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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

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

 

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church has decided to put the church’s New York City headquarters up for sale.  This will surely count as a profound milestone in the long, slow decline of church membership, attendance and pledging.   The question is whether this is taken as symbolic of the beginning of the end of the relevance of The Episcopal Church, or a tipping point where the Church makes choices, hard, profound choices to adapt to the financial, technology, demographic, and strategic challenges it faces.

Challenges facing the Church

The church faces three broad strategic challenges:

  1. Changing demographics are changing the ‘market’ of the church.  One of the key lessons coming out of any analysis of the long slow decline of church membership is that demographic changes are having a profound impact on the church and that the church must adapt to those changes to remain relevant to the faithful.  Not only is the population aging, but the diversity of our communities is growing.  Traditional church planting no longer works. The church developed as a mission focused organization planting new churches along the way to minister to the people.  But these ‘vertical’ congregations are facing the horizontal power of technology, mobility and diversity. The challenge for the church is help the congregations find new ways to thrive by harnessing that same power of technology, mobility and diversity to see the Good News around us through collaboration (in church-speak this might be called area ministry), better programs designed and delivered to gain critical mass that enables ‘horizontal’ congregations to thrive by better meeting the needs of the faithful, and provides hands-on access’ to shared resources to enable traditional ‘vertical’ congregations satisfy critical unmet needs.
  2. Education is being disintermediated by technology and economics.  Higher education, including seminary training, is on the edge of transformational change at both the public and private level.  Change is coming.  Why?  The costs of higher education are rising faster than inflation.  The looming cumulative costs of pensions and health care are not sustainable given our fiscal realities and changing demographics and require new business models.  A declining church can afford fewer clergy and must depend more upon lay leaders and shared ministry programs.  The value proposition of higher education is eroding as high student debt cannot be supported by expected career earnings.  The ability of higher education to continuously raise tuition and fees is ending. The overhead and replacement costs of aging college campuses buildings, technology and infrastructure are growing.  The challenge for the church broadly is to define its strategy and execution plans to manage this process of change.  Resistance is futile but this need not be a ‘wake’ as technology can be your friend as well as your enemy.  The transformation in education will bring new tools and require new skills for the clergy.  The challenge for the church is to empower that transformation and training.  How?  By using the same technologies that are threatening the church to help re-imagine new ways to deliver the Good News, to engage people as there are, where they are, just when they need it most.   Examples of this disruptive innovation technology include, but are by no means limited to:
  • Knowledge management solutions to make mission and ministry programs, research, Bible study materials, sermons, parish profiles and much other information and knowledge of the church and its people accessible both vertically and horizontally and searchable 24/7.
  • Continuous learning programs as modules like Education for Ministry, The Restoration Project, and scores of others that deliver programs, curricula and resources, knowledge bases, best practices and learning modules to give clergy and lay leaders access to the widest possible programs whether it is a home church group of 10 or a mega-church of 10,000.
  •  Online communities that thrive in the extranet connecting horizontal mission and ministry program team across town with each other as well as with colleagues a half world away.  New programs and curricula can be created online from the crowdsourced knowledge and expertise of these online communities to address ministry needs, train professional and lay workers, and improve the results for the faithful participating.

Professional education in the church is not immune from these forces for change.  It can also benefit from progress in the private sector to adapt technology to meet new needs, reduce costs, and improve performance outcomes.  To survive in a smaller church that can afford fewer clergy, seminaries will need to become laboratories for developing and testing new programs and insuring that the intellectual property, and the teachings of the church are preserved and delivered to the next generation in ways that keep the faith alive in the hearts of the faithful through collaborative learning, ordained and lay community-building, and applications for ministry that turn the vineyard into the garden laboratory for faculty and students in new ways to deliver the Good News.

