Gilton & Michie: Realities of Church Planting

This is a guest post by Michael Gilton and Mike Michie, church planters in the Diocese of Dallas. Michael Gilton recently wrote a guest post about myths of church planting – now here are the realities. 

images In response to proposed General Convention legislation supporting church planting in The Episcopal Church, Frank Logue and Ken Howard recently posted excellent articles on myths and truths about church planting. Hopefully church planting will gain greater priority and visibility in The Episcopal Church.

Now, you may be thinking, “I want some of that; I want to plant a church.” Great! TEC desperately needs more church planters. So, to prepare those considering planting, I (Michael Gilton) grabbed friend and fellow-planter, the incomparable Mike Michie, and we generated “ten realities” of church planting. These realities come from our over nineteen combined years of experience as church planters, so we have stories, laughter and scars, and, of course, data behind them all.

Holler at either of us if you want to hear more:

Michael Gilton, founding planter and Vicar, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Prosper, Texas;

Mike Michie, founding planter and Rector, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, McKinney, Texas;

Reality #1 – Church planting is hard. Sure, all jobs are hard (unless you are the third string quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys), but church planting brings a unique set of challenges, and if you aren’t prepared for those challenges, planting a church will crush you. So, think twice (or three times) about your skills and gifts and calling before planting a church.

Reality #2 – Church planting is simple. The basic formula for a successful church plant isn’t that complex: get the right planter, assemble a good team, work hard and go for it. Much of our success has been grounded on the simple tasks of preaching the Gospel and loving people when they show up (and even when they don’t!). Don’t be afraid to step out in faith and start a new work, especially in an area where you discern God is already in motion.

Reality #3 – Church planting is unbelievably rewarding. The blessing of seeing God at work, taking a small group of faithful pioneers and growing them into a Body that is transforming the mission field in the name of Christ; is unique, humbling, and profoundly inspiring.

Reality #4 – You can’t plant a church alone. You’ll hurt yourself trying. Thankfully, you never have to. You have the support of those on the launch team, sure; and you also have support from your family, clergy colleagues and Diocese; but you have to seek out that support and accept it. If you prefer to work alone or are naturally reticent to ask for help, do yourself and your family a favor: don’t try to plant a church.

Reality #5 – You will see the miraculous. We’re convinced the Lord gives a double portion of miracles to keep church planters going. Why? Otherwise, you’d quit. Expect miracles and keep your eyes open for them.

Reality #6 – You will want to quit. You will. Which is why you need others supporting you and why you need to keep looking for confirmation that God is at working building his church.

Reality #7 – It’s all in the family. There’s no getting around the fact that others will expect your family to be involved in the plant. Your family will share in the blessings and challenges of planting, so guard your family and pray for them daily. And do not neglect them – they need pastoral care as much or more than you do.

Reality #8 – Church planting costs a lot of money. It does. Which means you need to be comfortable talking about money and understanding basic financial information. If money makes you timid and the word “budget” gives you hives, then planting is going to be very difficult for you.

Reality #9 – You can’t be afraid to ask. You’ll have to ask people to join your launch team, you’ll have to ask your launch team to join the vision, you’ll have to ask people to support you financially, and you’ll have to ask people to support you in many, many other ways. Again, if the idea of asking make you break out into a cold sweat, you should reconsider planting.

Reality #10 – Preaching brings them in and keeps them. Your ability to preach the Good News of God in Christ will be a primary draw. Your members will invite others to “come hear our preacher.” Those who join your church will say, more often than not, we joined because of the preaching. No amount of great music or inspiring visuals or technology will take the place of preaching Christ and him crucified.

Fact or Fiction: Michael Gilton on Church Planting

The Rev. Michael Gilton, church planter and priest at St. Paul’s, Prosper, Texas (Diocese of Dallas), recently made some comments about church planting on my Facebook page. Since he doesn’t have a blog (and since, gentle reader, you know that I am interested in church planting), I asked him to expand on his comments for a post on my blog. So here is a guest post from Michael Gilton, offered with my thanks!

Frank Logue recently posted an excellent article sharing his take on myths and truths about church planting. Ken Howard helpfully added on to these with more myths and facts (here and here). As I was reading through Ken’s list I found myself cheering him on: Preach it brother!

Being who I am, I also shared with my computer screen, “Data, we need more data to establish the fact of these assertions!”

(full disclosure: I’m a numbers geek, and I do talk like that. For those concerned, no, my computer screen never answers back).

So, using the church plant I lead (St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Prosper, Texas), I offer the following in support of Fr. Howard’s facts:

Fact 1: Church plants tend to show more vitality than other churches – ASA has settled in reliably at 67% of membership. I believe the national average is around 30%.

Fact 2: Church plants tend to be more effective at outreach – 80% of our first time visitors return for a second visit. 50% of our membership is “de-churched” people.

Fact 3 : Church plants tend to be more effective in reaching newcomers to church life– 85% of our adults are “active” in one or more ministries.

Fact 4: Church plants tend to more effective reach younger people – our average age is 30, younger than the surrounding mission field. This is mainly because we have a lot of children.

Fact 5: Church plants are more likely to reach more non-Whites and non-Anglos  – While we look like our mission field, we’re “very white.” We’ve done a poor job of reaching African Americans. We’re decent with reaching Latinos.

Fact 6: Church plants are more likely to grow – Our ASA is steadily 1% of the population of our mission field. As our Town has grown, so have we. Based on a simple survey of eight other parishes in our Diocese, the average attendance of established parishes is 0.35% of their mission field.

Fact 7: Church plants may be the only strategy with the growth capacity to reverse the decline in TEC membership – I disagree with this fact (you knew I’d argue with at least one). I’m a “both/and” kinda guy, with strong optimism of TEC’s future, so I resist the word “only.”

Fact 8: Church plants are good for their dioceses – I don’t have much evidence in this area. Our diocese has a good mix of planters and missionally minded leaders of established parishes. For what it’s worth, our four clergy deputies to General Convention are all church planters.

Fact 9: Church plants are good for the established churches around them – The seven churches in our geographic area are all growing at a rate greater than the area’s population growth. Of the seven churches, three are plants.

Fact 10: Church plants are good for the established churches that plant them – Would that there were more established churches willing to plant churches! Our plant was support by the diocese and two other church plants. I’m not sure we could have done what we did without the support of the other two plants, both of which gave money, missional and theological support, administrative support, and people; and both of which are growing.

Fact 11: Church plants tend to be more nimble and adaptable to change – Change or die! The list of what we’ve tried and failed and tried again is long. Four example, we’re on our fifth version of our process of bringing visitors into membership. We can’t find the perfect process, but each of our iterations is better than the pervious version.

Fact 12: Church plants tend to be more vision guided, mission focused, and purpose driven –Without strong vision and a crystal clear focus on the mission field, churches are unlikely to grow. Church plants start with vision and know only mission; they grow because vision are mission are not after thoughts, vision and mission are essentials.

Fact 13: Church plants tend to be more context sensitive and context responsive – Any missional church is both. The church plants in our area are leaders in outreach to local schools and in direct ministry to “the least of these.”

Fact 14: Church plants are more risky but also more rewarding – In our mission field, seven other churches (Baptist, non-denomination, Pentecostal, Disciples of Christ) were planted after ours. Of the eight, four remain. To God be the glory; hallelujah!

Holler if you want to chat about any of these or about the stunning things the Lord is doing through church planting in the Diocese of Dallas.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2015

At St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nogales, AZ, once a month, miracles happen. Once a month, the church hosts the St. Andrew’s Children’s Clinic, where American doctors and nurses and health care professionals of all kinds come and give free medical care to handicapped children from Mexico. These children are the poorest of the poor, unable to afford the kind of lifesaving treatments that could give them new hope. But once a month they get a day pass to come into the US, their families come with them, and they get the care they need.

On the one day a month when this happens, the whole church is set up as a clinic. In the sanctuary there are pediatricians, in the narthex are physical and occupational therapists. In the chapel are teachers for visually impaired kids. In a mobile home out back is a clinic for hearing-impaired kids. In the sacristy they have clinics set up for prosthetic limbs and orthopedic shoes.

Every square inch of the church is converted to a medical clinic, and it takes an army of people to run it – people to set up and take down all the equipment, people to give the medical care, people to donate supplies, people to interpret, people to make lunch for all the workers.

