Worship that swept us off our feet: So what's transferable?
Monday, April 22, 2013 at 4:43PM
Robert Gallagher

Worship that swept us off our feet
Worship that swept us off our feet
So what’s transferable?
Small issues with large consequence
Instinctual and intuitive leadership
The role of the bishop and the diocese

Saint Paul's, Seattle: The Search Process


So what’s transferable?

What are the principles, competencies, and ways of being and doing that undergird the success at St. Paul’s that can be used in other parishes? What’s transferable into most other parishes? 

First what’s not transferable.

For it to be truly transferable it can’t be about the charisma of the priest because many priests will not be especially charismatic.[i] It can’t be about fortunate demographics because most parishes don’t have them and in any case they change. It can’t be about a fantasy that you have to be an emergent church or in this case an Anglo-Catholic parish in order to be healthy, faithful and growing because that’s not going to happen on a large scale and in any case for the most part emergent churches connected to the Episcopal Church aren’t all that large or self sufficient.[ii]

Is it really about Melissa?  That's the temptation in this case. Melissa is an extraordinarily interesting, intelligent, hard-working priest.

She and I talked about this recently. I said that if I were in her shoes I think the parish also would have grown but would have plateaued at 150 (probably at 120 but I was being kind to myself in the conversation). I know I could not have done what she has accomplished in this situation even though she was using all the basic approaches and principles that I would use myself. In fact as she acknowledged again and again in the meetings, she had learned the basics from me.

However, she is the person that led this wonderful process of revitalization. Her personality has played a significant role in the parish’s growth and in establishing a healthy climate. Temperament does matter. All things being equal a more extraverted priest will probably be better suited at building relationships with a large number of people and in marketing the parish to the community. Melissa could help this largely introverted parish express itself to people hungry for what it offered. And more than temperament she has the emotional intelligence to not allow her extraversion to undercut the necessary balance and rhythm in which there is a harmony of outward expression and inner life.[iii] 

These things are always sacramental. The actual person matters.


What then is transferable?

1. Building the competency of the congregation
This was central to what happened at St. Paul’s. There were sessions after mass on “Eucharistic Practices.”[iv]  Visitors, new comers and long-termers would gather and move through a series of experiential exercises. They would dip their hand in the baptismal waters and make the sign of the cross, they would reverence one another, they would learn how to listen and engage the readings and sermon in a new way. And along the way they would reflect upon what they were doing.  This liturgical competence was supported by written materials[v] and information on the web site.

There was an Adult Foundations program offered three times a year. Early modules included Anglican spirituality, developing a rule of life, and the Anglo-Catholic tradition. It always included strong experiential and participatory elements and was directed at assisting members to develop a competence, and therefore comfort, with spiritual practice. Over time the parishes has continued the Foundations program while adding other offerings.

As such offerings helped ground the parish in spiritual practices congruent with the identity of that community there developed an organic process in which people would pick up practices from one another. 

In The Hospitality of God[vi] the bishops wrote, “As a visitor to St. Paul’s, it was easy to be swept up to fully participate in the liturgy because it was confidant, well done and a genuine expression of the spiritual life of the body. It was simply true.”

What they experienced didn’t just magically happen. It was and continues to require attention, training and coaching of the congregation and the work noted in the second item.


2. Improving the Sunday morning experience

Intentional work was done to improve the overall quality of the Sunday morning experience. What happens on Sunday is both the primary instrument of formation and serves as the entry point for most new members.

They increased the self-assurance of the altar party by training and coaching with feedback. Practices that may have come across as artificial and pretentious were eliminated. This included practices that some servers and clergy had used for many years. The objective was relaxed dignity; unhurried gracefulness.   

The coffee hour was improved and made more reliable.[vii] Announcements were moved out of the Eucharist and into coffee hour which improved the flow of the Eucharist while making announcements more relaxed and conversational.

Processes for welcoming visitors and new people were established. As the rector greeted people and invite them to coffee hour and when they were receptive, members standing nearby would escort them to coffee.  Members were asked to help make it easier on visitors by wearing nametags—“If you don’t want to that’s fine but if you would it helps.”[viii] Printed in the Sunday bulletin at Saint Paul’s is this, “If the ritual customs of the Episcopal Church are unfamiliar to you, relax, and let the community carry you.” Visitors get to experience the grace, flow and beauty of liturgy without a string of instructions and announcements or power point slides on walls. People quickly pick up the rhythm.

3. An overall strengthening of prayer life grounded in the Prayer Book’s threefold rule of prayer

The threefold rule of prayer is also called the Benedictine Triangle. Strengthen the parish’s common prayer of Eucharist and the Daily Office along with providing support for people in their personal devotions became one of the most significant interventions. A PDF of the elements.

Three initiatives took place early on. There was the effort at improving the competence of the congregation and the altar party for joining in the Eucharist. There was also some training and guidance offered for how people might make use of personal devotions suited to their personality.

Probably the most important step was to “strengthen the parish’s practice of the Daily Office as a way to support the prayerfulness of Sunday morning and the parish as a whole.”[ix]  The understanding expressed here is about the spiritual dynamics of a parish, indeed of the Body of Christ. It’s common in our culture to think that the way you can most effectively and efficiently “improve” the Eucharist is by paying more attention to what happens up front and in the efforts of parish musicians. All of that is of course important. I want to suggest that it is through the relationship among the elements of the threefold rule of prayer that the Eucharist is most successfully and economically strengthened. The Eucharist is empowered when there is a core of people in the parish saying the Office, either on their own or as a public act of worship, and through processes of reflection and devotion the daily lives of people are laid upon at the altar and poured into the cup.


