Saturday, May 26, 2012

Nanny Ministry

Back in the day, we had the occasional problem of some pipsqueak priest whose pointy finger exceeded the range of his intelligence with an  “Oh, Father knows best!”  Usually wearing the tall pontiff 18 size collar, frosty, waspy blue eyes glaring, adorned in the black suit, pursed up lips, tip toed for height, our  father was giving us hell over a minute liturgical point at acolyte practice for tonight’s celebration of Our Lady of the Stop Sign.  This florid guy would make us quiver and later snicker. . . Those were the days, an all male priesthood who could pray at bedside, “ God is male through and through and likely Episcopal. too!”  The black suit always had cocktails and cigarettes with the our parents, the high collared Don Draper, of his day, that mad man.

Many years have passed and that old thing has long been packed under. Well, almost, I guess, as some of the Anglican off shots have kept replicas above ground and moving. But for us Episcopalians, this old dark suit is not to be found alive. I sorta miss ‘em.

But fear not! A new creation, a metastatic evolution has come forth! Sometime after the ordination of women all those years ago, off of the commission on ministry barge, a new creature came forth. And instead of being just priest, it is also deacon, bishop and lay, a full range of catholic orders! Not just are there males but females, straight and gay, many races who are of this new creation rolling down from the ark on to the level playing field of ministry. These new creatures are certainly not the old order, no father knows best here. They have the new look, updated, fresh and popular from  television. They are nannies!!.

The ministry nannies want to take care of you. They demand to know the best for you  and to embrace you with big hugs and cheek pecks; get in your space and make sure you know which and with what issue you should return  the embrace in a knowing nod of political correctness. And also with you. . .

For delicious examples, I offer the following:  One of my rector friends had called to welcome the new neighboring rector for a convivial lunch. But nanny returned the invitation by telling him why he should not have hired who he did as youth minister.  How daring, darling! A priest nanny came to a lunch table at which a bishop was sitting, requesting a cozy nearness to the prince. Then  in a snotty observation of the self evident sort, noted there was no other member of that gender at the table! Harumph! I might have agreed if I had known of what gender was being spoken. . . Then there is the school marm type nanny. As one of our most important of lay persons, the present President of the House of Deputies, has boldly lowered her reading glasses to proclaim authoritatively and instruct us on any number of items well beyond the traditional scope of the role's function to preside. How about nanny bishop, looking so bright in his perfectly tailored Wippell goods, who recently when asked about the role of retired clergy stated that they had best stay just that. On the shelf for out dated stuff, perhaps? Could church pantries use this product?  But lest we forget the deacons, there is the one who recently  lectured and  instructed  the rector in front of the vestry about “good” pastoral care, the subtext of deacon’s ordination vows, some of us are beginning to wonder?
And on pilgrimage we plod. It is another day for fun in the church, is it not?  Embrace your local nanny!  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Let's Get Rid of the Rector: A Priest's Nightmare

Two different Bishops believed that I had the skills to follow long tenured Rectors.  As you might imagine, it didn't take long for a small group in each parish to radically oppose me and try to force my resignation.  How well I managed these situations is debatable, but here are some strategies I learned along the way.  If you are or ever have been in this awful nightmare, I hope they help.

1. Forget all you know about consensus management and group process.  These methods are effective when leading any group where the goal is to resolve differences in an open and creative way.  All get a say and in the end there is usually a consensus or unanimous vote.  When the goal of some is to  "kill the Priest," no amount of discussion is possible.

2. Bishops may not be much help.  In my ministry, one Bishop supported me and the other didn't.  As pastoral as we expect Bishops to be, many don't have the intervention skills to provide the appropriate leadership.  Some are likely to take a "wait and see attitude."  Others may abandon you entirely.

3. Cultivate support.  Engage parishioners in conversation.  Visit every member of your vestry and as calmly as possible let them know what is going on.  Listen and then ask them for their support.  You will survive if 80% of the vestry supports you.  I managed it with 60%.  Visit every stake holder, those who have existential power in the parish, and follow the same strategy.  If the hate group is small enough, you may take it to the congregation, perhaps even in a sermon or special parish meeting.

4. Call in a consultant.  This is a popular way of making everybody temporarily feel good.  The Bishop and Vestry think they are doing their jobs and the Priest appreciates the reflective pause.  But in level six conflict situations, consultants are not likely to work.  The Priest's enemies have already made up their minds.  They want to Priest out.  But a consultant does give folks the time to sort things out and chart a course.  If the Priest comes out ahead, the offending parties will leave the church.  This is what happened in both of my situations.