And they see miracles – oh, they see miracles. I’ve gone there several times with our youth group and others, and the first time, I heard a story from Deacon Mike Meyers. His day job is as the owner of an orthopedic shoe store. Someone invited him to come down and see the clinic, so he brought some shoes along and went. So he was set up in the sacristy, and a family wheeled a little girl in, in a wheelchair. He looked at her, said, I think I have some shoes that will fit you, he put them on her. He felt her toes, and said, yes, I think those fit you. Now stand up and let’s see. She stood up, and he said, that’s good, now walk a couple of steps and we’ll check the fit. She walked a couple of steps, and he said, yes, I think those shoes will do.

And then he looked up and realized that everyone in the room was crying. That little girl had never walked before.

It was a miracle – God’s love in action – the simple gifts of a variety of people made that miracle happen. It wasn’t a supernatural miracle (though I have seen supernatural miracles), it was the church in action.

And when you think about it, that miracle was way bigger than Mike Meyers. It took all those folks to make this miracle happen – the cooks, the setup crew, the church, the people who raise the money, people who serve on the board. And more than that, it took the family of this little girl, who never gave up, who made the difficult and harrowing trip each month to get her the care she needed. And it took the little girl herself, who accepted a gift and had the courage to willingly try what she had never tried before. Every single person in that story was an agent of God’s kingdom, working together to give their different gifts, coming together as one to make God’s love manifest in this world by making a miracle happen. All had different roles, all had different gifts to give – and because of them all, a little girl learned to walk, and you and I are here to know about it and file it away and remember that God is truly present here on this earth with us.

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the church contemplates the mystery of Holy Trinity – God who has revealed self to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You may wonder what that has to do with the clinic in Nogales – well, we’ll get to that.

Now if you’re like me, this is a doctrine you don’t, can’t possibly understand. It takes a lot of very careful language to understand the Trinity, and even then we can only come close. If you want to see the best explanation, you can look at the Athanasian Creed on page 864 of the prayer book. But if you come away from reading it telling me that you have a complete understanding of the Trinity, I won’t believe you. None of us humans, with our finite minds, can understand the infinite. How can something be one in three and three in one? People have tried many different ways to understand it, and have offered lots of bad analogies: like the idea of water, that could appear as ice or liquid or steam, but it’s all still water. Or the idea that I’m one person, but some people see me as a priest and two people see me as a mother and one person sees me as a wife, but I’m still the same person, just taking on different roles. Let’s be clear – those are not good analogies – those are both just examples of the same thing appearing in three different ways, as if God just goes around doing things and we give him a different name depending on what hat he happens to be wearing.

But the mystery of the Trinity is that it’s not about one-ness; it’s about three-ness, about diversity. But it’s also not just about diversity and three-ness; it’s also about unity and oneness. The doctrine of Trinity says there are three distinct persons in the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but they are one in substance, one in will. How can this make sense?

rublev-trinity2To give it a little context, let’s look at the beautiful picture on the screen – one of the most famous icons in Christian tradition – Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity. In this illustration, you see them at a table together, three persons who are distinct from each other, dressed differently, but you can’t really tell them apart, can’t imagine that one is more important than others; they are all distinct but equal. They’re neither male nor female – they’re either, or both. They sit at the table and look at each other with gazes of love – each one looking at another, no duo any stronger than any other – all three love each other intensely.

This illustration tells us something important about the Trinity: it tells us that God is a community of love. If there were only one figure, this would not be a picture of love. If there were two figures, this might be a picture of a relationship, but a relationship that no one else could participate in. Because there are three figures, you can see that they love each other, equally, and their love binds them together as a unity out of diversity.

With me so far? Here’s why this is important.

We say that God is love. But love is not an abstraction. There is no such thing as love that just floats around in the air without someone doing the loving and someone being loved. Love is active, love is specific, love is not a feeling but an exercise of the will, love is a decision to care about someone so intensely you will do anything for them. Love requires a Lover and a Beloved. Without persons loving, there is no love. Because there are three figures here, love flows between them.

What I’m describing to you is the Social Doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine championed by great contemporary theologians like Juergen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf. It tries to explain not what the Trinity is, but why it matters to us.

To me, the Social Doctrine of the Trinity tells me why Trinity is not an abstraction, but actually incredibly important to us as Christians and as human beings. What’s important is that God encompasses a community of pure love.

If you’re going to make the argument that God is Love, that means that from before time began, there was a community in God, a community of Lovers and those Beloved. But not a community of three Gods; a community of three persons united in substance and will so that the love that flows between them is perfect, eternal. When we say that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, we are saying that Jesus the Son was born out of love, that he existed from before time because God is Love; and when we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, we are saying that the love of God is more than a duality of mutual admiration; the love of God is a community of love. It is love that respects the individuality of each person at this table in this icon, but it is love that binds them together in a unity of will, a unity of substance.

Here’s what else is important about that. Take another look at the icon. There are three persons sitting around a four-sided table. There is room at the table for one more. In this picture, the open side is our side. We are standing here, this table open to us, receiving an invitation to join the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at their table of perfect community, perfect love. This community of love that exists within the heart of God encompasses us too. In fact, Christian theology says that because God is love, God is entirely love, that creation happened because God’s love spilled over. God created us and this world and the planets and the stars out of an excess of love, and the love that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is so big that it can’t be contained within them – it extends to us too.

God can’t help but love us, God can’t help but invite us to this table, God yearns for us to be part of that community of love, that’s why Jesus came to find us when we were lost and bring us home, that’s why the Holy Spirit is still present and active in this church, that’s why we are adopted as God’s children through the sacrament of Holy Baptism that gives us new birth from above; it is all because of God’s eternal love.

And one more thing. Because God is a unity of love out of a community of diversity, that’s what we are called to be too. We are made in the image of God, and that means we are made for relationship, we are made for love. When Jesus commanded us to love God and love our neighbors, he wasn’t just imposing new rules on us. He was saying, be who you are created to be. Become who you are.

We are born out of love and we are brought together in love, and as a church we too are called to be a unity born out of diversity. We are called to respect and honor each other’s differences – that’s our diversity. At the same time that we exist because of, and for the sake of love. That’s our unity.

That clinic in Nogales, where one day a miracle of love became manifest? That miracle was born out of a community of diverse talents and gifts. Doctors, accountants, cooks, shoe store owners, interpreters, people who do setup and take down – every single member of that community was valued and essential – every single member of that community helped that miracle of love become manifest. Out of that community, love was created. Out of that community, love was given to one little girl, to the glory of God.

That is the church in action. Because we are made in the image of God, that is who we are called to be: a community of love, honoring each other, calling forth the best in each other, joining together in a unity of mission, bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit, unity in diversity, the many coming together as one. We are a Trinitarian community, going forth in mission, and reflecting the love that is the deepest truth and the eternal reality of the heart of God.

Treasure to Share: Why Plant New Churches?

Why should we plant churches? One of the most important resolutions proposed by Episcopal Resurrection, of which I am one of the authors, is an ambitious vision for planting new Episcopal churches. Adam Trambley has written a careful blog post outlining the vision behind this resolution – please go and read it.

If we are going to make a priority of planting churches, I believe that this is exactly the kind of large vision (and funding) we need. Diocesan resources and expertise aren’t sufficient – we are going to need to band together church-wide and make it happen.

God Gave the Growth full rgb 2 copy (1)But why should it happen? Why should we be planting churches at all? Don’t we have plenty of unused capacity in churches that are already in existence? Isn’t it more efficient to fill up the churches we have than to start new ones?

Well, no. Not really. Below, I’ll give you the seven best reasons to start new churches, based on the research I did for my upcoming book, God Gave the Growth: Church Planting in the Episcopal Church (you can find more details on these arguments there; it will be published in June 2015).

  1. Planting new churches is one of the best ways to reach new people with the good news of the gospel, because new churches are more likely to grow.

I don’t have to tell you that the Episcopal Church is in steep decline. From 1965 to 2012, the US population increased by a whopping 62%, while the numerical membership of TEC decreased by 39%. (TEC figures provided by Kirk Hadaway, TEC Director of Research; US figures found here.) The decline is bad enough in sheer numbers, but as a percentage of the population, our decline is staggering. TEC fell from 1.6% to a minuscule 0.6%, a 63% decline, over the same period.

The Episcopal Church is utterly failing at fishing for people.

