The Right Question

by Richard Helmer

Do you want to be made well? ~ John 5:6

When I first arrived at my present parish, one lay leader told me that many in the congregation felt “decapitated.” It was as violent an image as one could imagine after several turbulent interim years, and I was sorely tempted to try to find the rolling heads and reattach them – to “fix” the ailing parties all. It was equally tempting to spend hours and hours telling the good folk of a parish teetering on the edge of decline and running in the red how badly they’d been treated – and then bask in the imagined recognition of how much better I would be perceived than my predecessors.

Instead, thanks to a bit of grace, I started to hear her words as opportunity:

What if behind the sorrowful metaphor was a yearning to be unleashed for ministry? Rather than my trying to fix things, coddle, and hold hands, I started to ask questions of our members in as many ways as I could:

What do you think God wants to see happen here? Where do feel called by passion and prayer? How can I help support your living into that call?

Six years later, the place is thriving. Sure, we have the benefit of young demographics in an affluent community. Sure, we get a steady stream of Episcopalians moving in from other places. But we also live in one of the most militantly secular, skeptical, “spiritual but not religious” locales in the country, where the catch phrase spoken and unspoken is “You’re not the boss of me.” We further engage in ministry in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, where financial resources of even the most affluent are stretched quite thin. I could bang my head against that wall 24/7, but I intentionally decided a few years back not to.

We do indeed challenge the surrounding culture, but not with insults, put-downs, or hand-wringing. Instead, we offer a passionate alternative of an engaging life of faith in Jesus Christ in community. A few years ago, word started to spread in the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s amazing these days to watch people come in the door for the first time and the expressions of wonder on their faces when they discover Church can be traditional yet engaging, familiar yet transformative, rooted yet relevant. Even more amazing is watching them then offer their hearts in prayer, their gifts in thanksgiving, and their hands in service.

There’s no magic to this, and we still have our challenges. I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, that pretending I don’t have authority is just as bad as abusing it or taking it for granted. We don’t offer the most innovative or beautiful worship in our Diocese, but what we do, we do with authenticity and prayerful commitment. We struggle like everyone else does with volunteers stretched thin, facilities in need of constant attention, and tight budgets. Our key is that we have enough leadership committed to prayerful, healthy community: Christian community that identifies and serves the needs of its members and the needs of the wider world. We stubbornly refuse to succumb to the binary thinking that the two are mutually exclusive.

Fundamentally, we’re thriving because the people of God are engaged, empowered, and accountable. My job is to do everything I can to get the institution behind them in where the Spirit is calling them. I’m also fond of saying that my job is to stay both prayerfully engaged and, when necessary, to get the hell out of the way.

When I meet with our staff and lay leaders, we work to ask questions that empower and seek opportunity. Funny how that approach works. Even the most skeptical and cynical among us find something of value going on, and they step up. When problems arise, we endeavor to address them quickly. If the problems are intransigent, we work around them and watch for a solution to emerge (often we ultimately stumble across more than one), permitting God’s grace to resolve things in God’s time.

A growing, diverse, vibrant community, I’ve learned, adopts a “can do” attitude, and gloominess about decline is instinctively quarantined long before it can spread like the pathology that it is. When the occasional saboteurs attempt to rise, the community isolates the shenanigans early and loves the perpetrators back to health often.

It’s all because of this experience that I see the present narrow focus on institutional Church structures and resources as sometimes disheartening, and at times narrowly wrongheaded. With it, we who are about the business of Church governance are at great risk of looking irrelevant to the faithful who make up a huge portion of our Body, and potentially neglecting a vast share of our ministry.

Of course, it is in our genetic predisposition as a Church to debate polity, to question authority, to be suspicious of ideas from the top. These form a significant, perhaps indispensable part of the machinery of the legislative process, of our Episcopal way of grinding to a decision. Anyone who’s an effective leader these days understands all this and deals with it in good faith, and more than a bit of good humor.