  1. The Theocracy of Push versus the Spirituality of Pull  In the technology business there is a creative tension between the concepts of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.  Push is the traditional top down process of providing direction, of establishing norms and disciplining their observance.  Most of the rules of civil society, business and governance of the church are ‘push’ concepts.  In the surveys of why people don’t go to church and their changing views about religion we found in the work of the Diocese of California Church Growth Program that there is a growing disconnect between the rules of the church and their judgmental application and the sense of welcoming, support and fulfillment those surveyed sought.  This is not a problem of a diminished belief in God.  It is the perception by the faithful that the church is not facilitating, supporting, or nurturing our experience of God’s unconditional love.  A good example of push is the traditional expectation that we assemble for corporate worship each Sunday at the same time and place, sit in the same pew and listen to the same boring sermon, take communion and go home.  Repeat weekly.  But what we are learning from technology and experience is that there are other ways to ‘be in community’ with each other in a corporate sense that can be equally or more compelling for both the faithful and the church.  In tech speak we would call this adaptive functionality.  But Jesus taught us the fundamental that whenever 2 or 3 are gathered in His name He is with us.  So at the last meeting of the Diocese Executive Council we approved a new ministry program called Sacred Spaces which takes the Eucharist out onto the street into parks, alleys and other places far from our traditional Sunday corporate worship experience.  The stories of Sacred Spaces are full of joy, hope and grace—pure and perfect grace. We also learned during our Church Growth Program strategic planning phase about programs like The Restoration Project that helps build community though small group pray, learn, worship, and serve experiences designed specifically to create a holy, healthy, affirming corporate worship experience for a network of hundreds of small groups sharing the same resources, experiences and joy of being the Body of Christ.  The church needs more pull and less push to arrest the process of decline.  It needs to train the next generation of ordained and lay leaders to be creative, see the vineyard as it is not as it ‘was’ and to experiment with new tools, methods and applications. It must empower and encourage the clergy to create their own Sacred Spaces of the future offering new ways to apply old lessons to make the Good News as relevant tomorrow in the lives of the faithful as it has always been.

These are the prayers of the people

In our church growth program strategic planning process we found hope in the reasons people gave for coming to, or coming back to church:

  • Help me find my way on my own spiritual faith journey.
  • Help me give my kids a faith foundation to guide their lives.
  • Help me to pray, worship and serve others as I am able.
  • Help me be in community with others and welcome me as I am.
  • Be by my side to support me and hold me in my times of need.

They are also answers to our prayer for a renewed church vitality.  Some of the decline in the church is driven by the social fabric tensions in our society including how the church has handled issues of race, sexual orientation, divorce and other factors.  But some of it is also that the church is still delivering the Good News in the same way while the experience, knowledge, and expectations of the faithful are changing.

Let the Good News speak for itself and focus the work of the church on the prayers of the people.  When they find Jesus in their hearts the church with be on fire with vitality—and nothing else matters.

The Wardens held a town meeting between services yesterday, May 6th, to update the congregation on the restarting of the rector search process after the candidate called chose another congregation.  There were many questions:

  • Why did this happen?
  • Why after 16 candidates and six months of screening, weeding and interviewing only one candidate was “a good fit”?
  • How are we doing as a congregation?

This last question was on everyone’s mind but few had been able to put it in words nearly so well.  The answer reflected the mood of the crowd accurately.  We are doing OK.  Our pledge levels are down a little as we expected.  We are continuing to get a steady, albeit small, stream of newcomers our church shopping.  We are in reasonably good financial shape but still must close a $120,000 revenue gap by year end to avoid dipping into reserves.

What about Kathy?  What about Kurt?  That was the next set of questions referring to our Interim Rector Kathy Trapani, and Associate Priest Kurt Levensaler.  In announcing the failure of the call process a week earlier The Rectors Warden Shelton Ensley said that Kathy had agreed to stay on as Interim Rector.  The reaction was clearly positive to that news, but in the intervening week there was a modest buzz of chatter as people talked in the crowd.  The chatter reflected a sentiment that is shared by many.

“We wish we could just call Kathy on a permanent basis and be done with this process.”

The church rules on these things have evolved for hundred of years and the tradition is a new rector gets a clean slate with the opportunity to build his or her own team.  This was simple in the days of small parish churches where the rector may actually have been the only employed person.  As churches grew it got more complicated but the tradition of church planting in the 1940’s through 1960’s meant that the turnover created candidates for mission church plants and kept the growth process growing.

