional churches as we know them could generate this energy forever in the direction they did. Could it be that we are simply moving to a new state of spiritual equilibrium--one that embraces the randomness? One that creates greater accessibility to the system?

When have you observed the power of the "randomness" generated by the Gospel?

Part 1 is here.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

The laws of thermodynamics and the church Part 1

by Maria L. Evans

Part 1/3:
"Heat and work are forms of energy transfer. Energy is invariably conserved, however the internal energy of a closed system may change as heat is transferred into or out of the system or work is done on or by the system. It is a convention to say that the work that is done by the system has a positive sign and connotes a transfer of energy from the system to its surroundings, while work done on the system has a negative sign. For example, changes in molecular energy (potential energy), are generally considered to remain within the system. Similarly, the rotational and vibrational energies of polyatomic molecules remain within the system."
--First law of thermodynamics

I'm going to let you in on one of my secret heresies. I believe that God-stuff and classical physics are not mutually exclusive. One of the things I think about all the time when I hear the first part of Genesis 1 is one of the transformation of that world without form and void into our world was the insertion of the laws of physics, with God being the master of physics.

So in that vein, I often see the laws of thermodynamics as a parable for the church.

The first law of thermodynamics addresses the transfer of energy. In lay terms, what this says is this: Energy is transformed in two ways: work and heat. Work transfers energy into the larger system and is considered a positive form of energy transfer. When this is not happening in a closed system. energy is transferred as heat, and that's considered a negative transfer of energy.

Doing the work of the church has two forms of energy transfer, too. "Work" comprises the things we do "out in the larger system"--mission, evangelism, and all the things we do and are outside the walls of the church. "Heat" is composed of the things we do within the walls of the church--liturgy, structure, governance.

The one given in this scenario is energy is always going to be transferred, whether we want it to be or not, as long as the temperature is somewhere above absolute zero...and guess what? Nothing germane to my life or yours lives at absolute zero. (Yeah, yeah, I know tardigrades--little microscopic critters also known as moss piglets--can live at absolute zero, but you get my drift.)

Energy WILL be transferred--and our choices are work and heat. Really, it's all about balance.

If we, the church, don't do enough work that goes outside in the larger system--the world, guess what? It's gonna create heat, and that heat is going to dissipate in odd ways--in the ways that institutional churches become too self-focusing. If a vestry meeting is all about personalities and not about Gospel principles, it's a sure sign that there's too much heat being generated and not enough work.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a little heat being generated. One of the beautiful things about worship in the Episcopal Church is our music, our liturgy, our shared love of the Book of Common Prayer, and Eucharistic worship. It gives us enough heat to feel comfortable walking out the door to "go in peace to love and serve the Lord." That's a good thing. No one wants to sit and shiver. Shivering is not conducive to movement. Yet, if we don't do enough work, it gets too hot inside and stuff shrivels and dies. I suspect a lot of the woes mainline churches have had to address in recent years has to do with the fact people outside of those doors don't find walking into a sauna in their street clothes to look very pleasurable, frankly.

However, if we focus on finding ways to transfer energy into work--when we are out in the world being who we are called to be as Christians and as a community of Christians--and that energy is transferred into the colder places in the world--someone, somewhere is going to want to come in and warm up. They will follow the vapor trail to our door. The only issue is that we don't get a blueprint. We have no idea who sees it and acts on account of it. Often, it's not the object of our work, but a casual observer to that work. It's not even "our" work. It's Christ's. We're simply the conduits that carry it.

When you do an energy audit on your community of faith or of your personal faith life, how much is work and how much is heat?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Copy Claim Create

by Sylvia Miller-Mutia

The other day I convened the mid year meeting of the Youth & Family Ministry Team at our church, a team that includes everybody involved with or interested in ministry with children, youth, or parents in our congregation.

In light of our meeting, I found myself less interested in what the Gospel had to say about Jesus as the Messiah with a capital M, and more interested in what the Gospel had to say about Jesus as a young man who:

(1) was formed by a religious tradition and a religious community, and
(2) discovered & claimed his true identity and his true authority in the context of that religious tradition and community.
I am interested in what the Gospel says about Jesus as a young person who,through his presence & participation in his particular religious tradition and community both
(3) WAS transformed, and in turn
(4) DID transform that tradition and community
in ways that opened up new possibilities and new pathways for life and spirit for lots of folks (inside, outside, and beyond) his original community, for at least 2,000 years.

I am interested in the ongoing cycle of formation and transformation, of tradition and innovation, of individuals and community, of young people and elders.

And I am especially interested in what it all means for us, as communities of young people and elders and everyone in between, engaged in the work of forming and reforming, of being formed and transformed, by and with and through and for one another.

I spent the third week of January up at the Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg, CA, for a conference sponsored by All Saints Company on “Music that Makes Community”. As part of that conference, Donald Schell shared with us the wisdom of great jazz musician, Clark Terry, who summed up the process of improvisation and music-making this way:

“You’ve got to imitate, assimilate, and innovate!”

Or, if you prefer alliteration, you could say:
Copy…Claim… Create
Copy… like you’re playing a mirroring game, matching the movements of the person across from you…
Claim…like you’re taking what’s outside and drawing it into your own body, your own heart…
Create…like a seed planted inside you is flowering, and flowing out into the world.

And so the cycle continues.

This is a process that characterizes not only jazz, but all art, all growth, all life.
I know it to be true as a mother…As my 18 month old, Lucia, is learning to speak she begins by imitating sounds. Ba Ba Ba. But now those sounds begin to take on meaning. They are not just my sounds. They are Lucia’s words. “No.” “Shoes.” “All Done.” And soon she will be using those words to create her own stories, and poems, and songs.
I know it to be true as a dancer…I began my training in ballet class, imitating my teachers, doing 800 million plies and 800 trillion tendus, until the technique worked its way into my muscle memory and became part of me…then I moved into choreography, the realm of creating something new, and eventually moved beyond the world of classical ballet entirely, into something more well-aligned with the true vocation of my heart.

I know it to be true as a priest…especially as a priest who enjoys the privilege of spending a great deal of my ministry with young people. The beautiful thing about working with young people is that you can sometimes witness this entire process (imitation, assimilation, innovation) unfolding in a relatively short period of time. I see it in Godly Play, and in summer camps, in the Christmas Pageant, and on retreats.

Because what is true in language and art is also true of the spiritual life.

It’s true for children & young people. It’s true for all of us.


We can’t skip to innovation in any meaningful way, without first imitating and assimilating a tradition.

On the other hand if we never move beyond imitation, to assimilation, our growth is stunted and our faith remains immature. It is always someone else’s story, someone else’s song, someone else’s prayer.

And if we never move from assimilation to innovation, our tradition is dead.
This is the pattern and process for art and for life.
This is our pattern and process for liturgy and spiritual practice.

And this is a pattern and process that characterizes the life & ministry of Jesus.
We can see the pattern unfolding, for example, in the 3rd & 4th chapters of Luke’s Gospel.

In Luke 3 Jesus is baptized, then in Chapter 4 he is led into the desert to face 40 days of testing. After this season of testing has passed, he heads home, and in Luke 4:16 we read, “When Jesus came home to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue as was his custom”, as he had since childhood. As a boy Jesus had heard the men of the community stand (day after day, week after week) and read from the scriptures, then sit to offer comments and interpretation. Even for Jesus—radical teacher, or revolutionary prophet, or incarnate Word of God—even for Jesus, the spiritual path started with imitation.

As a boy Jesus went to the synagogue, watched and listened. As he grew into a man he took his place alongside the other members of the community. He stood up to read the scriptures. He sat down to offer his own comment and interpretation. Up until a point, we can presume that Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath because it was the custom of his family…the custom of his community. But at some point, a shift takes place, and we hear in Luke 4 that when the Sabbath comes around, Jesus goes to the synagogue as was HIS custom. Imitation gives way to assimilation.

Then, as the chapter continues, we witness assimilation to such a degree that it becomes innovation…as the words of Isaiah roll off Jesus’ tongue, the words of Scripture become Jesus’ own words…

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME
because he has anointed ME to bring good news to the poor
He has sent ME to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind
To let the oppressed go free
To proclaim the year of the Lords’ favor”
Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, sets it aside, and says…
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Assimilation becomes innovation.

The response of Jesus’ community in the face of this innovation varies. Most are astonished. Many are delighted. Some are enraged. A crowd even hustles him to the edge of town in the hopes of throwing him off a cliff.

As spiritual communities this is the path Jesus invites us to walk with one another.
We must be generous and steadfast and patient at the stage of imitation.
We have one member of our church who regularly worships on Sundays at our 8:30 AM service. This person has a big voice. And he has been spending the past 20 months or so, since he was born, exploring that big voice in ways that are sometimes delightful, and sometimes excruciating for other members of the worshipping community.
About a month ago, something marvelous happened. What for months had seemed like a series of random vocalizations began to take on a recognizable shape…syllables began falling into place, one by one, and suddenly we could hear this little boy singing…Al-le-LU-ia…Al-le-LU-ia…Al-le-Lu-ia…

I went home and told my 7 year old daughter about it. “Well of course,” she said matter-of-factly, “He’s learning to pray.”

