Category Archives: Accountability & Leader Development

Why Rush?

In 1847, Ebenezer Davies, a visiting Englishman, was invited to preach while in Cincinnati.  Later he wrote, “At the close of the sermon, having pronounced the benediction, I engaged, according to English custom, in a short act of private devotion.  When I raised my head and opened my eyes, the very last man of the congregation was actually making his exit through the doorway; and it was quite as much as I could manage to put on my top-coat and gloves and reach the door before the sexton closed it.”  Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes and Christian Slavery; A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States.  (London; John Snow, 1849)

Americans have always been in a rush.  Sometimes we notice ourselves hurrying through time; sometimes we are astonished to find time has gone past faster than we expected; somehow we are always surprised to discover that rush and hurry don’t make us more efficient, that speed affords less profit than we imagined, that we get a hint of some other value we might want, when suddenly we are forced to stop a moment.

I’d bet that most intentional Christians in their own places of worship have had a hard half year–hard years are a norm, even with joy and gladness interspersed.  Congregational leaders have certainly had a hard half year so far—most are working for most of the time with fewer members than usual; at any given moment some were surprised by the former music director’s taking a new job in mid-year; some have not been able to raise up new leaders for essential ministries yet; all have kept up with hard work of getting their congregational house in order—learning how to plan for building maintenance rather than letting the building reach emergency needs first; learning how to become good stewards of the members’ trust in them; getting  finances from a state of savings and funds in many coffee cans to a gathered, intentionally ordered unity of giving and resources, planning how stewardship and giving will reflect the whole church and provide for the whole church’s work in mission and ministry.   The heaviness of the half year thus far might have made some feel anxious or pressed on them a sense of falling behind, but I’d be surprised if most meet and work in this way every month.  Some leaders have been changed by taking up the habit of praying together at the close of each meeting; some leadership groups  have taken on praying each for the members they represent and care for, in some order of grouped names each month.  Praying for their work and the people they are keeping house for, changes leaders, gives them a vibrancy in the Presence.

Bishop Ronald H. Haines http://archive.episcopalchurch.org/79425_95945_ENG_HTM.htm has proved one of the five most influential people in my life.  He was an extraordinarily busy leader, working steadfastly while under rather constant attack from many of his peers for his decisions, including his decision to ordain the first openly lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church while he was Bishop of Washington, D.C.  He never sounded rushed or hurried, anxious or angry as he went about his work.  I knew him in retirement.  I asked him once why all these pressures did not affect him in that usual way.  “You should ask yourself:  what’s the good in that?” he said.  “Remember: it took a long time for things to get into the state they’re in; it’ll take a long time to make them better.  You can’t get to the end before you start, and you’ll never begin if you rush.  Nobody can really think in a hurry.  When I drop things and I get angry, I know I’m going too fast.”

Here’s an interesting thing:  It’s hard to hurry through evening prayer, especially if one is using a liturgical service like Compline.  The rhythm and language of the liturgy opens time to reveal us as we are, where we are, when we are:  always moving and breathing in God’s presence, in whom there is no rush or hurry that overlooks details, drops things, inclines to forgetfulness or defensive anger.  True:  we can’t keep from being American, from holding an almost instinctive impatience with whatever it is that holds us back from going fast and even faster.   But we can grow more mature as Christians by practicing the virtue of patience until we find ourselves formed more closely as the people God can call and into whom God can pour increasing energy  for worship, witness and service.

Your session, vestry, consistory, council, meets on a regular day of the month.  Why not take time at the end of the evening on those days, throughout the rest of this coming year, and read Compline http://www.bcponline.org/DailyOffice/compline.html yourself, or some other service of evening or night prayer, wherever you are, joining your leaders in prayer and praying for them by name, once a month, as they do the work of leadership you have laid on them for 2013?

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Filed under Accountability & Leader Development, Community Formation, Intelligent Christians in the 21st Century, Leader Development, Prayer in Leadership Work, Spiritual Formation, Stewardship Year-Round, Uncategorized

Whose Tradition is The Best?

Recently I’ve heard people in church leadership saying things like, “What makes our tradition the best?”   Or “This is why I think OUR tradition is the best.”  In all cases, people are talking about tradition (“We have such great hymns,” and “We don’t judge people who come to worship with us,” and “We have such a wonderful burial liturgy,” and “The thing I like about being Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Lutheran etc. etc. etc. is that we use language so much better than the others!”).   They are also talking about culture–ritual, vestments, candles, all the rest of it. 

Culture and tradition are not faith.  It is a great mistake to confuse either of the two with the value and efficacy of faith. 

We are all inclined to admire ourselves.  We are all inclined to rest there in front of the mirror, oozing satisfaction in our identities and our heritage.  We all do this, and we do it with such satisfaction that we are less than one step from implying that we have the true faith because our traditions are better than others’.  Some people, of course, take that last step and stand firmly on the seemingly solid ground of opinion.  “My tradition is the ONLY one by which you will be truly saved–”  whether that means that you alone know how the Holy Spirit works, or you alone are privileged with God’s view of the goats and sheep in advance of the Last Day.

