A Parish Crisis: Reflections and Lessons Learned

by Eric Bonetti

Last January, when I was elected junior warden in my parish, things started off with a bang -- or more appropriately -- a gurgle. Right about the time of our parish meeting, a large swath of the undercroft had flooded in the night, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damage and a major rebuilding project that swallowed countless hours of my time, and many late nights.

LIttle did I know that things soon would get worse. Far worse.

On February 10, our rector had a serious accident. The details aren't particularly relevant, but he was rushed to the hospital, underwent major surgery, and was out on disability until June.

As a result, folks in our parish scrambled to care for our rector and his family, each other, and the mundane tasks keeping a large, vibrant parish running.

So why write about this topic? I'm not entirely sure, as I don't feel like my observations are particularly insightful, groundbreaking, or even all that unique. But I hope that, by writing from the heart, perhaps I can help others who may, now or in the future, face a similar situation. If nothing else, I hope that those facing crisis may look back on this article and know that they are not alone. Others have been there, lived through it, and even seen good come of it.

My initial thought is that it truly axiomatic that you can never be prepared for a situation like this. Crises, by definition, are almost always unexpected. But it wasn't so much the fact that the situation was a crisis; it was instead the extraordinary and unexpected level of pain and fear that came with the tragic news.

Normally, I'm pretty good in a crisis. Indeed, I've had several jobs in which I worked closely with people who have experienced serious accidents, life-threatening injuries, and profound psychological trauma. I'm also no stranger to personal pain and suffering; my younger brother died unexpectedly almost 20 years to the day before our rector's accident.

The issue, I came to understand, is that pain and suffering in the context of a close-knit, loving parish is pain and suffering multiplied. One's pain and suffering isn't only about the immediate issue at hand; it also is about one's grief and sense of powerlessness when confronted with the suffering of fellow parishioners. In essence, a crisis within a parish has a rawness and intensity that personal crises may lack.

Of course, one's grief is exacerbated by the fact that there's no real "how-to" guide for vestry members dealing with a crisis of this sort. No one calls and says, "Here's what you should do next." As a result, a surprising amount of time is spent figuring out who does what, how it happens, and how to make even relatively mundane tasks happen.

I also was impressed in short order by the complexity of parish life. Like a good game of tennis, in which success is marked by making the match seem effortless, behind the scenes lots of hard work goes into even relatively small parish programs and activities.

Right about now, you're probably saying, "I already knew that," but I can tell you this: Even as a life-long Episcopalian, I had no idea just how much work goes on behind the scenes. And my fear is that I may still not completely apprehend the full extent of this issue.

Another lesson learned is the extent -- almost shocking -- to which God turns suffering into good and personal growth. To be clear, I don't believe that God causes accidents of this sort in order to teach a lesson, promote personal growth, or for any other reason. The God I know and love is one of infinite love, kindness, acceptance and inclusion. God doesn't cause suffering, but God does turn suffering that has happened anyway towards a greater good. And time and again throughout this ordeal, I saw situations in which a bad situation resulted in positive outcomes.

For example, a close friend of mine, also a parishioner, has never been all that interested in pastoral care issues. It's not that he lacks compassion; far from it. He's simply never learned to proactively care for others outside his immediate family and close friends. Yet he quickly stepped up to the plate to provide meals and other care for our rector and his family, and as a result has come to embrace the joy of serving and caring for others. At the same time, his experience in caring for our rector and his family has helped him develop a sense of perspective; he has markedly backed away from chronic irritation and anger at the petty slights and controversies of parish life. In short, my friend experienced a modern version of the conversion on the road to Damascus.

Concern for our rector and his family also helped me plumb the old adage about not appreciating something until it's gone. My sense is that, over the years I've developed great affection and respect for our clergy, so it's not clear to me that our rector's accident led me to a renewed appreciation for him and his ministry. Instead, what I did realize is that, caught up in an endless swirl of leaking toilets (pun intended), burned out lightbulbs, vendor meetings and HVAC repairs, I probably spend too little time expressing my appreciation. Yes, it's possible to go overboard in that area, but how often do we actually come right out and express our love and respect for our clergy? I suspect the answer is, "All too rarely."

Yet another lesson learned from our recent crisis is the value of maintaining a sense of normalcy and business as usual. Following our rector's accident, we strove to accelerate various repair and improvement projects around the church, with an eye towards demonstrating stability and focus. As a result, we did a lot of painting, landscaping, improvements to building security, and more, all with the goal of providing a positive alternative to sorrow, anxiety and fear.

I have no empirical evidence to show whether this approach worked, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this was a useful distraction, and a demonstration of our parish as a loving, caring community that would thrive no matter what.

Overall, while there were some rough, rough moments, I have to say that the crisis brought out the best in people. Our other two priests, both relatively newly ordained, stepped up to ensure continuity in pastoral care, liturgy, worship and even pinch-hit on some building issues. Parishioners pulled together, and we got phone calls and messages from literally hundreds of former members, couples who had been married in the church, and others, seeking ways to help. This willingness to work together as a community illustrated for me the real value of parish life, which is as a place to share life's joys, sorrows, and tribulations.

In closing, has your parish experienced a similar situation? If so, what did you learn from it? I'd love it if you would share your comments.

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

Communities of resurrection

by Maria L. Evans

True confession time: When I am feeling pressured over people and situations where others want to turn their emergency into my problem, I like to sing R.E.M.'s "It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine,)" if only to remind myself that, indeed, it is NOT the end of the world.

That said, we have to be careful, though about taking an "end times" approach to life. In fact, a story from last summer has haunted me for months. Although I'm certainly not of the "end times theology" stripe, the story has made me think about how the attitude of "I'm taken care of , so I'll just count my blessings and not think about everyone else," is one that needs serious adjustment.

I remember being incredibly shocked by that article. "Really? Four out of ten Americans think the world will end by 2050? Seventy-six percent of Republicans are end-timers?" I had to sing my R.E.M. song several times after reading that, just to ground myself after that head-shaker.

The article does, however, reveal a certain amount of background as to why there is everything ranging from apathy to downright disbelief when it comes to global warming. If the world's coming to an end, why bother? The implications reach far beyond the subject matter itself, into wider discussion. What other things ultimately harm us because we've created an "end times theology" to go with it?

I wonder sometimes if a form of end-timerism hasn't, in places, crept into our abilities to re-imagine the Episcopal Church. The world surrounds us with all kinds of news that mainline Christianity is dying. The people in the pews are graying, the fastest growing faith group in young and early middle-aged adults is "spiritual but not religious," and in so many circles, the rank and file American thinks the word "Christian" means, "hates gays, hates women, hates poor people." When we're surrounded by that, it becomes incredibly tempting to simply retreat into a world where the most we need to discuss is whether to use Eucharistic Prayer B during Advent like we always do, or something different. "Why should I do anything when the end of Christianity as I know it is coming? I feel safer just doing what we've always done. I guess if it's gonna die, it's gonna die. So I might as well work at keeping it just the way I like it."

The risk of these wide platforms for change within the church is that the words themselves become trite, or "code." (I'll be the first to admit, I think we should be vigorously re-imaginging, but I'm getting a little tired of the word "re-imagine" itself. Kind of like how I got tired of the phrase "a nimble church" during GC 2013.) Yet that risk is probably a better risk than succumbing to end-timer-ism.

No doubt, re-imagining is painful. It reveals what's moribund and needs to have the plug pulled and die a natural death. The most fundamental tenet of our theology, though, is that we are an Easter people. Many of us have come to believe in the Resurrection because we've lived through the light and the dark of our short time on this Earth, and have grown to believe in our own personal resurrections. Can we take one step further and believe in the possibility of faith community resurrections?

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

Atheist churches and disciple making congregations

by Kathy Staudt

I have been reading with interest about the new movement among atheists to found churches. (an example here) The movement sounds a lot like what we hear in our conversations about congregational development and vitality: Atheist groups are adopting the word “congregation” to meet a widespread craving for what one Atheist pastor calls “a really close knit, strong community that can make strong change happen in the world. And he adds, “It doesn’t require and it doesn't even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”

His use of the word “require” reminded me of a character in one of Mary Gordon’s novels who quips that “Episcopalians are not required to believe in anything but the beauty of the burial service.” It’s a joke, but there’s some truth to it: We too have shied away from insisting publicly on “required” beliefs, in the desire to invite seekers, but we do still say the creed, commit to the baptismal covenant, retell the story of salvation at every Eucharist. To get people in the door we are more likely to promise things like close knit community, hospitality, a commitment to outreach. I was groping around for what seemed to be to be missing here: what is the difference between an atheist church and an Episcopalian Christian church, if it’s not just about “required beliefs.” What is the point of church anyway? The emergence of atheist “congregations” requires us to look anew at that question, in our own congregations.

I would say that though the difference is obviously in part about belief --God v. “not God” -- it goes deeper than that. What attracts people to an atheist church is a spiritual “practice” of gathering and sharing values. “Practice” has of course been a buzzword of late in congregational development circles and I will return to this in a moment -- but I would suggest that the purpose of Christian congregations is not just spiritual practice for our own sake, but practice in the service “disciple-making”, and all that goes into it. What if we thought about our congregations, our nurturing, our welcome, our outreach, in terms of sustaining discipleship, giving people what they need in order (to use Brian McLaren’s words in A Generous Orthodoxy) “to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.”

A disciple is someone who follows a master, who adopts practices modeled by the leader (“make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”, Jesus says at the end of Luke’s gospel). And this is done in the service of a larger vision -- as our catechism puts it the desire “to reconcile the world to God in Christ.” What might it look like to use this as the basis for mission building and ministry review in our churches -- to ask “How are we doing at making and sustaining disciples of Jesus, for the healing of a broken world?” I’d suggest three ways we might think about this, in our worship, our community life and our formation, and the headings are “Story,” “Practice,” and “Participation”

“Story” -- We have a story to tell, and it is good news. How can churches help people to own this for themselves and for their lives? A practice that has been neglected in our denomination, is helping people to learn and own the story of Scripture. We tell this story at the Eucharist each Sunday and we hear a lot of Scripture read in church, but the energy for discipleship comes when we can see ourselves in the story of God’s work in human history, understanding context, history, and ways of reading Scripture. Becoming more scripturally literate, as individuals and as congregations, can help us see how God’s story is unfolding in our own time. The process of grappling with Scripture, using our imaginations and our reason to make sense of it for our time, can be both creative and energizing, and it connects us to others who have found Christian faith to be life-giving and exciting. I was excited to see the diocese of Washington adopting an online curriculum that encourages people to study Scripture as “the Story” . This is foundational to who we are.