Planting new churches is the best way I know of, not just to reverse this decline, but to answer Jesus’ call in the Great Commission to go and make disciples. How do I know this? Let’s do the numbers.

Based on figures Kirk Hadaway, the Director of Research at the Church Center, provided me, between 2000 and 2008, across TEC, we planted 99 new churches. (Two notes: first, that’s a terribly low number, especially since we closed 432 churches during the same period. Second, statistics actually showed 119 new churches during that time, but I have excluded churches planted or re-formed due to the sexuality conflict – I am considering only truly “new” churches.)

Of those 99 churches planted, 69 were still open in 2012, a 70% success rate over four or more years. The old trope that most new churches fail is absolutely not true. In fact, Episcopal churches have a far better chance of success than nondenominational churches, precisely because of the diocesan and denominational support (financial, leadership, training, prayer, and otherwise) that we provide.

Of those 69 new churches still open, average Sunday attendance in 2012 was 95 people, compared to ASA across the whole church of 65 people. In other words, newer churches were 48% larger, despite having much less time in which to grow, and in most cases, far fewer financial, building, and staff resources. The ten largest church plants from 2000 to 2008 (including my own church plant, Church of the Nativity, #10 on the list) had 2012 average attendance of 359 people.

In a publication on the Episcopal Church’s website, Hadaway discusses factors associated with church growth, and concluded that newer churches are more likely to be growing churches: 54% of churches founded between 1996-2009 were growing, vs. 17% of those founded before 1900.

If we want to reach many new people with the gospel through our beautiful Episcopal Church, one huge and necessary strategy is to take some risks and plant some churches.

  1. A new church is mission-focused.

People who plant new churches absolutely must ask questions of mission and purpose in order to survive. There can be no complacency in a new church. Craig van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile write:

It is often observed that starting new congregations with a missional imagination and posture is easier than reorienting existing ones. This is so in part because the process of planting a new church is inherently missiological and open ended. Leaders of new congregations must ask the key missional questions of identity and purpose that existing congregations often take for granted. These congregations must engage with those outside their doors in order to grow and thrive…. New missional congregations keep at the forefront of their minds and hearts the question of how they can give the gospel as well as their gifts to the community. (Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 161.)

Having a strong mission and purpose is strongly associated with growth, according to a research report on the Episcopal Church website.

  1. A new church can respond to population shifts.

In Stephen C. Compton’s book, Rekindling the Mainline: New Life Through New Churches (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2003), vii, he points out that mainline denominations’ major growth spurt in the 1950s and 1960s coincided with a large population shift from rural to urban areas. The denominations responded strategically with a corresponding surge in planting new churches in the areas people were moving to. That’s a big reason why they grew rapidly back then.

Population shifts are still happening today, without corresponding strategic moves. We need strategic action. New churches can and should locate in growing areas. New churches can also be planted to reach out to new demographic populations: new language and socioeconomic groups that are not TEC’s traditional strong points. We especially need to take immediate strategic action to plant Latino/Hispanic churches – that population is booming with growth, and our proposal includes significant money to create a training program for lay and clergy leaders for Latino/Hispanic ministries. In the Episcopal Church, only 18% of predominantly White congregations are growing; 43% of Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or Multi-racial congregations are growing. New churches can be strategically planned and located to reach these new folks.

  1. A new church can respond to generational shifts.

The Episcopal Church is much older on average than the US population as a whole. New churches can try new ways of reaching young adults and youth. The kind of gatherings that appeal to Baby Boomers may not be the same as those that appeal to Millennials (in fact, the Millennials may be much more traditional). New churches have the flexibility to try innovative ways to reach new populations.

  1. A new church can try new things.

Change is hard in an established church. A new church doesn’t have that problem – in a new church, you make it up as you go along. That means you can try all kinds of innovative experiments to reach the people in your neighborhood. This willingness to change is strongly associated with growth, according to Hadaway’s statistics.

  1. New churches benefit existing churches.

Established churches often oppose nearby church plants, and can be among the biggest barriers to new churches’ survival. But studies have shown that a new church in a community does not harm existing churches. In fact, new churches trying new things can actually serve as the “R&D Department” of the whole denomination. Established churches can learn from the experiments that succeed, and those that fail, in new churches.

  1. New churches are in a different part of the church life cycle.

Stephen Compton describes the life cycle of churches in five stages: Birth, Vitality, Equilibrium, Decline, and Death, and shows that most of a church’s growth happens during the Birth and Vitality stages, roughly the first ten to fifteen years of its existence. After that, a church can stay in Equilibrium for a very long time, maintaining roughly the same numbers, before it starts to decline. If we want to reverse decline in the Episcopal Church, we need to have far more churches in the Birth and Vitality stages than we have in the Decline and Death stages. That means planting new churches.

Mind you, planting new churches is not ultimately about reversing the institutional decline of the Episcopal Church. Jesus didn’t die so that the American landscape would be plastered with Episcopal Churches, lovely though they are. But Jesus did die – and was raised – and commissioned his disciples to share the good news of his resurrection and the kingdom of God with all nations. We are commanded by Jesus to share the treasure of the gospel with others. We can’t hoard this treasure – it is meant to be shared. That means, yes, revitalizing the congregations we have. And it means planting new ones, to reach new people with the love of Jesus Christ.

Pray a New Church into Being

church_plantingIf you were at General Convention 2012, you probably vividly remember the moment when the legislation to create the Taskforce to Re-imagine the Church passed the House of Deputies unanimously, and we all stood and sang, “Sing a New Church into Being.” Full of hope, we were looking toward a reborn Episcopal Church.

But each of us probably had different ideas about what that new church would look like. Somewhere in our hearts, we all knew that just restructuring our ways of organizing ourselves church-wide wouldn’t be enough. We needed a reawakening. We needed to rededicate ourselves to evangelism and mission. We needed to come to a new understanding of how to reach out to new people and new age and ethnic groups. We needed to leave tired conflicts and structures behind, and find better ways to answer God’s call in the twenty-first century.

Given all these hopes and needs, it was inevitable that TREC would disappoint. I’ve blogged about my mixed reaction to their proposals (here, here and here). Their prologue was inspiring and right on target, calling us to follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly. Terrific! But I and others have had mixed reactions to their specific recommendations. And I’ve been disappointed about what I believe was missing from their recommendations:

  • A concrete, achievable proposal for church planting, congregational revitalization, and evangelism;
  • A vision for what the church-wide structure is supposed to accomplish;
  • A mission statement for our staff, including its size and composition;
  • A vision for how we should spend our money and what kind of “headquarters” building we need, if any;
  • A way to structure ourselves in order to help heal factional rivalries and bring us together on the same team.

Well and good. Those things may be missing, but it was probably unrealistic ever to expect TREC to do everything – and there are many of us ready to take up the call and work on these priorities that remain before us.

That’s why I’ve been working with a group of friends – Scott Gunn, Tom Ferguson, Frank Logue, Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, Steve Pankey, and Adam Trambley – to write a Memorial to the Church. What’s a Memorial? It’s a letter to General Convention, calling the church to some broad actions. We believe that our Memorial names some of the larger issues that are posing challenges to the Episcopal Church today, and proposes concrete ways that our church can address them together.

You can find the Memorial here. If you like it, you can join as a signer by following the instructions given – and you can share it on social media or discuss it on your blog, too.

We’ve also proposed a set of resolutions – both about church revitalization and about church restructuring. We believe that these resolutions address some of the elements missing from the TREC report, and make the concrete proposals we’ve been needing to make. You can find the resolutions here. You don’t have to agree with the resolutions to sign onto the Memorial, of course.

It’s a movement we’d like to see grow – a movement that we’d like to see every Episcopalian get involved in, individually and as part of the wider church.

Together, we can sing, pray, worship, work, and love a new church into being.


Reimagining, or How to Take Real Action

In my last Episco-geek post, I gave my thoughts about the governance and structure recommendations of the Taskforce to Reimagine the Church (TREC). In this one, I want to address the proposals TREC made to try to reinvigorate and renew the church. These are TREC’s laudable ways of trying to inspire the church to a new mission focus. I appreciate that TREC understood that the problems facing the church are much bigger than the structure of General Convention. In fact, as seriously as General Convention takes itself (for good reasons), you can’t legislate church revitalization. Our church will learn to “follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly” through a movement that I hope sweeps the church at all levels, beginning with the grassroots.