As somewhat of an aside, I have a thought about the oft-articulated fears regarding the power of our bishops. My advice is this: Look to the Roman Catholic Church – and I mean the people, not the hierarchy. If we must assume the worst intentions of our leaders in the episcopate (I do not, but some do) we must never forget the power of the laity to discern a vibrant, free faith despite every destructive power grab and form of dissembling denial in the book. Yes, God is that powerful, despite the best and worst efforts of institutions and their leaders to undermine grace. Our bishops cannot completely ruin the Church, even if they try. And most of them, praise God, have much more built-in accountability in this Church to reckon with than do their Roman brethren.

What I really see at risk right now – as we institutionally wrestle with shrinking financial resources and as we no longer can lean, thank God, on our historical position as a denomination of elites – is our unintentionally disenfranchising ourselves from our most precious resource: the People of God… the People of God who listen for the needs of those around them and offer their gifts of all kinds in prayer, sacrament, and service… the People of God who answer Jesus’ constant question about wanting to be healed with an emphatic “Yes!” and then get to it with what they’ve received. Most of them are not all that concerned about what happens at General Convention this summer, especially when it comes to structural decisions. My main reason for going as an alternate deputy is to work so that they don’t have to be.

Do we truly want to be made well?

It is incredibly easy to stay stuck in the pathological patterns of destructive suspicion, blame, and condescension that we pick up from the wider American – if not globally Western – political discourse these days. It is also incredibly easy to see our institution – as fragile, compromised, declining, and inept as it might be right now – as a problem to be fixed rather than a resource to be pressed into service for the sake of Jesus’ vision amongst the people: the Kingdom, the Reign of God.

What is wrong with The Episcopal Church? Lots. But the question itself I find wrongheaded. “Fixing” a temporal institution for today will inevitably sow the seeds of different institutional problems needing to be fixed tomorrow. If we haven’t learned this yet from the great secular financial crisis, we need to take a closer look. While we rush perpetually around to fix and adjust, the world’s real needs for healing might escape our distracted notice.

Maybe we need to start asking the right questions, and those for me begin with what’s working. Asking those questions puts us in the right frame of mind to channel institutional resources, focus, and leadership towards our strengths. Asking those questions empowers us to see problems and obstacles as opportunities. Maybe it’s time to admit that our weaknesses, our ailments hold more keys to our future in the transformative hands of our God than we give them credit for. I don’t throw around accusations of heresy lightly, but when we behave as though we have problems we must resolve before we can be healed, we Episcopalians fall into a form of Pelagianism that is as familiar to us as it is dangerous. It is there that our vision can narrow rapidly into insularity and irrelevance.

So my thinking these days around General Conventions, special conventions, pending legislation, and political quarrels perceived and real, is less about which is the right answer to our woes.

Rather, I am pondering this more:

Which is the right question?

The Rev. Br. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA, and a novice in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. He is an alternate deputy to General Convention and secretary of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of California. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs occasionally at Caught by the Light.

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16 Comments
  1. E B

    Love your comments about “instinctive quarantine.” Engagement indeed often is the opposite of fear, and it seems that we too often fear change. But change is an essential part of growth and it can be embraced and enjoyed when we recognize it for the opportunity that it is. And we need to be careful not to spend so much time in introspection that we become paralyzed and fail to fulfill our mission as a church. Sometimes, the answer simply is to plunge in, work hard, and enjoy the ride.

    Eric Bonetti

  2. barbara snyder

    Thanks for this wonderful article! It’s very heartening.

    I really love your point that “fixing” things ultimately leads to more things needing to be “fixed”! It’s so, so true.

    Thanks, too, for reminding us that God works – and is now working – through our very weaknesses; that’s such a central idea in our faith, yet somehow so easy to forget.

  3. Richard: This is so “right on”! We have definitely been asking the wrong question (“What is wrong with the Episcopal Church?”) for way too long. Focusing on what is right with our tradition and working with God to build from that is what we are called to do.

  4. Richard (and EB),

    This feels like the conversation our church needs. Thank you. Structure, a hard look at trends, attention to demographics, the critical look at how we communicate and make decisions, etc., all of these are important, but what’s more important is our actual openness to the Spirit. And one thing I hear repeatedly in the story you tell, Richard, is that you all are creating a culture that welcomes and works from people’s passion and desire, the place the Spirit is most predictably at work in and among us.