“Practice” -- It is now well documented that vital congregations can point to particular practices -- ways that people live out their faith through prayer, service, discernment, in that particular community. These practices are not just about self improvement - they connect implicitly to a vision for discipleship -- what do we do to keep ourselves alert to opportunities to live out our Christian discipleship in our lives? What opportunities do churches provide for us to practice our faith, through prayer, discernment, study, service, hospitality? These practices are not ends in themselves, to make us feel better or even personally “closer to God.” They are about forming us as disciples of Jesus - whatever that may mean in our time. My favorite “practice” is the practice of the discernment -- finding ways to attend to what God might be doing and how we might participate in this.

“Participation” -- The more we read the story, the clearer it becomes that we are called, not to change the world all on our own, but to participate in something that God is doing. One of my favorite prayers in the prayer book ends “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which have grown old are being made new, and all things are being brought to their perfection in Jesus Christ. . . . (BCP 280) What if each congregation asked “how are we participating in the New Thing that God is always trying to do in us and in our lives? Where do we see this happening here, in the places where we find ourselves, and in our corporate lives?

Of course I am using language about “God” and “Jesus” and Scripture in laying out this vision of discipleship as the mission of congregations, but without being very clear about “required” beliefs. . I think we work out what we believe about God and Jesus and discipleship in practice, and that is why we begin with worship and corporate prayer. That is the experience that churches offer that differs from a community center or a neighborhood group. “Praying shapes believing,” we tend to say as Episcopalians -- so do our practices of discipleship. As we seek ways to “follow Jesus” we find out what we believe about him.

I wonder what it would look like if we used the standard of “making disciples” as a way of designing mission statements and reviewing ministry in our congregations. What would it look like for leaders to begin, not with the question: are we giving people what they want, in a tight-knit community? but rather “How are we doing at making and supporting disciples of Jesus? And what particular ways are we doing that in this congregation?

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

Called to Ministry in the World: what if we ordained the laity?

by Lisa Fischbeck

In this season of graduations and ordinations, I am once again given to reflect on my own ordinations. I remember how excited and humbled I was to receive the blessing of the church, to be set apart for ministry, first as deacon, then a year later, as priest. The Church really knows how to lay hands on a person, literally and metaphorically, to let them know in prayer, song, sermon and action, that God has called them, and it is good.

But even as I was receiving that ordination embrace and being sent forth, I wondered what the church would be like, what the world would be like, if we did something comparable for our laity who are called by God to vocation and ministry in the world. What if we set apart, prayed over, laid hands upon, sent forth, gave gifts and had a cake, for the teacher, the nurse, the lawyer, the retiree, the shop keeper, the stay-at-home parent, the social worker, the person living with a disability? What if we encouraged them to invite their family, friends, colleagues and neighbors to the celebration? What if we gave the church a chance to say that we believe this person is called to this ministry and that we will do all in their power to support them in it?

Verna Dozier’s pamphlet, The Authority of the Laity, published by Church Publishing in 1982, still speaks volumes beyond its 42 pages today. In it, Dozier proclaimed: “What’s important in the Gospel is a new world, not an institution.”

Too often, the church has been about the work of preserving or growing the institution more than equipping the laity to transform the world. To wit, when the church commissions lay persons, it is usually for their ministry within the church: as vestry, altar guild, Sunday school teachers, etc. Occasionally, the church will commission a group heading out on a one-week mission trip. But rarely does the church commission laity for their ongoing mission and ministry in the world. In the liturgy, we send them out, “to love and serve the Lord”, but do we really challenge them, help them, to see their particular daily life and work as a vocation, a calling worthy of the Church’s blessing and embrace?

Baptism is certainly the foundation of our vocation and ministry. Our confirmation and the recitation of our Baptismal Covenant challenge and reinforce that primary call. But only the marriage rite comes to mind as comparable to ordination, with specific vows to a particular calling, with a public accountability to the church, to God, and to those we love.

Some vocations have developed rites and rituals of their own: doctors recite the Hippocratic oath, elected officials swear that they will uphold their office, expectant parents receive a baby shower. Each of these is powerful. But they are the exceptions, not common to every call, and they do not connect a person’s faith or awareness of God’s presence and blessing to the particular work they have been given to do.

Of course, it would be a significant logistical challenge to designate a separate liturgy for every lay member of the congregation, even if such a liturgy were limited to the season when a layperson claimed and began to live into her or his vocation. We would have to sort through whether such celebrations would occur on a weeknight or Saturday, as ordinations often do, or on a Sunday, as part of the regularly scheduled liturgy. In a congregation of more than 100, it could take a decade or more for a church to “ordain” everyone. And doing so on Sunday would certainly distract from the readings and emphasis of the liturgical year.

Logistics may limit possibilities. But that doesn’t mean we give up the opportunity to name, bless, and send forth a person to a particular calling in the world.

The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a mission church of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, begins to respond to this challenge in its Sunday liturgy throughout the Season of Epiphany. At the end of the liturgy, after post-communion prayer and before the blessing and dismissal, laypersons are invited to come forward to be prayed over, commissioned, and sent forth. Each commission includes a call and response between the sponsor or celebrant, the congregation, and the one being sent forth. Each week in a season that already focuses our attention on taking the Light of Christ out into the world, the Advocate focuses on a particular category of calling for doing so. Given the variety of vocations and the limited number of weeks in the Season of Epiphany, we have to use pretty broad strokes. – one week, those who take care of others; another, those who teach and study; another, those who engage in business or commerce; etc.

Some years, when there are fewer weeks in the Season of Epiphany, the call and response is brief, allowing for more than one commission each Sunday. Other years, the commissions are more embellished and detailed, and therefore, more personal and meaningful. At the start of the season, we let everyone know who will be commissioned on which week, allowing people to adjust their schedules in order to be there. And those who brew the liturgy are certainly open to changing the order of the commissions in order to accommodate the calendars of the laity as needs be.

There is a lot of talk these days about the church needing to get out “beyond the church walls”. The truth is, the church has been out there for a long time. We just haven’t effectively made it known to others and ourselves. Commissioning the laity for their work and ministry in the world can help us more fully to realize and to make known that what the people of God do in the world is not only important, it is essential to the work of the Kingdom of God.

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Sample Commissions

Taking Liturgy to Town

by Lisa G. Fischbeck

Holy Week at the Advocate: Carrboro NC Becomes Jerusalem

We walked together, some carrying placards, some taking turns carrying the large cedar cross. Not a large crowd, twenty-five or so. Enough to been seen as intentional, enough to attract attention. I wore my collar and black cassock, signs my ministry, signs of the Church. It was Good Friday, and we were walking the Way of the Cross through our town, Carrboro, North Carolina. For most of us, this was making church more public than usual. So we felt a little timid and a little bold at the same time. Somewhere between the fifth and sixth station, after we had passed the taqueria and before we reached the InterFaith Council building, a man rode by on his bicycle. “F*** God” He yelled, waving his fist in the air. “F*** religion.”

We walked on, changed.

Good liturgy both expresses what we believe and shapes what we believe. The people of the Church of the Advocate walking the Way of the Cross that day, came to believe more fully in a God made flesh, made vulnerable to the powers of this world. We came to understand more fully the gift of that vulnerability to us all. God with us. We understood a little better how it felt to publically claim our identity as Christians.

Launched in 2003, the Advocate is a 21st century mission of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. We are rooted in the traditions and liturgies of the Episcopal Church and the Book of Common Prayer. Born without land or building, though, we experience both the liberation and the challenge of inheriting the liturgies of the church without inheriting the usual structures in which those liturgies take place -- church walls. As such, from our beginning the Advocate has had the opportunity to ask ourselves, “Why are we doing this? What does it say? How does it form us?”

As a church without building or congregational history, it has been relatively easy for us to consider our Holy Week liturgies “from scratch” and to take them into new and different places, even into the public square. These liturgies lend themselves to being in the world. After all, that’s where they started.

Engaging in the Holy Week liturgies of the Church outside the confines of a church building profoundly allows us to re-member the experience of Jesus and his followers on the streets of Jerusalem, in the “upper room”, before the councils of church and state, and on the road to Calvary. While the Advocate’s Holy Week liturgies continue to evolve and change from year to year, we have found some meaningful patterns.

Palm Sunday
Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday with the Liturgy of the Palms and procession. Remembering Jesus' “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, we gather as the people of the first century did, outdoors by the “walls of the city”, in our case, by the Carrboro Town Hall. We hear the story of Jesus, the colt, the people, the palms. And we, too, wave our branches of palm (provided) and flowers brought from our own gardens and trees (which is what the palms were for the people of 1st century Jerusalem). These vary from one year to the next – redbuds, azaleas, daffodils. This year we plan to add large bamboo stalks (while these are not native plants, bamboo is popular in local apartment complexes, and we anticipate quite a visual impact!)

From the Town Hall we process about two blocks to the entrance to the Carrboro Town Commons singing “Jesus is coming, Hosanna Glory”. I encourage people see the processional cross as the symbol of Jesus, and to try to get as close to it as they can. The Town Commons contains the town playground and playing field and the covered farmers market two days a week. When we arrive at the entrance, we “cast our palms” before the crucifer and cross, say a prayer, and enter the covered market singing a different tune -- “A Stable Lamp is Lighted”, including the fitting words: This child through David's city
shall ride in triumph by;
the palm shall strew its branches,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, though heavy, dull and dumb,
and lie within the roadway
to pave his kingdom come.

The liturgy quickly moves to the passion narrative, a liturgical jolt resulting from the unfortunate combination of Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday (which practice presumably evolved from the realization that many would not return to church again until the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Day). Too much for one liturgy, really. Nonetheless, experiencing these two narratives in one hour helps us to realize that we, too, like the people of first century Jerusalem, can quickly, and in the same public space and place, convert from cries of “Hosanna” to shouts of “Crucify Him” when walking in his way becomes to challenging or risky for us.