Realizing this, TREC tried to move beyond “restructuring” to “reimagining.” I appreciate the breadth of what they tried to do here. They thought about some of the non-structural issues facing the church, and tried to figure out what to do about them.

But immediately we run into a problem, and that is this: TREC made a bunch of recommendations for actions that General Convention does not have the authority to require. In the same way the US government can’t mandate that states, say, expand Medicaid to cover more people, but can only offer funding to encourage those that do, our church-wide structure (with limited exceptions) can’t tell dioceses, seminaries, bishops, standing committees, diocesan councils, and so on what to do. We can offer funding to encourage it, but if we just tell them what they should be doing, most of them will ignore it and do whatever they feel like doing. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at Executive Council’s report on resolutions referred to dioceses for action or consideration on p. 25 of Council’s Blue Book Report. Of 109 dioceses, an average of 11.5 of them actually took some action as requested on each resolution.)

Which brings to mind the so-called Gunn Rule, named after its proposer, my friend Scott Gunn. We can paraphrase the Gunn Rule as follows: Let’s not tell other people what to do. Let’s tell other people what WE are going to do.

In the case of laudable attempts to revitalize the church by telling other bodies within the church what they should be doing, though we have no authority to do so, I think we fall into a Gunn Rule Gray Area. We may not have authority, but we may have some influence (not much, given the low response rate noted above, but some). So I think we should be careful to be clear about which we are attempting to exercise. If we want to “urge” and “encourage,” let’s make that clear in our resolutions. (But let’s get ready to be ignored.) If, however, we want some action to happen, let’s create some structure that will give folks incentives to make it happen.

So how about let’s adopt a Corollary to the Gunn Rule, as follows:

If we have authority to make a good change, let’s make it. If we don’t have authority, let’s find a concrete way to encourage it to happen.

So – a bishop could use the first part of this Corollary to insist that his/her clergy follow the canons of the church, because a bishop has the authority to do so. (I mean, this shouldn’t be a “change,” but anyway.) Convention could use the second part of this Corollary to analyze all its actions and make sure that we’re not just throwing empty words into the ether, where they will dissipate like so much hot air.

With that in mind, let’s look at TREC’s laudable and worthy thoughts on reimagining.

Again, I am grateful to Nurya Love Parish, who provided a TREC summary on her blog. The boldface summaries below are directly quoted from her summary.

  • Episcopal seminaries are to collaborate in new ways to offer new programs to foster new leadership.

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. Good for TREC, thinking beyond the bounds of structure to the deeper problems facing the church. Seminaries, of course. are in trouble:

  • seminarians graduate with too much debt
  • many people can’t afford to move away from home for three years
  • many seminaries are in deep financial trouble
  • seminarians learn good academic skills, but don’t always learn good leadership skills.

Is mandating seminary collaboration the answer? It’s a nice idea, but General Convention doesn’t have the power to legislate it; we have indirect control over only one of our seminaries (General, in the sense that Convention elects its trustees), and no control over the others. And many seminaries are already creating innovative programs (distance learning, etc.) to address these problems. We could, however, decide to fund a series of gatherings for seminaries to collaborate with bishops, COM members, and others to determine what kind of leadership training is needed for a new era, and how to address the financial crisis in seminary education. Or we could create a School for Congregational Development to provide the leadership training that seminaries aren’t equipped to provide, since they are busy transmitting important academic information. Let’s not tell seminaries what to do, since we have no authority over them; let’s find ways to encourage the results we want.

  • Diocesan Councils, Commissions on Ministry, and Bishops are to consider ways to support bi-vocational clergy.

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. Again, this is an important suggestion that we don’t have the power to command. It is true that fewer parishes can afford full-time clergy these days, and more clergy will need other ways to support themselves. But since we can’t tell dioceses what to do, I think this resolution will go into the drawer full of well-intentioned General Convention resolutions that dioceses blithely ignore. Perhaps we should fund a task force to address this question and bring some actual proposals to the next General Convention, to the extent that they identify ways that this question can even be addressed at the church-wide level.

  • The Church Pension Fund and the Executive Council are to study our current system of clergy compensation, and the Church Pension Fund is to report to the next General Convention regarding the pension plan and how it meets the needs of today’s church.

My position: partly supportive. TREC didn’t say what it wanted Council to study regarding clergy compensation, so without more guidance, I don’t have much to say about this part of the resolution. Are they concerned that clergy are receiving too little compensation? Too much? Uneven amounts? Do they think we should have a standard pay scale across the church, like the Church of England? I hope that TREC members will explain what questions they want to see addressed, and refine this resolution.

Regarding the pension plan, I think it does need studying, especially the pricing and the question of how to make a pension plan available to non-stipendiary or bi-vocational clergy. In addition, I think we need to study the denominational health plan, especially in light of the Affordable Care Act (which didn’t exist when the DHP was passed). But CPG should not be in charge of evaluating and reporting on itself. Council probably doesn’t have the right set of gifts, either. Let’s set up a task force with human resources, pension, and health plan experts to do this work, and give it some funding – they’ll need it, to hire professional consultants to do the job right.

  • Churchwide staff are to create a network for churches and their leaders to foster excellence in liturgy and stewardship of resources, and to report progress annually in these areas.

My position: puzzled. I’m somewhat unclear what this is about. I hope that TREC will explain this proposal a lot better, and also explain what staffing and funding resources will be necessary to support it, and what it is supposed to achieve, and how church-wide staff are qualified to lead this project. Right now we don’t have staff coordinating ministries in either liturgy or stewardship or “resources,” whatever TREC means by that. If we need to hire new staff, this resolution needs to include funding implications – and I am very hesitant to increase our staff size right now.

  • Bishops are to cultivate collaborations and discuss the number and size of our dioceses and whether change is needed, reporting to succeeding General Conventions.

My position: partly supportive. Though Convention can’t exactly tell bishops what to do, I suppose that if the House of Bishops passes this resolution, that vote constitutes agreement to do what the resolution requires. So it doesn’t technically fall under the Gunn Rule Corollary.

On the merits of the resolution itself, I agree that it would be helpful for some dioceses to explore the possibility of mergers or other kinds of cooperation. But why should the bishops alone be in charge of this? TREC has identified an issue that needs to be addressed, but I’m not sure their proposed solution is the right one. I think it might be more helpful to remove some of the canonical bars to diocesan cooperation (requirement that bishops serving two dioceses must have a home in each; requirement that dioceses have separate Commissions on Ministry; requirement that two dioceses who want to merge both have active diocesan bishops, etc.), and encourage dioceses to grow together operationally as a prelude to possible future mergers.

  • Dioceses are to reflect theologically on the use of their assets, particularly their buildings and grounds, “to develop a theology of sacredly inclusive use-of-space that is adaptive and generative financially and spiritually.”

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. It’s true that especially in the east, there are large church buildings that are not used to their potential, which could be opened for better use by the community. Envisioning new uses could bring in income for the church and also help the congregation reach out to new populations in its area. So TREC has identified a real problem and opportunity in the church. But again, General Convention doesn’t have the power to command dioceses to do this worthy project. Dioceses unfortunately often ignore such mandates. I’m sure it’s nice to use the bully pulpit of General Convention to call attention to this issue – I’d just like to find a practical way to encourage actual action. Unless we can find such a concrete way to do something, this resolution is no more than a way of urging dioceses to do what they should already be doing, in a way they can easily ignore.

  • Presiding Bishop & Deputy are to convene professionals to advise congregations who wish to re-envision their space and its possible uses.

My position: undecided. This sounds expensive – hugely expensive, if there are going to be different professional groups in every region. I’m not sure that for the funding we can provide, that such a group could make a difference. But maybe it could, in the sense that every starfish you throw back into the sea helps at least that starfish. I need to hear more.

  • Bishops, Deans, Chapters, Rectors and Vestries are to think strategically about how best to use their space in their local context to serve God’s mission.

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. I agree that every diocese and congregation should be doing this kind of strategic visioning on an ongoing basis – especially if they have large amounts of unused space. But if bishops, priests, vestries, and congregations aren’t already doing this as a critical component of discerning God’s mission, do we really think that a General Convention resolution will spur them into action? If we really want this to happen, how about funding a training program and regional conferences teaching congregations how to do this? How about figuring out the funding and staffing implications, and telling us how much it will cost? We need more concrete action to make this resolution effective.

