Means of Grace, Hope of Glory


Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Two

Some lack competence, some have an arrogant certainty about their own wisdom, some are fearful, and some are wired to resist the participation of true experts and to maneuver to avoid hearing the broader community. 

There are many reasons and causes for why rectors avoid listening to the congregation’s collective voice.

        If you haven’t read Part One -- Shaping an empowered parish community: Part One

Let’s focus on the ways that gets expressed. What do some rectors do instead of hearing the collective voice? Here are four. 

How to avoid hearing the collective voice of the congregation

1. Use group processes that avoid asking for the collective voice

Some rectors will simply avoid bringing together the congregation. The exception will be the required annual meeting with formal reports, a review of the budget, and some Q&A time. It’s usually all carefully managed to avoid respectful listening and hearing a collective voice.

Others will call for meetings from time to time around some particular concern. There will be a broader conversation but no clear collective voice.

There are several common methods used to avoid hearing the congregation’s collective voice during such meetings. Here are two of the most common.

No prioritization of the various ideas

It’s common practice to use a brainstorm process in gathering the thinking of a group. All ideas are welcome. Every idea is recorded on a newsprint pad.

Then things move in one of two directions. Either the facilitator thanks everyone for all the wonderful ideas and assures them that “the decision makers will make good use of your work today” or the facilitator gives every person in the room a number of votes. People come forward to indicate which ideas are most important to them. After a few minutes a pattern usually emerges. Of the 30 ideas on newsprint five have gathered many marks, another three have some marks, a few have one mark, and many have none. You have some indication of the collective voice of that group. If the ideas with the most marks haven’t gathered a critical mass the group could do a second round, now working with the top eight or ten ideas. You narrow down until it seems that the group’s voice is being expressed. You can see where the weight is and at the same time see all the other ideas. Some of the lower ranked ideas may end up incorporated into an action plan.

You have not heard the group’s collective voice if you haven’t prioritize the brainstorm list.    A PDF of Brainstorming & Prioritizing 


Summary by the rector at the end of the meeting or an e-newsletter during the following days.

Another common process is to structure the discussion so everyone in the room has an opportunity to offer their thinking. The most effective way to do this is “to go around the circle.”  One person at a time is invited to offer a brief comment.

Then one of three things usually happens. The rector thanks everyone for participating and promises to take the group’s thinking into account. Or, the rector summarizes what he heard the group say. Or, the rector offers a careful paraphrase of the group’s work (which means noting a range of thinking) and then an itemized response in which the rector is open about his response to the ideas – “In the ideas offered I appreciate/like/value/see how to make use of …….. I have concerns about ….”

After the initial paraphrase the rector invites the group to respond – “Did I capture what has been said by the group?”  And, after the itemized response the rector says, "Do you have any questions or comments on what I've said?"

In the first two ways of concluding the meeting we end with no clear collective voice. In the third, we usually have a clearer expression of the collective voice. That’s especially true when the rector invites responses to his paraphrase and itemized response. The third approach means allowing as much time for that as you have in the generating of ideas.


2. Have one-on-one meetings

Some rectors use one-on-one meetings as a way of avoiding a collective voice. For example, the rector has decided to reduce the number of services on Sunday morning from two to one or to introduce incense during Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and Lent–Easter. It’s worship so the rector can do that – right? He has that right – right? Well yes, but …

The “but” is about whether the rector is clueless regarding the real organic life of a parish church.  Most of us know that such decisions carry with them both practical and symbolic issues for members. So, most of us will “take counsel” with those affected, and if we’re really wise, we’ll “take counsel” with someone skilled in the sacramental and group dynamics of the parish church. 

What happens next is important. A rather large mistake can be made at this point. Some rectors will imagine bringing people together for a special meeting. They fear the possible (likely) resistance. They are uncertain about their ability to manage the group process. So, they decide to avoid that nightmare and announce that they will meet one-on-one with people – “if you’d like to talk about this exciting and innovative direction we’re considering, please let me know. We can get together for coffee some morning.” Or, the rector may organize one-on-one meetings with everyone and have a number of lay leaders take the meetings. The lay leaders report back to the rector and the rector declares that he has heard the collective voice of the congregation. Except, he hasn’t.

