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Yes We Can! Again!!

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“Healing happens when the conversation changes from a focus on the past to a focus on the future. That’s where we are with God’s help—and that is a good place to be.”

I wrote that closing line in my last blog post here in December 2015—8 months ago.  This week the Vestry names a new search committee to re-launch the process of calling a new Rector for St. Timothy’s.  It has been a long journey through a time of healing, false starts and self-reflection to arrive at this point in time.

We got through the stages of grieving the retirement of our rector, then we survived the failure of our first search process and then saw our hopes soar with the completion of the second process and the call of a new rector.  But two years into that new ministry it was obvious to both the rector and the parish that this was not a match made in heaven.  So we entered a new stage, one we never expected to find ourselves—a discernment process on whether to end our relationship and move on.

We grieved the mutual loss of affection and found a sense of reconciliation even in the process of divorce.  Difficult as it was for all, it felt like the right decision to both the rector and the parish.  There was sadness and grace in our parting.  But it was done lovingly, fairly, candidly and left a holy taste in our mouths that helped heal our broken hearts.

A funny thing happened on the way to healing and preparing for another search process.  We discovered new courage to risk rejection again in order to find love again.

So here we are in mid-August 2016 polishing up our profile and getting ready to start ‘dating’ again.  We wish there was something like “Episcopal Match.com” that would offer a proven method to find compatibility.  But alas we must do it the old fashioned way.

So this post is fair warning that I am dusting off this blog and will be posting more frequently to document St. Timothy’s Danville, CA search to call a new rector.

Pray for us!

We have already kissed a lot of frogs on our discernment journey to find wedded bliss.  We need a Prince or a Princess to come along the next stage of our journey.

We have a secret weapon in our search—true faith that God loves us unconditionally.  And the sure knowledge that God does not give us burdens we cannot bear—-He has held us up so far as we’ve wandered in the wilderness in our search for the promised land.

Healing is Hard Work!

Angel

As I write this December 29, 2015 six months has passed since my last post about our failed rector search process that resulted in the resignation of the chosen candidate after less than two years. Healing in a congregation after a false start takes time. More time than anyone wants. But the last thing anyone wants is to repeat the same mistake.

So what’s happened?

  • The Diocese implemented a structured interim placement and selection process with leadership support from Bishop Marc.
  • The parish called an Interim Rector to help guide us through the search and selection process.
  • The congregation supported the decision to end the relationship with the rector but is grieving.

Tough love is still tough even when you do the right thing for all sides of the relationship. We see the impacts in lower attendance, the loss of long time members who drift away or give up waiting for things to get better.

We face all the usual and customary steps of grieving from shock to anger to acceptance to an openness and even anticipation of a new beginning. I’d say that at this writing we are at acceptance.

The upcoming Vestry election process culminating at the annual meeting in January 2016 seems to be shaping up at a turning point for the congregation. The vestry knows it is expected to start a new search process. The four places around the Vestry table offer an opportunity for fresh faces, new ideas and an opportunity to serve for anyone willing to stand for election. This is a year when it might be healthy to have more candidates than open seats to be filled.

Healing happens when the conversation changes from a focus on the past to a focus on the future. That seems to be where we are with God’s help—and that is a good place to be.

This is a short story of what happened at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Danville, California when the relationship between the rector and the parish could not be saved by a deliberative process of reconciliation and discernment. After a relatively short tenure with a growing sense of dis-ease came an open, candid, healthy and holy process of reconciliation and discernment. The end of that process brought consensus but the answer was not the one either St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church or the rector wanted. The decision to resign as Rector was his but the process completed made clear that there was little support for an alternative outcome.

What happened?

The views expressed by the rector’s supporters centered on the following:

  1. He is an experienced, seasoned; personable Rector who believed he was called to St. Timothy’s to help the parish ‘change’ so it could grow again after a long period of declining membership and changing demographics.
  2. But what he found after his arrival was a resistance to change and a lack of support for the changes he did make.
  3. The reasons for that disconnect were ascribed to the failure of the interim process before he was called to enable the parish to make the break from the last rector in order to prepare the way for the next. Huh?

