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Things that go bump in the night

From goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us

The bishop visited Sunday, and the Wednesday just before, there was Berna Lewis’s burial mass. Berna was 95 and had been an Episcopalian for only a few years. She joined St. Clement's after moving to Seattle. I have found myself wondering about how her death and her life in the parish influenced the conversation with Bishop Rickel.  How much is death on our mind, or maybe just below the surface?

I think there’s a lot of anxiety and fear in the whole church right now. It’s also with us at St. Clement’s.

Not so much about dying. Many of us know something about that. Maybe it’s about whether new life is possible. I loved one of the questions put to the Bishop. It was something like, “What does ‘the new’ look like?”

Yes, the old is dying. We get that. But “what does ‘the new’ look like?” And if that’s what it looks like “do we want to live there?” And even if we might be willing to live there, “How do we get from here to there?”

things that go bump in the night

We know the scriptures. We really do. After being at Mass hundreds of times over the years we know about the New Jerusalem, we know about new birth and new life, we know that God makes all things new, that there’s to be a new heaven and new earth, that God gives a new heart and a new spirit, that we need to put new wine in new wineskins, that there’s a new commandment, and that we are to clothe ourselves with a new self.  How many times have we sung, “Finish then, Thy new creation …  Changed from glory into glory … lost in wonder, love and praise” 

We know about God’s overall movement toward “the new.” But here and now at St. Clement’s, “What does ‘the new’ look like?”

The Bishop did what can be done in such a setting. He told us it requires change, that he couldn’t tell us the specifics of the change needed in this parish community, and he told a few great stories of what it looked like in other places.

He seemed to be saying that many parishes were not going to make the needed changes and would continue sliding toward death. He didn’t say that was true about the Parish of St. Clement of Rome but he also didn’t say it wasn’t. One of his gifts is being encouraging and appreciative.

This bishop, in the diocese, has offered a focus on congregational development. He was trained in congregational development in the Church Development Institute. One of his trainers was Father Dennis Campbell, who’s now rector of St. Clement’s. The diocese has a solid training program for parish leaders through the College for Congregational Development (a CDI like program). 

The questions for the Bishop were about the death of the parish. It’s not something that's going to happen this year or probably even in the next 10 or 15 years. But this is a pretty smart group. We can count. And counting brings feelings. 

things that go bump in the night

Of course the bishop could not tell us what would turn things around. He's not with this congregation frequently enough to know even the strategy he might pursue himself if he were the rector.

Father Dennis, the rector of the parish, knows a great deal about congregational development. He was the bishop’s person in Arkansas. He led the CDI at Sewanee for many years. I’ll bet Dennis has his list of Ten Actions to turn things around.[i]

I guess most people would look at the parish with such a rector, and with Michelle Heyne and me in the congregation, and think that with all the background, education and experience present in that place, they’ll figure it out.  Yep, I have my list of Ten Actions.[ii] If Dennis wants to see my list I’ll share it. Actually it’s twelve things but he can stop reading at ten if he wants.

I don’t guess that my Ten Actions, or Fr. Dennis’s Ten Actions, are the answer to what “the new” looks like. In fact I’ll bet the last couple of rectors had their list. See how that worked out!

things that go bump in the night

I’m more certain about the process. There’s a need for informed conversation, some of which would be difficult. Such conversation needs to rise out of careful and honest reflection, be grounded in the common prayer of Mass and Office, and include the willingness to humbly and courageously listen to one another.

As the Bishop talked with the congregation I sat there thinking that not so many days before I had said to our rector. “I don’t think the parish has within itself the capacity to make the changes needed to turn things around.” I love the parish. I’m becoming fond of many members. In time I’ll come to love many of them. I like the music and preaching. I don’t like that I thought that or that I said that. But I fear it may be true, not just for St. Clement’s but for many parishes.

Could the parish turn around? Of course it could. It has wonderful gifts. There’s a lot to build upon. There are strengths to acknowledge and expand. We are located in an area that is a good fit for an Episcopal parish church. But it’s complex and difficult. It requires skills and knowledge most leaders don’t have. It calls for hard conversations that we all shy away from.

I gather that many people in the congregation had a bad experience with recent rectors (before Fr. Dennis). If I understand the story, many felt that the clergy were pushing changes that in themselves, and in the way they were being pursued, were simply too much.    

It’s a bit like being haunted.

things that go bump in the night

Haunted in the sense that even though this is a new rector the events and feelings of the past linger among us. It may seem like the parish has a gift in having three of the church’s “experts” in congregational development as part of the congregation. After having worked with hundred’s of parishes we can see things more easily and quickly than others.  Our perceptions rise out of years of specialized training and experience. In the abstract our Ten Actions lists are likely to be pretty much on target. I know mine is!  Oh my! –gift or curse?

