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.