    My work takes my around the church a fair amount, and gives me the privilege of conversation with faithful people in a great variety of settings. I hear two almost opposite conversations –

    – one is pessimistic and close to despair – its theme is “the church is dying.” I’m pretty sure that’s at least this accurate: the church as we’ve known it is dying;

    – the other conversation isn’t “optimistic” but theologically hopeful. In these conversations I hear people who are excited about their work, who are energized by stories of inspiration and resources they’ve found among them, who are moved by passion and delight (even where their work or circumstances are crazy challenging or they’re working with people under the heel of grotesque systemic injustice).

    I think it’s flat true that the church we’ve known is dying. But it’s strange to hear how few people and diminished resources have made us marginal and ineffective. We’re forgetting our own story, or maybe we’re attached to telling the story of the fall from glory of the establishment’s church. What happens when we remember that we’re continuing a world-changing movement that began with a couple of dozen insignificant women and men who called themselves “the twelve” (yes, of course, it’s a reference to the Twelve Tribes of Israel or the twelve founding parents, but also – how about “the few”). Where we listen and plan our next work knowing that the Spirit still calls and moves us, hope seems plentiful and “can do” finds its theological basis in grace.

  5. Jim Naughton

    I am wondering how to apply this sort of thinking to structural issues. If, for instance, we think the ordination process is turning our clergy who aren’t well suited for the challenges of ministry, or if we think that too much authority resides in certain quarters within our power structure, or if we think we often elect the wrong sorts of people to be bishops, I don’t know how the appreciative inquiry approach helps us. I believe some of those things, and not others, just using them as some examples of structural problems that I think might resist solution by the means outline here.

    As for the Roman Catholic Church, it is collapsing in on itself in parts of the United States in which it is not buoyed by recent Catholic immigrants. Parishes and schools closing by the dozens. There are Catholics with a strong faith, and dynamic Catholic faith communities, but institutionally, the church as an organization is in serious trouble.

  6. Jim,

    I couldn’t agree more when you say,

    “As for the Roman Catholic Church, it is collapsing in on itself in parts of the United States in which it is not buoyed by recent Catholic immigrants. Parishes and schools closing by the dozens. There are Catholics with a strong faith, and dynamic Catholic faith communities, but institutionally, the church as an organization is in serious trouble…”

    but isn’t it also true for us -“There are…Episcopalians… with a strong faith, and dynamic…Episcopal…faith communities, but institutionally, the church as an organization is in serious trouble”?

  7. Jim Naughton

    It is true for us, Donald. That’s why I am wondering if trying to make sense of why some communities of faith thrive within dying traditions will actually tell us much that is useful is shoring up those traditions. I understand that people don’t like thinking about structural issues. I understand appreciative inquiry has its advantages, I just don’t know how we apply them to the broader issues that I am addressing when I ask what is wrong with the church.

    Now, I suppose you can argue that we need to get out of the way of the thriving communities, or spread their example or something. But if it were that simple, I think we would have done it by now.

  8. Jim,

    I’m not protesting systems questions or trying to reduce everything to Appreciative Inquiry (and I don’t think Richard is either).

    I’m speaking from the experience of building a congregation from the ground up over a couple of decades when our diocese lost a full 1/3 of members, when we were the only successful church plant in the diocese. And I’m writing five plus years after moving on, and gratefully watching the next generation of leadership continue to maintain a multi-generational congregation and attract younger adults (singles and in couples), children and youth, LGBT and straight people – not so successful with racial and the broadest economic diversity, but all of this happening in one of the two least “churched” and most hostile to organized religion parts of our country.

    Systemic stuff – shared and distributed leadership, decentralized innovation, tending lines of communication at least as diligently as lines of authority, protecting the legitimate delegated authority of de-centralized projects, being willing to hold lay volunteers accountable to the extent that ‘firing’ a volunteer is possible, steady attention to how purpose and vision are developed and shared throughout the system. There’s a lot more to health than appreciative inquiry and yes, these are structural and systemic questions. But if we don’t begin with gratitude and an expectation that the Spirit’s at work, our big strategic stuff won’t matter.

  9. Jim Naughton

    Donald, I am in favor of all of this stuff:

    “Systemic stuff – shared and distributed leadership, decentralized innovation, tending lines of communication at least as diligently as lines of authority, protecting the legitimate delegated authority of de-centralized projects, being willing to hold lay volunteers accountable to the extent that ‘firing’ a volunteer is possible, steady attention to how purpose and vision are developed and shared throughout the system.”

