Means of Grace, Hope of Glory


Conversations parishes need to have: Three Things

The parish life cycle

As a parish moves into decline it’s common to see a cycle between hyperactivity and passivity. This can begin when the parish is still relatively stable but things have become static. This stagnant condition is self-reinforcing. We get use to it. We spend energy fussing over small things and are somehow unable to have sustained, fruitful conversations about making needed changes.

 There may be a burst of activity. The problem is that when we are in the manic phase it feels good and right. There is a sense of energy and life, maybe even passion. Some good work does get accomplished. When in this part of the cycle the parish core may find itself moving suddenly at a quicker pace, having an abundance of ideas for projects, and along the way expressing irritation at those who don’t get caught up in the new spirit. Of course it’s all a bit grandiose and lacking in sound judgment. But we can’t see that when we are within it. We get absorbed by it and lose perspective. To those outside it may come off as a defensive arrogance.

People are doing what they know how to do. It’s not a moral wrong. It’s simply ineffective. Repeating the same patterns with a new spurt of energy won’t change the fundamental reality. Then there’s what comes along with it—denial, stress, blaming, and a nostalgic spirit.

The burst of energy may last several months, maybe even a year or more. After we exhaust ourselves another mood is likely to settle in—we see the parish’s death coming, there’s difficulty having the conversations and making the decisions needed, there’s less energy, more irritability and pessimism, and possibly feelings of hopelessness, guilt and blame. Some will reduce their attendance on Sunday and in other activities.

Regardless of where a parish is in its life cycle[i] there’s a need to periodically return to the issues of formation—a vision and direction rooted in the best of us and appropriate to the future, effective ways of attracting new people, an increased competence and commitment around both spiritual life and the kind of emotional intelligence that the setting requires, and the establishing of relationships with constituencies outside the parish that have a stake in the parish’s life and future.

The further into decline a parish moves the harder it will be to pull out of the descent. Each new false attempt increases the difficulty. Each repeating of the cycle drives us deeper in and makes it harder to see and hear.


I love my parish. I’ve loved all the parishes I’ve served or been a member of. My current faith community has good people, liturgy with some sweet and beautiful elements, a great choir, and caring among the members about our future. When I first started attending the welcome was warm and attentive. I like being in the pew on Sunday and celebrating the Wednesday mass.

But….. as a professional with decades of experience, having worked with hundreds of parishes and trained a couple of generations of church leaders—the parish worries me. 

The anxiety is close to the surface. It’s there in things said and not said, in the visible and invisible. If something doesn’t change in the next 10 – 15 years we are going under. We all know it.[ii]


We seem unable (or unwilling?) to have the kind of discussion in which a common mind emerges or on the other hand to be responsive to clergy leadership, or as is the case in most productive and vibrant parishes, some mix of the two. And then of course, out of such a “common mind,” to navigate into the future. It’s not active resistance. It just doesn’t happen and I’m too new to the parish to understand why.

I was at a meeting last week when one of the members said something about the need to be clear about “who we are.” That brought my mind back to this material. I’ve been working with it for a few months. So, I shared that with the group and decided it’s time to finish.  So, thanks Roy!

What I said to the group that night is that there are three things a parish needs to come to terms with if it is to leave a stagnant place and move into a fuller and richer life.

We need to know and acknowledge:

  1. Who we are
  2. Our gifts
  3. The ways we shoot ourselves in the foot


Who we are

I’ve served as a priest in parishes with a number of different identities—urban, working class, Black, Anglo-Catholic, historic (as in reaching back to 1703), “small town,” resort chapel, liberal, progressive, Prayer Book Catholic, traditional, innovative (probably would be called emerging these days) and contemplative.

The parishes had these identities because that’s how they lived and had lived over some period of time. There was a parish culture of practices and behaviors, values and deeper assumptions about the nature of God, the Church, the sacraments and humanity.

New members would be attracted to some part of who we were. Incorporation took place as they were exposed to more of who we were. In the Community of Julian of Norwich there were three primary threads to our identity.

1)   Contemplative and engaged spirituality and liturgy

2)   A relationship with the arts community, especially the jazz community

3)   A commitment to the city of Trenton

There were only a few people that had a strong investment in all three threats. For most it was one or two and a tolerance for the other.

Occasionally there would be a press from someone about dropping a thread. Maybe the person didn’t like the jazz masses we did on eight Sundays each year. Or maybe they didn’t like all the silence in the Eucharist. And even within a thread there could be tension. The liturgy had elements that called for stillness and silence as well as a shared homily and the community dancing from the place we did the Liturgy of the Word to gather around the altar. Not all liked all elements.

There was finally a community conversation about the threads and our investment. We wrote on newsprint pads all the information about the weight members gave to the threads. As was our custom we maintained norms of having people share their opinions and feelings freely along with respectful listening and discussion.[iii] Once all the information was “out” we stepped back and talked about what we heard and what that meant to us.  

I think there were two currents within the conversation that day. One was the love and respect members had for one another. No one really wanted to take away something that was so essential to others. The other was the realization that the community was held together by the workings of the Holy Spirit and that part of how the Spirit worked with us was that we could only survive if each of the threads had their place in our common life.[iv] It was theology at its best—practical, human, incarnational.