4. The rector needs to find something about the parish to love

Melissa Skelton did this when attending a mass during Advent in 2004 when she was being considered for the position. I remember standing there next to her. About fifteen minutes into the liturgy we looked at each other. We both had tears in our eyes.

Of course we had been to other parishes where the worship made us want to cry. But here at Saint Paul’s they weren’t tears of frustration and disappointment but of joy and pleasure.

This love must be authentic and real. When you’re new to a parish community it’s not true to say that you love the people. You may come to love them and they you. But that takes time and experience and openness to loving.

So clergy need to seek something to love. And if they can’t find it they need to explore whether it might be developed. For example in the exchanges of the search process a priest might look for two things: 1) Do I experience an openness here, a humility and willingness to both be led and be in collaboration?  Does this seem like a parish of healthy adults? Maybe they don’t know how to revitalize the parish but they are open?And 2) How they respond to who you are and what you have to offer?  If you have a sense that this is a parish that is static or in decline, do they acknowledge that or do they seem lethargic and defensive or apathetic?If you say to them what you'll want to offer are things such as those mentioned above, do they respond with "we've tried all that" or "whatever you want?" Or do they show curiosity, ask questions, and seem truely open?


Drilling down

Melissa talks about “drilling down.”  That has to do with taking a parish to its own depth, its own best place. It is nurturing its culture, its way of being and doing, by increasing competence in the habits of spiritually, being clear again and again about the values that are expressed in those practices, and seeking to understand the deeper assumptions about humanity and God that are the ground for the practices and the values.

Something of the richness and complexity of St. Paul’s spirituality is expressed in sections on their web site, here are a few of them:

Here an example from another parish -  The Episcopal Way  Episcopal Ethos  Spiritual Practice   

Parishes fail at this task of developing a rich and complex culture when they are not persistent or when they disconnect the elements from their natural interdependence.

I do have a final comment about the importance of "drilling down" in regard to our Episcopal/Anglican ethos. A parish can form people to be Christians as lived in that tradition. We can form people with spiritual practices, values, and underlying assumptions that have to do with comprehensivenes, personal holiness, and worldly holiness. My experience is that Episcopalians value our way of being and doing and think the world might be a better place if there were a few more of us. In The Hospitality of God the authors write, "Somehow we have allowed ourselves to lose confidence.." Maybe the way into confidence is by "drilling down."

In your parish--What can be done to build the competency necessary for a strong life of prayer, for a Sunday liturgy that "sweeps people of their feet," and helping members in being salt, light and love in their families, with friends, at work and in civic life? What can be done to "drill down" so the parish's living of the Episcopal ethos and Anglican spirituality shows in its common life and in the lives of members? How to increase Christian proficiency? 


Worship that swept us off our feet
Worship that swept us off our feet
So what’s transferable?
Small issues with large consequence
Instinctual and intuitive leadership
The role of the bishop and the diocese

Saint Paul's, Seattle: The Search Process

A List of All Postings

[i] And if Friedman is correct to base renewal on a leaders charisma is unhealthy at its root.

[ii] It’s also true that: 1) It’s all to the good when priests are attractive human beings with a disciplined spiritual life and the ability to be aware of and mange their emotions. 2) It’s smart to establish new parishes in favorable locations. 3) That we have much to learn and that some of that needs to come from the emergent and Anglo Catholic churches.

[iii] Please don’t hear this as saying that us more introverted priests can’t successfully lead revitalization efforts. Of course we can. But generally we are more likely to plateau earlier in the process. We help ourselves by developing a stronger capacity for staying engaged with people with solid relational skills and by attending to all the structures and processes that present the parish to a broader community.On the other hand, we might be better at "drilling down" assuming that we already know and live the spiritual practives of the Episcopal ethos.

[iv] There’s a description on pages 35 - 36  In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices, Robert A. Gallagher 2011, Ascension Press.

[v] See this booklet from the web site of Saint John’s in the Village in NYC. There are several booklets available from CongregationalDevelopment.com along the same line.

[vi] The Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves and The Rt. Rev. Michael Perham, The Hospitality of God: Emerging Worship for a Missional Church

[vii] See “Coffee hour: to the glory of God and the sanctification of the parish community”

[viii] The trick with effectively using name tags is to invite, don’t pressure. But keep inviting. Use paper nametags that need to be created each week. It reinforces the voluntary nature of wearing the nametag and it avoids the sense of exclusion generated by all the plastic tags for members sitting on a table or attached to a board gathering dust and showing the visitor how many people are missing.

[ix] From a presentation by Mother Melissa Skelton to the 2010 Clergy Conference of the Diocese of Oregon. The methods used to accomplish this are presented in Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church, Robert A. Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008. See pages 169 – 177 for a variety of ideas. The specific approach used at St. Paul’s is seen in the section on “Strengthening the Daily Office” and “PR for the Office” pages 171 – 173 and “Saint Paul’s Church, Seattle pages 176 – 177. There’s also a chapter on this in In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, Michelle Heyne, Ascension Press, 2011 and In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices, Robert A. Gallagher 2011, Ascension Press. Also see Michelle's posting on Introducing the Daily Office into a parish's DNA.

Article originally appeared on Congregational Development (http://www.congregationaldevelopment.com/).
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