One-on-one meetings avoid having people hear and influence one another in a group conversation and thereby create an informed collective voice. They also head off a testing process that would provide a picture of where the congregation stood. For example, asking at a meeting (or even for 5 minutes at the coffee hour) -- 

In just a few minutes the rector would have a clearer impression of what next steps where needed – move ahead, drop the idea, more conversation. 

3. Have an open-door policy

Those who make use of the “open door” are generally the most disgruntled or the most emotionally needy parishioners. It’s rare for someone to show up to tell the rector what a great job she’s doing.  In any case, it may offer the impression of listening, but because so few make use of it, there is no collective voice.

4. Have a suggestion box or on-line equivalent

Once again. It isn’t a collective voice.


Why seek the collective voice of the congregation?

1. It builds real community versus façade community – community that actually has influence over its life.

2. You end up with more sustainable decisions – it’s not simply a matter of having people participate but participation in a process: 1) that is transparent about the valid and useful information related to the area of interest and 2) that provides for a significant degree of free choice.  See PDF on the Intervention Theory




Shaping an empowered parish community: Part One

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Three 

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Four

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Five 


Shaping an empowered parish community

What is it to be a parish “community?”  What does “real community” look like?

“Community” has been a longing and an accusation ever since I was in seminary in the late '60s. I had arrived at seminary from four years of university with a major in protesting. For me those years brought me into a segment of the church that was aligned with the civil rights movement. I became an active member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the president of two student civil rights groups at Penn State.

“Community” wasn’t a word I or others used, but it was something experienced. For me it was twofold – those I stood with in the Movement and those I knew as friends in the dorm. Those who were together in a struggle for justice and those who ate meals together in the dining hall. The first was grounded in the claims of the Gospel and the Constitution. The second in easy companionship. 

The Communion of Saints

There was a third place of community. Over time I came to realize that the mystery of the Communion of Saints had also claimed me. Of all the assertions of the Apostles’ Creed those I knew to be most certainly true were: 

I believe in the Holy Spirit, 
    the holy catholic Church, 
    the communion of saints, 
    the forgiveness of sins
    the resurrection of the body, 
    and the life everlasting. Amen.

I still can’t fully explain how my experience at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia and at Saint Elisabeth’s in South Philadelphia brought me to that place. It had something to do with forgiving and being forgiven, loving and being loved, accepting and being accepted. For me “community” was experienced and the Creed’s statement of it was true enough.

It was in seminary that I first heard the irritable whining about a “lack of community.” Some of it came from the more extroverted and immature students seeking to fill a longing that others of us experienced as invasive, pushy, and controlling. After all, the communion of saints was what it was – an assembly of sinful and limited humans, particular and universal, found in small sub groups of companionship and occasionally larger gatherings with food, wine and beer. It was. We weren’t creating “community,” we were living community – not complete or finished, never perfect or able to fill all longings. It was what it was. That was enough.

The split would show itself over the years between those who believed the Kingdom was God’s gift, now and future, something we got to participate in because it was already present, and those who thought it was something they needed to establish.

Developing a few skills

By the time I took charge of Saint Elisabeth’s I had become aware of another aspect of community – the ways in which a group of people made decisions and how that process enhanced or diminished people; how it increased or decreased trust among them; and how it impacted the parish’s dynamics of stability, conversion and obedience.

My understanding had significantly increased as I worked with an industrial mission doing action-research on how the baptized could change the institutions they were part of. We would video tape groups as they explored how to engage that task in the various sectors of the city’s life (medicine, education, business, government and so on). Then the group would review the tape and consider the process of listening and responding, discernment and decision making, they had gone through. Our focus was on how they worked together and how we could help them improve that work.

That lead me into experiential training programs and a master’s degree as I struggled to become more competent in group processes, organization development and psychology, and how all that intersected with a systems approach to pastoral and ascetical theology. A PDF with thoughts on what competencies are needed by a parish priest.