All who pass by are welcome to join us in our open-air cathedral. And always some, not many, but some, do. People walking with kids or dogs, people who have never been to church, people who remember the church of their childhood and are intrigued to see it being made new. Some stand on the periphery, others take a seat. (This is a “bring your own chair” event, but we always have extras on hand for the strangers who join us).

Maundy Thursday
Maundy Thursday, we gather more privately, as Jesus did with his disciples. This is far and away the favorite liturgy of the year for the congregation, as we experience the intimacy and warmth of friendship and community. Jesus and the disciples met for the Passover meal in the “upper room”, we meet together in a rustic lodge out in the country north of town, and share a Middle Eastern meal. One member of the congregation takes two days off work each year to coordinate and lovingly prepare the food. The menu varies, but always includes stuffed grape leaves, pita and humus, olives, almonds, salad with feta cheese, cider and wine. Fresh tulips decorate each table. Music is led with fiddle, flute and guitar, and the singing is robust – All Who Hunger Gather Gladly, Jesu Jesu, The Servant Song, Ubi caritas, Thuma mia.

We experience servant leadership in a variety of dimensions. Each round table of eight is tended by a member of the vestry. Apart from blessing the food, I do not preside, but rather sit among the people. Like everyone else, I have my feet washed by a member of the congregation. And each year I find it would be far easier for me to serve than to allow myself to be served. My servant leadership is to relinquish the leadership….

After the meal, there is no altar to strip, so we clear the tables and stack the chairs, first in silence, then with the musicians playing Wayfaring Stranger. We find our way to the large open porch, gather in darkness there, chant Taizé’s “Stay With Me, Watch and Pray”, then hear the words of Psalm 22. It is haunting, knowing these words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” are the same attributed to Jesus on the cross.
We depart in silence, finding our way to our cars with flashlights, and feeling within us the tension between the warmth of the community and the cold knowledge of the events of the next day. The complexity of the Christian life, with joy and pain, made plain.

Good Friday
Good Friday we return to downtown Carrboro. At the noon hour, we gather once again at the Carrboro Town Commons, the farmers market, this time for the Good Friday liturgy -- a simple service of prayer and scripture from the Book of Common Prayer. Once again we hear the Passion narrative, third time in a week, and it begins to penetrate our hearts and our bones. The weather, of course, varies from year to year. But when it is cold an rainy, we identify with Peter, warming his hands by the fire, even as he denies he knows the Lord.

Someone brings forth the five feet tall cross, made of two pieces of cedar lashed together, and we see and feel its heft. We walk to the Carrboro Town Hall, where we last met on Palm Sunday, and begin The Way of the Cross/ Via Dolorosa with the first station: Jesus is condemned to die.

The traditional stations are maintained, yet re-written for a 21st century context (see example below), so as we walk that Way through our own town, we do so not only to remember a series of events in 1st century Palestine, but also to reflect on the state of our world, our nation, our city, and our selves. We walk through downtown, for more than a mile, past social service agencies, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, the center for conflict resolution, the police station, the local popular food coop. We realize and make known Christ’s presence in all of these places.

The Way made public brings the Gospel story to the people of the town and forms the people who walk it. We read the stations in English and in Spanish, in recognition of, and with hospitality for, our neighbors who are Spanish-speaking, many who come from countries where the Fridays in Lent are marked by a public procession of the cross. And every year strangers spontaneously join us on the Way, sometimes just for a station or two, sometimes through to the end.

Last year we added placards to our presence, in order to make known to passers by that we were applying the Gospel to today. “Occupy the Cross; Love the World“, Jesus Welcomes the Alien and the Stranger”, “Dichosos los Pobres”. Carrying these signs, we felt even more public and more vulnerable to the judgment and anti-Christian prejudice of others. We were cheered and jeered. Horns honked support and annoyance. Yet when we talked about it afterward, we agreed that we by our actions we all felt strangely empowered and formed as 21st century Christians in the world. We realized we can be open with our faith and practice.

Our Easter celebrations are not as public. But neither were the events that inspired them. According to our Gospel accounts, the resurrection took place in the dark for night with no witnesses. Still, I wonder how we might share Easter with the stranger or the passerby.

For now, though, for the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, we gather in the dark outside near the space we rent for worship on most Sundays. We experience the excitement of the resurrection, the Light of Christ in the darkness, as we light the Paschal fire, carry the Paschal candle in procession past kerosene soaked torches that burst into flame. We keep Vigil through the stories of creation and liberation, baptize by immersion outdoors in an inflatable pool, and return indoors for the Paschal Shout, lights and celebration, culminating with an alleluia and the pop of a champagne cork.

Easter Day we celebrate the discovery of the resurrection – in the daylight -- in a garden yard of a parishioner or friend, with beauty, joy, Eucharist. We’ve heard the story, now we live in the light of the resurrection. We cheer the ancient song: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life. And we dance.

As I wrote at the start, it is relatively easy for the Advocate to take our Holy Week liturgies into town, because the Advocate doesn’t have a building of our own, with all the traditions and expectations that would go along with it. But with the emerging buzz about taking Ash Wednesday practices to the streets with “Ashes to Go”, I wonder if other congregations might consider the ways that Holy Week liturgies lend themselves to spaces and places beyond our doors, connecting us by experience with our 1st century ancestors in the faith and with the 21st century world in which we live. Expressing our faith and forming it in ways we can only now begin to imagine.

Fifth Station: The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene
Tres Amigos Tienda y Taquería

A reading from the Gospel according to Mark

Then they led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passerby, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene. (Mark 15:20b-21)

Silent Reflection


With Jesus tired and weak, and having fallen once already, it was clear to the soldiers escorting him that he might not be able to carry the cross himself the whole way. It was beneath their station as Romans to carry the cross—not in their job description. Just at that moment, their eyes landed on someone—someone who could bring no complaint and who could cause them no trouble—a foreigner from Cyrene, in what is now Libya.
Simon’s case is in so many ways nothing new—just another person harrassed and oppressed because of his origin, his accent, his skin color—a stranger in a strange land, without help, without rights, without recourse. It happens still today, in our country, in our state, in our cities. It has long been the case that immigrants perform the hardest, lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs, jobs that most people will not take. As we stand in front of Tres Amigos, let us remember all those who are vulnerable and oppressed because of their race, ethnicity, or immigration status.

Silent Reflection

Photos here.

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the founding Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, North Carolina.

Ten Marks of Vibrant Parishes

by Michael Sullivan

Each Monday, several church leadership blogs hit my inbox. Sometimes, I find fresh bread among them, but most often, only stale crumbs fall from their tables. I crave more about vibrancy and less about pessimism, and for some reason, it seems that all the blogs by mainline writers begin with the line “Research says we are dying.” It’s hard to get hungry after such a line. (And, yes, I realize it’s in my opening paragraph).

Our churches need Good News for life rather than death, so recently, when asked to speak at Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina, I developed Ten Marks of Vibrant Cathedrals in the 21st Century. From the reception, something fed them; a little yeast was added to the bowl. So, I’ve edited the list for the typical parish church.

Let me know if you find fresh bread or any stale crumbs.

1. Houses of prayer for all

We know we’re a house of prayer, but perhaps we need to be reminded. Gone is the assumption of open naves and chapels twenty-four hours a day, standing ready on the street corner for anyone who needed a holy space to encounter God. I know I’ve needed an empty church many times in life, sometimes to feel the absence of God while at others to trust in the presence. Perhaps we need to stop worrying and just open the doors again. Being open to prayer is half the battle.

In my tradition, Episcopal, we’ve also lost touch with the Daily Office, reading the ancient prayers of the Church at Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline. But a resurgence of these offices among millennials evidences a deep hunger for the life of prayer. We must recollect the prayers of the Church, even when we don’t feel like it, because prayer expresses and shapes our belief; it is who we are. We need the daily bread of common prayer internalized in our hearts. With scripture we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, the prayers of the Church sustain us.

And while the Christian practice of prayer is foundational, we must not see prayer narrowly. We must embrace our Christian voice among multiple voices, risking invitation to and among other religious communities so that the multiple voices of prayer might help us understand God, ourselves, and all creation. Our houses of prayer have wrongly become ways to perpetuate segregation and separation rather than opportunities for seeing the face of God in all.

2. Icons of God’s wider presence

Parish churches do not exist to get something from the wider Church. They live as evidence of the wider Church. If we’re going to live fully, we’ve got to see our lives as icons of presence for and to the whole of Christ’s Church.

For those of us in hierarchical denominations, too many of us have started to think of the diocese or presbytery or whatever you call it as an albatross to be blamed for all our troubles. Together, we are the Body of Christ; our mission to and for the wider Church is an imperative. Live like a written icon, a portal to something beyond words. Allow your life to transfigure the mission and ministry of Christ in the whole Church instead of remaining a personality enshrined in a parochial parish.

3. Places of the Via Media

In my tradition, the middle way or via media is the core of our identity. A product of the Elizabethan Settlement, we are both Reformed and Catholic, an institutional preservation of multiple points of view in one Church.

And while not all adhere to our defining ethos, truth is, it’s operative everywhere. All churches are communities of divergent views. Some are labeled progressive or emergent or evangelical or liberal or conservative or traditional or something else. All strands of the warp are not the same; God intentionally weaves with different colors and textures.

This rich tapestry is a gift of the Holy Spirit. In a time when the world is wrongly seeking agreement and is thus stuck in polarities and inaction, the Church must value woven commitment over torn consensus. We need each other and the difference latent within creation at the Church’s altar. If we can harness the gift of our multiplicity, finding a middle journey amidst us, we will see God moving among us.

4. Curators of the arts

In Western Civilization, the Church has been the primary benefactor of the arts. And of course we have, for the arts give expression to God and our life beyond texts, helping us express thoughts and relationships in “sighs too deep for words.” When we open ourselves to the multiple expressions of the soul in visual, dramatic, and musical arts, we reach toward the fullness of God’s image in all things.