  • Standing Committees of each diocese are to set a standard for intervening in endowment spend-downs in order to provide for ministry to future generations.

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. All dioceses should be doing this. Convention doesn’t have the power to command it. How can we encourage concrete action? How about creating a group that investigates dioceses that have such policies, and creates a model policy for others to adopt?

  • Planners are to shift the General Convention to a shorter church-wide mission convocation convening local mission practitioners to share best practices and develop networks.

My position: probably opposed. I like the idea of providing learning and networking opportunities during Convention. Some groups do this already, and it’s good to provide some time for it. But we need to remember that deputies were elected to legislate, and that work does have importance, and General Convention is the only opportunity they have to do it. It’s already hard for lay people (and some clergy) to take time to come to Convention and legislate. If we can shorten the legislative time, good. There is lots of stuff that comes before Convention that 1,000 people really don’t need to be spending time on.  But shortening Convention in order to use the additional time for learning opportunities, when lots of folks can’t spare the time anyway, seems counterproductive. I need to hear more about this proposal and what it would entail.

That’s it for the non-structural recommendations of TREC. In general: good thinking and good analysis about some of the issues facing a declining church. But the proposals need refinement to encourage actual action on the part of entities Convention doesn’t control, in order to spur the kind of reimagining TREC is hoping for.

Next post: what was missing from the TREC report?

Lost in the Weeds: The TREC Structural Recommendations

If you’ve been at all conscious of church-wide Episcopal Church geekery in the last three years, you’ve heard of the Taskforce to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), and their suggestions for how to change the church. You can find their report here, and you can see my overall reactions to it here. You can also see my post describing what I think the mission of our church-wide structure is here.

Here’s the quick version: I think TREC’s prologue was inspired and inspiring. Their prescription that we need to follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly, was just right. But when they got down to their specific structural recommendations, their vision seemed to get lost in the weeds.

Although I don’t have the church-geekery awesomeness of Scott Gunn, who promises to blog about every resolution coming before Convention this year, I did promise to blog about the TREC recommendations. In this post and the next, I will address the specific proposals they made, and give my reaction to each, along with my probable vote. In my (presumably) last TREC-related post, I’ll say what I think was missing from the report, and what I wish they had done.

The first set of recommendations below is about governance and structure. Full disclosure: I am a member of Executive Council (elected at Convention 2012) and have had the benefit (or detriment) of an up-close look at how our governance functions. I am also serving on the Governance & Structure legislative committee at Convention this year.

Overall, these recommendations are interesting – but they appear to have been written by a completely different group of people than the ones who wrote the inspiring preface and recommended that we “follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly.” Caution: thick weeds and much insider church-geekery ahead.

In the list below, I am very grateful and indebted to Nurya Love Parish, who provided a summary of the TREC proposals on her blog. The boldface type below is directly quoted from her summary, and I am using these quotes with her permission. So, here are the TREC structural recommendations and my thoughts on them:

  • Move to a unicameral model of governance. (Instead of the General Convention meeting separately as Bishops and Deputies, meet as one body including bishops, clergy, and laity.)

My position: undecided, leaning against. I recognize the salutary effect on efficiency that this proposal would have. But I have concern about the loss of checks and balances – two houses that debate and vote separately are inherently slower and more deliberative about big moves than one house, and I think that’s a good thing. The fact that a unicameral house would vote by orders on important issues (giving any of the three orders a veto, the same as now) doesn’t negate the fact that all three orders would debate together on a single resolution and amend it together, shaping it into its final form together before taking a vote. I believe that this eliminates an important balance inherent in having two houses debate and vote separately.

There is concern as well about bishops sitting with deputies and influencing the deputies’ votes, or even telling them how to vote – the clergy deputies in particular may be beholden to their bishops in ways the lay deputies are not. I don’t know whether this would happen often, but it is a possibility and could be a concern. Most bishops will respect differences in opinion; a few may not. And even assuming the bishops are respectful (as most will be), would the mere mystique of the episcopacy give them undue influence? I don’t know, but this concern is enough to make me wonder whether the increased efficiency of a unicameral house is worth the possible cost of suppressing lay and clergy voices.

Note that this change would be a constitutional change and would require the approval of two successive General Conventions to enact.

  • Make General Convention smaller by sending only three clergy and three lay delegates (instead of four as at present).

My position: undecided. I don’t have strong feelings about this one. I doubt it will decrease costs significantly at the church-wide level, because we will still need a pretty big room for 660 deputies to meet in. The cost savings will come at the diocesan level; dioceses will see their Convention costs decrease by 20% (assuming they each send their deputies and first alternates). That’s money that adds up. There is a concern about decreased participation and influence among lay and clergy who would like to be involved, and a concern about possibly reducing diversity in the House of Deputies, if the minority deputies tend to finish lower in the voting. I’m not sure whether that’s true or not. And I’m not sure what we’re achieving (other than saving money) by decreasing numerical participation in our church-wide structures. Overall, I need to hear a bit more about the pros and cons before I decide.

This, again, is a constitutional change, which would require approval of two successive General Conventions to enact.

  • Create a task force on the episcopacy to study the current process and recommend a new process for discernment, formation, search and election of bishops. Ensure that episcopal transitions include discernment with bishops of adjoining dioceses (presumably to determine whether merger or collaboration is indicated).

My position: completely agree. This task force is crucial for all kinds of reasons – not least of which is the disastrous election of Heather Cook in the face of incomplete information being made available to the electing convention (and, apparently, even to the majority of the search committee). We need new best practices, updated and publicly available search information, and transparent search consultant selection processes. This task force needs to be formed and empowered to act right away – for instance, in providing updated, digitized, publicly available search resources – not just to report to the next Convention, three years from now. And this task force needs to be given significant funding to get the job done.

  • Provide only active bishops, not retired bishops, vote in the affairs of the church.

My position: agree. Retired bishops shouldn’t be voting on the affairs of the church. We can get the benefit of their wisdom by giving them seat and voice in the House of Bishops – but not a vote.

  • Lower the percentage of funds expected for the churchwide budget from participating dioceses. Make payment mandatory unless specific exception is granted.

My position: agree, but need more specifics. I have worked on Executive Council to lower the assessment percentage, and if Council’s budget proposal is followed, the assessment will be lowered from the current 19% to 15% by the end of the next triennium. I think it should be lowered still further in later years, perhaps as low as 12% if we exercise discipline on our spending, but only if it becomes mandatory for every diocese to pay the full assessment (unless they receive a waiver of some sort, probably from Council). TREC made this suggestion, but didn’t propose the canonical changes to make it actually happen; someone needs to finish the work.

  • Compensate the Presiding Deputy position (currently titled President of the House of Deputies) to make the role accessible to more candidates.

My position: agree. The position of Presiding Deputy (or President of the House of Deputies) should be open to people who are not retired or independently wealthy. It’s a full-time job – let’s treat it like one.

  • Clarify staff roles and responsibilities: Consider the Presiding Bishop the CEO of the Church, Chair of the Executive Council, and President of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, “with clear managerial responsibility for all DFMS staff.” Provide for a Church General Manager (COO), Church Treasurer (CFO), Church Secretary (General Clerk), and Church General Chancellor (Chief Legal Officer) to serve under the supervision of the Presiding Bishop. Establish mutual ministry reviews among the Presiding Bishop, Presiding Deputy, and Executive Council. PB to be elected by whole Convention, not just House of Bishops.

My position: disagree. This proposal is actually very little different from what we have now: a Presiding Bishop, elected for a nine-year term, who is basically unaccountable to anyone (barring a Title IV offense), who has full power to direct the staff with very little input from General Convention, the board of directors, or anyone else. This is an unhealthy state of affairs and tends to create silos of folks that aren’t motivated to work together.

The fact is, we don’t want our Presiding Bishop to be tied down to the details of budgets and personnel; we want her or him to be our spokesperson to the world, our ambassador to the Anglican Communion, our prophetic voice, our Chief Pastor, our visitor to all dioceses and chief consecrator of bishops, our presider in the House of Bishops, and our chief vision-caster. The Presiding Bishop should be the person who leads the Council and staff in setting strategic vision and priorities. We should have an Executive Director who is responsible for putting those vision and priorities into action at the staff level, and who reports to Council. This is not a revolutionary structure; most non-profits operate in exactly this way.