This issue of “who we are” isn’t the same as “who we would like to be” or “what I personally would like the parish to be.” It’s more objective than that.

For example, I know that the Parish of Saint Clement of Rome is an Anglo-Catholic parish (some would say progressive Anglo-Catholic or liberal catholic) because: 1) that’s its history, 2) there are a significant number of members that engage in Anglo Catholic practices—reverencing at the censing of the people, extent of using the sign of the cross, and so on, 3) the rector told me so when I showed interest in attending, 4) the Eucharist is celebrated with smells and bells (every Sunday unless a server fails to show), 5) the liturgical space is of that church culture with several crucifixes, a Mary shrine, statues of saints, lots of candles, stations of the cross on the walls, and there is a canopy over the altar.

This issue of identity isn’t determined by a vote or the consent of every individual. So, in my parish there are people who are not Anglo Catholics. But the parish itself is.[v]

Here are some of the possible broad categories of what to look for regarding identity (or ethos or character):

-      It’s the parish’s identity over many years. Certainly more than just the period of the current rector.

-      There is a critical mass of members that engage in the spiritual practices of that tradition

-      The liturgical space reflects the identity. It looks more or less Anglo Catholic or “low church” or historical.

-      The liturgy reflects the identity in its ceremony.

-      There are a number of key members who self identify with that identity.


There are many possible identities. Some years ago the then church newspaper, Episcopal Life[vi], had an article in which it described various worship categories—Prayer Book Catholic, Anglo Catholic, Broad Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Innovative. Today we might redo that list maybe adding emerging and ancient/future and dropping Broad Church and charismatic. Each style represents more than just the externals of ceremony. They are cultures with patterns of behavior, values and underlying assumptions.[vii]

To the degree that a parish’s identity is grounded in a broader Episcopal/Anglican identity there’s likely to be more stability, less conflict, and more commonality with parishes with other identities.

That’s how we keep the more particular identity from going off the rails. Parishes with a strong specific identity as Anglo-Catholic or evangelical, that were also firmly grounded in their Episcopal/Anglican identity,[viii] haven’t been those that have gone apostate.

One way of seeing the Episcopal ethos is in terms of comprehensiveness, holiness of life, and worldly holiness. We tend to value “holding together opposites,” ambiguity and paradox.  We find holiness through liturgical participation, lives of service and compassion and a reflective habit, all engaged over many years. We are life affirming tending to place the emphasis on the goodness of creation and the potential of lives hidden in Christ.[ix]

What do you do with and about a parish identity as part of a parish revitalization process? In most cases you build upon it, you expand, deepen and enrich it.

How do you decide if the current situation fits “most cases?” Look at two issues: 1) Is the identity a living reality in the current congregation? And the interrelated question of, what’s the alternative? What other identity could take its place? And 2) Does that identity have the potential to attract new people to it or is it like asking people to become Shakers?


Our gifts

Trinity Church sees itself as committed to serving the community and shows some of the related gifts and attitudes—a generous spirit, attention to the needs of people, routinely revisiting how to make its facilities available to homeless people even at considerable cost. How might the parish build upon that; strengthen it?

The most common and unproductive approach is simply to do more of the same. Add to the programs, make more available, and push themselves to be more generous. This approach often has an odd way of turning into judgment, blame and guilt.  Resentments build as the system gets over extended. Those most committed to service begin to pressure others to do more.

However if we approach the gifts with insight grounded in pastoral and ascetical theology and add a bit of what we know on the dynamics of systems, we come out with something more like this—ground the service in spiritual practice and theological reflection that involves a broad group; explore what Underhill meant when she wrote of the relationship of awe and adoration to service[x]; broaden the understanding of service beyond what the parish does corporately to an increased awareness of how most of the service done by members is organically in the daily life of the baptized; and consider ways of focusing what we do together. That kind of approach to building upon our gifts is more likely to make our service richer, more sacramental and more sustainable over time.

Parishes vary in the gifts they have. Some are dependable and show great stability over time and under pressure. Others have a joyful spontaneity and engage people in the delight of being together. And then there are parishes that inspire people to live fuller, healthier lives or to be more compassionate and just.

Parishes may be hardworking and reliable or resourceful and risk taking or authentic and inclusive. Occasionally there’s a parish that wants to believe they are all these things—that’s usually when our gifts turn to garbage.

I’ve been part of parishes with a gift for welcoming people during the first weeks, for wonderful common meals, for liturgy and music within liturgy. The gifts in the Community of Julian Norwich included an openness to try new ways and to share responsibility for our common life. In other parishes I have seen gifts of compassion, kindness, and in others persistence and perseverance.

Recognizing the gifts we have instead of bemoaning those we don’t have is the first step. There was a New England diocese that had me consulting with it about several of the city parishes. I went to one parish with a senior staff person. We were meeting with the vestry. My role was mostly to listen and observe. I needed to understand how they lived together and how they understood themselves.