We must be generous and steadfast and patient—with ourselves and with each other-- at the stage of imitation.

And we must create space and time and encourage the practice that allows for assimilation.

Last April I went on retreat with our youth group, and two of our middle schoolers took responsibility for creating and leading a Saturday night compline service. What was so amazing about the service was that, while the content was original to them, the skeleton of the service was clearly derived from the shape of the liturgical practice of our church community. Our practice as a congregation had seeped into their bones, so that they were able to use the shape to create something new…something beautiful.
We must be generous and steadfast and patient at the stage of imitation.

We must create space and time and encourage the practice that allows for assimilation.
And we must be courageous and flexible and open in the face of innovation.
The people who study rites of initiation across cultures remind us that initiation is never complete until the initiate carries the community to a place beyond. So when we find ourselves at that ledge, on the brink of the unknown, on the edge of being carried to a new place, beyond what is known, we need to resist the urge to hurl somebody off a cliff.


It is a dance into which God invites all of us…toddlers & teens; first time visitors to church and old-time church members; students and teachers; individuals and communities.
This, I believe, is at the heart of our spiritual formation as Christians: When we heed God’s invitation to join Jesus in this dance, we receive and share the Word of Life until eventually we become the Word of Life and ultimately we transform the Word of Life for the life of the world.

Sylvia Miller-Mutia is a dancer, mother, and priest, serving as Youth & Family Minister at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

Tinkering our way into oblivion? Theory U

By Linda Grenz

The trend lines for attendance, membership and finances in the Episcopal Church continue to show declines. Some of the changes are simply due to demographics – our attendance trends largely follow the rise (Baby Boomers) and fall (Busters) of the Anglo US population. One place we have failed to keep pace is in serving people of color – the fastest growing portion of the US population – which is the primary reason why our percentage share of the population is falling.

Many of the changes we are discussing in the church now are a natural result of those population shifts. In the 1950-60’s we built churches, education wings, programs and services to meet the needs of all those families with young children. That growth rippled through the system: dioceses and the church-wide organization expanded along with parishes. But when the population boom ended, we failed to adjust our systems. The end result is that the current members have to work harder and give more to maintain a church life that no longer fits their situation and fails to attract newcomers. Programs to “fix” the problem demand even more time and money – and many fail to produce the hoped for results. Eventually some people give up and leave. Others stay but are exhausted and dispirited – poignantly expressed in the comment: “Church feels like just another job.” Dedicated clergy and laity fail to find the depth of spiritual life or the engagement in God’s mission that they desire.

Organizational systems theory says that a system is designed to produce what it is producing. If you like what the system is producing but want to “improve it,” tinkering with the system enables you to produce a better result . . . faster, better, cheaper. But if you don’t like what the system is producing, you have to change the system.

A crisis generally is what motivates us to change. But the question is: Will we change the system or tinker with it? Others may have a different answer, but I’m not satisfied with producing more of what we are now producing (exhausted, dispirited members, declining numbers and spiritual vitality). . .even if we can do it faster, better, and cheaper! Restructuring will get us efficiencies, but it won’t get us a different end result.

Most organizations react to a crisis – what Otto Scharmer in Theory U calls a Level 1 response. The “voice of judgment” rises during this stage. The second level he identifies is redesigning – changing the underlying structure and process (that’s what is now being discussed on the HoD/B listserv). The “voice of cynicism” is the dominant blocking factor at this stage. And this is where most organizations stop – they re-organize or they re-structure and about 70% of them fail to transform their organization. If we stop at reorganizing and restructuring, it will simply enable us to continue producing the same thing faster, better, cheaper.

If we want to get a different result (and I, at least, do), we need to go deeper. Reframing is the third level. This level changes our thinking, not just our organizational structure or processes. It requires letting go of our habitual ways of seeing and thinking and reframing – this is where the “voice of fear” becomes loudest. Fear because, if we do that, we need to look seriously at questions like:

• Where is God at work in the world around us and, if we had no structures or ways of being the church already in mind, what would we create to align ourselves with and participate in doing God’s mission?

• Who are we, who do we say Jesus is and how does that shape how we live and “are church?”

• Is a legislative convention the way we must or should make decisions? Or might there be a whole other way of building a collaborative decision-making process?

• Are dioceses an essential organizational structure for us to be the church? Or might there be another way to organize ourselves to do mission?

• Are bishops or a Presiding Bishop or priests, or paid staff, etc. essential for us to be the church?

• Are church buildings, as we currently envision them, essential or the best way for us to create sacred space for people to worship and…?

One exercise I suggest to churches is to write down everything you do, look at each item and ask: If we stopped doing this, would we still be the church?

After “letting go” of our assumptions, our notions, our understanding of how to be church, we get to the bottom of the U, where we need to re-generate – go to the place of core purpose and ask: Where does our commitment come from? What is the ground/source of our existence? In the faith community, that means we stop, retreat, reflect and reconnect with God. Scharmer calls that place “presencing” – shifting our perception from what was in the past to the Source of a future possibility that is emerging. This is what we call, “discerning God’s will for us.”

Then, and only then, can we begin to live into that emerging future: co-creating new thinking and principles, co-creating new core activities and process and finally co-creating new structures and practices. Scharmer calls this process Theory U because the first three steps take us down through a process of shedding old ways of thinking and being to a focus on our core purpose and establishing a common commitment and then back up through three parallel steps of re-creating.

This process is designed to transform secular organizations – but it is really the faith community’s process, translated into business language. Over two decades of research in the field of organizational systems theory affirms what we, in the church, have always known: that when we are willing to follow Moses out of Egypt (that which oppresses us) and go through the wilderness where we learn to discern and follow God’s leading, we will get to the Promised Land. We know that on a personal level – and spiritual directors help us go through that process. We know it on a communal level and we repeatedly tell that story of letting go, dying, relying on God, following The Way and discovering new life.

Practioners of organizational systems theory (like Scharmer in Theory U) might have fancy names for it, but I think it is simply telling our story and using our DNA to transform organizations. We would do well to follow in this way rather than just looking at restructuring or, worse yet, spending our energy on giving voice to judgment, cynicism and fear.

This is a pivotal moment in the life of the Episcopal Church. We have the power to choose life. God did not allow the Israelites to blame others for their captivity in Babylon. God’s Word to them is also God’s Word to us: “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.” (Exekiel 18:31b-32)

The Rev. Linda L. Grenz is publisher and CEO of LeaderResources. Her DMin project on using organizational systems theory and spiritual practices to transform church systems includes an online course to help congregations and groups implement a process that integrates systems theory and traditional spiritual practices.

Tiwwadi: Between Inertia and Incarnation

By Derek Olsen

Though some may not be familiar with the term, everyone who has spent much time with a Christian congregation of any stripe is familiar with the concept of “Tiwwadi.” No, it’s not a term from an African language like “Ubuntu” or “Indaba” (though to my untrained eyes it could be…). Rather it’s an acronym for an English phrase which I have no doubt is uttered just as frequently in other languages by tongues across the world. Usually preceded by a “But…” it lives on the lips of church matriarchs and patriarchs, altar guilds, flower guilds, vestries, you name it: “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

Now—let’s be honest. Clergy and church leadership types usually invoke this line with a snicker recognizing it as a delaying tactic that someone has deployed in an attempt to not do something we want them to. But I’d like to move beyond the snicker for a moment. Indeed, I’ll even suggest that tiwwadi has some lessons embedded in it that we’d do well to acknowledge.

The first lesson is that tiwwadi isn’t just an excuse—it’s is an evolved defense mechanism, a protective mechanism, that we would do well to heed. Of the things that the Episcopal Church believes about the faith, one of them is that it was, in fact, “delivered” to us. The quotes here aren’t scare quotes but are translation quotes. In his discussion with the Corinthians about the Eucharist, St. Paul appeals to what they learned about the faith which was based on what he learned about the faith: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed…” (1 Cor 11:23). The Greek word for “delivered” here is paradidomi; Jerome, when he translated St Paul’s words into Latin uses tradidi which is the precise root from which we get “Tradition.” We believe that we stand in direct and organic continuity with a line of teachers and preachers of the faith that stretch back through Cranmer, Jerome, and Paul to Jesus. We didn’t make it up—the faith has been delivered to us. For this line of delivery to function effectively over two thousand years, it requires a certain healthy conservatism, a stasis, an inertia, that resists easy and idle changes. Snicker as you will, tiwwadi is one of the ways that our tradition preserves itself.

Now, not all inertia is good inertia. (And let’s not cram the comment box pretending that’s what I’m saying either.) There have been plenty of clarifications to what has been handed down that have enabled us to better proclaim the Gospel. All I have to do is look at my ordained wife to remember that. We’d do well to remember that paradidomi, the verb Paul uses to “deliver” his teaching is the same verb that Judas does to Jesus, “delivering” him to those who will judge and kill him. (Sobering reminder isn’t it: sometimes a “delivery” can be the life-blood of a movement, while in other contexts it can be its betrayal…)

That having been said, if we had a penny for every dumb idea by a bishop, priest, deacon, or lay leader that had died a silent death due to tiwwadi we’d likely be able to pay off the national debt. A lot of things that “seemed like a good idea at the time” have been smothered by this inertial force and, looking back at some of the things that I’ve suggested in congregations, that’s not a bad thing by a long stretch. Indeed, it’s by suppressing those spontaneous, hare-brained notions arising from transient inspirations or fads that tiwwadi does much of its best work. There is a logic of the ages embodied in tiwwadi that inhibits careless tampering.