So, by the time I was an inner-city vicar I found myself ready, at least somewhat ready, to lead and shape a community that had a strong internal commitment to its decisions, could navigate the complex dynamics of having a strong and clear congregational voice and at the same time strong and clear priestly leadership.

How did I know that the parish was that way? Because we asked. For example, we did a survey early in the relationship. It included questions like this:

How satisfied are you with the way things are going in the parish now? On a six-point scale 80% were at 5 and 6, the others at 3 and 4.

We also asked about the many changes that had taken place – having a free-standing altar as well as a high altar against the wall, using the then-new Prayer Book, having women priests serving in the parish, pushing for a deeper level of commitment from members.  On all the changes there was the same 80% or higher response.

After the survey was completed the results were fed back to members at a meeting. People need to see the results in a timely manner, when they are gathered together and can talk about it. This is called survey-feedback.  PDF on survey feedback.

We did the same thing each year. And each year the response was much the same. Occasionally there would be an item where a larger percentage of members expressed concern. Even though that was never more than 30%, we’d explore what might be done to stay with the generally supported direction while making adjustments in response to those with concerns. We came to learn that the “concerns” were often very helpful in improving how we went about things. Hearing the resistance of people, even a relatively small number, often helped us do better.  PDF on resistance to change

Since those years I’ve trained and coached thousands of clergy and lay leaders and consulted with maybe a hundred parishes. What I’ve noticed is when rectors are willing to really listen to the collective voice of the congregation and respond honestly – the parish gets healthier, adult relationships are formed and people feel empowered.  And when clergy act out of fear, engage in selective listening and manipulate discernment and decision-making processes – the parish lives a half-life, shallow, avoiding needed conversations. 


What happens when rectors really listen to the congregation? When rectors use processes such as mentioned above?

1. The congregation gets to hear its own voice. It’s empowering to hear the collective voice of the congregation. The parish is strengthened.

2. It allows the rector to hear that collective voice. That voice may not be what the rector wants it to be and that may offer both an opportunity for humility and the chance to improve a direction or program.

3. Listening to one another, people to people, leaders and people, is a pathway into love and respect.

4. It is one resource for healthily navigating the bonding process between people and priest. Honest listening helps all parties move from the inflated hopes of a new relationship, through the disappointment that comes with the crashing of our illusions, and into a realistic relationship.  See PDF


Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Two

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Three

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Four

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Five 


The Daily Office: 2 Experiences

I had two experiences yesterday having to do with the Office.

The first was in the enewsletter of the Church of the Atonement, Chicago. Meghan Murphy-Gill wrote a short piece, “Let us Pray.” It was her story of how she came to pray the Daily Office. I want to share one part of it -

When the rector of my nominating parish, St. Augustine’s in Wilmette, created and handed out a daily prayer booklet for the parish, ​the timing couldn’t have been better. The booklets were in the shape of noontime individual and family devotion found in the prayer book, only she’d provided a psalm, scripture, and collect for each day. 

My family gave it a try during dinner one night. And I do mean during dinner. Not before with candles lit, but truly during, with grilled cheese sandwiches literally in our mouths along with the prayers. Between sips of wine (it pairs remarkably well with the humble grilled cheese), my husband, Andrew, and I would trade off between the scripture reading and the psalm. We’d then say the Lord’s Prayer together, and I’d finish with the collect.

I figured that this ritual of ours would eventually lead to questions from Albie and some good discussions as he began to understand the words of scripture. I did not expect that in just a few months, at 2 years old, he would begin to recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory. Then, he started to extending his arms and facing his palms up in the orans posture while praying! And if we didn’t pull out the prayer booklet, he’d go and fish it out of the kitchen drawer for us and demand it. 

When we’d promised to raise and form our kid in a life of Christ at his baptism, we had no idea that he’d also be leading and forming us.  

Lovely!   Here’s a PDF of the whole article.


The second experience was as I arrived to participate in the Office at a nearby church. I’ve been recovering from minor surgery. It’s been slow. I’ve been slow. Tomorrow I go in for more. Usually by late afternoon I am too tired to get off the couch. But I had more energy (maybe generate by anxiety about today’s procedure) and I decided to go to Evening Prayer.