When you probed these three commonly held views the rationale for this mismatch between the Rector and the Parish boiled down to a failure of the search and selection process and how the interim period was managed. That failure, according to this point of view, began by naming Associate Rector as Interim Rector. Doing so, the theory goes, prevented the parish from making a clean break from the past making it more difficult to focus on what the parish discerned God was calling it to be and do in His service for the future.

What can we learn from this experience?

In my view none of the issues the rector faced at St. Timothy’s had anything to do with the congregation clinging the retired rector or wishing that we had been able to call the Interim to stay on as permanent rector despite the church rule prohibiting such a call. By the time the new rector arrived at St. Timothy’s the former rector had been gone for two years. I think the parish grieved his retirement after 22 years but the passage of time made us realize that the parish could go forward without him because its strengths came from God not from the rector. The Associate’s contribution as interim rector sustained us and enabled us to withstand the long search process and the failure of the first process. In deciding to accept the call as interim rector she decided not to be part of that search process. She was our bridge to the future. Her willingness to love us enough to let us go because she felt we could thrive in the arms of another rector endeared us to her all the more in her time left with us.

Lessons from a Failed Rector Search Process

I believe the first search process failure was compounded by the way the search process unfolded when it was learned that the consensus candidate was involved in another search process and did not want to make a decision on accepting a call to St. Timothy’s until the outcome of the other search process reached its conclusion. The Vestry felt strongly enough about his candidacy that they agreed to wait for the competing process to be completed —a decision that took several months longer than expected—instead of forcing the candidate to ‘fish or cut bait’—will you accept a call to St. Timothy’s or not?

By waiting, the Vestry faced several unintended consequences that are useful insight for all search processes:

  1. The parish lost control of the search process. By waiting for someone else to act we put the fate of the parish in the hands of someone else. If we forced the preferred candidate to make a choice and he said no we had to start over—and the vestry did not feel that other candidates measured up to their preferred choice. But forcing his hand forced the candidate to decide if he wanted to risk NOT being selected at the other parish. Waiting it out, in hindsight, was imprudent. It told us that the process was too long already costing us the best candidates.
  2. The consensus candidate was not part of the consensus. By asking the Vestry to wait for the other process the candidate was telling St. Timothy’s he was not convinced this was the right call for him. In hindsight, the wiser course for the Vestry would have been to force the decision and NOT WAIT. You either love us or you don’t! Which is it?
  3. The candidate pool dried up! By waiting it became clear to others that St. Timothy’s had found the person they wanted so candidates looked elsewhere. It may also be true that a small candidate pool tells us something about our competitiveness or the cost of moving to the San Francisco Bay area from lower cost states that we must address, or other factors.
  4. The search process failed and had to be restarted. None of this failed first search process had anything to do with the rector but it cast doubt on the entire process and left the parish feeling unfulfilled. The second search process resulted in a smaller candidate pool and a rushed process as the parish frustration grew at the long time it was taking and lead to a sense of relief more than joy at the end of the process. This sense of frustration forced the rector to bear an unfair burden in the sense that his calling was seen as a second-best outcome for the parish.

Those critical voices that became more prominent and outspoken during the reconciliation and discernment process framed their criticisms around the following factors that led them to the conclusion that calling the rector to St. Timothy’s was a mismatch and largely prevailed in building a consensus that he should leave. Those factors included:

  1. Too Many Surprises, Too Little Communication. The rector’s style of communication was to keep his own counsel and then to announce changes he had already decided to make. This happened early on with changes to the Vestry process, a new commission structure, and a dilution of the role of the rector’s warden. Over time the same thing happened with changes in the service order, music and other worship and liturgy elements. At first there was just grumbling—‘why didn’t we know about this first?’ Then there was second-guessing ‘why are we doing this?’ Then there was concern about motivation made worse by the call of a new associate priest making ‘rookie mistakes’ that irritated more than illuminated why things were being changed.
  2. Going through the Motions. As the rector settled in and his routine was clearer, there developed a sense among the congregation that he was ‘going through the motions’ rather than engaging in pastoral care and other areas important to the parish. Interpreted as aloofness at first it was not until later that the parish learned he was dealing with his own problem with depression. I remember my reaction on hearing that news. Were we making his condition worse by piling on the pressure to address these parish concerns? Could we do something constructive to support him through this journey rather than grumble about things that, by comparison, seem trivial?
  3. Among Us but not One with Us. I remember the point in time when I realized that there was a low probability of reconciliation. It was a feeling of clarity and discernment. It happened in the midst of one of the parish workshops when one of the parish members had the courage to stand up and say what was on almost every heart in the parish hall that day—this isn’t working and airing our issues in this process is leading us to the discernible conclusion that it isn’t likely to get better. It was not a mean-spirited statement and there was no animus in the words or sentiment. It was healthy, it was candid, it was confessional. And because it was all of those things—it was holy coming from the heart of the congregation. The rector was among us but neither he nor we felt we were one with each other.

Why write this?

These views are my personal feelings and I do not pretend to speak for the parish, the Vestry, the Rector or anyone else. This blog has become a source of information on Episcopal Church selection processes, profiles and the issues of church vitality. I started this blog when I began my term on the Executive Council of the Diocese of California before the rector’s retirement at St. Timothy’s. I continued it during the search process. I stop writing in it in 2012 when a new rector was called feeling that its usefulness had ended.

When the rector announced his resignation,  I offered the aging contents of this blog’s chronicle of the first search process to the wardens and vestry for whatever value it may be to them. I went to the blog admin page and was surprised to discover that even after lying fallow for three years it still receives an average of about 100 hits per month from people ‘googling’ church vitality, Episcopal Church selection process for calling a new rector or similar phrases.

I offer this post as a candid observation of how our search and selection process at St. Timothy’s unfolded for whatever lessons can be learned from documenting our experience.

My thanks to Lori Robinson for permission to reprint her sermon from September 23, 2012 at St. Timothy’s Danville.  Her work with the children of our parish is truly God’s work through her hands.  Her sermon wove together the story from the appointed reading from Mark 9:30-37 with the reasons we have as a parish invested so much heart and treasure in creating an environment where we can give our kids a faith foundation that will endure their lifetimes.

Listen with your heart:

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,

and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me

but the one who sent me.”     Mark 9:37

If you do a Google image search on your computer with the phrase “Jesus and children” you will see dozens of inspiring pictures of Jesus surrounded by adoring youngsters.  In some pictures there’s a child in his lap.  In others, he stands facing a group of children with outstretched arms.  In every picture, Jesus is beaming at their upturned faces and the whole scene is bathed is a warm, glowing light.  These charming pictures project an image of innocent children playing at the feet of a gentle and loving Jesus.  The message these pictures convey is clearly that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world!

But this familiar scene of Jesus with children is a very modern interpretation of attitudes towards children. The idealized vision doesn’t accurately reflect the actual relationship between children and adults in the New Testament era.  Social scientists and religious commentators point out that the children of ancient Mediterranean culture weren’t valued in the same way we value children in modern Western culture.  Children in Jesus’ time had little status within the community. And like so many other low status groups of every time and place, children were treated as if they didn’t really exist; as if they were invisible.  A child of this era was most likely viewed as a “non-person” – particularly by the male population. (1)   It was adults – not children – who mattered.

