Out of Death – into Life

 

washingfeet

I write this post in the midst of preparations for Maundy Thursday.  These sacred days recounting our Lord’s last acts, betrayal, passion and burial are a time held sacred by all Christians.  In the events of this week are all of the ministries of the earthly life of Jesus brought to their conclusion, and the church universe continues that work into our present reality.

What does it mean to follow a dying Lord when it comes to renewing and empowering our congregations?  In a world saturated with messages that reinforce that it is “all about us”, how do we find the stories of our congregations in the midst of death?

For many of us, it is not death that is a mystery, but rather life.  As I write this there are untold people who struggle to lead their churches into new vitality and life.  In some of these churches, there are unhealthy family dynamics.  In still others, age and privilege have yielded a new, uncertain standing.  Our lives reflect the one we serve, the Lord Jesus who calls us all to have new life.

But before we can find new life, we must meet death.  Squarely and realistically, we must recognize that there is but one path to life and that is the Cross.  While to individuals, that message is clear, “repent and be baptized”- live anew as one born again.  But for congregations, there is no obvious parallel.  The church is understood in scripture as enduring to the end, but what does that mean for the ‘local’ church, where Dad was baptized and confirmed and where all of our family members were married.  We face decreasing numbers.  Where is life?

This is the same question that the disciples were asking in these sacred days.  And then, as Passover preparations were being made, Jesus takes everything that these ragged uneducated folks knew to be the sacred story and writes it anew.  Somewhere, in the midst of these words, we find our congregations:

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John 13:1

Did you get that, he loved them- to the end.  This is referring to his own end, but it might also be understood in its contemporary application with the seeming ends of our congregations.  We see red ink and large bills.  We note that people, even very seriously spiritual people, simply do not attend as often as they once did.  We ask ourselves the hard questions like, “Where is faith”, “Is there any purpose to this”, and these very questions were the same things that the disciples wondered as well.

“You do not know what I am doing, but later, you will understand.” John 13:7

I often marvel that what seems to be the worst times in our congregations experience are often, in retrospect, where we find his provision and promise most mighty.  When God is busy writing our story, we wait for it to clear the desk of the publisher.  That takes time, and we are impatient.  Into this questioning and perplexity, Jesus takes a basin and fills it with water, one by one, he washes our feet, for we are his modern day disciples.  Sure, the hands and feet of Jesus are different now simply because we are those hands and feet.

Often, when God is working, we totally misinterpret it.  Peter is no different.  He sees the washing and the servanthood, but misses the bigger idea – HE is to serve.  He wants the washing!  He wasn’t to be an even fuller recipient.  In the uncomfortable times in our ministries we often want the role of recipient, but Jesus is clearly saying that in those most difficult times, the Gethsemane of our congregations’ lives, we are to serve.

“And you are clean.” John 13:8

All that is needed for you to excel in doing the work of God is already in your grasp.  We often look for the next gimmick.  We are not unlike the secular press that lives to find the one “lost” book of the Bible or provide the one “lost” gospel account.  We scramble for the next study, the next conference, or the next program.  We have exactly what we need.  What we lack is the vision and the faith to put it into practice.

“A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” John 13:34

Love in the midst of what we perceive to be death is difficult.  The old self chronically asks, “What is in it for me.” As congregations, tragically, we see new recruits and new membership to be key in dealing with decaying properties or unfunded budgets.  We instead must look to the giver of every good gift for all of those things.  As we “consider the lilies of the field, how they are clothed” we find that our worrying about scarcity of resources is choosing poverty when God always sees abundance.  If we “seek first the Kingdom and his righteousness, all these will be ours as well” and that includes the daily needs of people AND congregations.

It is in this Upper Room that two ancient things take new meaning, a washing with water – an act of service to humankind, and then the giving of oneself.  Jesus even models this concept in the Eucharist.  This completed act of Passover, where new meanings are ascribed to old actions, where the resurrection of Job, the priesthood of Melchisidek, and the lamb of the Passover have their confluence.  And we see our congregations here too.

“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it, and gave it to them saying, take and eat it, this is my Body” and “This cup that is poured out is the New Covenant in my Blood.” Luke 22:17, 19

Broken – poured out – given.  Those words are not those of one who wished to possess, but to set free.  The Old Covenant sought to maintain by strict adherence to a code of law, the new covenant is lavishly given, poured out, and uncontainable.  When we look at our churches, how often have we sought to our out, give, and break ourselves for the sake of another.  Have we simply asked “what is in it for me?”  When we find scarcity of resources, perhaps it is because we have not seen the lavish giving of the one who sees resources in abundance.