Parishes need to stop ordering everything from catalogues of cookie cutter ecclesiastical forms as if our best expressions were available from a warehouse. Local and national artists are available to express how God is speaking among you, often for less money than stock appointments. A photographer can create inexpensive, yet stunning Stations of the Cross. A potter or local silversmith can create amazing vessels. Let your building and furnishings express your parish’s understanding of God, not someone else’s standardized form. Become an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace you experience as a community, not as a commodity of expected, ecclesiastical forms.

5. Communicators beyond gates

Our age is going through a major shift in understanding not unlike the beginning of Modernity that came out of the Renaissance. The next age, whatever it is or will be called, will be considerably more connected across the globe. It will blow apart the concepts of printed word with progressive and emerging communication for a world of instantaneous information.

Parishes must cast fear aside and use all methods of communication to reach the member and unchurched alike. Twitter, facebook, texts and other forms of communication are imperatives today; they do not isolate in the virtual world but invite into deeper connections among the gathered world. If you’re not texting your youth group, using email instead, you’re already behind. Email is an antique to younger generations and rarely used. Churches must stay abreast of the latest innovations in technology and communicate in multiple ways. Cost is no excuse; many of these tools are free.

6. Wisdom bearers

Our societal shift in communication is actually a shift in worldview; how we understand and gather information in and about the world is rapidly changing. This new model is based almost solely in information rather than wisdom and the formation that attends it.

Every once and a while a parent, well-intentioned, comes up and asks me why our children aren’t learning more about the sacraments or being instructed in a particular theological concept. When the child is close at hand, I usually bend down and just ask, “Claire, can you tell me about communion?” And then, a few minutes later after the child has described the paten, chalice, corporal, colors of the year, words of institution, and a couple of other things, I stand back up and thank the child for the lesson. Because the child learned through an experiential wisdom based curriculum, the parent assumed “information” was not being taught didactically.

Information is not the key to religious formation. As we all become wiki-informers, we need the deeper discernment and wisdom of the Church through the ages, the theology and praxis of our common life. Throughout our history, we were the ones establishing centers for learning. We too often forget that the entire university system was monastic in origin; just think of Oxford and Cambridge. Our current age, despite our connectivity, is quickly becoming illiterate from information without wisdom. We have substituted opinion based on shallow information and emotion for time-tested wisdom based upon formation, education, and the careful discernment of God’s movement among us.

If we are to thrive, we must reclaim our role as wisdom bearers, seeking more formation from our members and constituent bodies rather than less. We need internalized wisdom, not external information.

7. Missioners in all things

Too many churches treat mission and outreach today as if they were agencies of the United Way. Churches are not grant-making foundations. They are centers for the mission of Jesus Christ in the wider world.

Truth is, outreach is not a program of the Church. It is an outgrowth of our life in Christ, a recognition that outreach is the outward life of our prayer and worship, the symbol of the richness of God working in our lives. When we focus upon outreach as reaching outwardly from our sacramental life, our work in the world takes on new dimensions and perspectives. We cease to prop up the social order through grants and begin to transform and transfigure the world through Christ’s kingdom “coming very near us.”

I often say that a church will only reach outwardly as far as it reaches inwardly. If we expect our outreach to be more than “Wow, I went to a foreign land and realized how lucky I am,” we must do the hard and difficult work of reconciliation in our own hearts in conjunction with our reconciling work in the world. There is no other way to Christ-like mission.

Missional churches not only embrace this truth, they celebrate it. They dare to tell the story of their own lives in order to give voice to others, going to places where Good Friday is still the average twenty-four hour day and Easter light comes just moment by moment.

8. Vulnerable healers

It’s hard to be vulnerable as a parish church. Wanting to proclaim the Good News, we often dress ourselves up too richly, hiding our warts from those around us out of a fear we might be seen as we truly are. Of course, we know deep down that this is not a strategy for hope but despair. It’s just so terribly tempting. But if parishes can accept their histories, warts and all, they possess the possibility of healing in common life, and thus, healing for others.

The world aches and groans for authenticity in religion. We must admit we don’t have all the answers, that life can be hard and difficult. We’ve got to stop treating healing like magic, clinging to the notion that if we just “believe,” good things come. I have long ago faced the reality that my beliefs do not affect God’s grace. When I hear people say, “He was a true believer and was healed,” or worse, the converse, I sometimes ask if the person actually believes the statement. Do we really believe we are so powerful? Does the child in South Atlanta who went to bed hungry last night remain hungry because he didn’t pray enough? Or the mother in Africa whose child dies in her arms?

Let’s all remember that Jesus did not heal pretty situations and sometimes didn’t use pretty methods. He also wept in the face of death and despair. Sometimes, the only way to heal was to bend down, scoop up some dust, and spit into it. There is a deep lesson there. We cannot ignore it.

9. Signs of excellence and hospitality

The Rule of St Benedict puts excellence and hospitality toward the end. The reason: excellence and hospitality in Christ are not consumption-based; they’re not like hotels or restaurants. No, radical hospitality is an expression of the inward life made manifest outwardly in your care for others. Ultimately, this maxim means that hospitality is outreach, an outward sign of your inner life that becomes so prayerful, so present it results without reflection. It just happens because the interior life is so wonderfully manifest in daily life and work. Truly, how you treat others is an expression of the kingdom of God you have cultivated within your own soul.

Don’t program excellence and hospitality; allow it to live throughout your entire life as a parish. And don’t accept mediocrity, what C.S. Lewis’s character Screwtape, the veteran demon, instructed the novice Wormwood to instill in the Church. “A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing,” Screwtape taught.

10. Embodiment of beauty and holiness

This entire list culminates in a distinctly Christian notion of beauty and holiness. We are to be a house of prayer for all people, gifting them with gracious beauty and holiness amidst the challenges of life. Our places of worship and community should become icons to a wider more fulfilling life in the Church and our value of commitment over consensus allows the holiness of a middle way to become our path. Seeking wisdom beyond information, we go forth in mission, not to appear and disappear to others as if on a triumphant white horse, but to arrive as fellow pilgrims along the holy journey. We know that despite our warts, healing brings grace and mercy, authentic life amidst the superficial and skin-deep. We trust in these things that excellence and hospitality emerge, presenting the face of God to the world, the world desperately desiring to be “so loved.”

The Rev. Michael R. Sullivan is rector of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church and School in Atlanta, Georgia. He is author of two books on art and spirituality, Windows into the Soul and Windows into the Light.

Growing pains

The Pastoral and Program Models as Seen From a Physicians Perspective.
by Brian Stork

Our local Episcopal church is going through an identity exploration. Currently, we have too many members for a single parish priest to provide individual pastoral care and expand the spiritual and educational programs expected by some of our parishioners. On the other hand, we don't yet have enough members, or funds, to hire additional support staff such as a full time youth director. Our membership and financial "plateau" has caused considerable discussion and even some tension within our congregation. Some parishioners like the historic "Pastoral Model" of our church. They are concerned, appropriately, that hiring a youth director at this time would threaten the financial health of our historic parish. Others argue that if we don't take a calculated financial risk and employ a youth director we might jeopardize the future of our parish. The issue is important to me personally because, as a community physician, I not only care about my Church but also share Communion with many of my patients on Sunday.

A few years ago our clinical practice found itself at a similar crossroad. Up until that time, whatever the medical problem might be, we saw each of our patients personally. It was a "Pastoral Model" of patient care if you will. As community physicians we derived a great amount of personal satisfaction practicing in the "Pastoral Model". I would like to believe that our patients benefited from that model as well.

However, over the past few years our practice has had to adapt to the rapid changes occurring in the health care industry. The identity exploration in our practice began with the realization that we did not have enough urologists in our community to take care of our rapidly growing patient population. At the same time we began to realize that, for basic problems in our specialty, patients probably didn't need to see a physician provider at every visit.

Our practice took the financial risk and added both a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant to our clinical staff. As a result, patients in our community don't have to wait as long to be seen and treated. Not only have patients benefited from this transition but our physicians now have more time to spend with the patients who need the most clinical attention. This transition in the organization of our clinical practice has given our physicians more time to sub specialize in the conditions in which they are most passionate about and skilled in treating. We are now treating more patients in our office and providing a wider variety of specialized services then ever before.

The transition from a "Pastoral Model" to a "Program Model" in our practice has not occurred without its share of difficulties. Supervising mid level providers is initially frustrating for physicians who are used to a direct interaction with every patient at every visit. Patients, previously accustom to seeing a physician at each visit, needed time to transition to the new model. Partners used to working side by side started to see each other less as they began to focus on their own specialty interests. Fortunately, our group can now can utilize a wide variety of low cost tools such as e-mail, texting, FaceTime, and Vsnap to stay connected.

Change in an organization tends to occur when the discomfort of doing nothing is greater then the discomfort of changing. There is no question that change can be painful. In our practice, we now embrace change as a challenge and an opportunity. With imagination, hard work, and communication it is possible for organizations as diverse as Churches or physician practices to make the transition from one model of operation to another.

Changes in health care are affecting physician practices rapidly, often by forces from outside of the physician office. Changes in the Church tend to occur much more slowly and perhaps from processes that are more from within the parish. I pray for our church as we work together to discern the correct path and take the next step. I pray for our practice that we can maintain our new course, direction, and speed.

Dr. Brian Stork is an active member of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, MI, and a private practice urologist (www.westshoreurology.com). He has a passion for physician leadership, patient education, and community building using emerging technology and social networking. His reflections on life, medicine, and spirituality can be found on Twitter @storkbrian

Occupy Wall Street and The Episcopal Church: a crisis of legitimation, or a movement of transformation?

By P. Joshua Griffin

Before I went to seminary my discernment committee gave me an assignment. I was relatively new to the Episcopal Church and they thought it would be a good idea if I interviewed several priests from different walks of life about their calling to ordained ministry. One of the priests I met with told me this: “I was committed to the Black Power movement. I had a full scholarship to law school and also to seminary. In the end, it seemed that my call was to the priesthood. It was the best way I could support the legitimate the grievances of the Black Power struggle—and to the extent that the Church was willing to accept that struggle as its own, legitimate the Church.”