As people gathered I noticed these things: they were older mostly in their 70’s; white, working and middle class; they asked after one another, wanted to know about the events of the week, how Joan was doing after surgery, why John was missing on Sunday; once the meeting started a warden did almost all of the talking; the priest was a retired man serving very part time, he said little; they were very aware of how the neighborhood had changed and how it was changing again; in the past couple of years they had knocked on doors and invited people to church. 

Finally the diocesan staff person stood up. He launched into talking “at them.” It was an angry homily (I don’t think he realized he was angry) that he clearly thought might inspire them. He spoke of all the people who needed the Gospel. He told stories about churches that had thousands of members. I wanted to hit him!![xi]

Here were these people with gifts of kindness, empathy and compassion. People who had sacrificed their time and money for this local expression of Christ’s Body. People with problems of mobility and energy who had gone door to door among people they didn’t know. And here was the “bishop’s man” talking down to them, judging them, and suggesting that if only they tried harder it would all be different. 

They also had a gift of openness. I sensed they were willing to cooperate with any initiative the Bishop might desire that would allow the parish to attract new people and continue to serve this community. That was a gift the Bishop might connect with and might bear fruit. Later in conversation with the Bishop I explored a parallel strategy of maintaining the existing congregation and building a new one alongside it that would appeal to the younger and artistic community beginning to move into the area. 

What do you do with and about a parish’s gifts as part of a parish revitalization process? In most cases you build upon it, you expand, deepen and enrich them.

How do you decide if the current situation fits “most cases?” I think that in part it’s a matter of seeking a link between the parish’s real gifts and the longings of some percentage of the people in the communities that might be drawn to those gifts. And if you look out there and just don’t see that happening; maybe developing another congregation within the parish that will develop its own set of gifts is what’s called for.


The ways we shoot ourselves in the foot 

All parishes, all groups of people and individuals have ways of shooting themselves in the foot. It’s part of being human. Sometimes it’s sin, often it’s human limitation.

Shooting ourselves in the foot is sometimes connected with our strengths. With the fact that no person or community has all the gifts comes another fact—no community is without its blindness. We see some things easily and we miss other things. 

-      Epiphany was a small, older, interracial community, low-church that lived a very stable and minimal life. The treasure was the son of the rector who had retired 20 years before after serving for 50 years. The warden maintained the stability of the parish by making needed decisions. He was clear that the purpose of things was for the parish to survive long enough so he and the others might be buried from that place. Yes, he really said and meant that.

The vestry met once a year on Christmas Eve. Epiphany had a core of leaders who were very dedicated and practical. They had “right sized” things and there was an alignment between what they had the energy and resources to do and what they did. They had kept things going for many years with a minimum of effort.

They also were stubborn and closed-minded. When younger single mothers from the neighborhood began to attend and showed interest in learning and serving—the existing leadership cut them off at the knees. When the clergy team tried to intervene to make space for the younger women, the leaders announced that the clergy contract would not be renewed for the following year. The Bishop’s urban strategy was to close parishes and focus on social justice issues (he never did see that once the church had little incarnational grounding in the city the justice agenda would get more and more abstract and superfluous). So, the Bishop was glad to see it moving deeper into decline.

-      Saint Elisabeth’s was a flexible, go-with-the-flow, loving, and generally happy community. It was Anglo-Catholic, urban, interracial, and working class. It was responsive to priestly leadership.

Their easy-going, here-and-now enjoyment of life also left them susceptible to being overwhelmed by the shifts in their context. Their responsiveness to the Vicar’s leadership worked well when the priest lead them to become interracial and when another priest helped them begin to grow in membership and spiritual practices. But when one vicar was careless and unengaged and another showed contempt for their working class ways, they let things drift along and went further into decline.

-      Saint James was idealistic, kind, loving, sophisticated, a mix of gay and straight, families and singles, older and younger. It was adaptable about most things but not about its catholic liturgy or openness to the LGBT community. 

During the AIDS years, as partners died, there was deep support in compassion, liturgy, and prayer. Over many years there was a wonderful resilience and optimism in the parish community. It was also a congregation in which when people experienced a violation of values the reaction was frequently excessive in emotionality and duration. It’s focus on values and community life also had the effect of not attending to the concrete reality they faced and acting in a decisive and persistent manner. So whenever it turned its attention to membership growth, it grew. But once the numbers were back up to what felt comfortable, the effort stopped.


Another expression of how parishes shoot themselves in the foot is by continuing practices that are “out of whack.” These are often things that cause visitors and potential members to feel like something is “off” but not be able to articulate what is causing the feeling. Sometimes it takes an experienced and skilled observer of parish dynamics to see and name it.

Here are a few examples:

-      Sitting all over the place

There are congregations where people are still sitting in the same pew they have been sitting in for 20 years. That would be fine if the congregation hadn’t shrunk in size. People being scattered in this way impacts the liturgy and overall energy of the congregation.

-      Intinction

This is a practice rooted in excessive anxiety about health, misinformation about health issues, and a history of bigotry toward Black and gay people. And it undercuts a practice of the common cup grounded in the scriptures and tradition. Some Bishops have banned the practice in their dioceses. But on it goes in other places.