Ten precious pints of blood, shed to prove the love of one who can and does make every drop count.  Ten precious pints to demonstrate redemption to a people that are constantly holding back and counting the costs.  If Jesus paid it all, why do we say we wish to be more like Jesus, but then manage our resources as miserly as Judas.  If we cannot outlive God, why do we hold back?

When all of these things had taken place, Jesus goes out to pray.  In his words and instructions we find our response.

“Why are you sleeping?  Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” Luke 22:46

In north America, we have for too long been a slumbering church.  We wait for more resources when we have not used those we have.  We pray for people in our congregations to serve, but have not served the least of them that surround our churches daily.  We are, much like the disciples in this seemingly hopeless night, and it would seem that tomorrow we die.

So tonight, let us take into account the actions of one who is among as as one who serves.  Let us recall the saving acts which are not just ours, but belong to the entire world.  Watch, wait, pray.

(More to come tomorrow)

 

 

 

 

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Change and Loss

We live in a culture that is set at breakneck pace in trying to change to better and better ideas.  We see this in the radical and swift movements of society.  We also see this in the great disdain and, at times, reactionary nature, of our congregations.  Since more people than not in our established congregations are older, I wish to look at the issue of change and loss.

There comes a point in every life where things that were once constant are now unpredictable.  Ask anyone who has gone to their 50th high school reunion.  The faces are fewer and fewer, and, more often than not, that is not because of our travel, but due to death.  We survey the faces of those who were with us on that journey, quite early in life, and we see that they are closer and closer to more frequent changes.

Congregations are no different.  If we look back at the heyday of the church in the early 1960s, we see, what appears to be a far more vibrant church.  There was a greater average Sunday attendance (the benchmark standard of health for greater than a century).  We saw more children, more activities and, I might add, more loyalty.

We no longer live in a “Sunday leisure” society.  Blue laws are a thing relegated to the ash heap of history.  In fact, we are living increasingly with a society that views any institution, even the church, with incredible hostility and resentment.  They (the unchurched) have seen the errors of the church, and, quite frankly, we merit their disdain.  We have been largely silent except when (some of us) have sought to advance an agenda by political means.  The church gasps, and yet is silent out in the world, in the face of discrediting and damaging stories like sexual abuse by clergy, financial malfeasance, and even blatant disregard for the least of these.  In the midst of the massive changes of society in the last fifty years, much of the responsibility for our decline rests firmly on our shoulders.

Now we presume, and I would say quite erroneously, to prescribe, some simple reason for our decline.  Some say, “The church has forgotten to uphold the authority of scripture!”  To those, the church’s increasing liberalism is the perfect scapegoat for our problems.  To others, “The church has participated in the persecution of others” seems to be the rallying cry.  To them, the conservative voices are unfeeling, active persecutors of others.  Sadly, it is not so clear-cut, just different.

We are living into the greatest change the church has seen since the Protestant Reformation.  People who watch the changing times note that every 400-600 years the church makes a dramatic change.  While old, previous movements still continue in smaller numbers, the church takes a turn for a different model in light of a different society.  In short, God is always doing something new.

That newness often results in our frustration.  We do not understand what that means.  We can either choose to look at the issues that have lead to that change or else resolve to die.  Every massive movement of the church has both.  At this point, we have been blessed in that the changes of our churches have been marked only by civil litigation (as scandalous as that is) and not by bloodshed (as in all other changes the church has experienced in the last 2,000 years.)

But wait.  A phenomenological approach is wonderful for the historian, but many ask, “How does that effect my parish – TODAY!”  The answer is not a simple one.  It cannot be resolved with the assignment of blame.  Conservatives and liberals alike are both losers and winners.  This is change, and change is often perceived as loss.

As we age, more and more of our changes are losing ones.  We lose friends.  We lose co-workers.  The only thing that seems to pervade our existence is change.  In our churches, we see dwindling numbers and wist to look for what we can blame.  The phenomenon is human, so despite what we may feel, it happens.  In the 1960s, we had filled churches because the larger society supported institutional structures like the church.  It no longer is so supportive.  In some ways, we are to blame.  We did not police our institutions.  Then again, neither did Rome before the Reformation, so don’t feel alone.  Each age is marked by failures.  In each age people will seek scapegoats.  In every age, that is unhealthy.

I urge you, in a time when the church is changing so rapidly, resist the urge to blame, project or perceive yourself other than those who are changing.  The church is one body because we serve one Lord.  Where there is division, Christ is divided and that is a scandal to the world looking at us.  Liberals and conservatives are shadowy reflections of one another.  In their division, we see reflected every major challenge that the church has ever faced – and will one day face again.

