Saturday, January 18, 2014

Annual Meetings

I first came across the video posted above a few years ago in a continuing education event for clergy about courage. The video is terrific and I hope you will watch it; it requires very little explanation. It's so real - and not just about ski jumping. It's real because sometimes our anxiety about doing new things is much worse than actually doing them. It's "the suspense at the top that freaks you out." To get through it we need encouragement. Anyone who was ever picked up and thrown into a pool before they had confidence in their swimming abilities knows that it does not help to be "pushed" prematurely. What we need is to feel in control. What we need is encouragement in the literal meaning of that word: to find courage from within.

I posted the video on our diocesan Facebook page earlier this week in anticipation of many Annual Meetings across the diocese, only partly in jest. Among clergy especially, and wardens not far behind, often the anxiety in anticipation of Annual Meetings is worse than the meeting itself. I am sure it's the same everywhere but in my context, New England, we have something called Town Meetings that go back to the earliest days of the colonies. "Pure democracy" some call it; total chaos as I have sometimes experienced it. But it's in the water we drink. As Anglican/Episcopalians it is important to note that our polity does not intend to be "pure democracy" - we are not congregationalists but more of a republic or representative democracy. We elect leaders (called vestries) and entrust them, with the rector, to lead. They are not unaccountable, but neither are they elected to simply represent "the will of the people." They are elected to serve, guided by the Holy Spirit, under the oversight of the bishop.

This is not a post on Episcopal governance. It is simply to say that it can get pretty confusing and sometimes Annual Meetings begin to resemble Town Meetings. Sometimes it is a place where authority and power questions are worked out (or not) - where grievances are publicly aired, where conflict comes to a head - especially if there are financial issues. And so I have observed (even more from the vantage place of my new diocesan ministry) that clergy get more stressed out in this week (and next if their meeting is next weekend) than at almost any other time of year including Christmas and Easter. At least in those weeks we can live with the illusion that we are "in control." At Annual Meetings there is no such illusion.

Let me add one more bit of context from my own experience, before I offer some unsolicited advise. My very first day as a rector, after four years in campus ministry and four years as an associate rector, was on February 1, 1998. Generally associate rectors don't usually worry so much about Annual Meetings and that was true for me. So my very first day as a rector was one day AFTER the last day of a rocky interim time. I wasn't there, but literally "all hell broke loose" in that meeting - after about eighteen months of grieving the departure of the former rector, fearfully anticipating the arrival of a young inexperienced new one, and lots more not necessarily pertinent to this post but including the prospect of a pretty big budget deficit.

As I said, I was not at that meeting. But it followed me for fifteen years, because the anxiety level would rise every year in fear that that might happen again; "pure democracy." In response there was a sense that I probably bought into that we needed to try to "keep a lid on it."

Here, then is my advice to stressed-out clergy: breathe. Control is an illusion; take it from a control freak! Mind the process. If there is conflict it is always better in the open than in the parking lot, even if it does feel very ugly and unhelpful at first. Getting clear about shared mission is the work of the clergy and vestry in the year ahead. Making decisions about how to live into that mission is the work of the clergy and vestry. But the Annual Meeting is a chance to put it all out there and we should not fear that. Sometimes people will act out. I believe it is most definitely not the job of a rector or senior warden to so tightly script an Annual Meeting that people cannot speak. On the other hand, there is an agenda and no one person or group ought to be allowed to hijack that agenda. This is why process matters, and clarity, and group norms about how we speak to each other. Annual meetings are not town meetings. (Thanks be to God!)

To laity, especially those who have a long list of grievances, real and perceived. Annual meeting is not about you. And the church is not your's, any more than it is the priest's. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ and we are all servants together, including the flawed human being whom God has called to serve as your rector. Fear and intimidation and bullying that hurt people and the Body of Christ are not of the Holy One. Take a breath. 

And to laity who tend to be more passive bystanders, who hate conflict and wish we could all just get along, who can see difficult dynamics playing out that put the clergy in the firing line: speak up. Do not be intimidated into silence. Do not make the priest be the "mommy" or "daddy" in a system that keeps everyone else infantalized. Speak up!

The truth can be spoken in love. But it means that we need to mean it in both cases: truth, above all, spoken in love. If your face is bright red and you are screaming, clergy or lay, it is probably not "truth in love."

I was not at that Annual Meeting on January 30, 1998. We did have some tough Annual Meetings after that but never ones that were mean or unfair. In fact, in all my years as a rector, it was the anticipation of Annual Meeting that was way harder any meeting ever was. And I suspect that this is probably true for most congregations. But even one blow up every fifteen or twenty years or so can zap our energy and our courage.We carry it in our bodies and the clue that we do is when it ends and even if we are not quite like that little girl in the video yelling "woo-hoo, that was fun" we may be breathing a deep sigh of relief.

I am praying fervently for clergy and laity this week in anticipation of Annual Meetings across the diocese and for people in every place to remember we belong to one another. There is a reason that most of our meetings follow worship, where we come to the same Table to be fed and nurtured by the one who gives us courage, and commands us to love one another. If there are conflicts and disagreements, this is just part of the deal of all human communities including Christian community. See Acts 15:7. But in the midst of all conflict we can make room for the Holy Spirit to do Her thing, which is always about making room for healing and reconciliation even if those are not immediately possible and ultimately beyond those to the work God has given us to do in the world. As I heard one person say this week at a meeting I was attending, when we "major in the minor" it zaps missional energy. Indeed.

We are not in control. May all who lead and attend Annual Meetings this week and next find courage, trust the Spirit, and pray for God's will to be done.

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