Today our churches are facing a similar crisis of legitimacy. With our roots in an established State-church, whenever ‘power’ is in crisis, the Episcopal Church will be in crisis. Though we are concerned for ‘the oppressed,’ many parts of the Body enjoy a tremendous amount of privilege, remaining insulated from the lived experience of oppression, injustice, and violence. As an institution we enjoy a good deal of ‘spatial privilege.’ We have a lot of buildings where we worship and freely spread Christ’s Gospel of Love. We are often generous with what we have and we love to ‘speak out,’ but we are slow to take action toward those institutions that create the conditions we decry—poverty, injustice, and oppression. We focus a good deal on charity, but far less on addressing the power imbalances that render anemic the continued possibility of democracy in this fragile Republic.

The Occupy Movement is a radical-democratic movement, grounded in the principles of truth and justice, and direct action. It is the kind of movement that we venerate in history, yet many people who live comfortably fear it in the present. For my entire life, the last 30 years, our collective striving “for justice and peace among all people” has been modest because it has been divided. One church group works on racism, one on economic justice, one on climate change, one on immigration, one on Native-American wellbeing, and another one works against war—yet the struggle for justice is one. We have written letters, we have lobbied, we have voted. Ultimately we placed our faith in politicians above the Kingdom of God, and we were wrong.

Occupy is no mere ‘protest.’ The brilliance of the movement is its refusal to be reduced to specific policy demands. Occupy remains an insatiable movement of liberating creativity, an irreducible process for generating justice. Yet paradoxically, Occupy is also at it's best when it momentarily coheres into concrete demands—ie. liberating a particular foreclosed home for an unhoused family, reversing Citizens United, or closing the West Coast ports in solidarity with exploited port truckers. It is a replicable model for creating democratic space in a country and world dominated by unaccountable corporations.

We may remember from the Book of Genesis that creativity, to the uninitiated, may appear at times, as chaos. Occupy is not without its imperfections—but this is precisely why we as a church should embrace it and support it, as many have already done. Occupy Wall Street has presented Trinity Wall Street with a thoughtful, conscientious, and respectful blueprint for using a small parcel of property in order to reestablish their visible, public presence in the heart of global finance. The symbolic, or sacramental, importance of such a space cannot be overstated.

This movement is too important to be shunned to the periphery, or rendered invisible—especially with Congress’ alarming attempts this week to suppress political dissent through the National Defense Authorization Act. As Christians we have a responsibility to protect demonstrators from our governments’ reckless use of militarized policing—as evidenced by the brutal beating off a Methodist pastor in Seattle on Monday. Furthermore, it is only by embracing and engaging that we can help ensure Occupy’s commitment to nonviolence, as well as contribute our share of the spiritual resources needed for this transformational long-term struggle for justice. And finally, by providing safe-haven we can help insure participation from those communities who are so often terrorized by law enforcement—especially African-American youth and Latino/a immigrants.

Trinity Wall Street has a long history of supporting progressive dialog through its annual conference series. Over the years Trinity has used its extravagant wealth to support mission projects that serve the most vulnerable around the world. Charlotte’s Place has been a refuge for the Occcupiers even as they organize a campaign to compel Trinity to open its property to them! But let’s be honest. Like most of us, Trinity Wall Street is deeply dependent on the system that Occupy Wall Street is seeking to transform. To allow an encampment to be established on Trinity property may unfortunately require a greater depth of self-examination than the parish is willing to undertake.

This Advent, we remember a struggling migrant family who was turned away from the Inn, and a homeless infant King who was born in a stable. With Archbishop Tutu I invite Trinity to reexamine its position—there is far too much at stake. After he was ruthlessly beaten by Seattle Police on Monday evening, the Rev. John Helmiere, a chaplain at Occupy Seattle, had this message: listen deeply, get upset, and generate Love. The Episcopal Church is very good at listening, and pretty good at loving. Our ironic misfortune is that we may not have experienced enough suffering to always know when and how to get upset. Let there be peace among us, and may we not be instruments of our own, or anyone else’s oppression.

The Rev. P. Joshua Griffin is priest associate at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, OR, and a Ph.D. student integrating environmental anthropology and religious studies at the University of Washington.

Communicating your parish ethos

By Derek Olsen

A clergy friend, Robert Hendrickson at Christ Church New Haven, has been doing some artwork for his church and putting the results up on Facebook. I can say without qualification that he’s got more artistic sense in his little finger than I have in my whole body because these things are terrific. Simple, restrained, black-and-white photos with just a splash of muted color, these images from parish worship are paired with tag-lines that are clever—ironic, even, as their main target is the young-to-hipster set for whom irony is a native tongue.

The reason why I think these posters are so great is because they do such an effective job at communicating the parish ethos.

smoking_section.jpgWhere we participate in corporate worship and the experience that we find there has a major effect on our experience of the Christian life with God and shapes our theology and spirituality. Yes, we all use the Book of Common Prayer, but the question is how we use it. How do we embody the texts of our liturgy? How do we clothe it? How do we own and incarnate the words and phrases to bring them to life in the peculiar particularities in which we live our lives?

The ethos or “character” of a place is a combination of factors. It seems to me that a classic description of the old English Anglo-Catholic stronghold, All Saints Margaret Street, was one attempt to define a community’s ethos: “Music by Mozart, Decor by Comper; Choreography by Fortescue; but, my dear boy, libretto by Cranmer.”

It’s fair to say that an ethos is a combination of:

• Architecture
• Music
• Ceremonial
• Liturgy
• Decoration
• Attitude and Execution of the Liturgy by the Clergy
• Attitude and Execution of the Liturgy by the Congregation

The last two cannot be overlooked. Reverent, pompous, attentive, energetic, bored, sloppy: it’s remarkable how one community can project a completely different ethos from another even when many of the other elements are the same.

After hearing and participating in “worship wars” for well over a decade, I think such discussions often fail by being too narrowly focused. That is,christ-church-ad.jpg people argue over music, liturgy, and ceremonial. But more often I think what they really intend is the overall package—the ethos of a worshipping community—and considering elements in abstraction can’t grapple fully with the issue of ethos.

The posters communicate an ethos. The black-and-white shots depict worship that is traditional—very traditional—yet the faces in the photos and the “voices” of the tag-lines are young. The ethos communicated is of a parish that worships well, that cares deeply about its liturgy and the traditions that inform it. It’s traditional, but not traditionalist; it takes God seriously, and itself a little less seriously.

In and amongst the photos of silver and smoke, we are invited to a mystery. Not so it can be explained away or talked to death—but that we can dive within it and find at the center of the mystery the key to our longing.

(From the comments - here is a link to all the ads. ~ed.)

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.

A casserole ministry is about more than casseroles

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Until poor health curtailed her activities, my mother-in-law Ruby was the head of her church’s Bereavement Committee. We got a kick out of watching this woman—prone to rambling reminiscences offered from the ancient recliner where she spent about 80 percent of her waking hours—spring into high gear after receiving a phone call reporting that someone in the church had died. As far as we could tell, the sole responsibility of the Bereavement Committee was to provide bounteous food to grieving families. More than once, we overheard my mother-in-law berate some unfortunate committee member for not pulling her weight, leaving those poor families without paper products, for example, with which to serve the bereavement bounty.

We thought it was quaint, this idea that the most vital service a church community could offer its members during times of grief was platters of ham biscuits and pitchers of sweet tea. Once again, though, I’ve discovered that Ruby knows a thing or two about what’s important.

Last October, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a non-invasive, curable cancer. I knew I would recover fully, after some surgery and radiation (and I have). I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, to appear needier than I really was. But when I had to cancel a lunch date with our church’s assistant rector because of multiple doctors’ appointments, I let her know what was going on. She asked if I wanted her to pass my name on to our Casserole Ministry, so I could be free of cooking chores during my recuperation.

At first, I didn’t think I was sick enough to need this kind of help. My surgeries were straightforward, requiring only a couple of days to recover, during which my husband would be home to help out. The main side effect of radiation therapy is fatigue, but it often doesn’t kick in until the final days of the regimen. Besides, because I have a physical disability and chronic pain, a fair amount of fatigue is normal for me. Surely, the Casserole Ministry was meant for people who are really sick. Not for me.

Eventually, though, it became clear that others’ response to my illness and treatment was out of my hands. A good friend (not part of my church) started an account on a web site that allows people to sign up for specific dates to bring someone a meal if they are sick, recovering from surgery, just had a baby, etc. She publicized it through Facebook, and soon a dozen friends had signed up to bring my family a meal. When the assistant rector asked again about the Casserole Ministry, I directed her to my friend’s web site, and watched as church members snapped up many of the blank dates.

For seven weeks, I had people showing up on my doorstep most evenings bearing food. Some were good friends, but many of the church volunteers were people I had never formally met. A friend asked me if it felt weird to have people, especially near-strangers, feeding my family. Yes, it did. Particularly since I didn't look or feel terribly sick. It took some getting used to. But it turned out to be really welcome.

The hardest part of radiation treatment was its dailiness—every weekday for seven weeks. Having it smack in the middle of every morning made it hard to get anything done when the kids were at school. I could rarely get momentum going on writing, cleaning, or other necessities, because as soon as I got started, it was time for radiation, some vital errand, or school pick-up. The treatment did cause some fatigue, so my evenings were also pretty much shot. Being able to focus limited energy on things other than cooking, and give my full attention to the kids after school without having to think about dinner too, really helped.

People at church told me they were praying for my recovery and my family, and those prayers were welcome. But it was the regular, substantial, concrete delivery of meals that really made apparent how our church community was supporting us. Being on the receiving end of the Casserole Ministry also made me feel more at home at our church (which we’ve attended for a little over two years). Now, as I sit in my pew on Sunday mornings, I can look around and see half a dozen people whose names I now know, whose baking dishes are stacked in a corner of my kitchen, ready to be returned to their owners, and who spent a few minutes in my kitchen asking after my health and my kids’ well-being when they dropped off their goodies.