The Presiding Bishop has a huge job even without overseeing staff. She/he doesn’t have time to direct the staff operationally, and delegates that job to a Chief Operating Officer who doesn’t really have an accountability structure. I am not critiquing the current occupants of those positions; I am pointing out that our current structure discourages collaborative vision, strategy, and priority-setting among the governance structures of the church.

To those who say diocesan bishops are the CEOs of their staff, I would respond that the job of Presiding Bishop is much, much different than that of a diocesan bishop, and our church-wide staff is orders of magnitude larger than a diocesan staff. This is a job too large to put in the hands of a person who is far too busy to do it all, who is elected for a very long term, and who is unaccountable in the meantime. Let’s bring our staff and governance structures onto one team and get them working together.

By the way, I think the proposal to have the Presiding Bishop elected by both houses of Convention has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing the House of Bishops. And I’m perfectly fine with having the bishops elect the Presiding Bishop, as long as there are accountability structures in place for the Executive Director. The staff shouldn’t report to the board, but the Executive Director should. This is how non-profits generally work.

Note that TREC appears to agree with a collaborative form of leadership – in concept; it’s only in their specific recommendations that they revert to the “hero” model of leadership and suggest making our governance more hierarchical. Here is a direct quote from their report (which doesn’t have page numbers, so I can’t tell you where to find it – sorry):

Around the world, networks are overpowering hierarchies. Profound changes are flowing from collaborative, co-creative, participatory relationships; from shared knowledge; and from communal power, while bureaucracies struggle to keep up. To equip all Episcopalians for ministry and mission in their daily lives in this century and the next, we must harness that power and grasp new opportunities by transforming the Church-wide organization to make it less hierarchical and more participatory.

  • Make the Executive Council 21 members instead of 42. All nominees would be proposed by the Joint Standing Committee on Nominations (some proposed by the provinces). None would be nominated from the floor of General Convention.

My position: undecided, leaning against. It is true that Council is rather large (38 members), and has not acted as a vision-setting body in the recent past. From my experience on Council, I don’t think lack of vision-setting actually has much to do with Council’s size. I believe that Council has not actually been allowed to collaborate on vision and priorities for the church. The budget committee, for instance, wanted to begin our budget process this triennium with Council, PB, and COO all working together to set overall vision and priorities, and were not allowed agenda time to do it.

Vision, to the extent the church-wide structure has it between Conventions, is determined in the inner workings of the staff. Currently, it seems to be centered on the Five Marks of Mission, which are laudable but not exactly strategic – meaning, it’s good to do all those activities, but how do they relate to goals, priorities, or the situation our church is now facing? How do we deploy our ministry activities in the service of a vision, a goal, or a set of objectives? Our church is in a transitional moment, not just in our structures, but in our ability to reach new people, grow, and even survive into the future. It seems like now, of all times, should be the time that all our governance structures focus strategically on how we should be doing God’s mission in the 21st century.

But I digress. Back to reducing the size of Council. Council actually has a lot of work to do. My Finances for Mission committee had a lot of work this triennium – we had members in charge of the budget process (me), staffing the audit, investment, and corporate social responsibility committees, and acting as liaisons to the United Thank Offering and to covenant committees for continuing dioceses. Our committee had seven members, which I believe made it the largest of Council’s five committees, and every member had a significant, time-consuming added responsibility. If we’re going to reduce the size of Council, that doesn’t mean the work will go away. We need to make sure we have people to get these things done. Should we possibly have a two-tier structure or some other “inner circle” that sets vision? I don’t know, but this question deserves more thought, taking into account the actual work that Council does, than TREC seemed to put into it – which may be because TREC didn’t interview any Council members, other than the Presiding Officers.

Regarding nominations, I am sympathetic to TREC’s desire to have the nominations committee discern the gifts needed on Council and nominate people with those gifts. My concern is that limiting nominations to “official” nominations, with no nominations from the floor, means that only “insider” candidates will ever be allowed. Not that it’s all about me, but I ran for Council at the last Convention as an “outsider” candidate intent on reforming the budget process (which I did). Do we really want to limit our candidates to long-serving, well-known candidates and exclude “outsiders” who might bring reform?

  • Eliminate all Standing Commissions except the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons. Rename these commissions to clarify the scope of their work. Add “Theology” to the scope of the Liturgy and Music Commission.

My position: mostly agree. I think it’s a good idea in general to name task forces instead of standing commissions. Some standing commissions were created in prior years to meet priorities of the time, and don’t really know what they are supposed to be doing now. The SC on Communications has actually proposed its own demise. And Standing Commissions are limited in their scope: they are really only supposed to write legislation, which I think is artificially limiting. Task forces could be created that have the power to actually take action between Conventions. Good!

One caveat: I strongly oppose adding “Theology” to the job of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. We don’t and shouldn’t do theology by committee, or by vote. Our theology is spelled out in the Nicene Creed. I’m not willing to delegate the official theology of our church to the SCLM.

That’s it for the specific structural proposals. In the next post, I’ll take on TREC’s non-structural proposals.

Sermon for 4.26.15

Scriptures for this Sunday are Here.

If you grew up going to church and Sunday school, you probably heard a lot about shepherds and sheep. You might have done that Sunday school craft where you glue cotton balls to paper sheep cutouts so they look like puffy, woolly sheep. You might have memorized the 23rd Psalm, as I did, though you probably memorized it in the King James version, and were slightly annoyed when we recited a different version of it a minute ago. You might have seen lots of pictures of Jesus the good shepherd, and if you did, my guess is that they looked something like this: romantic, soft-focus pictures where the sheep and shepherd look very clean and

Or maybe like this: hearts and rainbows!


But the fact is, the Good Shepherd image was never intended to be soft focus or romantic. People in ancient Israel who heard about shepherds were likely to picture something more like this – an African tribesman tending his sheep.good shepherd

Or like this – a modern Palestinian shepherd who probably looks a lot like the shepherds of Jesus’ time.7339064472_b3147e8bd7_b

Shepherds in ancient Israel were considered to be, not clean and romantic, but dirty and irreligious. They couldn’t fulfill religious rituals like washing before meals, they lived outdoors, they were probably smelly, uneducated in scriptures, illiterate, they didn’t really know how to act around people because they spent all their time alone, so they were outcast, lowly, poor people. But they knew their sheep by name, and their sheep would go where they called.

The great king David, who wrote the 23rd Psalm, started life as a lowly shepherd boy, so he understood what shepherding was all about. He was famous for protecting his sheep from lions and bears. To the owner, the life of the sheep was worth far more than the life of the shepherd. So the shepherd risked his own life to protect his sheep.

So when Jesus begins talking about being Good Shepherd in today’s gospel, he is hearkening back to strong Jewish tradition, both cultural and scriptural. Frequently in the scriptures, Israel is referred to as the sheep, Israel’s leaders as the shepherds, God as the ultimate shepherd. And the leaders of Israel often are seen as wicked shepherds who fail the sheep, even turning against them and devouring them (figuratively).

One of most famous examples of this in the scriptures is in the book of the prophet Ezekiel Chapter 34, where the prophet, speaking in God’s voice, pronounces judgment against the leaders of Israel, shepherds who have turned against their sheep, who don’t protect the sheep, who use them for their own gain:

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost.

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God.

At the time Ezekiel said these things, King David had been dead for centuries. So God is not literally saying David will be the shepherd – God is saying that he will send a Messiah, a shepherd in the tradition of David.

It’s with this prophecy in mind that Jesus starts talking today about being the good shepherd, because he has just come out of a conflict with the rulers of the Temple in Jerusalem. In John Chapter 9, just before today’s gospel, Jesus healed a blind man. The Temple leaders threw the formerly blind man out of the Temple for telling the truth, that Jesus healed him. Jesus went and found the formerly blind man, and said, “Follow me.” In other words, Jesus was strengthening the weak, healing the sick, seeking out the lost, doing what God said he would do in Ezekiel.

Jesus’ proclamation that he is the Good Shepherd is a judgment against the rulers of the Temple, who are acting for own gain, who are the “hired hands” who don’t protect the sheep, but who run away from danger. It is a pronouncement that Jesus stands in the place of God, who says, I myself will be the shepherd of the sheep. Jesus says these Temple leaders are the hired hands, but I’m the Good Shepherd. And it is a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah; Jesus is claiming to be one with God. This is serious stuff here, because Jesus knows that this claim will get him killed – “he lays down his life for sheep” is not just sentimental metaphor. Jesus knows exactly where claims like this will get him – to the cross. This is not a story about soft edges, hearts & rainbows – this is about life and death.