Change – it is constant.  It will be perceived as loss.  It will be celebrated by some, and vilified by others.  God’s people are processing from glory to glory.  Take heart.  The same Jesus who has overcome the world by his own death, will overcome this as well.

 

 

 

Facing Congregational Giants

facing

This evening, our parish had their first movie night with a neighboring ELCA parish.  It was good to see so many young people come out to see an inspirational movie.  The film, Facing the Giants, is about a young man, Grant Taylor (Played by Alex Kendrick) who is facing a failing high school football coaching career, inadequate finances, and infertility issues in his marriage. What is more, his coaching career is threatened by some parents who have tired of seeing Taylor lead losing seasons year after year.  They plan to replace him and Taylor overhears their plot.   In short, the odds are stacked against him.  He takes solace from a man who has, for some years, gone by and prayed over the lockers in the hallway of the high school.  He seeks revival for the children, never knowing how that revival will take place.  Oddly, revival comes through that failing coach.

Coach Taylor decides to ask the wise intercessor what was the key to his faith.  Taylor prayed and had faith, and as of yet, he was not seeing results.  He tells Taylor a parable.  There were two farmers.  Both had faith, and both prayed for rain, but only one prepared the field.  In other words, it takes more than simple faith and prayer, God waits to see whether we will act in expectation.

I admit that during the time I was watching, my mind was racing through all of the clergy I have known.  I have seen some situations similar to the one Taylor faced.  Vestries met and plotted to remove the rector, totally misunderstanding that making the rector a scapegoat will not change the deeper problems of the parish.  I have known good, gifted priests who have been attacked this way. In one case, I was sent in by the bishop to diffuse the situation – with unexpected results.

I also looked at the teammates and saw the attitude of many parishioners in a declining church.  “We are helpless, there is no use to work on our ‘game’”, they say.  Without an attitude change, such parishes will fail.

Then there is the leader – the coach.  Blind reliance on the Giver of every good gift is the only thing that can change the perspective of a failing coach into a successful one.  Sure, leadership skills need to be sharpened, but only when God is part of the direction will true leadership be established.

In all three cases, Coach/Priest, Parents/Vestry, Teammates/Parishioners, the solution is similar.  All of the attempts to work just a little better were to no avail.  How often we think that a church can turn around by sheer will.  Sadly, some churches have not discovered the power of God’s working 20 or 30 years into decline.  At this point, these communities often are a few short years away from certain death.

What does it take to get a congregation to radically abandon themselves to the provision of God?  We claim to be an agency of God, but all too often, our churches are not places of revival.  We have a problem when our “best players” are often transferring to other teams in their senior year. (In other words, when our people have a spiritual revival, they often go where other spiritually recharged people go. What is wrong is simple – attitude.

The old saying is “If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got”.  Yet time and time again, we think that parish revitalization is about more programs, better choices, or liturgical alterations.  Rarely, from my experience do these changes, one their own, really affect membership trends.  Only one thing does – radical abandonment to the power of God.

I began my day teaching a class of people who wanted a refresher course on what it meant to be a member of our faith.   I did, as I have in the past, closed with a discussion on Mystagogy and how living into our baptism calls us to live differently.  We looked at the Baptismal Covenant and re-familiarized ourselves with those promises, during which one promise stuck out at me.  “Will you continue …in the prayers?”

That promise is halfhearted at best in many declining churches.  I am struck by the promise that I made at my ordination that really should be the right disposition of all Christians toward prayer, “Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in private, asking God’s grace both for yourself and for others…”  Prayer like that can be exhausting, but that is exactly what Taylor does.  One by one the team members have their own epiphanies, and God begins to do incredible work…but Taylor has to prepare the fields.

I, for one, do not think that God is finished with the Episcopal Church.  True, the statistics look grim.  We have lost nearly 20 % of our membership in ten years, but God is good – and faithful.  Imagine how congregations – and our church at large – would look different with a proper disposition toward prayer.  Imagine if we could prepare our fields by building a new culture of prayer.  The Jesus Movement in the Episcopal Church is just starting in earnest.  We are rediscovering what it means to take Jesus out of our worshipping communities and into the world.  I think that some very bright days might be ahead – if we hit our knees and pray.

Taylor told his team, “When we win games, we praise him.  When we lose games, we praise him”.  The same is true of our congregations.  When all seems to be failing, we praise God.  When our parishes turn around, we praise God.  In all we do, whether in good times or in bad, let us praise God.

Congregations without Insight

One of the greatest joys that a cleric can have is in the thrill of the search for a call.  These seems to be so much energy, so much excitement, so much potential.  Congregations in a call process often feel the same way.  They are looking for a leader to lead them into the next chapter of their lives.  In this post, we will look at what can go wrong when congregations do not have insight – and conversely, what that can do for/to the clergy/parish relationship.