I am currently reading Sara Miles' memoir Take This Bread, which is an account of the author's Christian conversion and the centrality of of giving and receiving food (through both communion and a church-based food pantry) in that conversion. My own parish is planting a vegetable garden in a few short weeks, with plans to deliver fresh produce to a family service center in one of our city's poorest neighborhoods. I could wax theological about the symbolism of food for Christians, for whom sharing bread and wine is a fundamental act of faith. But instead I’ll just say that receiving food from my church community during my cancer treatment has done more to make me feel at home in this church, to feel the love of Christ made real through his people, than any adult education class, worship service, or potluck dinner ever has.

I now understand why my mother-in-law was so serious about making sure that grieving families had plenty of paper plates, pasta salad, and pound cake. It’s hard to know what to do in the face of someone else’s suffering. We want to fix it, and we can’t. So we are called simply to love them in whatever way we can. While food isn’t love exactly, it sure comes close.

(One practical observation for readers who have or are considering starting a Casserole Ministry in their church: Every meal was made with love, delicious, and welcome. But the most welcome foods were actually not casseroles. One family provided hand-breaded chicken cutlets, which I could cut up and call “chicken nuggets” for my kids, or serve on hamburger buns. A huge Greek salad provided me with an entire week’s worth of healthy lunches. Other ready-made green and fruit salads meant I could serve nutritious produce at every meal without the work of cutting it all up. Loaves of fresh bread, besides being delicious and comforting, gave the kids something to fill up on, even if the main dish was not to their liking. And meals that included brownies, cookies, or a small cake made for a celebratory vibe even on regular old weeknights.)

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

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.

Is the church captive to its buildings?

By George Clifford

During the course of a recent weekend in the English town of Ludlow, I visited six Church of England (CofE) parish church buildings, each hundreds of years old and two more than a thousand years old. All six benefices now belong to “team ministries,” a group of churches served by a clergy team. Unlike most U.S. churches, all six facilities consist of only a worship building; none include a parish hall, offices, or education spaces; any children’s programming occurs in a corner, side aisle, or former chapel.

I attended the Sunday Family Communion service at St. Laurence in Ludlow, where I found a thriving, welcoming congregation with good music and respectable preaching. This parish, prominently located in the town center, is the principal parish for a team ministry comprised of fourteen parishes served by three full-time and numerous retired clergy. St. Laurence also has two musicians; the clergy team benefits from a full-time administrator and part-time secretary.

Another parish church, St. Mary Magdalene in Eardisley, which I visited on Sunday afternoon was exceptionally clean, tastefully decorated for their harvest festival held that morning, and appeared to host as numerous and active congregation as one might expect in a small village. Even empty, the church felt welcoming and like a place of prayer.

My other four church visits were uniformly depressing. All four buildings are still used. Two are located some distance from the nearest village, each adjacent to a large country house; two are in small villages. Although I did not attend worship in any of these four churches, none gave any sign of especial love or care. Books and pamphlets were dusty, dirty, or even moldy. Several altar hangings were decrepit. Notice boards listed the worship schedule, usually one or two Sunday services per month in each place. In two, I could find no indication of children being regularly present. Each church had distinctive architectural features; a grant from the English lottery was funding a partial renovation of one. To avoid unhelpfully shaming any of these four churches and their small, probably elderly, and definitely struggling congregations, I will not name them.

Reflecting on my six visits, I found the plight of the CofE – at least in that corner of the Diocese of Hereford, though visits to numerous other rural and urban CofE churches and two years of service as a CofE priest suggest that the these six parishes are not atypical – thought provoking. First, the CofE’s resource base does not align well with England’s current population. The CofE has too many churches located where few people live and too little money with which to fund ministry adequately in more densely populated areas.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) faces a similar problem. Shifting demographics have left TEC with too many small congregations in geographic areas in which the population is at best stable and often declining. Conversely, TEC has often failed to plant new churches, or to plant them effectively, in growing suburban and urban areas. Worship attendance, not the number of worship facilities is the objective measure of vitality in any Church.

Second, neither the CofE nor TEC exists to promote cultural or local history. God calls the Church to promote the good news of God’s love manifest in Jesus and to incarnate that love by loving others. Consequently, both the CofE and TEC should act aggressively to close small congregations. (Of course, the devil is in the details. What is “small”?) Organizations and people committed to preserving cultural or local heritage should maintain any closed church building deemed important. When a putative disciple sought leave to bury a deceased family member, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Obviously, not all members of every small congregation are spiritually dead. At least a few among the relative handful of people in each small CofE and TEC congregation quite likely lament the demanding congregational focus on building maintenance rather than a mission focused on incarnating God’s love in a broken world. (Small parishes are not alone in worshiping stone idols in lieu of the living God, but that’s another problem.)

Closing underutilized buildings emphasizes that buildings are a means to an end, not the raison d’être for the body of Christ. Those committed to Christ’s cause may feel saddened, even aggrieved, by closing a building that has many significant spiritual memories for them. But committed Christians will not abandon the Church. In England, they will travel a few miles to another parish. In the U.S., they may travel to another parish or perhaps move to a different branch of the Church. Remember, we Anglicans have never claimed to be the only branch of the vine that is Christ. In both countries, a number of new house churches may emerge, permitting healthier small congregations freed from underutilized, financially draining buildings.

Third, neither the CofE nor TEC acts as if they fully recognize the costs of operating so many small congregations. These costs, monetary and other, include:

1. Attempting, often unsuccessfully in England and struggling mightily in much of the U.S., to repair and operate aging buildings, expending funds and costly staff time on tattered vestiges of once important fabric rather than investing in people;
2. Unintentionally signaling, thereby, to the larger society that the Church values maintaining its legacy of underutilized buildings more than it values life-giving missions to hurting, dying people in underserved urban and suburban areas;
3. Dilution of focus (e.g., “small church ministry” is generally a euphemism for serving a dying congregation) rather than clarity of vision and singleness of purpose (e.g., “small church ministry” connoting planting new congregations in under-churched areas).
4. Providing members of small congregations “third-rate” worship and spiritual opportunities because these congregations generally lack the numerical and fiscal strengths to ensure high quality choral and instrumental music, excellent and diverse youth, religious education, and parish life programming, and first-rate pastoral and priestly ministry. If they had such resources, most of these small congregations would no longer be small!

I like old church buildings, both in the States and abroad. I enjoy seeing what was important for different spiritual expressions and traditions; as an amateur ecclesial architect formerly responsible for several church/chapel construction projects, art and architecture interest me. If I did not appreciate old churches, I would not visit so many of them. But as a Christian, I know that I must distinguish between pleasurable avocations and the Church’s real business of incarnating God’s love for the world.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, blogging at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

Communion before Baptism: one parish's experience

By Donald Schell

We began making explicit invitation to everyone present to receive communion at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco in 1981. After the Eucharistic Prayer and breaking of the bread and immediately before communion, we began saying something like this - ‘Jesus welcomes everyone to his Table, so we offer the bread and wine which are his body and blood to everyone, and to everyone by name. If we need help with your name, please help us out.’ We knew we’d chosen to step across a line, going beyond the canons of the Episcopal Church and the rubrics of the Prayer Book, and beyond that, remaking longstanding Christian tradition.

My colleague Rick Fabian and I have both offered theological and scriptural defense of the practice elsewhere and we’ll continue to engage the ongoing conversation in our church now, when many others have also written to raise theological questions and argue for or against the practice. I’m writing this today as a practice narrative, to tell the mix of circumstances, discoveries, accident, and theory that moved us to make a change we didn’t expect to be making.

When Rick and I first worked together at Episcopal Church at Yale (Rick 1970-1976 and me as his associate in 1972-1976), our church was in the early stages of Trial Use. For the generation who’ve known no other Prayer Book, Trial Use was the church’s official process for exploring how the new liturgy would go beyond the 1928 Prayer Book we all knew.

Six nights a week for six years at Yale’s Dwight Chapel 25-45 students completed our liturgy surrounding the altar table for the Eucharistic prayer, and then offering communion student-to-student around the circle. One of our regulars was a Jewish undergraduate who had converted to Christianity in his religious studies major. He received communion for well over a year before deciding to seek baptism. There were other unbatpized students we knew were receiving. Generally we had a sense of who and why, so perhaps pastorally we were practicing open communion, but we made no liturgical invitation or announcement of it.

After the Yale chaplaincy, my work as mission vicar at St. David’s, Caldwell, Idaho gave me the opportunity to introduce that congregation to now familiar Episcopal church practices like communion every Sunday at the main liturgy and offering communion to baptized but not confirmed children. In fact the latter practice was new to our church in 1970 and was unknown (and almost unthinkable) to the people of St. David’s when I arrived.

Rick, meanwhile, was working for Bishop Kilmer Myers of California. His title of ‘chaplain to the bishop’ included driving the night-blind bishop long distances for parish visits, helping the bishop prepare for highly conflicted meetings with parishes poised to withdraw over the ordination of women, discussing theological issues on the road, and drafting responses to the bishop’s correspondence.

So after our work together at Yale, Rick and I in quite different settings both saw a lot of parish conflict and theological pain. And both found ourselves asking questions about evangelism and parish structure and how practice might empower or limit evangelism.

The year after he completed his assignment as bishop’s chaplain, with then diocesan executive George Hunt’s strong encouragement Rick wrote a proposal to the diocese to found an experimental mission dedicated to Gregory of Nyssa. The mission church would try innovative liturgical practices to further evangelism, Christian formation, and service, and it would draw on organizational and group research to order governance and common life in ways that would bring conflict to the surface more quickly and work with it creatively.

For the mission’s founding liturgy on St. Gregory’s day, March 9th, 1978, I flew down to preside, and Rick served as deacon and preacher. In October that year the new congregation was admitted as a specialized mission and given seat and vote in California’s diocesan convention.

After his consecration in September of 1979, California’s new bishop, Bill Swing generously accepted oversight of St. Gregory's, the tiny specialized mission he inherited from Bishop Kilmer Myers.

In July of 1980 my wife Ellen and I moved from Idaho to join the project of founding St. Gregory’s. As planned Rick and I worked as founding vicars from that point. Ellen and my arrival increased St. Gregory’s membership from 10 to 12 people, and our two children doubled the size of the Sunday School.

Shortly after I arrived, Rick and I went to talk with Bishop Swing about St. Gregory's purposes, about innovation, and our declared commitment to testing innovation beyond the limits of canons and rubrics (all this had been in the mission proposal and was begun with the blessing of his predecessor and diocesan convention).