So, here’s my first major point: if someone calls “Tiwwadi” on you, take a step back and think carefully. What inertia are you trying to overcome—an inertia born of stagnation, or an inertia that is preserving our Gospel proclamation? When we starting looking from this perspective, we begin to recognize that a systematic dismantling of a congregation’s tiwwadi mechanism may accomplish more harm than good in the long run.

The second lesson that tiwwadi can teach us is that it plays an important role in the endless, inevitable, and necessary negotiation between the catholic and the incarnate. Let me explain this by way of a classical case of tiwwadi. St Augustine’s Letter 54 to Januarius recounts a discussion that he had between his sainted mother, St Ambrose, and himself. Upon moving from Africa to Milan, St Monnica was quite troubled at what she perceived as a departure from proper piety—the Milanese church did not fast on Saturdays as her African Church had. They didn’t do things the way she’d always seen them done.To help his mother out, St Augustine asked St Ambrose which was correct: to fast or not fast? The response from St Ambrose wisely avoids the simple either/or and moves to the underlying principles:

“When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offense by your conduct, nor to find cause of offense in another's.” (Ep 54.3)

As the letter unfolds, Augustine states the principle that if neither Scripture nor the Universal Church command or condemn something—thinking particularly of pious practices—then Christians should observe the customs as they find them. To do otherwise is to stir up unnecessary trouble that harms the faith through matters that are peripheral to it. (See in particular section 5/Chapter 4.)

That is, at the heart of the faith stands its catholic basis: those things that are believed and done by all. However, Christian communities are inherently local: we live, believe, work and love in particular times and places. The faith incarnates itself in different ways in different local communities—and this is just fine as long as those ways do not threaten our catholic identity. In its best forms, tiwwadi preserves this principle of incarnation, the universal made comprehensible and accessible in its particularity.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve been worshipping in my current congregation for about a year. Some things are common and familiar to me. Others are part of the common Anglo-Catholic heritage that both the church and I claim. Still others I find just plain odd. I could rail and protest. I could keep doggedly doing my own thing, supporting it by the fact that this is how I learned it at Smokey Mary’s or Phil-on-the-Hill or one of the other many churches I’ve worshipped in my life. But I don’t. When I dig deeper, I find something of the particularity of this parish, of its foundations in South Baltimore’s working class, of its ministry to the Polish and Slavic immigrants who filled its pews in the early 20th century. I learn too of my own priest’s formation in a related parish in central Baltimore. Other echoes point to the Missal tradition which flourished among the Anglo-Catholics of this region. Still others are silent reminders of a long-tenured alcoholic priest who left the parish scarred. In this place, tiwwadi functions as a vehicle for our own history, our own incarnate experiences of not just the faith, but the journey this faith community has traveled.

Tiwwadi isn’t always a cop-out or a simple appeal to the past for the past’s sake. Sometimes it’s a rehearsal of who we are now because of where we’ve been together. And this recounting can leave its marks in the strangest places—where water is kept during the service, an acolyte’s extra trip to the altar to return the deacon’s glasses, why we lay out the green French vestments after Epiphany rather than the English ones. You may not know who left the oddly disturbing candlesticks for the Lady Chapel in Lent, but Marge may well remember and tell you the story that goes along with them. Efforts to change these relics and recollections may be efforts to move the story forward—or to erase it altogether. Some customs are healthy to release, but others carry key clues to who we are in this time, this space, this place of grace.
Again, this defense of locality shouldn’t be misread as a license for anything goes.

Anyone who knows the Anglo-Catholic movement with any depth knows that one of its chief trials is rampant idiosyncrasy. There are things that all of us do need to hold and do together. As Episcopalians, we hold the catholic faith as written and prayed in our authorized Books of Common Prayer and our customs ought to be in line with that theological system.

Beyond that, though, we do well to remember the advice that St Ambrose gave to Sts Monnica and Augustine: observe the prevailing customs. Do it the way we’ve always done it. Sure, sometimes it’s stagnation and an unwillingness to change, but sometimes it’s wisdom, identity, and corporate memory.

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Through the valley of the shadow of death

By Donald Schell

I’d visited Joe in the hospital several times before he fell into the coma. The cancer was taking him quickly. Joe had co-chaired the parish search committee that had taken the big risk of calling me, a divorced twenty-nine year old priest from across the country, to be their rector. It hadn’t worked out as he’d hoped, I guess. After Joe died, I learned that he and his co-chair had taken the big risk of insisting that their good friend, my predecessor, retire for the good of the congregation. When I came, the congregation was mostly people in their 60’s (the age I am now). The search committee was looking for someone to lead change and attract new young families.

Joe’s co-chair on the search committee was mayor of a small town a couple of miles out from our parish. Small town politics and conflict in his police department had made him courageous even when he was a target, which was a good a thing, because change came hard to our little congregation. We introduced the brand new 1976 Proposed Book of Common Prayer to the parish, instituted every Sunday communion and shared it with young children, and sang more of the liturgy than some believed was appropriate. I was grateful that Joe’s co-chair was ready to cover my back; he and I talked over everything. Sometimes he counseled patience or steered me from crazy risks, sometimes he stubbornly made me see the good in someone in the parish who was angry, upset, and speculating that I’d come to destroy the church, and even when his friends made no sense to him or he thought I was being headstrong again, he stood beside me in conflict.

Joe’s particular goodness made him more shepherd than warrior or diplomat - Joe was faithful to his old friends. His ear was ready with sympathy for anyone who was upset, angry, or condemning of changes we were making. His heart went out to old-timers, and he made their pain and grief at every change his own. When the new younger adults began asking for a voice in running things, Joe reminisced with old-timers about building the church, brick by brick with their own hands twenty years before.

For a while he became their messenger
- They don’t know where you’re getting all this stuff.
- They just don’t feel like it’s their church anymore.
- We had our ways.
- Most of us chose the Episcopal Church.
- You keep telling us the church is change and we don’t see why.
- They don’t see why.
- They just don’t trust you.
- We built this church with our own hands.

The messages shifted back and forth that way between “they” and “we.” Eventually Joe’s being their ready ear and voice made him their leader.

Joe’s shepherding fit him well. Years before he’d literally spent a summer herding sheep. Before Joe and I quit talking, he’d told me of an early Rocky Mountain snowstorm that summer that had stranded him and the sheep in a high altitude pasture.

Sudden snow had made it impossible to get the sheep down the mountain and back to his camp. As darkness descended he drew the sheep in close in a tight circle on the ground, picked his way into the center of the circle, and wiggled in to lie on the ground surrounded by warm sheep bodies, sheep breath and wet wool. Snow continued to fall through the night. Joe recited the 23rd Psalm quietly to himself and then said his “Now I lay me down to sleep,” hoping he would not actually “die before I wake.”

Next morning he woke covered with a layer of snow, but alive and well. He stood in the radiance of morning sunshine and shook off the snow as the sheep did the same.

“The one good thing about this new Prayer Book of yours,” he’d told me, “is that we’ve got ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,’ in the words we all know.” He appreciated that the Rite I burial office included the King James Version of Psalm 23.

As Joe’s friends got angrier, and with me welcoming new strangers who volunteered for tasks and wanted to run for vestry, Joe found it harder and harder to talk to me. I called on Joe trying to talk it through. The last of those visits, when I knocked at his front door, Joe’s wife came to the door shaking her head. “He doesn’t see the point.” “You mean he won’t talk with me?” “I guess not.”

About a year later I got word of his cancer. It was probably that long since I’d seen Joe. I drove out to his place and knocked on the familiar door. This time he welcomed me himself. “I’m surprised you’d come,” he said smiling wryly. He invited me in to sit and talk and be quiet.

I watched him walk across the living room. He was hunched over with pain in his abdomen and his steps were slow and sitting down slower, but we talked, and from that day we fell into a routine of me visiting him a couple of times a week. I’d taken some risk knocking on his door. Joe took the bigger risk - he let me, the kid, the troublemaker, be his pastor. He began telling me stories again, rich stories of his life as a rancher and cattle broker, more sheep herding stories, memories of rocky desert and huge sky and mountain pastures that he loved, stories of ranching friends and homesteading farmer friends, memories of pulling over to watch a radiant red sunsets as he returned from a cattle buying expedition to a remote ranch. As he felt himself nearing death he told me stories of people he loved who had died well.

Eventually his pain got too great for him to be at home, and he was getting too weak to stand or sit. We didn’t have hospice care in our town. Getting adequate pain management meant he’d die in the hospital. I visited him there daily and continued visiting after he fell into a coma. I’d take Joe’s hand and pray aloud with him and then just sit for a little while longer holding his hand. When it was time to leave I’d pat his hand again and say “good-by” out loud. It was what I’d learned in CPE not so many years before - “Talk to people in coma. Hearing seems to be the last of our senses to go.”