The place was sealed. I waited around until the appointed hour – no officiant. I was disappointed. Disappointed in not being able to offer praise with others. Also, disappointed in the parish. This is something that happens too frequently. I’ve heard others who had the same experience.

If we offer acts of public worship during the week – treat it as public worship. Do everything possible to see that it happens. Even if it is just two or three gathered; maybe especially then. And if it just can’t happen that evening. Post a notice on the door. Post it on the front page of the website. Send an email to everyone who even occasionally attends.  Okay, enough ranting.  I said the Office using an app on my phone.

                On making a public Daily Office work  

One final offering. Some years ago Amy Hunter wrote a poem on the Daily Office. Meghan’s article brought it to mind.

daily office


three days on the Cape

sharing the sacrament of coffee

doing morning prayer on a porch

from which I could see the ocean

the morning office spoken and laughed

as we read one another’s lines

or added comments to the Scripture

until my husband said from the other room

“that was lovely

but I’ve never heard it done as stand-up before”

and you said

“we’ve been doing this a long time”


and now I’ve fallen among monks

five days retreat where I could see a river

were I to walk that far

we pray five times a day

and here no one laughs at the mis-said lines

when guest or brother misses a cue

reads loudly into the silence

then fades—embarrassed perhaps

smiling I hope

and no one begins the reading

“now here’s a surprise—

the people did what was evil

in the sight of the Lord”

and no one slurps coffee

in the midst of confession


yet both catch me and hold

because these prayers are not woven by angels

but are built

            every day every office anew

by human voice and hunger

the work of a people

who have been doing this

a long time


Transfiguration 2002    Emery House

     for Tom Barrington  for the Brothers at Emery House

From Fill All Things: The Dynamics of the Spiritual Life in the Parish Church, Robert A. Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008





Two energies

There are two energies in parish churches. One is always related to the energies of the Blessed Trinity. The other, maybe, maybe not.

Program and vision

There is often the energy coming from the rector or vicar. Her vision, his programs. This usually involves a rector's drawing people into forms of social service ministries or parish community activities or fundraising for the parish.

Renewal – Apostolate Cycle

This is the organic energy of every parish. The congregation gathers to adore and praise God and in doing that to experience something of the life of the Trinity. People gather and are renewed in their baptismal identity and purpose and they return to family and friends, workplace and civic life, as instruments of God’s love. 

How a rector might be faithful and successful 

When a new rector comes to a parish, usually, within a year or two, the programs and visions of the former rector are washed away and new ones take their place. When you build upon sand, that's the likely outcome.

What endures is the organic cycle.

If you want to be a faithful and successful rector or vicar the starting place is going to be to work with that organic cycle — point to it, coach and train people for it, remove barriers.




Solid food

You need milk, not solid food … solid food is for the mature (Hebrews 5)

This morning I read the Office and heard of milk and solid food. I also read “These Millennials Got New Roommates. They’re Nuns.” (NYT 5/31/19)  [The article]

The article begins this way,

Sarah Jane Bradley was an unmarried, “spiritual but not religious” professional in her early 30s, with a rowdy group of friends and a start-up when she moved out of her communal house and into a convent.

A bunch of friends went with her. 

They called the project Nuns and Nones, and they were the “nones” — progressive millennials, none of whom were practicing Catholics. Intended to be a pilot project, the unusual roommate situation with the Sisters of Mercy would last for six months.

The idea was spearheaded by Adam Horowitz, a 32-year-old Jewish man, and the pilot program was guided by Judy Carle, a 79-year-old Catholic Sister of Mercy in the Bay Area. Mr. Horowitz and his friends heard the call after a road trip to visit intentional communities. They were brainstorming ways they could live radical activist lives, lives of total devotion to their causes. They were trying to figure out who was already doing this, and when Mr. Horowitz talked to a minister, it came to him. The answer was nuns.

The nuns had been nurtured with solid food. The “nones” with milk. Yes, I know it’s judgmental. Also, true. Also, the basis of solid ascetical training and coaching. You start with what’s true. Then you offer what nurtures people where they are and offers them more. Pastoral models such as Thornton’s Remnant Theory and my own Shape of the Parish can be helpful. Most people in every parish need their milk. And they need to have solid food readily available.