Today is a different realty but the church rules still have not changed to reflect this new reality.  In some ways it is not different for any of the rest of us as the economy pressures both spouses to work if they can.  Underwater housing prices make relocation difficult at best.  And just as our national economic growth is slow to flat the church has faced a long slow period of declining membership, pledging and participation limiting congregational resources.

But the rules of calling a new rector are seemingly set in stone.  If Kathy, for example, wanted to use this opportunity of the re-opening of the rector’s position to apply for the job she must resign as interim rector and priest before she can apply.  So she finds herself today in one of those rock versus hard place situations.  She had expected, as all of us did, that the call process would be answered with a YES and a new rector would now have been named.  Kathy as interim rector would have resigned to allow a period in between her departure and the new rector’s arrival as the church rules suggest.  Imagine  the frustration at having prepared yourself to depart only to find your torment might continue for another six to twelve months as another round of applications and interviews works its way to a conclusion.

The congregation faces the same rock and hard place situation.  The wardens told us, quite accurately, that we need to do this process right even if that means doing it over.  We agree with that.  Nothing is worse than a bad outcome where a candidate is called who does not “fit” and we end up in a divorce proceeding rather than a happy marriage.   They also tell us rightly that time is an ally not an enemy because it gives us a period of transition to grieve the departure of Steven and prepare for the arrival of a new rector hopefully full of confidence that in this interim period we have discerned who we are as a faith community, what we feel called to be in doing God’s work, and whom is the best “fit” to lead us where God wants us to go.

OK—we get all of that—we do!

But that brings me back to the chatter in the back of the parish hall on Sunday.

Well, if Kathy was prepared to leave expecting the call process to be finished, are we holding her back from what God is calling her to do next?  Is this fair to ask?  And the wardens did say to us that nothing precludes either Kathy or Kurt from pursuing other opportunities themselves.

Another conversation said—well, maybe God is sending us a message we are too thick headed to get!  Maybe that message is the call process ended without a call because the candidate with the best “fit” is already here.  Yes but what about those dang church rules?

Ah, the rules!  That is not for us to decide said the person fomenting this mischief.  That is between Kathy and God!  If Kathy feels God is calling her to apply to be Rector then He has given her another opportunity to decide that by restarting this call process.  She was prepared to leave us if the call process worked as expected.  Now she must decide if she is prepared to leave us in order to to tell us, consistent with those dang rules, that she does NOT want to leave us.  And if she leaves us we have an opportunity to select her return to us with open arms.  I know, some rules are crazy.

No guarantees for either side in this choice except this:

If Kathy leaves us to be a candidate for rector and she is not chosen then she knows and we know that God did not mean for this to happen—but neither Kathy nor the parish will wonder whether we gave up on each other too soon. Because we trust that God is with us and has already made a decision about who our next rector will be, this scenario is the surest way to discern the difference between a fantasy about what might have been from God’s intention about what could be if we exercise our free will prudently on both sides—but both sides must be willing to give it all away.

If Kathy leaves us to be a candidate and she does not choose us or she is called to another place then she knows and we know that God has a plan for her elsewhere that is more important for His work in the vineyard than this.   While that would be a painful choice for both sides it would be a true and pure and perfect manifestation of God’s will and we would accept it knowing that we must keep searching until we discern the person He has chosen for us.

If Kathy continues as interim rector and the new call process succeeds she will leave us and we will love her all the more for her fidelity and patience with us when we needed her to be ‘our rock’ in this uncertain process. This is the path we are on today as we pray each Sunday for the search committee and the call process to help us discern God’s will in our midst.

But as we do pray for the search process let’s quit blaming those dang church rules for limiting our choices.  The rules force both the candidates and the parish to be  deliberate, to make choices, to be intentional not wishy-washy, to be willing to risk something new, to be willing to give it all away by leaving a current congregation and going to another—or leave this congregation and put it all in God’s hands for the opportunity to stay years longer rather than months longer if that is His will.

But both the parish and the interim rector must be willing to ‘give it all away’ in order to discern what God was calling us to do next—–no guarantees—-just faith, pure and perfect faith.

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