The day I’m remembering was my second to the last visit with Joe. Something had changed. His breathing was labored. The nurse said death was close. When I sat with Joe and took his hand, something reminded me of Joe’s story of sheep in the snowstorm. With my free hand I opened my Prayer Book to Psalm 23 and slowly and deliberately read the version he loved -

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He began so quietly I’m not sure when I first noticed Joe’s voice speaking with me, his lips barely moving.

He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

We finished. He breathing was as labored as it had been. I turned to look at him and his eyes were still under his eyelids. Nothing in his face or presence reflected what we’d just done, what he’d just said, yet somehow those words he’d heard had bridged that unbridgeable gap between my consciousness in his hospital room and his wherever it was in his coma.

We spent that moment together somewhere far beyond our disagreements. I felt it as a moment of our seeing and knowing one another, a final remaking or restoration of care and respect for one another. And the moment was powered by memory, and by spoken words and by memorization.

The twenty-third psalm had become a part of Joe’s body and soul. He’d rooted it in his neurology where it became a means of our making peace.

I think on my startled hearing of Joe’s voice and remember finishing that evening as I left his room, walking the hospital corridor calling to mind prayers and songs I knew by heart to find what I could speak from coma.

Something from that night lives in questions I’ve worked on ever since: How do we form people in community? And what’s our liturgy for?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Monastic values: reflections of a warden in budget season

By Kathleen Staudt
Since I’m currently serving as Rector’s Warden/Senior warden at my home parish, I am very aware of November/December as “budget season” and of course these are challenging times, with high anxiety around financial matters. From a spiritual point of view, this time of year raises for me deep questions about the way we do church, whether it’s sustainable, faithful to the gospel and how we measure that. So much of what we receive from congregational development experts seems aimed at figuring out what people need and giving it to them, attracting more members to sustain what we have built evangelism as marketing (which it is to some degree) – but a model very much attuned to the culture around us.

And at the same time I’m rereading Esther de Waal’s writings about monastic spirituality for our time, and remembering that monasticism began with people who felt that the values of the church and the values of the surrounding culture were getting blended together to a point of great confusion. When Benedict established his rule in the fifth century, he was building what I think turns out to be an abiding “counter cultural” tradition of Christian living, preserving what he understood to be the central values of the gospel.

These values are not really developed in response or reaction to the culture; they simply offer themselves as guides. And so as I prepared for the November vestry meeting, I spent some time reflecting on the three vows that monks take, the vows of “Obedience”, “Stability” and “Conversatio” or “conversion of heart.” Unpacking these ideas has been helpful to me – and was helpful to the vestry, meeting about the budget in November. So I thought I’d share some thoughts about them here.

First, “Obedience,” which de Waal reminds us comes from the the Latin for “to listen.” Looking at parish life and our own lives, how do we listen for God’s guidance/ What practices orient us toward discernment rather than simply the pushing and defending of competing agendas. Where in our common life are there opportunities for study and prayer together, especially for leaders? How do we pay attention to Scripture? Listening to each other – giving each person around the table an opportunity and invitation to speak, practicing “appreciative inquiry” and other ways of discernment that help us hear one another: all of these practices, I think, fulfill the spirit of the vow of obedience. We can move toward healing if we also pay attention to the ways in which we are “not listening” in our pairhs life – to the neighborhood around us – to the needs of the world at the moment (not so much for marketing purposes as for mission and ministry). We need to pray for a deepening ability to listen. A symbol for this kind of obedience might be the Rublev icon, with what one writer has called the “listening eyes” of its three figures attentive each to the other – or another image might be building blocks, shared by a community of leaders. In her book Seeking God, Esther de Waal writes:

The Christian and monastic model for discerning God’s will in a given situation is not that of finding the solution of a crossword puzzle . . . where the answer must be exactly right, fitted to some preconceived plan. A better model is that we are given building blocks and have to see what can be done with them, using in the task all our intelligence, sensitivity and love (p. 49)
Not a solution, but a process of listening: putting gifts and ideas together and seeing what new thing comes out of that process. I like this as a model for a leadership team. Even a vestry!

The second vow, which I find fascinating despite the challenging term, is “Stability.”(Perhaps a better word for us would be “commitment” – but let’s hold the two together). – in our “cafeteria-Christianity” culture, this is the value that calls us to seek ways of staying together: not by silencing difference but by hearing and receiving the diversity of our views. . It is the vow a monk makes to stay with the same community –and let himself be formed by its challenges. The call to stability is of course a great challenge in the Anglican Communion just now but it helps me to name it in that way – not a call to “unity at any cost” where a dominant voice “wins” – it’s not a call to put up with abuse -- but it is a call to stay at the table, stay in conversation stay in relationship– not to leave—or at least not to consider leaving and going elsewhere as our first option. In parishes, “stability is a deeper value than giving everyone what they want or keeping things the same. it is an invitation to commit to being together and worshipping God in this place, to stay on rather than move on, when leadership changes. It is the value that fuels sustainable stewardship, care for one another in crisis and in conflict. It requires faith and endurance. I’d like to see leaders in congregations reflecting more on what stability looks like for them – what the challenges are, what the obstacles and rewards. The symbol we have for the value of stability is the symbol of our faith: the Cross, which tells of endurance through suffering, for the sake of the whole Body. Joan Chittister says this about the Cross and stability:

The cross is not a dark aspect of religion. It is, on the contrary, the one hope we have that our own lives can move through difficulty to triumph. It’s the one thing that enables us to hang on and not give up when hanging on seems impossible and giving up seems imperative. . . . The cross says that we can rise if we can only endure (Wisdom from the Daily, p. 148)

The call to stability might sound like a call to stuck-ness or to doormat-like acquiescence if it were not balanced by the third vow of conversatio or openness to change – the most famously challenging value for congregations. The symbols or this are the water of Baptism and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Ours is a faith that is about transformation, and as leaders we serve people best when we lead them toward this kind of openness. I like what de Esther de Waal writes about this in Seeking God:

If the vow of stability is the recognition of God’s complete faithfulness and dependability then the vow of conversatio is a recognition of God’s unpredictability, which confronts our own love of cosiness or safety. It means that we have to live provisionally, ready to respond to the new whenever and however that might appear. There is no security here, no clinging to past certainties. Rater, we must expect to see our chosen idols successively broken. It means a constant letting go. (Seeking God, p. 70)
Meditating on these vows has kept me going in this “budget-season,” and as our parish’s annual meeting, always in Advent, approaches. The reason to be in the church is to be shaped into a counter-cultural community – and I think it is a wonderfully creative challenge to look at our life together in the light of these Benedictine values of listening, stability/commitment and openness to change.

The teacher's way of wisdom and innovation

By Donald Schell

With my first step on the Aikido dojo’s practice mat twenty-eight years ago, I knew I was declaring my willingness to become a teacher. That is, I knew that by investing patience and regular practice from that day forward, I would earn a black belt, and a black belt signifies a teacher. And “teacher” means continuing to learn, as my first teacher said, ‘When you earn your black belt, you will be ready to begin learning.’ The Aikido saying echoes Suzuki Roshi’s wisdom in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

For twenty-nine of my thirty-eight years as an Episcopal priest, weekday church work has followed dawn practice in an aikido dojo, throwing and being thrown in a playful, energetic, sometimes frightening, always enlivening moving meditation. Gently and persistently Aikido has shown me something I didn’t see before in the Gospels and in the work of our church - our Christian tradition asks you and me to become rabbis in Jesus’ mold, teachers of teachers in training.

Eastern teacher traditions (like Ai-ki-do and Zen-do and others that call themselves a way, that is a ‘-Do’ or ‘Tao’) often speak of the process of passing on the practice as ‘transmission.’ In Christian practice, more typically we speak of ‘tradition.’ Both words point to ongoing creative engagement between beginners and more seasoned practitioners, and between older and younger generations.

Processes of ‘transmission’ or ‘tradition’ teach by demonstration - seeing and imitation, specifically mindful imitation, and reflective learning. What I see now in the Gospels is how Jesus’ tradition-ing brings the wisdom of our remembered and still living past into direct dynamic encounter with the passion and fresh demands of the present moment. Both past and present are changed in that encounter.

Last winter here in the Café I wrote about the false dichotomy our church falls into whenever we use ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ as polar opposites. I return to that theme a year later because I feel daily how that false dichotomy impoverishes us, fractures inter-generational learning and works to separate wisdom (the humble, ‘I wonder’ version of experience) from fresh energy and insight.

In ongoing extensive research on what he first named ‘communities of practice,’ Etienne Wenger reports that traditional crafts and trades KNEW crucial innovation was likeliest to happen in the daily interchange between senior apprentices and their supervising journeymen. Where a craft or trade actually has such a person as a ‘master,’ that person isn’t the one we should look to for noticing, blessing, and developing the accidental discoveries that learners are making.

