Monday, June 20, 2011

Institution and Transformation

It has been interesting to watch a sense of urgency surface amongst congregations around the 'need for new members'. This is precisely the problem. The focus should be on the power to change lives, the desire of persons to find our congregations to be incubators for the development of the faith and vehicles for sending Christians out into the world to witness in word and deed to the glory, grace of love of God.
- , "Everything is Transitory" in the blog The Missionary Leader
It has been an interesting couple of weeks at St. Edward's. A little more than a week ago, our Vestry gathered together for a Strategic Planning Retreat and began to talk about the long-term plans and future of St. Edward's--with a key difference. We didn't break out reams of paper and start brainstorming about things we wish we had or could do. Instead, we talked about the results of a demographic survey of the local area and how that might impact our future. Long about lunchtime, things were at a sort of a low point--this remains a challenging mission field. Yet as we transitioned from defining where we are now to looking at the possibilities for where we might be in the future, a fresh breeze of the Spirit began to waft through our little "upper room." We began to look towards future possibilities, not present or potential difficulties.

At the same time, these last two Sundays have invited us to look at the beginnings of the church--the giving of the Holy Spirit to both the disciples in the upper room and to the crowds on Pentecost Sunday and then the Great Commission (or, as my colleague Lauren Stanley preached: Go. Baptize. Teach. Need I say more?) yesterday (Trinity Sunday). As I mentioned in the announcements yesterday, this is priming the pump for a "summer of discernment" at both the parish and diocesan levels.  At the diocesan level, we're working our way through a strategic plan that will hopefully be adopted by Diocesan Convention in November and will be implemented in the months and years to come. On a parish level, we're more than halfway through my own three-year tenure as Priest-in-Charge and it is a good time to look towards our long-term future.

Yet as we do all of that, the desire and need to sustain the institution of the church can block out What is really important--our relationship with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. To the extent that we as a congregation and as a diocese function as incubators of faith, places where spiritually hungry people can not only get fed but can help fed themselves and others, we will be doing what God has called us to do and we will grow. To the extent that we focus on drawing people in so that we can sustain the institutional church we will devolve into just one more nonprofit organization with its hand out, looking for a piece of the increasingly smaller charity pie.

So, this will be a summer for discernment--for talking and listening. We'll talk about St. Edward's, about the changing demographics of the community around us, and about the evolving plan to engage that community with the transformational Gospel of Jesus Christ. As we do that, my prayer is that we will remember that it is our call to prepare a place where people may experience God's transforming power.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Getting Out and Getting Real

"I won't argue that I have all of the answers. I won't claim to have named all of the challenges that you are facing. For all that we hold in common, each of us have an experience that is all our own. But I will offer you a place to begin doing your own spiritual work, a place to talk about what is happening "out there" in the spiritual landscape that we all journey, a conversation partner, a place to begin thinking spiritually about the life you live, and thoughts to build on or to reject. Come what may -- and your responses will have a lot to do with what we discuss -- my hope is that you will be a little clearer about what you believe, why you believe it, why it matters, and how it shapes your life."
-- "The Dave Test,"  The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr.
I had a great experience today--I went and had lunch with our Priest Associate for Evangelism, Julie Nelson, at her office. In many ways it was a 19 year flashback to my "before seminary" days as a Technical Support Specialist at a computer hardware and software company. I left the secular workforce in July 1992, entered seminary, graduated and was ordained in 1995 and have spent over 15 years in one parish ministry or another. It was almost surreal being back in that environment--and I was only in the cafeteria!

Julie can probably speak to this more than I can, but after our great lunch talking about future possibilities at St. Edward's I drove back to the church thinking: "How many of the hundreds of people on that campus have any relationship with any church of any kind and how many of them will be impacted (or fail to be so) by the Episcopal Church?" It seemed like "the church world" (where I spend 98% of my working life) and the "real world" are, literally, worlds apart. I eat, drink, and live church--it's my passion, perhaps occasionally my obsession. On my best days, that passion goes hand-in-hand with my love of God in Christ and my conviction that God is at work in the world and in and through each one of us. On my less-than-best days, it is simply a passion for sustaining the institution and something that can push more important things to the side if I'm not careful.

Being out there "in the world" forces me to confront a critical question: What does the church have to say to, for example, a 30-something software engineer with a wife and children, who works long hours, has precious little family time, and the usual raft of personal challenges common to everyone? Is he going to get up on Sunday morning and show up at 9 a.m., family in tow, to experience worship at St. Edward's? Probably not, unless he has either heard of us (positively!) from someone, someone invites him to church, or he attends some other event where he is introduced to what we offer folks here. I don't have to go 25 minutes north to Julie's office to think about this, either. About 1,000 feet away from where I'm typing in my office is Xilinx, a microchip company literally just over the overpass. I'm guessing that some of the same types of people who work where Julie does work at Xilinx as well.

My thoughts about connecting "the church world" with "the real world" coalesced when I ran across the article: The Dave Test, a portion of which I've quoted above. The author, an Episcopal Priest who has written several books, is talking about his (then forthcoming) weekly column: The Spiritual Landscape. However, in my thinking, his vision for his column is precisely the vision I have for the church. That is what I want the church to be, or at least to be more of---a place where people can come with their stories of both joy and loss, triumph and tragedy, wholeness and brokenness, and feel that St. Edward's is a place where they can feel comfortable exploring and thinking about their lives in a spiritual way. I'm not sure exactly what that looks like with in our particular context, and with our particular assets and challenges, but I am sure that we're not there yet. Food for thought, though....