Monday, November 9, 2015

What I'm Learning In Diocesan Ministry

I am coming up on two and a half years as Canon to the Ordinary in The Diocese of Western Massachusetts. I'm still a newbie but I'm beginning to get a handle on the work after almost twenty years as a parish priest, and four years as an ecumenical campus minister. I often say that my initial calling to campus ministry has shaped my entire ministry - what I care about, and what I'm passionate about. I began with people who were "spiritual but not religious" before that was even a thing! I listened to and walked with young people who are now in their forties and raising children of their own. Some of them are ordained and others of them continue to serve the Church as lay people. They do me proud, and they make me feel old.

I served four years in a wonderful parish, Christ and Holy Trinity in Westport, Connecticut, where I learned how to be an Episcopal priest. My campus ministry experience was ecumenical, but I was a United Methodist Pastor during that time, formed in a United Methodist Seminary. Christ and Holy Trinity gave me the space, and the love, to embrace the denomination I chose as an adult- the place where I could continue to live out my commitment to the vision of the Wesley boys.

And then I was blessed to be called to serve as rector of St, Francis, Holden in 1998, and then stayed on for more than fifteen years. Hathy and I raised our two sons there. I got to take two sabbaticals at St. Francis - almost unheard of these days because clergy rarely stay in one place long enough to take even one sabbatical. Those sabbaticals kind of marked "chapters" for me in that ministry - chapters of entering, of growing together, of putting down roots. The challenge with long term ministries - or more accurately ONE of the challenges is that deep roots make it hard to pull up and leave. I am so grateful that St. Francis continues to roll along after a healthy interim time and the call of a wonderful rector to lead them in the next chapter of their life together.

I review all of this not out of nostalgia for the past but because these particular experiences (and not other ones) have shaped my understanding of ministry, along with a doctorate in ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary focused on "missional church" before it was cool - and on the complex ways that gospel and culture intersect. I could not know at any point along the way but feel it now in a deep, almost mystical way: that all of these experiences helped shape me for the work I am doing today, and have been doing for these past two and a half years. It was these places - and not the calls I didn't get, or didn't explore - that have left their mark on me.

As a parish priest I often felt out of step with diocesan ministry and with most of what has been called "the church growth movement." I felt too often that the programs being suggested by those "in the know" didn't match up with my own experience. I didn't want to say they were wrong, although perhaps once or twice I did say that. Mostly I wondered if I was wrong - or more accurately what my own experience meant. It just seemed like much of what was being proposed was rooted in anxiety: if the Episcopal Church could just copy Willow Creek (or Starbucks); if we would focus on traditional Anglican music or start a praise band - the list is long. But what these things had in common was the belief that if we did a, then b would surely result...

But I found that in parish ministry sometimes we tried a and something unexpected happened. Mostly what I found is that relationships mattered more than anything else. I served a purple town (politically speaking) in a solidly blue state. While the parish I served was not as diverse as any of us would have liked racially or even economically it was (and is) incredibly diverse politically and theologically. I haven't looked recently but while I was there the town itself was roughly half independent, a quarter Republican, a quarter Democratic. Speaking about social justice issues required a lot of patience - not cliches but deep relationships and a whole lot of trust. I felt that over time I got to speak in my own voice, true to myself. But on any Sunday I'd be doing that among people with very different perspectives on a whole lot of things. Nevertheless we were able (as time went on) to tackle bigger questions because we worked (and I do mean we, not I) at creating space where people felt that they could listen, and speak, and be heard. This was holy work for me - and in some ways hard to leave behind.

What I see now is that this is not always the case and this brings me to what I feel I can say. at least now on a November day two and a half years into this work. I have just finished reading a book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Slow, Patient Way of Jesus. It is not written by Episcopalians, but it speaks to my experience of the Church in ways that make me experience some holy envy: I really wish I'd written this book. I commend it to you and won't offer a review of it here, but want to steal two important ideas. I hope you've read along this far to get to them!

First, this work of ministry takes time. This is a particularly counter-cultural truth in this time and place, but it means we need to slow down and put down some roots. The writers speak of the McDonaldization of the culture and the church.They take their title and their metaphor from the slow-food movement as an alternative way to be in the world, insisting that ministry is more like a slow simmering stew in a crock pot than a burger in a bag at the drive-through. Indeed. And yes, the critics are right: Yes, we live in a culture where this work is nearly impossible. People are so busy. But with God all things are possible. Christians are formed in crock pots..

One aspect of my work is in clergy transitions. For many reasons, not the least of which is an inability for clergy and congregations to work through conflict, the average stay for a rector is less than five years. But in five years you don't even know what you don't know yet - about the congregation or about the community. I hear it all the time when calls fail, especially when they fail really badly. Members of the congregation tell me, "all s/he ever talked about was his or her old parish." Yet I have this sneaking suspicion that this would startle members of the former parish who would probably say the same thing. Clergy can be so "on the move" (upward sometimes, but sometimes just running from themselves) that they only figure out what they learned after they leave. So they spend five years or so talking about that and then they move on -  presumably to talk about what they learned in their next parish. (And to be fair, the same can be said on the other side - sometimes congregations can't stop talking about the last rector either!)