Wenger’s observation is similar to Suzuki Roshi honoring the gift of ‘beginner’s mind,’ but Wenger’s slightly different framing should challenge the church uncomfortably. A culture of experts and novices or professionals and amateurs encourages neither tradition nor innovation. In vibrant communities of practice, tradition, or the transmission of knowledge, is a creative act. Consider what the word ‘lay’ or ‘laity’ means outside church talk - “Amateur, inept, or inexpert, not professional.” How did we do that? How can church thrive unless tradition and innovation feed each other? And who needs to share authority in that interchange?

Let’s put the dilemma differently: Jesus our teacher models for us that the real master, like an advanced journeyman, continues to learn and delights to engage with other learners. The most advanced learner makes the best teacher because that learner, whether called ‘black belt,’ journeyman, master, rabbi, teacher, or presbyter/elder, while confident of experience, also knows that she or he will always have more to learn. And the most advanced learner understands most deeply that ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘mistakes’ of the stumbling apprentice may fall into something new, fresh or essential to the work.

Aikido helped me see how Jesus (in the synoptic Gospels) invites his disciples and listeners to join him in an inquiry. Jesus presents himself and teaches as a journeyman teaching advanced apprentices. The Gospels show him learning alongside learners and his listeners into inquiry with him.

Imposing a ‘know it all’ Jesus on the Gospels numbs our ear to his real questions.

When our Teacher of teachers in training asks, ‘What parent among you, if your child asked for bread, would give that child a stone?’ he asks a real question with more than one possible answer. Our Teacher asking this question knows that some parents make frightening and damaging choices. His next question pushes on toward the threat asking, ‘what parent among you, if your child asked for an egg would offer a scorpion?’

Yes, there’s something dreadfully wrong when the parent hands a child a scorpion, but it does happen. When some flinch to call God ‘father’ (or ‘mother’) from dark memories of a dangerous, abusing parent, can we help them see and hear our Teacher’s courageous reflection on mixed experience pushes us to specifics. God isn’t simply ‘father’ or simply ‘mother.’ We have to ask ‘what kind of mother/father?’

The Teacher pushes our inquiry onward. ‘Abba,’ Jesus’ name for God our father, is far more specific than a conventional distillation of cultural norms of ‘appropriate’ parental behavior in his or any other time. The forgiving father in the parable of the prodigal son models unrestrained loving mercy that breaks the bounds of culturally endorsed patriarchal dignity. These parables, the pair of sayings about hungry children asking for food, and the story of the wayward, wanton child coming home, touch something deeper than pretending ‘we’re all always good parents,’ and wiser and more loving than ‘remember to act appropriately.’ Teaching traditions, the traditions that engage beginning learners with more advanced learners (and Jesus does cast himself as a learner) create new, fresh authority for even recent beginners, the authority of actual experience, real questions, and struggling to make sense of the contradictions we know in life.

‘Because I’m the rector,’ that killing refrain of tightly-held authority has no place in a teacher tradition. Yes, sometimes canons and good sense demand that a bishop or a rector or music director or Sunday School teacher or senior warden or other designated leader make a decision to mark the end of a conversation, declare a consensus or hark back to an essential, central principle or practice. BUT whenever any of us refuses to offer a clue of why it was time for us to resolve so we can act together we turn from learning (and discernment) to magisterial rule. Teacher traditions must sometimes trust leaders to distill vision and resolve community conflict, but teacher traditions keep looking for learning moments even in those times of resolution.

At 63, I’m very, very grateful for my thirty-eight years of work as a presbyter in our church, and the signs of life in our church feel me with hope and joy. But my heart breaks for clergy and lay friends of my generation who wonder how they’ve spent their life, what difference their work in the church has made, and lament a “dying church.” Of course our church is dying. Things what had grown old are being made new. Depressed pessimism, as though the Spirit were ready to abandon the church, is the older generation’s side of the crisis of 21st century Christianity’s traditioning.

Christian faith and practice have a future, possibly even a rich future. But boomers’ habits of leadership have broken the natural flow that gives real authority and autonomy to a next generation. Interestingly the ‘contemporary’ half of the contemporary/traditional dichotomy seems as much a baby-boomer artifact as the ‘traditional’ half. Neither one is what it says.
Our church (yes our ‘dying mainline’ Episcopal church) has great young leaders, lay and ordained bringing fresh vision and passion to building Christian community, to loving Jesus, to serving and learning in his name to give simple and abundant thanks that the Spirit is certainly at work.

Our present moment (like all present moments) asks of us wisdom that continues to learn and passion that is eager to do work, seasoned, grateful elders and passionate younger leaders listening to one another, working together to synthesize what we have learned and know, what we are asking, and what the Spirit is asking of us now.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Outside looking in

By George Clifford

In downtown San Francisco, an abandoned building has furniture, including a refrigerator, sofa, chair, and lamp, hanging out of windows and otherwise attached to the exterior. The building has stood that way for years, with colorful murals decorating the sheets of plywood placed around the ground level to keep people out. I do not know the building’s story, whether the perpetrator(s) intended it as an artistic statement or something else.

In any case, the building seems an apt metaphor for too many denominations and congregations. These churches leave some of the people who should be integral to their community hanging in limbo outside, superfluous except as a painful statement of the types of people that Christian group excludes.

Sadly, some churches even boast about the types of people whom they exclude. Intentionally excluding people contravenes Paul’s vision of the body of Christ as mutual interdependence in which no person, regardless of perceived externalities, is dispensable. Each and every person brings gifts to the body, enriching the membership, strengthening the community, and contributing to the incarnation of Christ's body in the world.

Healthy Christian communities regularly monitor themselves to identify the types of people whom they exclude, intentionally or unintentionally. In the past, most Christian communities excluded the physically challenged because buildings were not handicap accessible. People with mental challenges or behavioral control issues often exceeded (and still do in many places) a congregation’s tolerance for behavior outside conventional norms. Fear of contamination, as happened when the full magnitude of the HIV/AIDS problem first shattered public apathy two decades ago, erected new barriers to inclusion and thereby excluded some from Christian communities. Snobbishness, whether based on socio-economic status, perceived moral probity, or another factor, continues to bar some from admission in local Christian communities.

Each person is, as it were, a lump of clay in the potter’s hands, still being sculpted into the artistic and useful vessel the potter designed. Excluding people from the community not only impoverishes the community but also devalues the potter’s unfinished work as unworthy. Intolerance, from the right or from the left, has no place in Christian community. All people, no matter how personally repugnant I may find their views or behavior, are, like me, an unfinished vessel in the potter’s hands, still being sculpted into an artistic and useful creation.

Part of the historic Anglican genius has been our commitment to unity in the midst of diversity. Sometimes called “big tent Anglicanism,” this requires making room for those with a wide array of beliefs. Preventing the big tent from collapsing on top of those within it, stifling both their vibrancy and their ability to welcome others, requires humility, trust in the potter, and honoring our baptismal vow to respect the dignity and worth of all persons.

I’m thankful for the courageous stands that the Episcopal Church took at its 2009 General Convention. Having clarified who we are, and whose we are, now the harder work of lovingly living into that vision of inclusivity begins, a task in which we chart our direction and our progress with more difficulty. But even as the heat of a kiln is necessary to finish transforming clay into a useful and artistic vessel, so the heat of the hard work in the years ahead is necessary for us to incarnate fully God's loving embrace of all people.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Of the streets and courts

By Gregory C. Syler

Sitting with Hemingway’s breakthrough classic, The Sun Also Rises, once again, I noticed what must have always been there, though I hardly saw it before: a robust catholicism; a “grand religion” no less vital to Spanish culture than to a few of the American ex-pats who tried to renew life, at least for a while, in a fictional summer. Read of protagonist Jake Barnes’ experience in the Bayonne cathedral, relishing the cool stone, awkwardly feasting in quiet prayer, soaking up time-honed sacredness of place.

Hemingway began to write it in those early years spent abroad with his wife and child. Bored and brooding as 1925’s summer turned to fall, he headed off by himself to Chartres, and found the ancient pilgrimage site an excellent place to refine the novel. Biographer Michael Reynolds notes: “Catholicism held for Hemingway a strong emotional attraction. It was the religion of the bullfighters and royalty, a religion of the streets and courts.”

Something there speaks to me. Not the watered-down cultural religiosity but the honest appraisal of what is in the Episcopal Church, as well, a catholic truth: If we take Jesus seriously, we’ll find ourselves singing, praying and eating with the rich and poor, the homeless and those with mortgage woes, the ones we’d like to vacation with and the ones we’d rather serve lunch to, behind the protected wall of a parish hall’s kitchen counter.

You see, I’m the rector of a small but increasingly vibrant Episcopal parish in St. Mary’s County. Not much happens where we live and worship in the village of Valley Lee, but an Anglican church has been here, continuously, since 1638. No modern church planter would start a congregation in this precise spot, because it doesn’t marry with the modern layout of roadways in southern Maryland, but St. George’s is a simple whitewashed building almost exactly halfway between the great manor houses nearby. Sure, this was a church for the landed gentry, but it also was a congregation for the folks who tilled the land and worked the waters, those who got up with the sun and rested when the day was done.