First, what is insight?  How does a congregation have insight or discover it.  At some level, there are people who have the capacity to be brutally honest with themselves.  That self-insight becomes somewhat diminished in groups.  Groups are family systems.  Each group (i.e. a congregational search committee) will usually identify a leader and hopefully arrive at decisions in a collaborative manner.  It also can be a time when the whole process can be either directed positively, or it becomes a place where all of the unhealthiness of the parent organization becomes apparent.  Insight is never by accident.  It always requires looking at reality squarely in the face and assessing–truthfully–who are we, and what are we called to do.

Often the most critical lack of insight is found when congregations imagine themselves to be different than they are.  For example, most congregations would describe themselves as “friendly”.  Often, that friendliness is understood by the bonds of affection they have for one another.  When you insert a new person into the mix, the reaction can be different.  People tend to be automatically more friendly with those with whom they have established a relationship.  Often a newcomer is able to see in a way that someone within the family system cannot see.

Congregations may see certain things as normal which others may see as glaring issues.  For example, a congregation who calls clergy that tend to be paranoid or have substance abuse issues may do well to look back at the whole family that called that cleric.  Can family systems and relational triangles be discovered in that congregation that enforce those patterns?  Usually, they can.  But it takes insight.  It takes a willingness to do more than simply scratch the surface of who who that congregation really is, not simply wish to be.   Having insight requires doing the very hard work of looking “into the mirror”, and that often takes time.

Healthy congregational systems require insight.  What is more, healthy systems will usually develop a sort of “immune system” when the issues of the past have been appropriately addressed.  They will learn to uncover unhealthy patterns and will recognize that there usually is not only one party to be “blamed” for malfunctions and unhealthy behavior.  As a congregation becomes healthier, newcomers and new members will often be healthier.  Remember that a congregation will attempt to replicate itself.  If it is diseased, it will find persons willing to join who are comfortable with the disease.  If it is healthy, those who are called to join will typically be healthy, or will find another church.

This is where an open and honest wrestling with the numbers can be helpful.  If a parish has decreasing attendance, it merits looking into why that is happening.  Have programs become stale or has the life in a congregation simply changed?  I know of one congregation where there was small attendance, but those people were regular attendees, pledged sacrificially and had lives of discipleship.  That is a congregational development success story.  They might only have grown in that small town by one member a year, but in all likelihood, that member would be acculturated into a very healthy system where they would be encouraged to be a disciple.  Conversely, I know of another church with almost 500 communicants, but the prevailing culture there was only interested in what the church provided FOR THEM, not who the church has called to BE.  That was not a success at all!  It was dying!

Beyond who we “are” is the essential component of any mission – what we “do”.  Often a congregation with a lack of healthy systems will develop a mission impoverished attitude. Who they “are” is so exhausting that there simply is no effort to go outside “into Galilee” to do the work of loving souls into the Kingdom.  A healthy congregation will have that dual insight to know who they are and where they are going.

But what about those congregations that do not have appropriate insight?  How do they perceive themselves?  The answer to that is simple – projection.  They claim to be something they are not, making their wishes pervade their profile.  Often the judicatory does not even look to see if that profile adequately depicts where that congregation actually is in their life. This becomes deadly to both clergy seeking a call who find the profile attractive without realizing that the congregation behind it is projecting a dream.  It is not unlike dating a potential partner while telling lies.  If the lies are told enough, the liar may even begin to understand that that the charade is, in fact, truthful.  A healthy “date” may not even see the problem until well into the “marriage”.  So a healthy cleric may not be able to see the pathologies of a diseased congregation until the “honeymoon” has ended and the projections can no longer be held up as truth.

How then does a congregation have insight – brutal truthfulness.  It always helps to have an outsider look in to guide that process.  If the congregation finds something attractive, that may be a calling.  Call it such.  It is essential that every judicatory have people who can “sniff out” the projections and help congregations in searches to see reality.

Lastly, the effect that a failure to have insight has direct consequences on clergy tenure and the “turnaround effect”.  Congregations with insight often may have a succession of clergy with short tenures.  Why?  Those churches are often exhausting to lead!  Likewise congregations without insight may have few people entering the “front door” and more people leaving the “back door”.  The cycle is vicious, but arrest-able.

Insight does not happen on accident.  It is a very intentional process.  Above all, like the processes of sin, wandering and redemption in our own souls, we all have periods when we cannot see beyond our own projections.  This is why God sets the solitary in communities.  Healthy people can create healthy churches – there is hope (and work) ahead for all of us.