-      Mixed messages

The Sunday bulletin asking people to maintain silence before the Eucharist. But the practice is a lot of talking in the pews among a few and in the back as ushers get into extended discussions with some just arriving.

-      Long series of announcements in the middle of the Eucharist

 This often begins to feel like a family meeting. New people and visitors aren’t really included. And when there is an attempt to include them they are put on the spot in ways that many find embarrassing. Members seeking a liturgy with a strong sense of grace and flow and often disappointed. Introverts, who make up about 50% of the population usually feel uncomfortable.


There are also ways in which a parish can undercut its strengths. A few examples:

-      A parish with a pretty good liturgy undercuts that with too many directions to the congregation; develops a reputation for enabling passivity and a kind of learned incompetence.

-      A rector that is warm, compassionate, open to new things gets undercut by constant complaining about what he isn’t, about what gifts he doesn’t have.

-      A parish with some willingness to explore change, with a capacity for adaptability and flexibility undercuts itself by allowing too many turf-based places of control and an unspoken value on short-term comfort at the cost of long-term comfort and development.


What do you do about the ways in which the parish shoots itself in the foot? How is that dealt with as part of a parish revitalization effort?

You acknowledge the blind sides and weaknesses and sort them into categories. This “sorting” may be an intentional and public process but it‘s more likely a sub-conscious process carried out in the minds of a few parish leaders. It rises out of a number of formal and informal conversations over time. The categories are something like this: 1) leave it alone – this isn’t worth spending energy on; it doesn’t do all that much damage or it’s so interdependent with our strengths that it would be difficult to address without damaging some aspect of our identity or gifts, 2) easily changed once we decide to act – that doesn’t mean that some people wouldn’t be argumentative over it (the “augmentative” people are like the poor, always with us), and 3) needs preparatory work before addressing it – these are situations where the parish’s long-term failure to adequately form members means that the values or deeper assumptions of the emotional center of the congregation (which maintains the current ways of doing and being) is so superficial or shallow or confused or simply wrong headed, that a gradual and patient process of formation is needed before the practice can be addressed. 



Part Two will appear soon

 A List of All Postings

[i] For a PDF -- the Parish Life Cycle

[ii] See an earlier blog posting

[iii] These community norms had developed over time as we learned from our group experience and were maintained by a mix of common consent and the clergy taking on a coaching role (as in “Let me help you understand how we do that in this community. Are you open to that?”)

[iv] Please note these were three core threads. There was no attempt to address every personal preference that might emerge in the parish.

[v] Along with being Anglo-Catholic the other primary element is roots in African American spirituality

[vi] April 1999

[vii] A blog on communicating your parish ethos

[viii] Here are a few web sites with descriptions of the Episcopal/Anglican ethos.

Ethos seen in a puppet show

A process for exploring

[ix] Colossians 3:3

[x] Evelyn Underhill pointed to the need for service to be built upon prayer and a stance toward life in which, “one’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service. And that for those three things and nothing else, addressed to God and no one else, you and I and all other countless human creatures evolved upon the surface of this planet were created. We observe then that two of the three things for which our souls were made are matters of attitude, of relation: adoration and awe. Unless these two are right, the last of the triad, service, won’t be right. Unless the whole of your... life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which the life produces won’t be much good.”  From Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life. Quoted on page 58 In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish through Spiritual Practice

[xi] Didn’t do it.


Holy Work In and Out of the Parish Church: Reorienting Parish Leadership and Christian Service

A reflection on the baptized person’s cycle between renewal and apostolate

The year is just getting started.  There are new vestries in place at parishes across the country.   In many churches, leaders are looking at the (still relatively) fresh crop of recruits and imagining how to fill slots in committees and how to get more parish work done with increasingly strained parish resources.  It got me thinking about the qualifications for the job. 

Here’s the Vestry and Committee application form I would like to see:

☐            Do you make regular attendance at weekly Eucharist a priority in your life?

☐            Do you know how to say the Office and do you incorporate that into your daily spiritual practice in some way?

☐            Do you make time and space for reflection?  For getting perspective on your life and listening carefully for where God is calling you?

☐            Are you able to listen respectfully, openly, and curiously to others?  Do you hold your opinions lightly?  Do you pursue the things that matter, especially when that exposes your own vulnerability?

☐            Do you see your primary Christian service as being the stuff of daily life—in your workplace, with family and friends, and in civic life?  Do you understand a leadership role with the parish as being an extension of that service that not everyone is called to?

☐            If you answered no to any of these, are you curious about learning more?  Would you like to increase your knowledge and skill for participating in the spiritual practices of the church and for enhancing your understanding of the role of the parish in forming Christians?

☐            If you answered yes to these—and especially to the last two—you may be a good candidate for membership on the Vestry or one of several committees we’re forming.  If you don’t answer yes to these questions, it’s likely parish leadership is not the role for you.  It also sounds like we could do a better job as a parish in helping you understand the role of the church and its spiritual practices in your own spiritual life.