That’s something to be celebrated, a truly Christian community in which the wealthy and not-so-prosperous gathered around the same altar. Even today, long after the slave galleries were ripped out and the manor barons’ wealth all but dried up, St. Mary’s is a booming mix of U.S. Navy, military contractors, retirees and folks who can still trace their line to the founding of the colony. And they gather, still, around the same altar – those with doctorates and oversight of multimillion dollar defense contracts right next to those who learned from their grandparents how to stuff a ham and whose parents showed them how to catch rockfish according to native American customs.

To me, it’s both amazing and humbling because, like many, I chose the Episcopal Church as an adult Christian and (let’s be honest) many of us, myself included, relish that our church is a fairly elite group that still prides itself on how many U.S. Presidents we claim, how intellectually curious we can be, how upper-crust we still seem, and that Vanderbilt, Washington and Lee all count as members of our clan. As the relative wealth of colonial manor homes gave way to the contemporary wealth of Navy contracts down here, it’s refreshing to know that the Episcopal Church has, all along, also been founded on watermen and tobacco farmers, on honest, simple folks (myself most certainly included) as well as the elite; a “religion of the streets and courts.”

This also is refreshing, I should hope, to congregations in the Episcopal Church that don’t necessarily share the colonial heritage that quaint little St. George’s, Valley Lee does, for number-trackers continue to alarm faithful Episcopalians (and diocesan staffs) when they show the average attendance at an Episcopal church today as something like 70 folks on a Sunday morning and an increasingly aging population and, well, never mind the rest of the statistics but throw up your hands and cry “Oh, my, the ship really is sinking!”

If you look at it another way, however, you realize that a lot of church-folk in southern Maryland learned the lesson, long ago, that a church of 70 or so on a Sunday morning can still be the recipe for a pretty amazing Christian body, and they don’t have to come with deep pockets. In Valley Lee and other hamlets here, we are growing in spirit as well as in numbers, and we’re doing it through readily identifiable Christian work: education, outreach, worship and pastoral care; not just finding the next wealthy manor lord. We may not be the Upper Crust Church and, like others, our overall attendance may have slipped from previous decades, but we are still fairly successful Christian congregations who are passionately committed to reaching out in Jesus’ name.

Maybe numbers and size and average-education-level don’t matter so much as faithfulness and vibrancy. And maybe a new door is being opened for the Episcopal Church just as the old one is closing, slowly, decade after decade. Maybe congregations like “quaint little St. George’s” will become the model for the rest of us – that the rich faithfulness and robust quality of Christian faith matters, above all else, and those qualities can be found chiefly at those altars where the streets meet the courts.

The Rev. Greg Syler is rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Md.

Lay ministry and the leaky roof

Over the holiday weekend, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-Daily Episcopalian.

By W. Tay Moss

Between the Christmas Eve Pageant service and the Christmas Eve Candlelight Midnight service my cell phone rang with the dreadful news, “the roof is leaking.” I had only been home for an hour and had just settled down by the fire with a drink and a cat and my toddler nephew playing by my feet. Dutifully, and with haste, I trudged the five minute walk back the church to find my distressed cleaning staff.

“Oh, Reverend,” she said in a thick accent, “I'm so sorry; I didn't know what to do!” She took me upstairs to an office of our daycare, where the water was nearly gushing through the ceiling into buckets. I thanked God that, Scrooge-be-tossed, we had booked our cleaning company on Christmas Eve. Otherwise the problem might have had all night to fester.

I flashed back to a continuing education session a few years ago. The Director of Planning and Development for the Diocese at the time was giving us newbies a crash course on the basics of church property management: “If you remember nothing else from this talk, remember this. This is the most important thing for incumbents to know how to do. Whenever any problem comes up with your building, ask this question.” He paused dramatically and then continued, “'Is this the result of water migration?' That's it—the most important thing you need to do is ask is that question!” At the time he told us that I thought “Wisdom speaks...”

Watching the water drip off the ceiling I thought, “...and is vindicated by her deeds!” I dusted off my University Spanish (minus the naughty words, of course) to tell another cleaner, Eduardo, that the problem was certainly on the flat roof and we would only know if it could be patched with a trip up the hatch.

My Honorary Assistant clucked her tongue as I climbed the ladder and hoisted myself onto the roof, “You are a brave man!” This from a woman that used to live in the war-torn Middle East. I didn't feel brave, mostly I felt determined to stop the water. The problem was immediately evident: a slushy snow and rain mixture several inches deep covered the whole flat roof section. Without a way to drain, the water had obviously found a path of lesser resistance. No doubt there was a hole to patch somewhere, but a good stopgap would be to get some of the slush off the roof. Supplied with snow shovels, Eduardo and I started to shovel the freezing mixture onto the parking lot 25 feet below. After assurances that he could go on without me, I left to get ready for the Midnight Mass.

Listening to this story at a clergy Twelthnight party, one of my colleagues said, “I would never have gone up on that roof.” I, too, am not sure that I made the right decision. More experienced priests may have patiently watched the water drip while waiting for someone else to take responsibility. “Let the Wardens handle it,” they would advise. I'm always aware that when I do something like this I may be displacing lay ministry. But the truth is that the only people willing to climb up onto that roof that night were me and Eduardo, and I would not have felt right about abandoning him to a snowy fate. And when it comes down to it, I'm too much of a control freak to “let it go.”

The decision to engage or not to engage the stuff-that-comes-up is a constant of ministry. On the one hand, we want to build communities of hope and compassion and that seems to require some rolled-up cassock sleeves. Between e-mails, phone calls, buildings, budgets, and anything else you may care to name, there are weeds to pull and vines to tend in God's green pasture. The word we use, after all, is “building.”

On the other hand, our spiritual teachers are telling us that we need to abandon such cares of the world and embrace the holy now. Consider these lines from a 17th century sermon by given Mark Frank quoted in Stephen Reynold's For All the Saints:

And alas! what have we, the best, the richest of us, as highly as we think of ourselves and ours, more than Saint Andrew and his brother: a few broken nets? ... What are all our ways and devices of thriving but so many several nets to catch a little yellow sand and mud? ... there are so many knots and difficulties, so many rents and holes for the fish to slip out of, that we may justly say they are but broken nets, and old ones too, the best of them, that will scarce hold a pull, all our new projects being but old ones new rubbed over, and no new thing under the sun.

This business of casting off the “net-works” that entangle us is a strikingly modern sentiment, but I guess there really is no new thing under the sun. Most of us fishers-of-people, I suspect, abide somewhere between the fierce urgency of the holy and ascetic now (cast off your nets) and the Parish Strategic Plan with its tactical appendix (build the kingdom).

We scramble to maintain the tippy centre of our fishing boats—perched as we are between competing pulls. Or, in my case, standing on the top of a step ladder (the step they tell you not to step on) arms hooked over the edge of the roof access hatch. Life is about balance, after all!

The question that keeps me occupied is how do I go about finding that balance? It's different for everyone, I am sure, but some self-examination bears fruit. Am I being driven by need to control the outcome of this endeavor? Am I doing this other project because I want acclaim? Perhaps that initiative is being driven by a false expectation of what my church “should” be doing to grow? These are the questions that can save us from drowning when the roof leaks!

The Rev. Tay Moss is an Episcopal priest currently serving the Church of The Messiah, Toronto. Besides enjoying hot-peppers, martinis, and monks (though usually not together), Tay maintains a blog between pastoral duties.

Warmth, metaphorical and otherwise

By Marshall Scott

There is a certain flow, a certain dependable rhythm, to my bread baking. While no single step takes long, there is enough separation between steps that the whole process takes 24 hours, more or less. Even with some variation from session to session, the result is the largely the same. Sometime in the evening, not long before I retire, the baking ends and the bread comes out of the oven.

I have come especially to enjoy the warm air that comes out of the oven when I remove the loaves. This oven is mounted high, almost at my eye level, and the warm air rushing out pours over my arms and shoulders. Even in the heat of summer, when we’ve been grilling outside or eating salads to avoid heating the kitchen and the house, I find I enjoy that moment. Even late in the evening, when I’m ready to end the day after this one last task, I find that moment pleasant, and even energizing.

I’ve been reading the recent study about the relationship between a sense of social isolation and perception of temperature. You may have seen some recent news reports about it. I have the benefit of a medical library ready to hand, and so have been able to read the article.

If you haven’t heard of this, let me give you a summary. The article, titled "Cold and Lonely: Does Social Exclusion Literally Feel Cold?" was authored by researchers Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli, both of the University of Toronto. It was published in the September, 2008, edition of the journal, Psychological Science (Volume 19 Issue 9, Pages 838 - 842). They performed two experiments with undergraduates. In the first, the students were divided randomly into two groups. One group was asked to remember an event in which participants felt socially excluded, while the other was asked to remember an event of feeling socially included. They were then asked, without any apparent connection to the exercise in memory, to assist lab maintenance staff by estimating the temperature of the room. Those who had remembered being socially excluded estimated a lower temperature than those who had remembered being socially included. Indeed, the difference between the mean estimate of the "excluded" group and that of the "included" group was 2.58 degrees Celsius (4.64 degrees Fahrenheit).