So, for Jesus to tell his disciples to welcome a child in his name probably doesn’t give his disciples a very warm and fuzzy feeling!  It is – at the very least – shocking and probably insulting to them.  And it’s another example of how Jesus challenges the people around him to be in relationship with those who are the most powerless and vulnerable.  Jesus uses a lowly child to teach that God’s kingdom is not like the world the disciples are used to.  God’s kingdom is a reality where everything is upside down – where the last are first and the least are to be treated as the most welcomed.

Today’s Gospel doesn’t have the shock value for us that it had for its earliest listeners.  We aren’t the least bit insulted at the thought of paying special attention to a child.  Indeed, our culture values children in a way that was inconceivable at the time that Mark’s Gospel was written.  We promote childhood as a time of innocence – we don’t want our children to grow up too fast – we don’t want them to be exposed to the challenges of the world too soon.  The desire to treasure our children is deeply embedded in our modern culture and in the church.  So, how are we to understand this use of the imagery of children presented in today’s gospel in a contemporary context?  Is it possible that we too sometimes fail to see – and welcome – the children in our midst?

The spiritual nurture of children is one of the values the church promotes – it’s why we have Christian education programs for children.  But as much as we claim to value children, I sometimes wonder if we are misguided in how we view children within Christian community.  In a culture that encourages children’s participation in all kinds of activities – even on Sunday mornings – commitment to bringing children to church on a regular basis has dwindled. And even when children are at church, the ways in which we interact with them is often lacking. It’s not that we don’t “do” things with children at church.  Parents want and churches provide all kinds of programs for kids. But I wonder if we – as Christian communities – ever take the time to be self-reflective about how to fully support and nurture the spiritual growth of the children in our community?

Spiritual growth is a core value for all Christians and it begins for many people in their childhood.  Take a moment to think about your childhood experience of church if you went to church as a child.  What was that like?  Did you feel safe?  Did you feel loved?  Did you feel seen and heard and valued for who you were as a child?  Were questions allowed?  Were you encouraged to explore and express your own thoughts and ideas about God and Jesus?  Was the God of your childhood one that sustained you into adulthood?

Questions like these matters because what we think children should get out of church shapes how we treat children in church.  Having lots of programs for children may look like a great thing. But having programs for children is not the same thing as being in relationship with children.  One of the biggest misconceptions about children and church, in my opinion, is that if children are seen “doing” lots of things, the assumption is that we are doing our job of raising them as Christians.  And “doing things” seems good in a culture that values busyness over idleness.  But it may not be very good spiritual formation for a child.  Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • It’s a common occurrence in churches to ask children to perform for us.   It’s wonderful to see children singing an anthem or playing a part in the annual Christmas pageant – and some children love doing it.  We praise and applaud their efforts.  But is it possible that performing for adults, even if it’s in church, is simply that – a performance; a way to be noticed for those children who love being actors or singers?  And does having children perform for us result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
  • Oftentimes children are asked to create something to be used by the church or to give as a gift to someone.  Many children are very creative and having things made by children is very cute. And who doesn’t love to see a child’s artwork on display? We praise and applaud their efforts. But does having children create something for someone else result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
  • Most – if not all – churches have space dedicated to children.  Children are used to being segregated into a different space than adults.  And segregation has its advantages.  It allows adults to have an experience together without the distractions that children naturally provide.  And it allows children to have experiences together without being overwhelmed by adults.  But when we separate our children from ourselves, we run the risk of communicating the unspoken message that they are not welcome to be part of the community – at least temporarily.  What does that do to the spiritual formation of the child?

Please don’t misunderstand me!  I’m not saying that any of these scenarios are necessarily bad.  Singing a song during a church service can help a child feel more connected to the worshipping community.  Being Mary or Joseph or a shepherd or an angel can help a child experience the sense of awe that is at the heart of our faith story.  And having time and space where children are the focus of attention and able to build community with one another is important. But it is also important to examine the assumptions we make about children and how our actions affect children.