But no one lives “in the abstract.” We all live with ghosts and demons. Satan’s spells and wiles, false words of heresy, knowledge that defiles, the heart’s idolatry—aren’t just of Patrick’s hymn.

How can this parish draw on Father Dennis’s considerable experience and training in a manner that doesn’t set loose the evil spirits? How can any parish do that?[iii]

How can we have a holy conversation about “the new?” How can we arrive at a common list of Ten Actions that represents the knowledge of “the experts” and the wisdom of the congregation? How can we do that in a manner that doesn’t make “the experts” arrogant and overbearing and the congregation defensive and wary?

Good Lord, deliver us!

Many houses in my neighborhood have very elaborate Halloween decorations up. I'm sure that's true in much of the country. It may not be at a conscious level for most people but the fact is we still put on festivity in the face of evil and death. One way humans cope with the things that haunt us is by prayer and happiness. We make light of the things that scare us. We tell jokes and laugh, we put on costumes and prance.

In many parishes the need is to stop using appreciative processes to avoid our fears. It may be time to find a way into a holy conversation in which by naming our weaknesses and blindsides, along with our gifts and strengths, we finally come to a light place, a place of gratitude and humor, of pleasure and understanding.

I wonder if our difficulty is that there is a kind of safety in the way things are now.  There is a certain peace and joy in it. There is most certainly love in it. If we have the conversations and do the work to find what “the new” looks like, we may find we don’t want to live there. In any case there is risk in trying to get from here to there?

The problems most parishes face in this journey may not be made of malice and pride as much as of inability, lethargy and apathy. Or maybe in some cases it’s not those things but a wise decision to remain in the place of stability. Either way, as the Bishop suggested, this is very hard work.[iv]

For my part, I find no fault in deciding to remain in the love, joy and peace we know. Yes, there is more. But there is always “more.” We go from “glory into glory.”  Our choices are made in the space between knowing that God is here in this place with these people now and that God is in the new place as well. There is a kind of integrity and holiness in either choice.

What is never a decision, in that way, is whether the People of God will have the conversation. Such listening is our obedience. 

In All Hallows Eve, Charles Williams offers a theological undergirding for the work, “The past may be recalled and redeemed in the present, but the present cannot be forsaken for the past.”

And later he offers this hope, “The vigil of the saints was innumerably active in the City.”[v]


A List of All Postings


Background resources that may help a parish trying to have needed conversations

In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, Michelle Heyne, Ascension Press, 2011. In the chapter on Community: defining the community we seek, the dynamics of human gathering, communication skills, being the community we seek, and practicing community in daily life.

In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices, Robert A. Gallagher 2011, Ascension Press. In the chapter on Community: the parish as community, images of health, theory and methods.

Welcome to Anglican Spiritual Traditions, Vicki Black, Morehouse, 2010. Section on Seeking Christ in Community: the practice of hospitality, the practice of stability, monastic communities, the practice of reconciliation, Anglican voice son community.

The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice, Julia Gatta, Morehouse, 2010. Chapter One: Called Together-Vocation in Community.

Seeking God:The Way of St. Benedict, Esther de Waal, the Liturgical Press, 1984, 2001. Especially the chapters on Listening, Stability Change and People.

Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church, Robert A Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008. On community especially these sections: “Balance, Unity, Participatory, and Community” p 65 – 66, “Community” p. 83 - 84, Chapter three “The Benedictine Promise” (with sections on stability, conversion of life and obedience; also may methods for community conversation). p. 99 – 101,




[i] I don’t mean that literally. I have no idea if Fr. Campbell has such a list. I know he could make one up and that it would be a good one. 

[ii] Yea, I do mean that literally. In writing this I decided to see if I really did have such a list. So, I wrote things down.

[iii] Worse yet, what does a parish do if the clergy don’t have adequate training in congregational development – a mix of pastoral & ascetical theology and organization development?

[iv] In writing this I found myself drawn to a passage in All Hallows Eve, “Only the City lay silently around her; only the river flowed below, and the stars flickered above, and in the houses lights shone. It occurred to her presently to wonder vaguely—as in hopeless affliction men do wonder—why the lights were shinning. If the City were as empty as it seemed, if there were no companion anywhere, why the lights? She gazed at them, and the wonder flickered and went away, and after awhile returned and presently went away again, and so on for a long time. She remained standing there, for though she had been a reasonably intelligent and forceful creature, she had never in fact had to display any initiative—much less such initiative as was needed here.” Charles Williams, All Hallows Eve, 1948. The Noonday Press a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Page 8.

[v] All Hallows Eve. The quotes are on pages 241, 247