Bishop Swing told us what he would expect of us as we continued to experiment beyond the new 1979 Book of Common Prayer and canons of the Episcopal Church. His one firm rule was that we were not to invite lay people preside at the Eucharist. For all other innovation or experiment he asked us to keep him well informed of what we were doing and the reasons we were doing it so he could always say, “Yes, I know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.” We were careful and deliberate to keep him informed.

Meanwhile, in clergy gatherings around the diocese our new bishop repeatedly said, "If you don't have a valid missionary reason, you must obey the rubrics. If you have a valid missionary reason, you must disobey the rubrics."

From 1978 through 1980, though we were not making an explicit to all to receive communion, nor had we planned to. But we had no printed or spoken announcement like 'all baptized Christians are welcome to receive.' People simply received if they put their hands out or passed the bread and wine on to the next person, and we quickly realized that our efforts to attract unchurched people to our Eucharist-every-Sunday community were paying off well enough that our regulars were frequently giving communion to an unbaptized visitor, the stranger standing next in the circle. Some of those visitors would return regularly and began to ask about membership. We’d seen that pattern before in the Yale chaplaincy.

Concurrently, as part of our teaching work, we began offering an eight week course called "Jesus and Paul, the Christian Source." It was our introduction to Jesus’ teaching and practice concluding with some Paul's more intriguing and caring interpretation of Jesus’ work. The course was based on our distillation of the best New Testament scholarship we could find. Norman Perrin’s Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (1967) significantly shaped “Jesus and Paul,” particularly his critical method, and argument and conclusions about realized eschatology and the prophetic/messianic sign of Jesus’ meals.

Perrin argued that it was Jesus’ enactment of Isaiah’s feast for all people’s, the divine banquet where God welcomed all, including the unworthy, the unprepared, the unfit, in sum all the ‘wrong’ people prompted some Jewish religious leaders and local Roman authority (for different reasons and different understanding of the threat Jesus posed) to work together in a conspiracy to stop and eventually kill him. “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Perrin concluded from language and other evidence was likely an accusation Jesus’ adversaries had hurled against him. Perrin’s conclusion has become a central consensus among Gospel scholars.

In our teaching of Jesus class we began to notice that our communion practice of getting all the lay people present to administer consecrated bread and wine to one another kept prompting all of us, clergy and lay participants to wonder what we should do with Perrin’s conclusion that the meal was Jesus’ crucial practice, literally what he did that took him to the cross. By 1981, what we were seeing in practice and hearing ourselves say in teaching finally provoked a conscious decision to make our communion invitation consistent with what we were reading in the Gospels and teaching in 'Jesus and Paul.'

We were quite aware of the rubrical and canonical boundary we were crossing. We were open about what we were doing. And to steady ourselves we looked to others in the tradition who crossed official, received sacramental boundaries like John Wesley instituting presbyteral ordination when he couldn’t get his bishop to give him the clergy he needed for his mission to England’s industrial poor, and like John Mason Neale brought up on court charges for rubrical and civil law violations introducing ritual richness, hymnody, colors in church, cross and candle on the table, etc., and like Bishop Ronald Hall ordaining Li Tim Oi's a priest, and finally like Li Tim Oi herself disappearing into communist China where she was needed to function as a priest, simply ignoring Canterbury’s insistence that she stop.

We were acting, as each of these before us had, publicly, offering our rationale for what we were doing, and still taking certain risks for the sake of what appeared (and yes, still does appear) to us to be faithful leadership.

Other early witnesses to the practice may have more stories to tell. So far as we know, the explicit invitation we began to make in 1981 at St. Gregory's, San Francisco was the first time in our Episcopal church that we made a deliberate, explicit invitation to all to communion. But others may have begun independently and perhaps before us. I’d welcome hearing those stories and expect the ‘how’ of those decisions will be significant too.

We’re all still forging the theology of communion and baptism (not to mention the confusing separate work on confirmation). Much of the theology must rest on interpretation or reinterpretation of scripture and tradition. But practice and the stories of practice belong too. Sara Miles’ telling the story of her first communion, conversion, beginning the St. Gregory’s food pantry and subsequent baptism has meant touched many and inspired other story telling.

As we continue to work, and talk and sometimes argue theology, I hope this account of a beginning - almost twenty years before Sara came to St. Gregory’s as an unbaptized stranger, received communion, and was converted - may inspire others to tell stories of when and how their practice of communion changed.

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

Feeding the ego, starving the Church

By Richard Helmer

I commented on a thread at Episcopal Cafe on Monday on the subject of church growth. Frankly, the subject is starting to wear quite thin on me, because it so often turns to matters of institutional preservation, which is not only deadly dull, but I am increasingly convinced deadly spiritually.

Standard congregational development schema I was taught to appreciate involve the transitions between various sizes of parishes -- family, pastoral, program, etc. The jargon goes on from there, and leads. . .well, where? Nowhere much in my view, and many of our leaders are left scratching their heads and wondering why. We often talk about "cultural change" in our congregations as though it is somehow divorced from and devoid of the language of the Gospel, which is not simply about system theories or whatever else is hot right now, but about the mysterious transformation of the human heart and transformation of the human family by God's loving grace and our active embrace of that through prayer and service to others.

I write this all with a straight face. I am a child, both literally and figuratively, of the institutional church. I am beholden to it at present both by vow and income, and I indeed wish to see it thrive and flourish. But it will most certainly not by navel gazing and hand-wringing, nor by romanticizing the blip of high mainline attendance in the 1950's, from which we are still declining. . .or perhaps a better word is recovering, as we move towards a more real place in a world where people are free to seek out spiritual community that nourishes their hearts, minds, and being.

I'm all for congregational development, building the church up and all that. Just ask anyone in the parish I serve. Our numbers right now are good and modestly improving, though, not because we've been good congregational developers and I've taught the theory well, but because we've identified the tangible spiritual needs in our community and have begun the hard work of addressing them. Because we've identified gifts in our community for leadership and ministry and empowered them. Because I've struggled to set aside the egotistical notion that I, as parish priest, can "save" the church and at times have managed to get the hell (literally and figuratively, again) out of the way.

At the end of the day, a lot of congregational development writing and talk is about ego -- feeding the ego by possessing "how to grow a church" through specialized knowledge or methodology. Or feeding the ego by romanticizing a supposedly greater past. Or feeding the ego by projecting current trends in a straight line and claiming we have control over the future, or at least some special knowledge about it. Or feeding the ego because "my family and I depend on this job." None serve us or the Christian Gospel at all well. We need to stop if we are to move forward. Idolatry is one way to talk about our egotistical obsessions. Idolatry is one way to talk about much of our chatter over church growth.

Growth is not the goal here. It is only the natural, God-given outcome of living faithfully into Christian mission. And growth has a great deal less to do with numbers than it does with the vibrancy of ministry and the freedom of the Spirit to move in community.

Here are my thoughts, for what they are worth:

No one wants to join a community wringing its hands and navel gazing over its own demise.

Nor does anyone want to simply become a number to prop up a flagging institution.

The real questions we need to be asking are those like these:

Are we endeavoring to be faithful to the Gospel and to our God?

Does our institution serve our mission of Christ Jesus to transform hearts and reflect God's work in the world? Or do we distort our mission to serve the institution? This is a simple (but not easy) matter of correctly ordering the carts and horses.

Are people finding spiritual nourishment, hope, and empowerment for ministry and service in their communities both within and beyond the walls of the Church?

If these criteria are being addressed with intention in people's real lives and grounded experience, growth of all kinds may very well follow. If they aren't, institutional death is a natural outcome.

We all fear death of institutions we love, of course. But at the end of the day, and indeed in God's gracious reign, we are not children of the institution.

We are God's children. We are people of the resurrection. And that's what truly matters, even as we face decline in many places.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

Beating the bounds

By Andrew Gerns

There is an old ritual called “beating the bounds” where the members of a parish go out and mark the boundaries of a parish in a city or village. The idea is not just territorial, but pastoral. When the community “beats the bounds” they are saying that they are in some way responsible to God for the people inside those boundaries. Every now and then, God shows us just what that means.

Once I was walking down the alley to Joe’s Deli, which is a block away from the Church office, to buy my sandwich, when a guy leans out the open doorway of the kitchen in another restaurant next door. Holding aside a screen door, he says “Father!” I stop and look up at him. He is a young man. He is wearing a white paper hat, a white t-shirt and an apron. He bends way over towards me and asks me to bless a gold cross that he is wearing around his neck. So I look at his dark eyes and his smile while he holds the cross out away from his neck. There is the hint of a scar on his face and much body art. I say a blessing prayer and our eyes meet for just a moment and he nods a thank you. Every time I walk by that screen door, I wonder about the young man, his scar and his cross. There is a story there. I have no idea what it is. God knows.

There was once a woman who used to come to our church wearing only white clothes. She wore white because she read in the Bible somewhere that people who are close to God wear white raiment. But she never spoke in church because she read somewhere else in the Bible that women are not supposed to talk in church, which worked fine until someone told her that our soup kitchen was in a church so she stopped speaking when she came to eat. There is a story there. I have no idea what it is. God knows.

One day I got a phone call from the Weed’n’Seed cop asking me to come to Easton’s center square. Seems the lady in white raiment was coming up to people carrying a pitcher of water and a big bowl and demanding to wash their feet, which the tourists and locals sitting in the square did not seem to appreciate. Instead of arresting her, the officer thought that I might have a better solution to the disturbance. Not knowing what else to do, I asked her to wash my feet. So she did. She read somewhere in the Bible that Christians are supposed to wash each other’s feet. True enough, I say. But you can’t make people want to have their feet washed. They have to want to. She said I had a point and then suggested that we might want to do this in church sometime instead of on the Square. Good idea, I said.

A single dad comes up to me while his daughter is practicing at our pipe organ after a lesson. He says that someone in church reprimanded him because his son sits through the church service reading books. I look over and watch the boy start to climb a tree to retrieve a plastic bag caught in a branch. I’ve known this family for eons, and I know their stories and I know God does too. I have no idea who’d reprimand a kid for reading in church instead of turning the pews into a jungle gym, but that’s beside the point. Well, I ask, do you talk about what happened in the service afterwards, like on the way home? The dad nods. Sometimes he knows more than I do, he says. Then let him read, I say. God knows he is picking up far more than most of the grown ups.