If this describes the approach your parish takes in selecting leaders, please contact me!  I’d like to consider moving to your town.  (If my husband or my rector is reading this: I’m only kidding.  For the rest of you, my contact information appears elsewhere on the website.)  If, on the other hand, this seems a little inexplicable but you wonder why I suggest these things, or even if you think I’m just another idealistic church consultant divorced from “real life,” read on…

I do a lot of work with parishes and parish leaders.  I often work with people and places that are struggling with dwindling numbers and limited income; people who face difficult decisions and have real fears about what will happen to their parishes.  They are often responsible for significant property, sometimes significant endowments, and they have serious concerns about the temporal management of the parish church.  I think it’s absolutely critical that they approach these matters with realism, skill, and the competencies needed to provide useful oversight.  I also think that if the leaders of the parish church do not understand the business they’re in—the formation of Christians—we’ve got a problem. 

And if the leaders’ own spiritual lives are an after-thought or seen as secondary to their true value as accountants/lawyers/contractors/investment advisors who will give the church helpful accounting/legal/building/financial advice as Vestry members, or Heaven forbid, the Treasurer[1], then we’ve got a serious problem.

In my secular work, I consult with financial services companies.  Brokerage firms, investment advisors, even some hedge funds.  I help them play by a set of extremely complex rules, and also try to help them identify the gifts and competencies they bring to the marketplace, as well as their own values and passions, and to align those with their actual behavior. 

I see what I do on behalf of the church, as well as what I do to earn a living, as essential elements of my Christian vocation.  The work I do with financial services companies is as much an expression of my identity as a baptized person as is the work I do training parish leaders.  I don’t talk about baptismal identity with corporate clients, but that identify is nonetheless present: along with time I spend with family and friends, it is the primary way I struggle to see Christ in others and to “grow into the full stature of Christ.” 

And what most feeds my ability to carry that vocation into the world, week after week, and day after day, is my participation in the Eucharist and in the daily prayers of the Church.  I attend worship to renew and rediscover my identity as God’s own and to restore the inner resources I need to go back out to do the work I have been given to do.  I gather at coffee hour with fellow parishioners to experience the reality of Christian community, in its joys, sorrows, petty annoyances, and basic comforts—all the things that come of being present in and part of the Body of Christ as it is lived in my own parish.   I participate in parish meetings, in formation classes, in the structures and processes of the church that provide me with a framework for understanding who I am and who God is calling me to become.  These things are why the parish church exists.

And all the while we are being gathered, broken, renewed, and sent, the parish needs to pay its bills, it needs to keep the roof from leaking, and it needs to make ongoing decisions—both routine and extraordinary—about its communal life.  All of these tasks, both explicitly religious and explicitly administrative, require specific competencies.  Not everyone has the gifts to lead or otherwise serve the church in any these areas, but most regular members can develop an understanding of the parish’s primary purpose of formation and develop their own capacity to practice the basic spiritual disciplines of the church. 

What often happens, though, is that we create a false dichotomy that assumes a division between spiritual work and non-spiritual work, between our “Christian service” directly in support of the church and our Christian service in our daily lives.  Serving on the Vestry or the Buildings & Grounds Committee is Christian service.  Volunteering at a soup kitchen is Christian service.  So is being an electrician.  And being a dad, or a bus driver.  All work can be performed well or poorly.  All work requires some skill or disposition, which we may or may not possess.  And to the extent we make explicit the relationship between parish life and worship and our identity as Christians in the world, our capacity to do our work as an expression of our baptism is enriched and expanded.  Understanding this fundamental idea is critical for parish leaders and one that can be widely shared in the broader congregation by focusing on the renewal central to common life and the outpouring of service represented in the lives of members.

Sometimes, parishes will attempt to deal with this through the similar mistake of trying to “spiritualize” meetings by replacing agenda items with prayer, avoiding difficult conversations through unfocused “discernment,” or requiring all Vestry members to enroll in EFM.  While it can be helpful to ground Vestry meetings in specific reminders of the church’s mission, it is better still to root the parish overall in the church’s mission. 

Rather than spending energy adding discrete religious elements to a meeting, instead attend to building spiritual awareness and competence for spiritual practice in worship, formation opportunities, and the parish’s community structures.  Teaching members of the Vestry how to give and receive useful feedback may be the most critical skill in Christian community they ever learn.  Similarly, giving all members the chance to learn how to participate in the Eucharist could be the most important step they take toward a new sense of responsibility for their own spiritual lives. 

The temptation to add on superficial religious elements to shift the character of administrative work is ultimately denying the basic truth that all the good work of holy people is holy work.  Vestries function best when they attend to the tasks they have been given to do.  They need to build or expand on the skills required for oversight, communication, governance, and decision-making.  At the same time, leaders should work to encourage a climate that makes the spiritual formation of all members—whether on the Vestry or not—the most important thing it does.  

