Saturday, February 8, 2014


So, I think when I first began writing this blog I didn't give a whole lot of thought to the name. Rich's Ruminations was probably chosen as much for alliteration as to make some deep theological statement. Even so, as I have written in the "About Me" part of this blog, it is a place where I try to "think out loud" about Christian faith and life in the twenty-first century. So I looked up "ruminate" because I like words and maybe to help me remember what I wanted to do in this blog. Here is what I found: "to think deeply about something" and then the second meaning (of a ruminant) "chew the cud." I like that one. Synonyms: contemplate, consider, meditate on, muse on, mull over, ponder, chew on, think about...

My context for doing that has significantly changed in the past year - away from parish ministry and into diocesan ministry. While there is continuity, there are definitely differences. I realize I have gotten into the habit of mostly just posting sermons on this blog - not really writing for it but using it as a venue for sharing those sermons.

Which I guess is ok. But I realize that part of the changing rhythms of this work in which I am now engaged is that I always feel like I'm running to catch up. Now that may be because it's still new. I think in most jobs, getting through the first year is a milestone because you've been through everything once. And I've not yet hit that milestone as Canon to the Ordinary. Or, alternatively it may be because this work will never get caught up and that will mean that I need to be more intentional than I was as a parish priest at finding time to ruminate.

I think one of the challenges of being a parish priest is that one can get parochial. One can turn inward. I see it more clearly now then I did when, well, when I was doing it myself. We can lose sight of the big picture. I really love diocesan ministry because it is all about seeing something larger. The harder challenge may be in going deeper, but it's most definitely a wider vision...

So from this vantage point, here are a few things everybody knows, liberal and conservative, about the Church in our day.
1. Our context in North America has shifted away from Constantinian Christianity (Christendom) to a new post-Christian context. Simply put, Christianity has lost its place of privilege;
2. Denominational loyalty truly is a thing of the past.
3. Consequently, there is a shift away from dogmatic theological differences and toward practices of faith, such as hospitality, peace-making, Sabbath-keeping, etc.
4. People don't just "show up"anymore; so we have to "go out." Ashes to go and worship among the homeless in the city square are examples of trying to live this out;
5. Collaboration and not silo ministry is the way forward.
6. None of this is easy. 
Here are some things I knew but have had confirmed in the past eight months or so:
1. There are no technical fixes to what ails us. Chasing after the latest, greatest program is not going to take the Church "back to the future" of the 1950s;
2. What is required is adaptive change - which is to say deeper change in the way we worship, make decisions, and are the Church together;
3.What is required is leadership - both ordained and lay. I have yet to see a thriving congregation that does not have a shared vision. Sometimes the cleric is "the problem" (or part of the problem.) Sometimes the laity are "the problem" or part of the problem. Getting stuck in conflict doesn't help. But where there is leadership, health and growth do happen - not always numerically but in the work of the Kingdom which is about making and forming disciples.
4. The Bishop's Office (which includes me) cannot issue decrees to make the Church healthier. But we can point the way. We can live it in hope, and model it for our clergy and lay leaders (collaboration, formation, trust in God, etc.) With God's help, I see the team I am a part of - starting with our Bishop - doing just that everyday. It makes me more hopeful than ever before about the future of the Church. 
Now for the hard part: here is the biggest thing I did not want to believe but have discovered first-hand in my journeys:
We think we are more welcoming than we really are. (I'm talking about Episcopal congregations here, I can't speak for others.) We are organized, mostly, like families. Worship is like a family reunion and being a newcomer in most of our congregations is a lot like being the significant other who is being dragged along as a date on a family reunion...only worse. "Everybody" knows which door to come in and "everybody" seems to hug at the Peace. (Has it really been only one generation since Episcopalians resisted even shaking hands?) These things reinforce who is in and who is out. We think they are welcoming but in truth we are most welcoming to ourselves, not to the stranger.
Now we can have a good fair fight about strategies for overcoming this. Do we print every word and hymn in the bulletin, for example, or do we teach our new folks how to use the Prayerbook? I don't really care so much; either strategy could be effectively implemented if we could admit to ourselves that we are, for the most part, just not very good at making people feel welcomed in. Starbucks has a lot of code-language but if you just want a medium coffee you can usually figure it out. I went into Best Buy the other day to buy a CD and there was an employee standing there to say "welcome" as I walked in. Some ushers that I see in my travels barely look up from the conversation they are engaged in with a fellow parishioner when a new person coming through the doors. Since they are the first person a newcomer sees, they need to know this ministry matters and be intentional about it.

Some of what we do is terrific and some of what we do belongs to a bygone era. It is not always immediately obvious which is which, so we need to be discerning. We need to ask questions. We need to explore. Maybe we need to go out and do some reconnaissance in other congregations and find out what they do well and where we might see our own shortcomings by noticing the splinter in their eye. Above all we need to be honest with ourselves.

Maybe as a small beginning, readers of this blog can commit to being intentional and looking around for the faces we don't yet know every time we are in worship. And then go say hello. Not "are you new?" Just "hey, I don't think we've met before..." Because where "strangers become friends," Christ is being made manifest.

This post doesn't have a neat ending. I'm still ruminating...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for all this fresh cud to chew!
    It's exciting to think we're engaged in a whole new ballgame.... thanks for throwing out this pitch!