You can’t convince me.

It’s not just that being judgmental and exclusionary is not Christian in the least.  The great trap and betrayal lying in wait here is that inability leaders have to see in proportion.  Leaders and ordinary Christians MUST be able to distinguish between practice and preference, and stop acting largely on the latter.

Leaders in the church have to grow past the American cultural ideal of success and accomplishment (professional or personal).  When they have learned to really distinguish the self-taught, self-reinforcing blindness of self-deception, they will stop seeing others as valuable only inasmuch as they reflect their own values.  This behavior, not Christian at all, ends in worship of tradition, worship of one’s own cultural expressions of being human.  “Come here, we do it better than anyone else does; you’ll have a better experience of salvation with us.” 

Christians for centuries have been rightly accused and justly condemned for this behavior.  There’s no difference in the effect if is a declaration of superiority or a condemnation of a difference.  The claims of appreciative inquiry are bosh.  The claim of being super-right is equally ridiculous.  There’s no supportive need in the church’s early development or justification in the canon of Jesus’ example, (before the emperors claimed Jesus and the church weapons of their own).  If you carry on as though your own tradition is better than anyone else’s, you are clear about your tradition, and the rest of us are just lucky if we get to see Jesus in it.  People who claim their tradition and culture promote Christianity better than anyone else’s, are either converts or have never left home.   The core values of Christian faith have a larger platform of common ground.

It’s hard enough to put up with nations fighting each other to declare supremacy of values (since we no longer tolerate claiming each other’s real estate).  Let the leaders of churches and their professional helpers refrain from doing the same.

“As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

So–there’s only a modest point in being Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist, Moravian or United Church of Christ, Copt or Orthodox. 

One’s best traditions are like good or beautiful choreography for some who are drawn to that way of dancing.  Or, traditions are like rooms full of decor that appeal to one person’s tastes and not another’s.    One can rejoice in the pleasant lines and heritage one has received, without claiming to have the best of anything.  If one is to boast, one should try to remember that the only valid boast is in Jesus Christ.

The text in Galatians quoted above does not conclude, “and if you belong to the Episcopal/Methodist/Southern Baptist/Anglican/Presbyterian… Church, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus’ words in John, quoting Isaiah, run thusly:  “This people knows me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” These are words to wrestle with when we feel particularly satisfied with our own ways.  We rarely recognize it when we’ve become smug.    But we can look after ourselves (and our traditions) without prizing ourselves.  That way is the way of humility.  That way is the most winsome and Christlike.  Not easy, but plain; a low way and quiet, worthy of tradition.

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Who’s Afraid of the Church Consultant?

Church leaders are notoriously slow to bring in outside help. 

The attitude of  “We’ll do it ourselves or be damned trying”  can come from miserable experience and not just from pride or prudence.     Church pews are lined with leaders who wouldn’t hire church development consultants to save their lives, likely because they’ve already been there and not done that.

I firmly resented consultants before I became one, and I’ll admit why:  again and again the consultants we hired had no sensitivity to the facts in front of them:  it was our church and we knew our household better than they did.  The little parade that came through our meeting room doors brought armfuls of skinny paper back books with shiny covers advising us to change according to plans and ideas invented by cutting edge theorists who were out to (make money and) convert us to their idea of what a church ought to be.  What we needed instead was to sort out who we were and why God had called us all together.  That essential clarity remained a mystery to the leaders and beyond the increasingly troubled congregation.

So:  consultants who arrive knowing what churches ought to do are not worth the money they charge to tell that to the leaders.

I firmly resented church consultants for a second reason:  all of them talked down to the non-clergy in the room.   They politely treated us as obstinately stupid, misbehaving children who were out to make the clergy’s lives miserable.  The church consultants we hired were all clergy, and thus projected a doubly special privilege in telling us the right ways of being and doing church.  They lost most of their credibility as soon as they opened their mouths to preach at us.   In the 1970s and ’80s, church leaders were still basically Christians nurtured from childhood.  They knew in their bones that church does not exist for the benefit of clergy; the secrets of the church are not given solely to Christians when they go to seminary; a clergy leader and a congregation share the issues, problems and context of faithful community.   

So:  consultants who condescend to church leaders from positional privilege, suck all the oxygen from the room and are not worth the money they charge for the experience.

A third reason for resenting and distrusting church consultants has to do with what Virginia Woolf has called ‘home truth.’  The home truth in congregations needing help, is that they need help and to receive that help, the leaders and the members of the congregation will have to change.  They know in their bones before the consultant arrives, exactly how they will have to change, and dammit, they don’t want to.  So they won’t, and they’ll pay money to insist publicly on blaming someone else, often the clergy.   

So:  congregational leaders who pretend to want health will do what it takes to stay away from good congregational development consultants.