The end of the work will be decided by our religious outlook: as we are so we make. It is the business of religion to make Christian people, and then our work will naturally be turned to Christian ends, because our work is the expression of ourselves. But the way in which the work is done is governed by no sanction except the good of the work itself; and religion has no direct connection with that, except to insist that the workman should be free to do his work well according to its own integrity.[2] 

What becomes really tricky about all of this is that institutions have important practical needs, and the church is no exception.  The natural tendency of any institution is to make those needs paramount.  This becomes evident in statements made by parishes and dioceses that talk about service solely in terms of church-related functions or outreach projects and largely ignores the lives of its members as the primary place of service.  It becomes evident in the frequent expression of frustration about how “it’s always the same small group of people who do everything around here,” and the related attempts to “get everyone involved.” 

Some percentage of us will choose to express a significant part of our Christian vocation in work directly in support of the church.  A larger group will give some time here and there in formal roles such as Vestry member, altar server, or working on a committee.  Many will donate money and show up at parish meetings. 

All of us need the space to simply show up to worship and so partake of the peace and refreshment—the spiritual food and drink—offered freely by the church as an instrument of God’s love and grace.  If that becomes the institutional priority, it won’t magically make the limited numbers, the limited dollars, and the limited resources go away.  But those who then choose to serve the church directly in leadership roles are much more likely to do so from a place of sustained nourishment and out of a sense of calling.   In reorienting our priorities, we drastically improve the chances that their service, while challenging and at times exhausting, will not actually drain them dry. 

Michelle Heyne


A List of All Postings

[1] I served several long, lonely, grouchy years as a parish Treasurer, admittedly not always with the care required in the last part of my tenure.  It is worthy, important, and conflict-fraught work.  It is also drastically under-appreciated.  Those who fill this role with cheerfulness and gladness of heart are truly the Saints among us.  Those who simply do it competently are to be blessed and commended.

[2] Dorothy L. Sayers.  Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine.



This posting as a PDF

The Renewal-Apostolate Cycle

Explorations on the ministry of the baptized

From Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church -- The Book of Common Prayer Catechism describes the mission of the church as “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” We have that mission because we understand it to be God’s mission. That’s what God is up to -- restoring unity, reconciliation, forgiveness. God is bringing all things into harmony in a manner that at the same time enhances individual identity. The self is not absorbed into a unity but becomes more fully oneself within community. And God’s method for doing that is the Cross. We lose life to find life. The mission and its methods are for the whole church throughout the world, for every parish church, and for each of us as baptized members of that Body. The Renewal – Apostolate Cycle is a way of understanding the parish’s primary task. It’s the primary way in which the parish addressing the mission.


Twelve assumptions on the spiritual life

1. We all have a spiritual life.

2. It is a significant act of spiritual growth when we accept responsibility for our spiritual life.

3. A healthy spiritual life assumes engagement, rather than escape; an interest in the life of the world instead of spiritual sentimentality or being caught up in illusions.

4. We are seeking a spiritual practice with roots in ancient ways and useful in modern life.

5. We need a spirituality that is both solid and resilient.

6. Our spiritual life serves us best when we understand that it is to evolve over time. What serves us when we are 11 differs from when we are 18 and still again from when we are 35 or 60. A fertile evolution unfolds out of forms of spiritual life that are complex, rich, and paradoxical. They continue to grow as we increase our self-awareness, insight, and in response to changing circumstances.

7. It requires efficiency if it is to serve modern daily life.

8. It requires attention and time if it is to serve modern daily life.

9. Our spiritual life and discipline is to be based on an integrated system, a pattern, rather than a series of random practices. We are to live our spiritual life by Rule, not rules.

10. It is possible for the average church member to become competent and proficient in spiritual practices.

11. We must decide to base our spiritual life on persistence, courage, and competence, rather than on feelings—whether we feel like praying or not. A useful and faithful spiritual life requires critical reasoning and intelligences. We need to intentionally turn away from spiritual fads and fast food.

12.The parish church’s primary task is the spiritual formation of its people. 

Pages 13 & 14,  in In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, Michelle Heyne, Ascension Press, 2011.

Pages 6 & 7 in In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices, Robert A. Gallagher 2011, Ascension Press. 


Process to facilitate conversation
1) Provide an 8 1/2 x 11 handout of the twelve assumptions. Also. Have the assumptions on sheets of newsprint in front of the group.
2) Ask each person to mark on the handout
-The three items that most strongly draw me or touch my heart -- place a D
-The three that feel most challenging or around which I have questions -- place a  C or ?
3) Gather the results in front of the group. have people come forward and place appropriate marks on the newsprint.
4) Invite the group into conversation. For example:
-Regardless of the size of the group it will usually help participation if you first have people talk in groups of 3 or 4 for about 5 minutes. Then in the larger group. 
-If the whole group is very large, and space allows, it may be productive to have groups of 10 - 15 after the initial 5 minutes in 3s and 4s.


rag+ and Michelle Heyne 


A List of All Postings


Coffee hour: to the glory of God and the sanctification of the parish community

God has so ordained things that we grow in faith only through the frail instrumentality of one another  John of the Cross



There are two activities that make up the routine “common life” of most parishioners—Sunday Eucharist and coffee hour. They are also the standard entry points for new members.

So let’s do coffee hour well. It doesn’t have to be five stars, four will do. Three stars is unacceptable but sadly the norm in many parishes.