So good – what does that have to do with us? We know Jesus is the Messiah, we say every week in the Nicene Creed that he is God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Why should any of this be a surprise to us? Why not picture it in hearts & rainbows, since we know how the story ends, with resurrection?

Here’s why: because we are the Body of Christ. The mission that Jesus started is the one that we are commanded to continue, in his name. Oh, we’re not called to be the Messiah – there was only one of those. And most of us will not be called to lay our life down for our faith – there are plenty of Christians in this world who give their lives for their Christian faith, still today, but not us comfortable North Americans. No, we are free to proclaim ourselves Christians all we want.

But – we are still leaders, shepherds of God’s people, as followers of Christ. As Christians, we trust ourselves to the hands of the Good Shepherd. And in turn, he trusts us to abide in his love and share that love with others. So as a church, as a body, we are called to be shepherds to our community, to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, seek out the lost. We are called to care for the physical, financial, and material needs of those who surround us. As the first letter of John says, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” We are called to use what God has given us to share with those in need.

And we are also called to care for the spiritual needs of those around us – seeking out those who have not heard the news of God’s love and God’s sacrifice for them, telling them of the loving relationship with God we are given through Jesus Christ.

That’s the mission of the church, no two ways about it – not just to care for those inside the church, but also to seek out those outside the church. Because God loves those lost sheep just as much as God loves us.

But what about each of us, individually? What’s our mission as followers of Christ? How are we shepherds of the good news that Jesus has given us?

I was fascinated a couple of weeks ago to read an editorial in the NYTimes by David Brooks, a conservative columnist who has just finished a sabbatical in which he wrote a book, The Road to Character. In his column about where this book came from, he wrote:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

In an interview with NPR, he described these people:

I would come across people who just — they just glowed. I remember I was up in Frederick, Md., visiting some people who tutor immigrants; they teach them English and how to read. And I walk in a room — 30 people, mostly women, probably 50 to 80 years old — and they just radiated a generosity of spirit, they radiated a patience and most of all they radiated gratitude for life. And I remember thinking: ‘You know, I’ve achieved career success in life, but I haven’t achieved that. What they have is that inner light that I do not have. And I’ve only got one life — I’d like to at least figure out how to get there.’

As he wondered about these people, it occurred to him that there are two sets of human virtues: resume virtues and eulogy virtues – and while everyone agrees that eulogy virtues like love, kindness, and compassion are more important, our society spends all its time working on resume virtues – we learn them in school, we spend our careers developing them, we build our identities around them.

So he set to work researching people who had extraordinary eulogy virtues, to find out what makes them different –people as disparate as Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, George Eliot, Frances Perkins. And he decided they had several qualities.

They had humility – they were profoundly honest about their own weaknesses, and took steps to overcome them – they knew their biggest sin. For Eisenhower, his biggest sin was his temper. So he did things like, in private, write the names of the people he didn’t like on pieces of paper and tear them up, so that in public he could be calm and even-tempered. He made himself into a low-key, even-tempered person.

These folks realized their own dependency – they were not self-made loners, but they understood that they were surrounded by a web of connections that helped them be who they are, and they made deep, unconditional commitments to the others around them. They each had an experience of energizing love – an experience of love that redefined them from the inside out – love of a child, love of another that required giving of oneself.

They spent their time answering what they believe is a calling, whether it was career or family or something else. They made moral decisions according to their own conscience – they left social mores and judgments behind and devoted their lives to what they believed was right.

These are not specifically Christian virtues – some of the folks he researched were Christians, some were not. But I would say that these values are deeply in line with who we are called to become as Christians and as followers of the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd is profoundly devoted to the welfare of his flock, and that is what we are called to be in our lives too. We are called to be transformed from the inside out by an experience of love – love of others, that changes our lives, and love of God, to whom we grow closer and closer as we devote ourselves to worship and prayer and the Christian life.

We are called to make deep commitments to the people we love and to the world around us – answering the calling of God to become shepherds, leaders in our families, workplaces, and communities, changing our world for the better. We are called to a life of humility, recognizing and overcoming our own weaknesses, and rejoicing in our interdependence with those around us. And we are called to a life of self-giving service.

As Jesus gave his life for the sheep, for us, so we are to spend our lives building up the world around us – because we are the shepherds who follow in the way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sermon Notes for 4.19.15

Sometimes the hands of the people we love are as familiar to us as our own hands. I think of my mother’s hands – not long and slim and elegant, not delicate feminine hands, but strong and capable hands. I can think back to my childhood and remember those hands – holding my hand as we walked across the street, patiently showing me how to tie my shoes, carefully holding my small hand clutching a pencil, showing me how to make words on paper, testing my forehead to see if I had a fever, putting a Band-aid on a skinned knee, playing the piano, not expertly, but well enough to play carols while we decorated the Christmas tree. Or, more recently, making beautiful vestments for her daughter, the priest. From a thousand miles away I can picture my mother’s hands, in detail.

And maybe you’re like that, too, with the people you love. Maybe you remember the thrill, the first time you held hands with a person you came to love. Maybe you remember the moment your spouse first put your wedding ring on your finger. Maybe the first time you saw your newborn child, you held out your finger and watched her tiny hand clutch it tightly, and maybe it made you cry because that tiny child had a grip on life so determined and so strong. The hands of those we love are imprinted on our minds.

Perhaps this is why the resurrected Jesus says “Look at my hands and my feet. Touch me and see.” The familiar hands that healed and blessed, the familiar feet that walked for miles alongside his friends – these they know as well as their own hands and feet. Yet these familiar hands are also evidence of Jesus’ death, carrying the wounds of his terrifying crucifixion. But here he is, in the midst of his friends, and these familiar, wounded hands and feet become evidence not only of death, but also of resurrection.

Luke, our gospel writer, is very careful to make sure we understand that the resurrection of Jesus is outside all categories we can understand. Jesus has a physical body – you can touch him, and he can eat a piece of broiled fish, of all things. it’s not a completely new body, because it still carries the marks of Jesus’ life on earth: the wounds of his crucifixion are still there on his hands and feet. But it’s not a physical body like yours and mine: he can suddenly appear behind locked doors, he can walk for miles alongside two good friends who don’t recognize him until he does something characteristic, like break bread and bless it, and then he disappears from their sight. This is a category of life we can’t possibly understand.

We understand the category of living people, and Jesus does not fit into this category, because he has died – the scriptures are emphatic about this. His death on the cross was no fake – he was dead and laid in tomb, and many people saw it happen.

We understand category of dead people – but Jesus doesn’t fit here either. Dead people do not get up and walk around – the ancient Jews knew this well. Modern people sometimes think the disciples must have been simple country bumpkins who didn’t know about death, and that’s why they could make up this crazy story about resurrection. But let’s be clear – they were far more familiar with death than we are – they lived with it every day. Their children died young, their wives and sisters and mothers died in childbirth, their elderly parents lived in the same house with them, they watched people die gruesome deaths on public crosses. They didn’t have sterile hospital rooms and beautifully appointed mortuaries that mask the reality of death. When someone died, the whole family was there with them. They knew far more, far more personally, about death than we do. These folks understood category of dead people, and Jesus didn’t fit it.

We even understand the category of ghosts. We may not believe in it, but we can understand what ghosts are – spirits of those who have died, who somehow linger and sometimes communicate with the living world. But Luke is very clear that Jesus is not a ghost, or a disembodied spirit, the soul of Jesus living on after his body has died: you can’t touch a ghost; a ghost doesn’t eat broiled fish. Jesus is not a ghost.

And we can understand the category of memories, but Jesus is not a memory, a realization that even after death, life still goes on, and Jesus’ kind words will live on even if his body doesn’t. This resurrected Jesus does not fit that category either. In fact, Jesus does not fit any of our known categories: living, dead, ghost, memory – Jesus is something neither the disciples nor we have ever seen before.

Jesus is something new: he is resurrected. Which is something that shatters all our known categories, a phenomenon that establishes a whole new order of being, something that has to open our minds to new possibilities for each of us. In the resurrection of Jesus, God is doing something new and unexpected, establishing a whole new category. Luke wants to be absolutely certain we understand: this resurrected body of Jesus’ is completely continuous with Jesus’ life on earth, and yet the resurrected Jesus is a whole new order of creation, something that somehow describes what God intends for all of us to become, in our eternal life in God’s presence . We don’t need to fear death – what Jesus was in the resurrection is what we will become.

