Means of Grace, Hope of Glory

Wednesday
Oct312012

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]

 rag+

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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

Tuesday
Oct302012

The Parish Church: worship, building up the living, and remembering the dead

Worship, building up the living, and remembering the dead[i] -- that's why we establish these things called parish churches. Parishes are a ministry of stability in the midst of all the chances and changes. There's a relationship that grows among the three elements of members, the property, especially the sacred space, and a vicariously related population of people who are not of the congregation, but are of the parish. There's a dynamic set loose by the interdependence of the three that we can understand and engage through Benedictine spirituality.

One way to look at parish health or parish dysfunction, is by exploring the three elements and the lines connecting them to one another.

The congregation – For the purposes of this article I’m referring to all those who worship together on a regular and frequent basis. These people are generally familiar with one another and known to the clergy. Most make a financial offering to support the parish and the church’s mission. Many help out with the institutional work. For those familiar with the Shape of the Parish model these are the people of Sacramental and Apostolic faith and practice. If you’ve read Martin Thornton it’s those he refers to as the Remnant and those of Incarnation Faith.

Shaping congregational health requires a two-fold pastoral-formation strategy. On the one hand it’s creating a common life that appeals to the majority of members and potential members. This will include the tentative and immature, those ready to experiment and go further, those with a stable if not fully mature life of faith and practice, and those I call people of Apostolic faith and practice[ii]. It’s everyone that is there on a regular and frequent basis plus it takes into account those who may be attracted to that form of common life in the future. In any parish this is the majority of people in the pews on Sunday. I’m sure you see the dilemma in this. What appeals to those currently making up the congregation may not appeal to potential members. All dilemmas have energy and possibilities in them.

There’s a second dilemma.  If this is all there is the parish may be happy in a superficial way but will lack spiritual depth and fullness.

So, on the other hand there’s a need to nurture those of a more Apostolic Faith and set loose in the parish an energy that encourages such faith and practice. There’s a need to do this while keeping your feet on the ground and remembering that there will never be a time when the parish doesn’t have this mix of people. It will never be all apostolic. Nor should it be. That would make it a pious club, a kind of sect rather than a microcosm of the Holy Catholic Church with its inclusiveness and fuzzy boundaries. Those who are uncertain and doubting, the cautious and fearful, are as much a part of the parish economy as the most Apostolic among us.

These two parts of the strategy may, in fact, at times will, be in tension with each other.

The vicariously connected – These are people who establish a vicarious relationship with the parish. They don’t attend regular worship though may show up for a funeral. The relationship may be totally unacknowledged on their part or they may see the parish as “their parish” even though they are not on the parish roles. They are connected through geography, an activity, family, or friends.  These are people who may be in the building weekly in an AA or yoga group, those who usually show up at a parish dinner with their church-going spouse, and people who are connected with some service or relational ministry of the parish. [iii]

There are parishes where this relationship has become weak or non-existent. The task may new to create a new set of vicarious connections. There are other places where all the vicarious relationships are from among the friends and relatives of older members and not from among groups of people likely to engage the system in ways that create what’s needed for the future.

Parishes have had many ways of connecting to the broader community, and in so doing creating a vicarious group. Many urban churches have summer day camps; others have a labyrinth that is walked daily by people who never attend the Eucharist. When I was on the bishop’s staff in Connecticut I knew of a rural church with a rifle range in the basement and another that sponsored the town horse show. There are parishes that have a regular art exhibit in the worship space or parish hall. Others have developed a relationship with the jazz or theater community. Our approach to pastoral and sacramental matters can be used to develop a vicarious faith relationship with the parish. Family-related liturgies such as baptisms, marriages, burials, and house blessings usually include people with no current connection. These liturgies are opportunities to expose people to the Christian faith as lived in the Episcopal Church.

The building – When you sit, or better still celebrate the Eucharist, in your parish’s liturgical space are you enchanted, do you experience being part of something that has come before you and will exist after you? Does it speak to you of awe and solemn beauty, of delight and wonder? Do you have this strange sense that you have great value and at the same time are called to great humility? Are you somehow most yourself when in this place, especially when engaged in the Eucharist or Office?

This holiness of a space is real because it is a place in which people have been made holy, have found themselves, have laid their lives upon the altar and received in back in the bread and wine. It is holy because it is a place of God’s presence. In this place people are embraced, challenged and receive identity and purpose.

If there is a parish hall make it work for the parish’s social life, its educational offerings, and its meetings for both routine matters and deep discernment. Peter Block[iv] maintains that in arranging meeting space we are trying “to build relatedness, accountability, and commitment.” … “Physical space is more decisive in creating community than we realize. Most meeting spaces are designed for control, negotiation, and persuasion...Community is built when we sit in circles, when there are windows and the walls have signs of life, when every voice can be equally heard.” Block prefers that there be no tables. 

So the task is to shape it and then maintain it in good condition – meaning both basic systems and “the beauty of holiness.[v]” Use it effectively and to purposes consistent with our identity – for gatherings of the congregation in discernment, for education and training, and to simply enjoy one another; also some rentals and free use both to support the parish budget but also to provide some useful service in the community.

 

As you consider your parish – is one of these elements missing or too weak to play its role? Is one present but we don’t “listen” to it? Is one out of whack in some way?

This isn’t just about the elements in themselves. Maybe the most interesting part comes as we begin to see and accept responsibility for the lines between the elements. There is challenge and possibility in the “space” between: congregation and the vicarious,  the vicarious and the building and the congregation and the building. There’s a conversation to be had along those lines.

 rag+

 

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[i] Almighty God, we thank you for making us in your image, to share in the ordering of your world. Receive the work of our hands in this place, now to be set apart for your worship, the building up of the living, and the remembrance of the dead, to the praise and glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  From “The Dedication and Consecration of a Church” p. 567 BCP

[ii] “People with a relatively disciplined, mature, full spiritual life; flexibility with self and others; an experimental and exploratory stance; competent and committed Christians.  Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church, Robert Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008.

[iii]  The idea of how people relate to a parish church through vicarious faith is explored in more depth in p. 132 and 134 in Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church

[iv] Chapter 14, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block, Berrett- Koehler Publ., San Francisco, 2008.

[v] Psalm 96:9 and BCP p. 115

Saturday
Oct272012

Beginning

Here's the assumption -- the parish church is about the "means of grace" and the "hope of glory."

The phrases come, as you know, from the General Thanksgiving of the Daily Office.

We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

For most of the baptized, the week-by-week, day-by-day, fulfillment of the prayer takes place in relation to their parish church -- what is experienced in its worship and life and what through that Eucharistic life is revelaed about all of life.

Our hope is that what gets offered in these pages will be a help for all leaders seeking and struggling for more viable and vital parish churches.

Robert A. Gallagher & Michelle E. Heyne

 

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