Here are the basics:

1. Coffee hour needs to meet two broad needs—life in community for members and an entry point for new members.

Both elements are important. The support and occasional challenge offered by others is of our sacramental life; experiences of grace. Making space for those who are now strangers is about hospitality but more importantly it is about offering life in Christ, as lived in this tradition, to others.

Some clergy have gotten in the habit of judging members because they focus their attention on being with existing parish friends. It’s usually driven by some mix of obsession about growth combined with an underlying annoyance with members (for oh so many reasons).

Other clergy have given up on asking members to do anything that stretches them beyond themselves.

The clergy need to play their appropriate oversight role if these two broad needs are to be adequately addressed.


2. Coffee hour needs to be easy on the visitor.

There are two easy ways to accomplish this.

First, invite members to wear nametags.[i] This makes it easy for the visitor or newer member to include themselves. Second, find those in the parish with a gift for greeting and allow them to take on the task on behalf of the whole parish.[ii]


3. Coffee hour needs to happen every week.

It needs to be reliable; be part of the stability of parish life. If it isn’t members will never develop the habit of attending and visitors will experience the parish as having erratic patterns.

Caution: it isn’t really happening every week if the vestry has meetings on Sunday[iii] that begin soon after coffee hour has started or if there is a forum[iv], or is there are dozens of side conversations that are all about parish business of one sort or another.[v]


4. Coffee hour needs to be easy to maintain.

Easy to maintain and manage while also providing good coffee, real half-and-half and milk, and a small snack.

Having a special coffee hour three or four times a year is a wonderful thing to do. But if that happens too often it will undercut the entry of new people and set the bar too high which will cause some to avoid sharing responsibility.


5. Coffee hour needs to be in a space that is reasonably attractive.

Attractive doesn’t mean spending a lot of money. It does mean clean, uncluttered with items that should be in storage or tucked away, and walls clear or with attractive artwork.[vi]


6. Coffee hour needs to allow for those who want to mill and those wanting to sit.

With a tilt toward those who want to mill. It’s more inviting for most visitors and creates a climate of positive energy.

If we’re going to do better we need to understand that coffee hour is bound up with spiritual life. It is important. We also need to be willing to experiment as we find better ways to accomplish these six elements. Try something, see how it works, adapt if necessary.

It may also help to remember that there are always reasons for dysfunctional and unproductive behavior. We are good at coming up with “reasons”—there are five bulletin boards because someone, at some time, wanted to keep everyone informed of what they think is important. Or there's a lack of storage space. Or the powdered creamer was good enough for 40 years. Or paper nametags will mean destroying the forest.

There are always reasons.

We are one, after all, you and I. Together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin






A List of All Postings 


Three resources on the parish as “community.”  Coffee hour is one activity that needs to be seen within a broader context.

Coffee Hour: Assessment and Conversation – A tool to use in helping the conversation happen.  This is a form of what’s called Survey Feedback— for more.

Chapter Five “Participating in Community,” In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today's Christian Life, Michelle Heyne

A healthy parish community will provide both opportunities to deepen and enjoy our existing relationships, and opportunities to welcome the stranger.  Michelle Heyne

 Chapter Five “Participating in Community,” In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practice, Robert Gallagher 

At coffee hour you’ll see people hugging, patting a back, reaching across a table to grasp a hand.  Robert Gallagher


[i] 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.

[ii] This approach takes Saint Paul seriously, relives the clergy of hounding people about loving the visitor, and lets the community have that essential element of community life, time together talking and eating.

[iii] Sunday vestry meetings as a routine undercut the primary work of the parish of forming people in Christ. They contribute to a hurried and crowded environment.

[iv] Usually goes hand in hand with a mental model that “formation” is primarily about education. So we undercut the truly significant instruments of formation on Sunday, Eucharist and social time together, with what are usually poorly done adult forums (Can I see that slideshow on your trip to the Holy Land again?)

[v] I was in one parish where lay leaders agreed the behavior was a problem but they didn’t know how to stop themselves. We came up with an agreement that there was to be no parish business discussed at coffee hour for 15 minutes. Time for listening to, and supporting, one another was increased. After the 15 minutes a bell was rung—the bell “said” if you really must, go ahead and do some business. This was in a parish in which almost all parish business was conducted in 5 – 10 minute stand up, face-to-face meetings at coffee hour, with only one vestry meeting per year and three meetings of the parish community. Members valued this self-managing, team, quick, approach to parish management. They also valued time with one another about the joys and concerns of daily life. This was their solution to doing both.

[vi] Some parishes are doing themselves damage by allowing the place of coffee hour and community to be cluttered with unused stacked chairs, too many tables, too many bulletin boards that few people ever look at, and materials from the parish office and church school to take over the space.


The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life: Part Three -- From Illusion to Prayer

The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

Part One: From Loneliness to Solitude

Part Two: From Hostility to Hospitality 


In the 90’s I was vicar of St. Andrew’s, Trenton. This was a parish of white, working and lower middle class people. The parish had been established by English immigrates coming to work in the pottery factories of Trenton.