In the second experiment students were asked to play a computer game that they thought had them tossing a virtual ball with other students on other computers. In fact they were playing with the computer, which divided them randomly into two groups. One group experienced roughly equal participation with the other "players" (the control group). The other group had roughly equal play at first, but then experienced the other “players” excluding them, refusing to pass them the virtual ball. Afterward, participants were asked to complete a "marketing survey" by ranking on a 7-point scale their desire for one of five foods: hot coffee, hot soup, an apple, crackers, or a soda. Those who had been in the "excluded" group had about the same level of desire for an apple, crackers, or soda as participants in the control group. However, they expressed a significantly higher level of desire for the food and drink specified “hot” than those in the control group.

The authors felt that this demonstrated in both cases that the feeling of being socially excluded precipitated not simply a metaphorical but a sensory perception of being physically cold. As they put it,

In two experiments we found that people literally felt cold (Experiment 1) or preferred warm food (Experiment 2) when being socially excluded, regardless of whether such experience was induced through a recall of past experience or virtual interaction. These findings are consistent with theories of embodied cognition and suggest that our social experience is not independent of physical and somatic perception (Barsalou, 1999; Varela et al, 1991). They also highlight that metaphors are not just language that we use to communicate; they are fundamental vessels through which we understand and experience the world around us (Bargh, 2006; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Not only does physical experience aid our understanding of more abstract, complex phenomena, but also that domains of different experiences merge and intertwine such that the activation of one is automatically accompanied by another (e.g., Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006); the subjective feeling of coldness may be an integral part of our experience of social rejection.

Now, the authors are careful to say that, while this suggests that feeling socially isolated can make one feel cold, it would take further research to demonstrate that feeling cold can make one feel socially isolated. At the same time, they have suggested that there is more than metaphor to the interaction between our social perception and our physical perception. When I think of the warmth of the oven as the bread comes out, or of the pleasure I’ve taken by a warm fireplace, or in that first cup of coffee on a cool morning, I have my own empirical sense that the connection works both ways. That sense of warmth, of comfort and safety, contributes to my own experience that "all’s right with the world," including my own place in it.

I wonder what that might mean for our congregations. After all, we have all heard the comment that "when we visited, that congregation just felt so cold." I fear we’ve all heard it even about a congregation dear to our hearts. We’ve known that the comment expressed social isolation, a sense of not being welcomed. I wonder what it might mean if we were to create a sense of physical warmth to supplement the social and emotional warmth that we all intend to convey.

How might we do that? In these "green" days, it might not seem right to turn up the thermostat; and yet for the sake of the community it might be worth considering. Or perhaps we might consider offering shawls for services when there’s a nip in the nave. Could we consider a coffee hour that offered soup as well as plates of cookies, and maybe even warm rolls? Could we greet newcomers, not only with a handshake, but with a cup of warm coffee or cider, already filled and radiating?

We know that we are called to express the warmth and compassion of the one who created the sun on our faces, the fire in our hearths. We’ve made too often that old joke about being "God’s frozen people" (a joke told wryly, let me assure you, by many Christians, and not just Episcopalians). Perhaps we can take this research to heart and do our own empirical trial to see if it works both ways, if a sense of physical warmth can convey welcome when our words sometimes fail. It might not need a whole new program. Indeed, it might be as simple as offering in hand a hot cup of coffee.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

The spirituality of sweet tea

By Luiz Coelho

Fifty years ago, in most of Brazil, it was still common to see people watch the sunset sitting on a comfortable rocking chair on the porch of their houses. Families and neighbors were usually invited over, and food and refreshments were widely available. In more urban scenarios, people would bring tables and chairs to the sidewalks, and chat before dinner. After the Second World War, these moments had an important effect: they helped build communities, often composed of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, and offered hope for a better future.

On colder days, if the weather allowed it, hot coffee or black tea, accompanied by a few slices of carrot, orange or corn cake, was just enough to bring families around the outdoor table, and soon neighbors and friends would join them. They would eventually bring more snacks, and conversation would go on until it was time to go inside and have dinner. On hot summer days, hot coffee was replaced by cold juices and mate, a special Brazilian tea cherished by many in its cold and sweet form. Sometimes, this happy encounter would be followed by a garden dinner, which could go on for hours and hours.

As a Southerner “by adoption”, I soon learned that some traditions are ubiquitous everywhere, especially when it comes to “Pan-American late afternoon environments”. Some of the foods were probably slightly different, and mate was surely replaced by intese doses of freshly brewed sweet tea on the rocks. However, the feelings and bonds of affection were the same, and long nights of laughs and conversations helped foster the sense of community here and there, especially at a time when the future seemed to be uncertain.

In churches, similar events also happened. From “dinners on the grounds” to Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers, food, community and conversations have always been part of our Church life. The rich noise of children running around the parish hall and vivid conversations between parishioners of different sorts still can be heard in many of our Churches across the world. In many places, however, this community life centered around food and conversation is dying, often substituted by an innovative “consumer Gospel”, which produces short term growth, but in the long run has increasingly contributed to empty houses of worship.

Sadly, I do not belong to the slow sweet tea generation. Raised in a middle class apartment, I did not have the possibility of playing with neighbors on the street and hearing my mother's call to come inside for dinner. To be true, I barely knew my neighbors' names. Only in the summer, when I would spend some free time at my grandparents' cottage, did I have the opportunity to enjoy the slow life of “the good old times”: playing with their pet (a dog named Perigoso - “Dangerous” in English – who was anything but dangerous), helping my grandfather harvest fresh vegetables, playing with the neighbors' kids, jumping in trees and getting dirty. And, at the end of the afternoon, we would always drink refreshments and chat for a while in front of their house. The neighbors were always invited to join the conversation, after all, everybody was part of a “big family.”

That's how Churches are supposed to be: a big family. However, the “community” aspect of church life is emphasized in our “modern” world less and less. Many search committees now expect priests to be much more like business administrators who are able to celebrate a quick liturgy rather than spiritual leaders called by God to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, with a schedule filled with committee meetings, there is little time for visiting the sick, talking on the phone with parishioners or even enjoying a cup of coffee or a glass of sweet tea at the end of the afternoon.

Parishioners also have less and less time for Church affairs. Sunday school is rarely heard of in some places. Coffee and refreshments, usually served after the main service of the day, are taken “to go” as people run to their cars, ready to drive to the nearest restaurant. There is little time for weekday activities, including longtime parish programs and traditions, which risk being extinguished within a couple of generations.

It is necessary to reclaim the “spirituality of sweet tea” in our world: the long talks, the hugs, the common meals and warm conversations. Yes, the world has changed, and the Church inevitably has to adapt to a fast-paced society. However, the essence of Christian community life cannot change. Some regard it as the strongest aspect as the early Christians' most impressible aspect and wherever it still persists, the Church is strong and active.

Maybe it is time, then, to use community life as a tool for church growth and evangelism. Younger generations, often so technologically savvy, lack the “people” aspect of daily life. If the Church will provide a warm and welcoming environment, where all are known and cherished by their brothers and sisters in Christ, it surely will be able to reach the unchurched. Our Episcopal/Anglican identity provides a solid and traditional liturgy, complemented with a comprehensive and inclusive theology. When allied with intentional Christian community, which naturally flows from our liturgy centered around the Eucharist, Christ is made truly present among us and a conduit is created that enables people to find wholeness in God in Christ.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

A rector's lexicon

By Richard Helmer

This post is for clergy, and most especially Rectors. Not to put off laity, mind you. And I doubt I could if I tried. We still are in a very clerical Church, after all. But this post is really about clergy. And, more to the point, the words we use to describe what we as a Church do to them.

I think of all the words we use, and very few of them show up in the street lexicon anymore – if they ever did. Even before we’re called clergy, we are referred to using odd words: aspirants, postulants, and candidates.

Aspirants sound slightly medical to me – perhaps in need of respiratory support, or maybe too close to something having to do with under-arm odor and its prevention. Seriously. I can unpack aspirant and see the word aspire inside, but it’s the –ant on the end that has me standing somewhere in a pharmacy trying to pick out the cheapest anti- whatever.

Postulants more clearly belong in the area of mathematical proof – as in gets confused in my head with “postulate”. And does the Church expect us to “prove” something? Our worth perhaps? The Church often sends postulants to seminary, encourages us to acquire massive debt, and then through a process that often approaches hazing, reminds us that – hey - despite our best efforts, we may not go anywhere in the Church after all.

Candidates of course resonate mostly with our baptismal candidacy. But it is a bit like being a candidate with no election to run in. So there’s a “made-it” mentality there most of the time when we get to wear that title for six months to a year and think wistfully about a future in the Church. In other words, unless we really screw up, we’re destined to be ordained. Whatever that means. I was there five years ago. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

And I don’t mean to be rude by my irreverence here, either. “The process” as we like to call it from the inside, at least, was unbelievably annoying at times, but also deeply nurturing and formative for me, and I wouldn’t want to give it back. But what does our choice of words to describe it say to a post-Christian world? Is it just a bunch of episco-speak devoid of meaning for anyone other than the initiated? I wonder.