There is an older fellow who lives around the corner and he has taken on the job of feeding the cats that live in the neighborhood and like to hang around the church. He walked up to me once and began to scold me because we were trapping the cats and taking them away. He told me with some pride and a tone of defiance that he was tripping the Have-a-Heart traps so we would not take away the cats. I explained (as the signs say on the traps in English and Spanish) that we trap the cats to give them shots and spay and neuter them and then release them back into the neighborhood. A vet in the parish does this with the help of some parishioners. We want the cats to be healthy, I tell him. He tells me that they are God’s creatures and that we should not take them away. I thank him for caring for God’s creatures. He eyes me suspiciously. I don’t think he believes me.

During last night’s Vestry meeting, the doorbell rang. Someone went to answer it and then he came back and said “There is a woman at the front door who wants a Bible.” I went to the door and there was a very young woman, with a baby asleep in a stroller and four very energetic children—three girls and a boy—sitting on the stoop and all talking at once. Before I could say anything, the boy looks at me and says “I am Elijah, and I am the oldest.” Now each kid announces their name and their ages, leaving an embarrassed Mom to introduce herself and her baby. So what can you do? I sit down on the stoop and we talked.

Mom talks fast, as if there is much pent up inside of her just waiting to come out. As if she is trying to say what she can before she is interrupted or told to be quiet. It is a clear, warm spring evening, a good time to sit on the stoop and hear her story. She tells me she is new to the neighborhood. That the women’s program housed next door to church helped her get an apartment around the corner, and that she and her family had Christmas dinner with us at the dinner we serve on Christmas Day. That she wonders if it would be okay to bring her kids to church because she would like them to learn about God and how to do right. And that of all the things the women’s program gave her, she did not have a Bible and she lost her Bible when she left the old place. I have no idea where the old place is. There is probably a story there. God knows.

So I fetch a Bible, a business card and a church brochure and I ask Mom for her name and address and as she writes it down I sit on the stoop and talk with the kids while the Vestry meeting goes on without me. Eventually, a vestry-member peeks around the corner wondering if I am okay. I give him a thumbs-up. As Mom gathers her brood, she wonders if I could maybe bless a cross that she is wearing. So I say a blessing prayer for her and her kids and her cross.

When I go back in to the meeting, the members look at me as if to say “well…?” I share what little of their story that I know. I tell them that sometime we should go out and beat the bounds of the parish, not just as a group marking our boundaries, but as a community looking around at the faces and the people that God has given us in this neighborhood. Tonight the procession came to us.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is the rector of Trinity Church, Easton, Pa., and chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blogs Andrew Plus and Share the Bread.

Maintenance and mission, or,
What are we doing here?

By Kathleen Staudt

I have been teaching for years about the ministry of the laity, resonating with Verna Dozier’s writing about “the Church, the people of God” as opposed to “the Church, the Institution.” I have explored with people the implications of our baptismal covenant and more recently reflected deeply on the catechism’s account of the ministry of the laity: “to represent Christ and his church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be, and -- oh yes – almost an afterthought, “according to the gifts given us, to take our place in the life, worship and governance of the Church.” (BCP, p.855) The work of the Church, I’ve been telling people for almost a generation, is primarily in the world, carried out by “the church, the people of God.” The institutional church & its leaders sustain and nurture us in our ministries. That’s the idea, anyway.

And now I find I am taking my own place in the “life, worship and governance of the Church,” by serving as the Rector’s Warden in my congregation. I've thought of myself mainly as a "spiritual formation person.," a mission-minded Christian. So why am I spending all this time on budgets, finance, "maintenance?" As we put all these resources into maintaining and sustaining a building, staff, and program, I need, for my own sanity, to ask: What are we doing here? Here, in this place where the church building stands: on a busy thoroughfare leading into Washington DC, just inside the Capital beltway, on the edge of a suburban neighborhood.

Some insights about this came to me recently on “parish beautification day,” when some of us came over to church on a Saturday morning to do some deep cleaning and setting-to-rights in the aftermath of major work on our new HVAC system, the centerpiece of our capital campaign. My assigned job was to take a rag, a bucket, and some Murphy’s oil soap and wash down the tops of our solid oak pews. I had to empty the wash water every other pew because it was black with the soil from all those human hands, supporting themselves as they stood, sat and knelt at worship. I thought of Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poem, “God’s Grandeur,” where he says that “all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil, /and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” Real people, bringing with them all the mess and muck of life, come here to worship and pray and be together at our lively worship services in this place, and we leave our marks. For a moment my job felt like the rite of foot-washing we are called to on Maundy Thursday, acknowledging the soiled humanness of all of us, our need to be washed in order to participate in Christ.

As I worked, together with my friends Quinton and Abudullah, washing floors and pews in various parts of the sanctuary, a woman came in the front door, which we had left open. She wondered if she could fill a bag of food from our food closet; she’d lost her job and this would help her to make ends meet this week. We welcomed her gave her a bag,, and showed her where the pantry was -- and reflected, among ourselves, at our own blessedness at having enough, right now, in these hard times, when so many people are struggling economically.

Indeed, it seems that many in the local community are turning to our presence on this corner in hopes of finding a place of help and welcome. More and more, in these difficult times, the rector reports that homeless people are coming to our door in search of food, warm clothing, access to social services. A community of homeless people is forming under the beltway overpass, just a quarter of a mile down the road. We are clearly being called to some deeper discernment about how we can best and most responsibly provide the right kind of help to our near neighbors in need. The church building, with its carving of Our Saviour, arms outstretched, over the front door, says to the world, “There is help here.” Somehow the building and the people alike are called to give solid form to that help.

“The church is not a building/ The church is not a steeple/ The church is not a resting-place/ The church is a people,” goes a song my children learned in Sunday school. But now it seems more complicated than that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes somewhere that “the church of Jesus Christ takes up space in the world,” and our buildings and the way we use them is one way we do this. As I enter my 2nd year of a 3-year term in leadership, I am praying for clarity about how we are called to use what we have – in building, staff, and other resources—the nitty-gritty, institutional stuff that we support with our regular givings and thanks-givings – to be the presence of Christ on this corner, for those around us and for all who come through our doors.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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.

"Household" and "mystery":
thoughts on being a Church

By Kathleen Staudt

“Good Morning, Church!” This greeting has become familiar in my congregation. Members who originally come from West Africa are accustomed to beginning announcements that way. And it’s catching on. “Good morning Church!” the lay leader says.

“Church.” That would be us. And we respond heartily “Good morning!”

In the aftermath of Lambeth, and Archbishop Rowan Williams’s suggestion that a Covenant might make us “more like a church”, I’ve been musing about my own sense of what it means to “be a Church,” and where it comes from.

I came into the Episcopal Church in 1978, as the “new prayer book” was just coming into use. Coming from a Reformed and Confessional tradition, I was drawn by the beauty of liturgy and what I understood us to be saying at worship about what it meant to “be Church.” What holds Anglicans together, I learned in confirmation class, is not set doctrine but common worship, though of course we are always in conversation about doctrine and tradition. That has been what I’ve understood about being Anglican, and that’s been my experience at worship. So some of what’s coming out of Lambeth about being “more like a church” seems befuddling to me. I had thought there was consensus that as church we are not unified by doctrine or discipline sent from on high, but by our practice and worship. That’s what I take people to mean, discussing Lambeth, when they say we are “a communion, not a church.” But of course we are a church (as in “the Church, the people of God” to use Verna Dozier’s language). We’re not “not a church.” Clearly much remains to be discerned.

As is my habit, I go to back to the liturgy for help, to see what poetic images have rooted themselves into my imagination and memory. And here I find some metaphors that seem worth pondering in these times. They are from important prayers that I think are not always as familiar as they might be to people in congregations – and now might be a good time to revisit them in our corporate life in congregations.

The first comes from the baptism service, a passage that sometimes gets lost in actual practice, when the priest says “Let us welcome the newly baptized” and the congregation responds with applause. (I’ve seen this happen at a number of baptism services, in a number of congregations). But the words of welcome are Biblical, and important:

We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” (BCP 308)

The “household” of God. Yes. A good image of the Anglican Communion right now, as well as of many a congregation. We live together, we share the same food, and we have conflicts and celebrations, upheavals and challenges. But we belong to the same household. The rest of the welcome prayer is a catechism in itself – worth spending years unpacking: Confess, proclaim, share. We live out a “priesthood” as Christians, a life that involves bearing the Holy into the world, and sharing it with others, as Bill Countryman has described so well in Living on the Borders of the Holy. We are carrying out into the world the transforming love that is expressed in the faith of Christ crucified and the good news of his Resurrection. Being church means being the presence of Christ in the world, or in another metaphor I like, from Robert Capon, to be the Church is to be “the hat on the Invisible Man” for the world.

The fullness of that calling is expressed in my favorite prayer in the book, which I often use when I teach workshops on discernment and discipleship:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual ordering of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. (BCP 280, 291, 515, 528, 540)

This prayer is appointed for Good Friday, just after the solemn collects, and Holy Saturday, just before the baptism service. We also say it at ordinations. (Marshall Scott has a good discussion of this in an earlier post on the Daily Episcopalian). It’s worth pointing out and holding up this prayer in a time when we’re reflecting on “being Church” because people who don’t attend a lot of ordinations may not be aware of having heard it or offered it.

I love the poetry of this prayer: the suggestion that radical transformation – things cast down, raised up, grown old, made new—can be carried out “in tranquility.” That in itself is a prayer for a miracle! This prayer acknowledges that our life as Church is held in the Divine life. To acknowledge this requires humility, as we craft ways to be together as the “household of God.” That’s why I also love the prayer’s description of the Church as “that wonderful and sacred mystery.”

The scrappiness and challenge of a “household”, held in “that wonderful and sacred mystery.” Holding these two metaphors together may help keep us open and humble, in this time after Lambeth and in the lives of our churches generally. as we continue to discern together what it means to “be a Church.”

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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