But I think there’s more to the gospel writers’ insistence on the tangible reality of the resurrected Jesus than that. When we think of Jesus’ resurrection, our temptation is to spiritualize it like the disciples who thought the resurrected Jesus was a ghost; to say, see, the life of the spirit is more important than life of the old, discarded body, to say that Christianity means life after death, and that’s what really counts. That’s what the slave owners of the American South tried to tell their slaves, that their suffering now, in this life, didn’t matter, because Jesus would take them to heaven someday. But those same slaves could read in the scriptures that the God who promised life after death was the same God who heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt, the cries of those who were groaning under oppression, and brought them out of slavery into freedom in the Promised Land.

When we think of the resurrection of Jesus as a completely “spiritual” thing, we run the risk of doing the same thing those slave owners did. We might be tempted to think that the conditions of this world don’t matter, that God intends to rescue us all from this earth anyway, and so it’s all right that people live in poverty, that people are hungry, that people suffer.

Yet if we are tempted to think that Jesus cares only about so-called spiritual things, things like prayer and meditation and life after death, Jesus calls us right back to physical reality, the reality that you and I live in, the touchable, visible, embodied reality of everyday life, with these words: Look at my hands and my feet, he says. Touch me and see.

If nothing else is clear from our scriptures, what must be clear is that God is involved in our world – in its messiness, in its physicalness, in the everyday reality of things we can touch and see and feel. Here and now is where God comes to us. And here and now is where God calls us to be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection: witnesses in a way that makes that resurrection an observable, tangible reality in this world.

Jesus comes to us in simple, physical ways still today: the water of baptism, the bread and wine of holy communion. Yet St. John Chrysostom and several bishops of our church said, if you can see Christ’s body in the bread on the altar but you can’t see it in the beggar on the street, you haven’t seen him at all.

The wounds of Christ direct us to the wounds of the world, they call us to be witnesses of resurrection, they call us to be healers in this world.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the terrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and if you lived through that time, you can remember extraordinary stories of heroism in the midst of that disaster: people who risked their own lives to bring others out, people plunging into the burning rubble to save children in the day care center, doctors who labored for hours in a dark hole that was really too small for them, to amputate the leg of a woman trapped under debris, to get her out of a building that could have collapsed on her, and on them, at any moment, people putting their own hands to work in the service of others.

The Episcopal bishop of Oklahoma, Ed Konieczny, wrote to his diocese this week that when we think of those sad events, “let us not focus our attention on stories of anger, fear, or violence; but, rather, let us turn our attention to the stories of hope, love, and community that surround that day. Let us remember the immeasurably courageous rescuers who plunged into danger to save our neighbors. Let us remember the unified fortitude and kindness our capital city portrayed, reminding us all that we are truly stronger together than we are apart.”

I was touched this week to read that the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum is calling each Oklahoman this month in memory of the victims to do one act of service, one act of honor, and one act of kindness.  Which I think is a discipline all Christians could undertake – in memory of all those who suffer and fall victim to the evil of this world, and in witness through it all to the resurrection of Jesus that tells us that this world matters, its suffering matters, its physical realities of poverty and hunger matter.

We could all do one act of service – for instance, we could participate in our Habitat for Humanity build date on May 2, we could help provide Mother’s Day gifts for homeless women through our purse collection, we could help feed the hungry at the Santa Maria Food Bank, we could do any number of other acts of service to help those in need.

We could do one act of honor – something to remember someone we love, a hero we admire, or someone who is currently working to serve others – like, for instance, what my friends and I used to do in high school: bake cookies to take to the firefighters in the fire station down the street.

We could do one act of kindness – visit a friend who is lonely, take a vow to say only kind things about each other, work to build up and support each other, this whole season of resurrection.

Acts of service, honor, kindness: These are things that Christians do – because we are witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, because we have felt the touch of his hands in our lives. Here I am, says Jesus. Touch and see.

The Mission of the Church-wide Structure

The Acts 8 Moment is asking: what is the mission of the church-wide structure? Maybe the fact that we call this thing by an unwieldy name like “the church-wide structure” is some sort of clue that we have no idea what this thing is or what it’s supposed to be doing.

Since I have been involved in ministry at the church-wide level, I have noted several things: first, that there is a lot of talk about “mission.” Second, that “mission” means different things to different people, who often talk at cross-purposes, because two people can use the same word to mean completely different things. And third, that we in the Episcopal Church really don’t know what our church-wide structure’s mission is, except that it has some “Marks,” as defined by the Anglican Communion. According to its website, the Five Marks of Mission are:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

The Book of Common Prayer, though, doesn’t talk about any Marks of Mission. Instead, it says the church’s mission is to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ – which, to me, is one of those mission statements that is so broad that it doesn’t give any direction at all.

So let’s look at what some of our leaders have said. The Chief Operating Officer of the DFMS, Bishop Stacy Sauls, recently said that he believes that “the church exists to do two things: to serve the poor and create servants of the poor.”

On the other hand, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently said this about the mission of the church: “First, the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ. Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration.”

I’m going to throw in my lot with Archbishop Welby here. I agree that worshiping God and making disciples of Jesus Christ are the primary missions of the church. Those committed disciples, nourished by Word and Sacrament, are the people who will serve the poor and accomplish all the other Marks of Mission. That’s the way the Great Commission is framed: Jesus tells the disciples to go and make more disciples, teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands, including the commands to serve the poor and to work toward reconciliation. The church must make disciples if it is going to accomplish anything else at all.

But Acts 8’s question wasn’t the mission of the church – the question was the mission of the church-wide structure. If we don’t know its mission, then we risk “mission creep” – letting it move into areas that are properly not its missions. This costs money and can be an unwelcome and inappropriate exercise of power. So we should know the church-wide structure’s missions. This is what I think they are:

  • To support dioceses and local congregations in doing the mission of the church; in other words, to support the work of making disciples and putting those disciples to work serving God’s people and accomplishing the other Marks of Mission.
  • To make decisions for the welfare of the whole church, including common prayer, clergy and leader discipline, ordination requirements, and so forth. (We do this decision-making in the Episcopal Church through our governance structures, which actually are fairly important structures supporting church-wide mission.)
  • To coordinate the church’s relationship with outside groups (including affiliate groups such as ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, and relations with political entities), and to communicate about the church to the world. In this category belongs some work on Mark 4: transforming unjust structures does sometimes call for prominent church-wide voices to speak.
  • To provide Spirit-led, strategic leadership in order to inspire dioceses and local congregations to accomplish church mission.

DFMS can support the local church in making disciples in a number of ways. It can provide staff persons who bring people together to share resources, and provide expert support to dioceses and congregations. It can provide funding for strategically important ministries. Most importantly and transformatively, I believe, the church-wide structure can support local mission by doing the fourth thing on my list: providing Spirit-led, inspirational, strategic leadership.

This last item, inspirational leadership, is where I believe the church-wide structure has not done well over the past couple of decades. I am not pointing fingers at any particular leader; rather, I am pointing to the fact that the church has not seemed to be able to focus on any strategic initiatives that would reverse its decline and support the whole church in making disciples. We haven’t planted churches in nearly the number we need; we haven’t made it a priority to reach out to the rapidly growing Latino population; we haven’t focused on ministries with children, youth, and young adults. We have created big concepts like the “Decade of Evangelism,” and then haven’t done anything about them other than agree that they might be good ideas. Leadership takes more than pretty words; it takes strategic focus and action.

We can declare all we want to that numbers don’t mean anything and that all mainline denominations are declining and that our birthrate is lower than other churches’ and that the world is changing and that kids play soccer on Sunday mornings. Those are all fine excuses. None of these assertions changes the fact that our church has not focused in a strategic way on making new disciples. Spirit-led, inspired, strategic leadership could change that. Not by doing the work of making disciples – this happens at the local level, led by Christians who understand their local contexts and are willing to try risky and creative ideas – but by repeatedly, strategically, and inspirationally calling the church’s attention to the vital necessity of doing this risky work.

That’s what I’m missing from our denominational structure – inspirational leadership. Let’s hope the changes coming at the next Convention – from the “restructuring” process to the PB election – focus us on our mission of making disciples and inspire us to start taking serious, strategic steps to accomplish it.