But then it gets better. Yes, the bishop comes along and ordains me. And then it’s smack into the deployment racket with all of its uncertainties, high hopes, and dead ends. It’s a tough place to be, looking for full-time work (which really means a half-time salary for 24/7 ops) in a financially strapped denomination (don’t let the big national figures and pension benefits fool you) where the cost-of-living is going nowhere but up.

And then you land one, and you get this delicious list to choose from: you might get installed (click) or, even better, instituted.

We also, I learned recently, invest some of our clergy. Our bishop, who was consecrated in another diocese, was welcomed in an investiture when he came to California. Actually, it’s a word reserved for bishops, apparently. And of all the ecclesiastical mouthfuls when it comes to describing as close to having “arrived” in this strange vocation as it gets. . . I like it the best. (But please don’t read too much into that last sentence!) I like investiture because it implies to me a delivery of trust, of being cloaked in an office, a position of responsibility.

And I like it, too, because, being a cloak, that means it can be taken off. Left behind, perhaps, or maybe just set aside for a period of time. We can divest as well as invest, after all. Perhaps a bit of a disposable position? Maybe that’s a cautionary tale for bishops-in-general.

A few weeks ago, I was instituted. Instituted as Rector of a parish that sits right in the heart of a part of the world that deplores institutions-in-general, and where, in fact, anything that is older than, say five years, is regarded by default with some suspicion (Pity the poor children.)

And instituted as Rector. In Latin, it means, most simply, “ruler.” It’s that sinister word, describing a mysterious figure with a dark tone in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Should make me popular, right? More accessible to those in need? A better witness for the Gospel?

I have an image in my mind of my institution as becoming somehow statuesque, sitting in an office with the door open for people to straggle in demanding Christian wisdom for a bad day. Of my getting dusty, perhaps even a bit crusty, as I age. Of finding it harder to move, breathe, or simply live and be myself.

Again, no disrespect to the parish I serve (I love the people there dearly) or this strange vocation of priesthood (I wouldn’t have stuck with it for this long if I didn’t find God’s grace in it in so many surprising and wonderful ways. . .)

But instituted? What a strange word. More like institutionalized. I can see the clergy heads nodding. With some of the things that come at us at times from people we deeply care about, it really can be crazy-making.

As we were finalizing the liturgical booklet for my institution, our parish administrator and I were scratching our heads at what image to use for the front cover. She suggested one with a stole, two hands clasping, and a crown. I had to laugh: a marriage image. (The crown seems to fit well with the origin of Rector, no?)

And that’s an image that some clergy like to use when they talk about the “call” in parish ministry. But I’m uneasy with it. Marriage implies life-long union. Does that mean that almost all clergy today have fallen into serial monogamy along with the rest of our culture?

Besides, I’m already married to a wonderful and loving human being. I wouldn’t want to be accused of bigamy. Although, I must admit that with the stresses of parish ministry, at times I really “get,” and I mean in my bones, why Roman Catholicism demands celibacy of its clergy! Sometimes keeping the eye on the family at home and the family at work can be daunting.

But, no, the marriage image doesn’t really work for me.


Rectors in our tradition have an awful lot of power. My spiritual director reminds me that becoming Rector means I’m virtually unassailable canonically. Short of gross misconduct or negligence, it’s tough even for a bishop to get at a sitting Rector. Vestries can scream to high holy heaven, cut the salary, and the Rector can. . .well. . .just sit there and do whatever he or she pleases within fairly wide bounds. Truly. I would deplore the day I arrived at that point, of course. As most sensible people (Rectors included!) would.

But the point is well-taken. What do I do with this power, and why do I have it? Why am I called by the Church, foolish, misguided folk that they must surely be, to become an “institution?” Something that, aside from potentially providing a steady stream of meals for my family and shelter over our heads, seems otherwise absolutely counter-intuitive.

The answer began to arise for me a few Sundays ago while preaching on the floor of the nave. I asked people to raise their hands if they knew, when they were young, that they would end up living in this town – this strange, mixed up, and wonderful town with all of its old artisans, new wealth, old homes, wandering migrants, high performing professionals, struggling musicians, and strange self-proclaimed spiritualists.

No one, not a soul in a crowd of nearly a hundred, raised his or her hand. Even today, much of the world’s population is born, works, grows old, and dies in the same village, town, or city. But not here. Not in the highly mobile and mobilized West where a job, a relationship, or a whim tomorrow could have us whisked a thousand miles away on some new life adventure.

This town, like many all over the Episcopal Church, craves stability. Someone recognizable. Someone who will be present in thick times and thin. Marriage? Not quite. I can’t promise forever. But stable long-term leadership and presence? You bet.

When our newsletter editor wrote (half tongue-in-cheek) to the congregation about my being “installed” as our “permanent” Rector, I found myself pondering the emotional content behind the words. Something, it told me, no someone needs to stay still and collect a little dust.

Like the cliché goes, “Rolling stones gather no moss.”

Rector or not, elected, selected, instituted, installed, or just simply “here,” I want to put down some roots for the sake of the People of God. To be an anchor for a while for ships forever on the move. To stop and gather wisdom like fallen leaves that are never swept up. To really get to know people for a time before they move on, and to be a recognizable face when they return to visit or stay.

This is the old Benedictine way. It’s one of the deep roots of our tradition in being Church. In fact, it facilitates tradition. Stability.

That’s what “institute” means for me in the end: Be stable. Emotionally as best I can, without demanding perfection of myself or others. Grow up and down for sure, yet do it best by standing still. It’s where trust begins and skills are honed and the sharp edges that wound others get dulled with conflict, compassion, and time. Where the hearts of stone get pummeled – often with an imperceptible gentleness and occasionally with a bone-shattering rap – by our God into flesh.

Instituted. Be there for a long time for a People, crazy, loving, wonderful, and strange.

All that power for the Rector? It’s not about power. It’s about creating stability. And that notion bounds both the risks I face of abusing that power, and the vision to leverage it when people need stability to end the spiral of being rootless.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

Communications and the personal touch

By Susan Fawcett

When I went to seminary I had a secret dream. In any conversation, of course, I would have tempered it with a healthy measure of sarcasm and cynicism. Nevertheless, there was a spark of hope that, upon becoming a priest, I'd spend my time doing any of the following activities:

1. Offering brilliant (and sometimes salty) pastoral care to young and old.
2. Writing and delivering humorous-yet-insightful sermons.
3. Creating programs and curricula that would transform lives.
4. Reaching new heights of contemplative enlightenment.
5. Humbly and diligently serving the poor and sick (often, involving the sensitive use of other languages).
6. Being remarkably wise and kind and yet profoundly humble.
7. And, generally saving the world.

Unfortunately, what I functionally spent the most time doing in my first year after seminary looked like this:

1. Event planning
2. Volunteer coordinating
3. Struggling to effectively use six different (and ineffective) means of communication to attract said volunteers and to lure people to come to said events.

I do not need to tell you that this was, indeed, frustrating. It became clear very quickly that none of my programs would work if I didn't communicate, communicate, communicate. So I sent out a newsletter. I contributed material to the weekly bulletin and the monthly newsletter and parish website. I started my own church blog and sent out my own mailings, and filled weekly emails with sassy photos and hip fonts and links to interesting YouTube videos. This work was not wasted. But it did take up a significant chunk of my workweek. Six hours of potential priestly world-saving, down the drain.

It is now a year later and nothing has changed. I still kill precious time updating the youth blog and trying to make the email look smart. I still run out of time to write the monthly newsletter. I still find myself bug-eyed with frustration whenever a volunteer, who has received countless emails and invitations and notices about an event, asks, "Oh, when is that meeting again? Do you need me? What will we be doing, again?" Thank you, friend, for making it abundantly clear that a significant chunk of the time I spend writing things for you is a big fat waste.

Except that it's not a waste. As much as I want people to care about how we've reformatted the youth program, and started revolutionary new curricula, and built a great theological foundation for some other major change in the parish, people actually seem to care about the other stuff that I thought was just filler: personal stories. Case in point: A few months ago, at the beginning of the summer, I wrote this cute little newsletter article about the intersections between vacation and Sabbath. Short, chatty, with a theological point—A-plus, right? Except nobody noticed that part. They all commented, however, on the story about my own vacation. For three Sundays in a row, half the people in the handshake line after church said, "You're going to West Virginia on vacation? On a motorcycle?!?"

It seems that I had forgotten how important it is to be, shall we say, personal. Self-revelatory, at least a little. Open. Approachable. In short: myself (as opposed to being my job). Interestingly, over the course of this communications-ridden year, it became clear that people were generally far more tolerant of whatever news I wanted to push on them when I was asking about them, and allowing myself to be asked about. Miraculous.

Incidentally, after learning this genius little secret, the communications get easier, because you've finally set aside your own professional anxiety and remembered that the people at church are far more important than the programs at church, every time. Which means that you've shown up as yourself, not as The Priest, in conversations with your parishioners, and that you've begun to trust them, and they you, and you now know who you can just ask to help you, and who you should just remind to come to youth group on Sunday morning. And, an extra bonus, this leaves a little more energy (if not time) for all the humorous-sermon-writing and general-world-saving.

The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish in the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.

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