I know.  I was that kind of church leader in several congregations that had that kind of attitude.  Everything came to a bad end in the churches where all of us made choices that justified our use of power or our agendas.  Such a bad end has a very long half-life, which may eventually be redeemed.  Church consulting has come a long ways since the 1970s, in particular that area of consulting based in principles of organizational development.  Consultants can bring health even to intransigent unhealthy congregations.

When I look back at the long string of miserable consultation experiences I had as a leader in succeeding congregations, I see some things we could have done at the outset to make a positive difference in our experience with the consultants:

  • Define and articulate precisely what we wanted to the consultant to help us do
  • Engage the consultant for more than one workshop or more than one session, so we could get over any of our defensiveness
  • Determine to learn to learn, and not to get answers, so we would know how to do it ourselves, afterwards
  • Evaluate our experience fully and frankly, measured against our own expectations, and share that evaluation with the consultant
  • Set expectations of ourselves to use what we had learned how to do, to foil the waste of our money

Good leaders are wise not to rush toward quick fixes, and wiser still if they know what they need help for, and how to get good outside help when they need it.

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About Churches on the Verge of Extinction

This posting is another on the subject of judicatories closing (or more formally, extinguishing) churches.  

I’ve been wondering what kind of due diligence really makes sense for judicatories thinking about the congregations in their midst that are on the verge of closing.

In a conversation about church closings with Bob Gallagher, director and founder of the Church Development Institute, the country’s premier training for congregational development, he suggested that determining a given church’s main task would be at least one of the questions to ask.

I notice that demographics and fiscal conditions don’t top his list.  Why shouldn’t they be the first and main points in determining a congregation’s viability?  

The answer has to do with a church’s founding, I believe.  We found congregations to offer worship, to offer service and Christian care to others, and to nurture and form Christian lives.  The demographics and the finances of a new church are important, but never the main reason for founding a parish.  Neither should these be the main driving reasons for extinguishing a church.  At the beginning, they smack loudly of self-reliance, and at the end, they smack of convenience.

What’s done in the years leading up to extinguishment really matters.   Helping a congregation gain clarity around its main task takes time–lots of time.  Maybe years of time and patience.   Effective help takes commitment of resources and attention on the part of the judicatory leaders,  and not just to the single parish but to an overall vision for all the congregations within its oversight.  

If there is one single key moment when one can see a parish  standing at the crossroads between the short distance to extinguishment and the long distance to renewal and revival, it is the pivot between the last full-time clergy leader and whoever comes next.  Of course this can happen in any geographic setting–urban (church building too big, neighborhood long since past  being prosperous), small town (local industries folded and never replaced) or rural (farms not able to hold succeeding generations, remoteness of area unable to draw new populations).  And of course the decision not to hire another full-time rector or pastor is complicated.   Individual reasons should never be reduced to a theory or generalized to a category.  But that limbo, that semi-paralytic state in which so many parishes languish for so long before gray heads outnumber any other sort in the pews, has to be an early warning sign to everyone who cares about the Body as a whole (made up of all of us in all the congregations around, whether we are part of the denomination of the declining congregation we have in mind or not).

The first move with the church in question?  Identify its main motive power. Taking time to treat a congregation as viable is only due diligence.    (Did their strength lie in membership growth?  in outreach or service?  in the formation of Christians?  Does the current outside situation need any of those signs of Christ’s presence?).  Can they yet find energy and will to answer a calling?   If not, the lamp is out.  If so, a flame might yet be breathed into life there.

Of course it’s possible to bring churches  in a kind of permanent ‘transition limbo’ from the state of part-time retired clergy leadership to a fresh start.  Of course it’s possible to bring the parish out of slow decay.  A judicatory with half its parishes in transition limbo resembles a house with its front yard full of cars, trucks and boats waiting to be fixed or sent to the junk yard.  Don’t start seeing this as inevitable or normal.  But don’t wait to start thinking until the front yard is full of clunkers.

In plain language, even when a congregation has only 70 year-olds left in its pews, Christ’s motive power may still be present.  Is a congregation in a slow, remote little town or on the dusty side streets of a 3rd tier city?  Christ’s motive power may still be present.  Is it inconvenient and complicated to arrange for such discernment?  Is it discouraging, especially when ‘facts’ speak so plainly (no services held in half a year, no members baptized or buried in 12 months, no new leaders in 3 years)?   Are those Gospel excuses?  Under such circumstances, perhaps it is too late to ask clarifying questions.  But what can profit a judicatory in avoiding the struggle to find Christ’s power and purpose in a congregation with survival issues?  And what else is it, really, besides a survival issue, that creates the circumstances of transition and interim limbo?

Clarify the main task of said congregation.  Ask what resources are available both for development and for spiritual first aid in the membership.  Follow spiritual first aid with new emphasis on spiritual formation.  Become intentional about serious congregational development in the judicatory and in the parishes.   Emphasize judicatory leaders’ training in sound organizational development skills and competency.    Engage in serious leader development in the parish.  Consider wild and unusual ideas (yoking 3 or 4 parishes having the same problems, whether they are of the same denomination or not).  But start early and start with intention.  Why do less?

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