I hope that we can all agree that the wellbeing of children matters to us – both in the church and in the world. So, our obligation to support and honor children also extends beyond the doors of St. Timothy’s.  And we don’t have to look very far to find other children whose needs should be just as important to us as the needs of our own children.  Just go outside, look across the patio, and you will see Noah’s Ark – which is St. Timothy’s preschool.  Noah’s Ark is an important part of St. Timothy’s outreach to children and families in the San Ramon Valley.  And this very special preschool honors the whole child – including the needs and challenges of individual children – in its philosophy of child development.  It has experienced, dedicated teachers who work unbelievably hard to help children grow socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

Noah’s Ark is a wonderful model of how to provide the care and nurture that all children deserve. And yet I wonder how connected we are to this critical ministry to children?  There was a time when Noah’s Ark had over 100 children attending the school with more children on a waiting list.  But times have changed.  The combination of the recent economic decline and the introduction of a transitional kindergarten in the public school system had a tremendously detrimental effect on preschools including Noah’s Ark.  And no matter how dedicated the Noah’s Ark staff is or how hard they work to provide a program with integrity and respect for children, they need help to remain a vital outreach ministry for this church community.  So, I wonder what we can do to support Noah’s Ark as they endeavor to support deeper spiritual formation for the children in their midst?

Whether it’s a child in here or out there, we are called as a community to nurture and foster the wellbeing of all children.  We are called to support children on their faith journey.  And we are called to appreciate children for who they are, not what they can do for us.  That is what it means to be a servant to all – especially the youngest and most powerless among us.  Where do children feel welcomed?  Where do they feel excluded? And what can we do to support, empower and treasure each child as a gift from God given to our care?  These are questions that matter because how we welcome and include children is the measure of how we welcome Christ into our church and into our lives – and not only Christ, but also the One who sent him…..

Sources:

(1)     Malina, Bruce J. & Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (2003).  Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 336.  Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN.

© Lori Robinson, Associate for Family Ministry

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church

Danville, California

UPDATE.  After this original blog post was published we learned that the story of a video being the provocation of the attack on our embassy in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Stevens and three others was not the truth.  As you read this update you know this issue has been the focus on Congressional hearings and is part of the 2016 presidential campaign rhetoric.  I left the original post below as written but read it now in the newer context of what you know about the truth of this sad tale. 

Protesters in Libya killed the US Ambassador and three embassy staff members as they fled the US consulate building in Benghazi which had been stormed and set on fire allegedly by al Qaeda-linked gunmen blaming America for a film that they claimed insulted the Prophet Mohammad. In Egypt protesters broke into the US embassy and burned the US flag.

The US State Department put out this press statement prior to the embassy attacks but it has been subjected to fierce criticism for continuing to convey a sense of moral equivalence first laid out in President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo in what is widely now called his ‘apology tour’ for suggesting that there is a linkage between American values and policies and Muslim violence.

U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement

September 11, 2012

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

We have our Priorities Wrong!

While we recognize the sensitivities that Muslims have about the depiction of the Prophet, that is no excuse for storming our embassies let alone killing the US ambassador and his staff.  The decision by the US State Department to blame this on Coptic Christians who are regularly persecuted by Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere is unbelievable.

Never mind the starker reality is that these incidents are not mere protesters out of control but the work of terrorist groups seeking to exploit the sensitivity to create the incident in hopes of provoking a crisis suited to their destabilization goals.  Never mind that this is standard modus operandi in the thousand year old tensions between Sunni and Shi’a and that the killing of Muslims by other Muslims is common place. Never mind that it is no coincidence that these attacks happened on September 11th, yet the State Department announcement completely ignores these realitities as it seeks to avoid hurting the feelings of Muslims.

The State Department statement and our Government’s policy and reaction to this incident is shameful.  Our blame of the Coptic Christians for also wanting to practice their religion is shameful.  Our government’s willingness to abandon our own principles to avoid hurting the feelings of Muslim terrorists is shameful.

We pray for Ambassador Stevens and his three staff members killed in the Benghazi attack.