    We don’t do them well. So if someone asked me what was wrong with the Episcopal Church, I’d speak along those lines, and then talk about how many of our parishes don’t have the resources or expertise they need to interest people in their existence.

    And I wouldn’t mind that this person had asked me what was wrong with the church, because every day people ask themselves that kind of question as they go about trying to solve problems in their lives, and I would understand that the person who asked such a question was trying to connect with every day people. And since one of the things the Episcopal Church does poorly is connect with such folks, I’d give that person a little room.

  10. Clare Nesmith

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m growing weary of all the “hand-wringing” going on in the church. And too many of us who know better are the “hand-wringers.” There are probably better ways to describe what is happening than saying “the church as we know it is dying.” We know that in the human body every day there’s a little death and a little birth. Some cells die and are sloughed off and other cells are created in the body. And yes, ultimately, human beings die. But as the body of Christ, we are a Body made for immortality. As a recent graduate of General Seminary, I think that those who have eyes to see and ears to hear in seminary will learn much of what is necessary to lead a parish today.

  11. tobias haller

    Well said, Br Richard Edward. This is in some part what I was trying to get at in those reflections on renewal in community: the doubt phase is precisely when the wrong sorts of questions are likely to be asked, getting off onto unproductive pathways — and hand-wringing! As FDR put it, Fear is the enemy…

  12. Chris H.

    Donald, I wonder if you haven’t touched on part of it when you mention building up over decades. Were you the in charge of one parish all that time? I’ve noticed here that no matter what denomination it is, the largest/strongest churches have pastors/priests that have been at the same church for 15+ years, often over 20. Meanwhile the locat Epicopal churches are lucky to keep a priest for 5 and as one friend put it, “It feels like they always have one foot out the door.”

    Chris Harwood

  13. Chris,

    In 1980, when my wife, my daughter, and I arrived for me to begin work at St. Gregory’s we took the organizing group’s numbers up to an apostolic 12. Twenty-seven years later I left as founding co-rector, proud of the church that was thriving and an astonishing interim when the attendance numbers and financial support dipped but ultimately rose while the congregation considered how it would transition to its next generation. Things continue to go well. St. Gregory’s is one of a handful of larger (Episcopal standards of large) thriving congregations in the diocese.

    Bill Swing, our bishop during the whole founding and establishing of the place, said “it takes a whole generation for a clergy leader to shape a congregation’s culture.” I agree that the question of short-term pastorates effects on evangelism and church building is to the point.

  14. Michael LaBelle

    The more and more I think about it, the more and more it seems that the Churches that are thriving are essentially

    “Congregational”. So this begs the question: what is the point of the Episcopy? Should maybe not be relegated to a kind of benign figurehead status? But then again, maybe it already has been.

  15. Richard E. Helmer

    Michael,

    It strikes me that much indeed happens at the congregational level, but I am not a congregationalist. The episcopacy serves in part to connect the congregation with the local diocese and the wider church and the tradition that we carry together. More than that, it holds us clergy to a level of accountability that helps us, when deployed appropriately, serve our congregations well. That’s more than a benign figurehead, in my view, and while its influence is subtle and behind-the-scenes much of the time, it remains essential.

    In a nutshell, I have no idea where we’d be today in my parish without the support and occasional help of the episcopacy over the past six years, all the complaints about assessments and “invisibility” of the Diocese I hear notwithstanding!

  16. Richard E. Helmer

    Michael,

    It strikes me that much indeed happens at the congregational level, but I am not a congregationalist. The episcopacy serves in part to connect the congregation with the local diocese and the wider church and the tradition that we carry together. More than that, it holds us clergy to a level of accountability that helps us, when deployed appropriately, serve our congregations well. That’s more than a benign figurehead, in my view, and while its influence is subtle and behind-the-scenes much of the time, it remains essential.

    In a nutshell, I have no idea where we’d be today in my parish without the support and occasional help of the episcopacy over the past six years, all the complaints about assessments and “invisibility” of the Diocese I hear notwithstanding!

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