  • There had been several dramatic moments in the first year or so.
  • On the day when I first meet the congregation, the wardens took me aside and said, “there’s something we thing you need to know. This is the most racist congregation we have ever seen.”
  • Later there was a dust up with the choir, which mostly came from one family. As the processional hymn began, they refused to process. Later in trying to sort that out I learned that they felt that I didn’t pay enough attention to them. They told me that the previous vicar came to all the choir rehearsals.
  • A called the previous vicar and asked about this. He said, “Yes I did go to almost all of the rehearsals. I was afraid of what they would do to one another if I wasn’t there. That’s when he also told me that over the years he found more and more social ministry projects to get involved with as a way to avoid spending time with people in the parish.
  • I also asked a young woman, a single mother, who was in the choir but not of the “family” to help me understand what was going on. She then broke into tears and described how the choir had abused her with ridicule and belittlement week after week. They made fun of her voice, they commented on her unwed status, and they mocked her appearance and body shape.
  • The few new people that came talked about feeling welcomed by the clergy but not by the congregation.

Henri Nouwen might say that there was a bit of hostility in the congregation.

We managed to get pass all that. I abolished the choir, the “family” left the parish, the congregation’s singing improved and no one ever said that they missed that group. Of course, once we have tossed out the scapegoat, we usually feel better for a time.


I want to tell you about a day that was a turning point for that community.

Nouwen writes, To the degree that our prayer has become the prayer of our heart we will love more and suffer more, we will see more light and more darkness, more grace and more sin, more of God and more of humanity.

That’s what happened after that day. They suffered more and they saw more darkness and sin, especially their own. And that was their redemption.

The working retreat

The vestry had agreed to a working retreat day. We would set aside the usual business, have a consultant, and see what we could learn about our life as a parish church, as a microcosm of God’s Holy Catholic Church.

A part of the retreat day was that our consultant, Linda, was going to have us complete a history line.  

In the history line you stretch out a lot of newsprint across a wall and you draw a line that represents the parish’s history.  You start at the beginning of the parish’s life, and you walk through it step by step, recounting the high points, and low points, the times of conflict, and the times of joy. So we did it. I was very interested in the exercise. I had done it with other parishes and knew how powerful it could be.

When the vestry began to speak of a period in the 1960s they were clearly uncomfortable. We continued on and competed the overview of the time line.  Linda then came back to that time where they had been so uncomfortable.  She asked them to say more. At first they were very quiet, and then bit-by-bit they began to unfold the story.

I gather they didn't especially like the priest and didn't think he was doing a very good job.  So, there were resentments and tensions that had emerged and were bit by bit getting set in stone.

Then the son of the priest, a young boy, developed cancer and died.

As they told their story some had tears in their eyes. Almost everyone spoke. They were embarrassed by how they had behaved toward the priest. The man’s son was dying and then gone.

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory,
and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want
of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

All these years they carried this burden of their unacknowledged sense that they had not dealt with it very well. They had not supported the priest in his time of grief. They had just been inadequate to the situation and unfaithful as Christians.

The illusion they had was that they could not talk about this. But if they did talk about it somehow everything would fall apart.

But this was not a thing that was to be kept private. This was not about the mystery of personal uniqueness. This was about our corporate sin and alienation.

The years of silence had made them hostile. It had made them lonely.

That it may please thee to bring into the way of truth all such
as have erred, and are deceived,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

The Bishop’s Visit
It just so happened that the day after this retreat the Bishop was coming for a visitation. At the end of the retreat, Joan, the senior warden, came up to me and said, “Father we better take down all that newsprint about our history. We don't want to Bishop to see it.”

I was stunned. Her words seemed to unravel all we had just done. But before I could speak she got a look of surprise on her face, she smiled, and she said, “I'm doing it again.”

So the newsprint stayed up. The story was there and it was now public. The Bishop wasn’t especially interested; he was consumed by his own anxieties.

That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; to
comfort and help the weak-hearted; to raise up those who
fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

The illusion that was under it all was that God had no mercy, that forgiveness was not possible. And that illusion was in its roots atheistic. It meant that there was no God, no communion of saints, no company of heaven, in which we rested and were embraced and loved.



Acknowledging their hostility around events taking place 20 years earlier freed that congregation to shape a new future. It wasn’t easy. There was movement forward and reversals. But a new openness emerged over time. It did become a place that was much more at home with its inner life. For many people it was a place in which they could grow up, mature in Christ – they could, as Nouwen put it, “find the courage to enter into the desert of (their) loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.”

It did become a community that was both a place of acceptance and challenge, of receptivity and confrontation.

I think it started at that vestry retreat as a group of people confessed their limitations and sins, their loneliness and hostility. They moved beyond the illusion that the world would fall apart if the undiscussable was discussed.

Henri Nouwen’s concern is that we find our “deepest selves” and that we find “community.” His approach to the spiritual journey is typically Christian – we are to nurture both an inner life and life together; we are called into our deeper self and we are called to life in relationship.  And the two are interdependent, the one requires the other—hospitality is only true when built upon solitude. And both rest in the arms of God, the communion of saints, and the whole company of heaven.




A handout on the movement from Illusion to Prayer

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