 

NOTE:  I stumbled across this blog post recently and it is so deliciously ironic given the liberal proclivities of many of my Episcopal Church friends that I could not resist the temptation to re-post it here.  Get a satisfying sipping drink and enjoy both!

 

 

GLH

 

 

English: Shield of the US Episcopal Church, co...

English: Shield of the US Episcopal Church, colors from http://www.episcopalchurch.org/imageshop_11785_ENG_HTM.htm. The shield was adopted in 1940. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

By JAY AKASIE, Posted: August 31, 2012 on The Fiscal Times Business Buzz

 

During his acceptance speech in Tampa Thursday night, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that he was risk-averse during the early years of establishing his private equity firm, Bain Capital. So he didn’t approach his elders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to ask them to invest a portion of their pension fund in the venture. But, he said, one of his partners snagged the Episcopal Church’s pension fund, set up to fund the retirements of that denomination’s clergy.

 

“That shows what I know,” said Romney. “Another of my partners got the Episcopal Church pension fund to invest. Today there are a lot of happy retired priests who should thank him.”

They should indeed, and they could thank their pension fund managers while they’re at it. Though it hasn’t fared quite as well over the last few years, the Episcopal Church’s pension fund, with some $9.5 billion in assets as of March 31, 2012, is one of the best run and most successful around.

That may come as something of a surprise to anyone who has heard many of the Mainline Protestant clergy preaching left-wing, anti-capitalist messages from their pulpits every Sunday. When masses of privileged college students and aging hippies pitched their tents in Zuccotti Park one year ago, for instance, prominent Episcopal parishes in New York — including the venerable Trinity Church, a parish that derives much of its operating income from its well run and closely guarded Manhattan real estate portfolio — threw their public support to the anti-establishment rabble … even though they continued to hit up their well-heeled, Wall Street banker parishioners for money.

There’s a growing conflict between religion, ideology and wealth derived from capitalism. A decade ago, a group of ideologues from Harvard University – faculty members so far to the left that they could make the Episcopal Church clergy green with envy — objected to the salaries being paid to the managers of the Harvard Management Company, the sterling investment group that oversees that school’s $35 billion endowment.

The Fiscal Times FREE Newsletter

The protesting faculty members had no clue as to how top-flight investment managers are compensated. Tired of trying to explain to a bunch of Ph.D.s how Wall Street works, many of Harvard Management’s stars left the firm and set up shop on their own.

Across the pond, the Church of England recently decided to divest its pension fund’s stake in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Although that media company has provided the Anglican clergy’s pension fund with solid returns over the years, they apparently weren’t too fond of Rupert Murdoch’s penchant for free and unfettered capital markets.

The question now is whether the clergy of the Episcopal Church will do the same — considering, of course, the Church Pension Fund still holds a stake in Bain. But in the world where parishioners are admonished to “do as I say, not as I do,” I suspect the Episcopalian clergy are just fine with their lucrative Bain Capital investment.

 

Read more at http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Blogs/Business-Buzz/2012/08/31/The-Episcopal-Church-Bain-Capital-and-Heavenly-Returns.aspx#xPoQabK4eUAV3c2r.99

 

Be::Community

Introducing ‘see::community – be::community’  is the name for the new website location for the church vitality webinar series hosted by Bishop Marc to support our church vitality initiative.  Mary Vargas wrote the following article which appeared recently in DioBytes, the Diocesan newsletter:

by Mary Vargas. Diocesan Standing Committee Member

 

Realigning Mission through Ministry in Community: Creating the Ministry Map on Vitality
see::community – be::community

is a process designed to engage our people at a new level in exploring which ministries connect them to their neighborhoods (or any place outside church walls), which ministries serve the church, and which ideas are coming to life as emerging ministries — all serving the mission of “transforming souls.” We believe it is through ministry that we are the most effective “evangelists,” creating a direct connection between community, vitality, and growth.

read more here

click here to read about the upcoming facilitator training