If I was granted just one wish by the church genie for making parishes flourish it'd be for good matches in the first place and then long ministries - at least a decade, and perhaps longer. Not three decades; that is often much harder to pull off and God help the person who comes in next! But slow, steady, patient work of listening and learning and intentionality that leads to growth, sometimes even in numbers. How can we create the space for that to happen more often?

Ministry is not a bag of tricks! I learned about OPATCO from David Graybeal three decades ago: On Paying Attention To COmmunity as ministry. He was right. I think back to my first Town Meeting in Holden back in 1998. God, I hated it! I thought that it was the dumbest form of government I'd ever witnessed - giving voice to the dumbest and least informed members of the community. Not like we did it in Pennsylvania!

And you know what? I am still not crazy about Town Meeting. But you cannot understand Massachusetts without some understanding of this curious cultural phenomena. And it's not enough to just criticize it. When someone stands up at Annual Meeting or Diocesan Convention in a Church which has a very different polity to make a speech, it helps to at least understand that it's "in the water." And you don't understand this from a book. Ditto with shoveling snow, eating in local restaurants, standing on the sidelines of a soccer game where everyone is drinking Dunkin Donuts. At some level we clergy have to "go native" if we mean to be missionaries. We need to learn the local language and customs; not tell them how our old parishes "did it right."

And this takes time. A precious commodity we often believe we don't have. It takes slow church...

The ministries that I see flourishing have no magic formula, no silver bullet. They just are building relationships and putting down roots, and taking the long view. (See Jeremiah's Letter to the Babylonian Exiles).

Anyone still with me?

The second thing and this too is all over Slow Church, although because they are not Episcopalians they make the point much more subtly than I will: we need to rediscover our calling to serve the parish and not just congregations. By which I mean, the "parish" of my former calling was the town of Holden and one could argue since there were not Episcopal congregations in any of the other Wachusuett Regional School District towns it included Rutland, Sterling, Princeton, and Paxton too. In other words not just the folks who self-selected and came to worship with us in the congregation. (See C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, who recognized that parishes are about unity of place, not likings, and how congregations can so easily become "clubs.")

I am sure I was guilty of this to some extent, maybe even a big extent but in my diocesan ministry I want to encourage clergy to let go of the idea that they are "managers" of a diocesan "franchise." The job is not about what happens inside the walls. This is part of it, of course. Running a good vestry meeting, preaching and presiding at the Eucharist - making sure Christians are being formed and then sent.

But the call is to a community, not a congregation. Sometimes in our confusion over what it means to be in a post-Christendom context I hear colleagues complain that they will never speak at a Baccalaureate service or do weddings (or even funerals!) for non-congregants. (I use that word with care; because it's not accurate to say that those folks are not "parishioners' if we take on that broader and deeper meaning of the boundaries of the "parish.") I served as volunteer chaplain to the Police Department and I received WAY more than I gave in doing that work because I came to better understand my community in so doing.

Each of us will find our own ways of doing this but too many clergy reinforce the message that we are called to serve the forty or fifty or couple of hundred people who come to worship. This is wrong and we need to change this. We need to find ways of reaching the neighborhoods. Funerals and weddings and baptisms are not just for "our people" - they are ways we share the Good News of Jesus Christ. I don't mean to say that those people will be back on Sunday to "check us out." I mean that if this Jewish-Christian wedding is the only time this congregation will gather this way, what we say there and how we act there matters more for Jewish-Christian dialogue than anything we might ever say at a Conference. It takes hold locally...

The same is true when we dare to find ways to connect at a public high school when invited to speak. To say "I can't do that in good conscience without telling them everything I know about Jesus" is a cop out! We are a word about the Word before we ever open our mouths and the ability to model an inclusive, loving, honest witness with integrity may be a challenge - but we need to rise to it. We need to seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves. We need to be building, and planting.

I'll close with this thought: I mentioned "chapters" in my time in Holden. Now I'm in a different place every week. But there are chapters in the life of every congregation. Often they are defined by the tenures of rectors, but not always. Sometimes there are key defining moments that ripple through time: good ones and bad ones. Misconduct, and violation of pastoral boundaries on one side of things: new life and energy and vision on the other. It's not all about the clergy, but it's hard to work with clergy who are more focused on their previous (or next) call than on doing the work God has given them to do today.

I don't know if any of this makes sense to others; sometimes I worry I'm becoming an old curmudgeon. The truth is that I'm more hopeful than ever about the future of the Church and I am so encouraged by a new generation of ordained clergy coming up. I worry about the danger of universalizing my own experience as a parish priest and I get it that my understanding of diocesan work is both rooted in and limited by the experiences I did have. This is why I began where I did: because I recognize those limitations. Nevertheless, my hope here is that it helps (and not just in my diocese) to share some observations. If I'm right it means Search Communities don't need to look for Superman or Superwoman to be their next rector; just a slow, patient, human being capable of listening and learning and loving. That will be enough; dayenu.

There is an old poem I learned from my grandmother - not the kind of poetry I learned as an English major at a Jesuit University but nevertheless true, and I find I'm learning this lesson as well in diocesan ministry - a lesson for ordained and lay alike. It's called, It Isn't The Church, It's You. And that's all I have to say about this for now!