There’s also the dynamic by which people living in the climate and practices of a broader, deeper pathway, may find themselves drawn. You can see some of that in the article. We’ve seen it in our parishes.

Liturgy that tugs at the heart and enchants the soul. Preaching that speaks to the person’s life as it is and offers more – “Thou hast raised our human nature.” Training and coaching in the ancient ways of spiritual practice. Parishes that offer such things are offering milk and a pathway into solid food.

The avoidance of commitment - the defense of autonomy

Toward the end of the article is this, “When the millennials moved out in mid-May, they scattered back around the country. The Sisters of Mercy, of course, remain at the convent.”

It does little good to moan about a generation’s blind spots and confusions. Each generation is made up of people who strongly fit the dominate profile of that cohort and of those who seem to belong to another age entirely. And every generation with have its blind spots and confusions.

I’m of an earlier generation of social justice warriors – civil rights, anti-war, anti-racism, community organizing. In seminary I did two courses of private study with Dick Norris on revolution. It was a time when the impulse toward autonomy and temporary commitments was coming into its own. Philip Turner touched on the drift in “Sex, Money and Power.” He wrote about how the moral use of power was based on widely shared beliefs, values and intentions and how “secularism and pluralism have removed any possibility of our having a sufficient number of shared beliefs.” The dilemma was rooted in our fear “They feel the need for a moral community but fear its repressive possibilities; they fear they will purchase unity at the price of their own liberty and distinctiveness.” (pages 101 – 105).

The civil rights foot soldiers of those days were a mix of the last years of the Silent Generation (Movement’s leadership) and the Boomers. You can get the difference by thinking of how I responded to the Watergate Drama vs. those a few years younger than me. On the whole, for the Boomers it reaffirmed their suspicion of institutions and those in power. For me, it reaffirmed my patriotism and belief that the system worked. And yet, all of us were caught in the dilemma Turner wrote of. In our time many avoid commitment and defend their autonomy. [About Generational Cohorts]

Remember Jesus Christ

The task of evangelization and ascetical formation is to acknowledge, understand and effectively address each generation. So, yes, we take notice of the blindness and muddles. Then we say to them “Remember Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:8). It’s a small commitment. It’s letting go of the desperate autonomy, just a bit. Invite them, “Remember Jesus Christ.”  Offer the invitation gently, with kindness; yet also with what may seem to the hearer unsettling certainly.

Fr. Norris patiently helped me engage the historical and theological issues of revolution. He was demanding and brilliant. I didn’t get to reinforce my bias. He drew me into a larger world. It was all summed up at a Thursday Evensong, I think it was 1970, in which Dick was the preacher. He said this,

But, my brother, all of this – this hope, this muddling after better things, this striking out for the new - all of this is neither more nor less than the remembering of Jesus Christ: an acceptance for oneself and for others of the identity which belongs to mankind in him. You have no promise to give, no good to do, no help to offer, no revolution to make, which does not stem from this one thing: the knowledge and faith of what men are and will be in Christ. That is where you stand; and in every situation, by such actions or words or gestures as seem appropriate, you have one thing – and only one thing – to say: remember Jesus Christ. But if that is said, and if it is meant when it is said, and if it is heard as it is meant – then what will take place is God’s revolution, which may turn out to astonish even you and me, who like to think we know what it is all about.

He could preach the same words now to the Nuns and "nones" at the Sisters of Mercy convent.


We don’t get to resolve the tensions and polarities of our age. We don’t have that kind of influence. We do get to live in the blind spots and confusions along with everyone else. We do get to decide to remain. We can decide to eat solid food.

I’m thankful for God’s love and grace. God has given me the Eucharist and the Office; friends, family, and the Order of the Ascension to journey with. In that I remain. And, God has been with me in all my sin and human limitation, in all ambivalent and confused relationships and commitments.

Maybe my task, maybe our task, is to remain – in Eucharist and Office, in community and reflection. In all the sin and limitation, in all the blindness and confusion – remain.

The Sisters of Mercy remain at the convent.