5. Resignation.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  You may be fed up or you may be very sensitive, discouraged, depressed and feeling rage.  There may not be enough people on your side so you may be forced out.  Sometimes it's best to "let go and let God."  Holding on is not for everybody and your spiritual and mental health are the most important things, let alone the sickness that invades the marriage and the family.  Besides, you have probably lanced a boil that has been festering in the parish for many years and needs to be healed.  When we are scapegoated without cause, it is usually indicative of a long term systemic issue in the congregation's life.

While none of us ever wants to be in this situation, sometimes it just happens.  The Kingdom of God has not yet been consummated and the Father of Lies is still meandering through the universe and the church.  C. S. Lewis had something to say about this.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Eucharist Deconstruction and Reconstruction

The major task for philosophy and theology in the Postmodern period is the deconstruction of Christian sacramental theology and liturgical language and practice. Catholic sacramental theology is based on a Traditional Western Metaphysics that no longer is acceptable in a Postmodern world that has rejected this Greek metaphysics. It presents a need for Episcopalians to deconstruct a Eucharistic theology and liturgical practice based on a Catholic metaphysics.

Fundamentally, the issue is that Traditional Western Metaphysics is based on the foundation of Greek philosophy i.e. Plato and Aristotle.  This foundation that no longer stands after the deconstruction of Western metaphysics since the introduction of Husserl and Heidegger's phenomenology.

The historian and philosopher Jan Potacka in Body, Language, World describes the issue in the age when Western metaphysics has been replaced by philosophical and theological phenomenology,"Aristotle's philosophy is a philosophy of the third person, that is, though the personal is not wholly absent, is not thematized, it remains concealed. The third person belongs in principle together with the second person, that is, a philosophy starting out with the world in the third person...Aristotle describes the world as a living being in the third person." Plato and Aristotle are Greek philosophers who are interested in a world of substance. From this foundation of a third person and substance view of the world, even when they arrive at the nature of existence it is as "nous." Man is fundamentally nous (spirit). They never truly consider the bodily "I" in its human situation.

We now come to know existence in terms of phenomenology of Dasein which is defined as that being which has itself as an issue. Dasein is what we arrive at when we ask the question: what is it that we most truly are? What are we? We are most authentically a being asking who we are as we relate to the world as a whole.

It is Catholic sacramental theology, since the Council of Trent that has grounded its sacramental life on the Aristotlean-Thomistic Greek concept of substance. In the past, it has been a theological position that Anglicans were cautious about, as we read in article XXVIII. Of the Lord,s Supper, " Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ." Unfortunately, Anglicans did not really escape the hold of Substance, as it developed a theology of consubstantiation.

Reformed theology is much better on this issue because it has avoided substance theology with its teaching of the Lord's Supper. It is also avoided in early Celtic worship. The presence of Christ is in the entire celebration of the Lord's Supper. It is not the saying of certain words at a key point in the service where the congregation is given the objective substance of Jesus Christ. The presence of Christ happens as the Spirit vibrates through out the service.

This Episcopal identity, lately taken, of Catholic lite  should be re-examined. I am not an academic scholar. I am a Pastor who struggles with the survival of a small and aging parish. As I engage my parish in a gentle process of deconstruction, I hear my parishioners and most Episcopal clergy make statements like, "We have 'the Eucharist.' We have a true objective presence. We are founded on sacramental substance. We are not entertaining. Yes, our liturgy is static, overly wordy, hard to grasp, but it is a wonderful pageant of substance. Its is boring, but it is the real presence."

What happens if we decide to deconstruct our Eucharistic sacramental theology and are liturgical substance based liturgy? I suggest that we begin to reconstruct our theology in terms of the Lord's Supper. We reconstruct presence based on worship as a place of feeling the Spirit and coming to a deeper sense of Christ presence as personal discovery of self and others in the Lord's Supper.

Here is an interesting final note. I am meeting younger neo evangelical Pastors who are becoming more and more liturgical. It is not a Eucharistic experience; it is a dynamic reconstruction of the Lord's Supper. Well, I suggest that I am hitting the elephant in the room. Episcopalians have fallen into the trap of Traditional Western Metaphysics  i.e. our theology and liturgy is all about third person objective substance. How about more Postmodern Reformed Spirit based becoming worship. 


Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Where have all the Rectors gone?"

 Where have all the Rectors gone?  With due regard for the ‘50’s folk song, they are, “long time passing;” “long time ago.”  This was the conclusion reached by a number of clergy from three dioceses meeting in the Heartland last week.  Many of our group were bi-vocational, part-time, or non-stipendiary; many had never been a rector.  (For our friends not familiar with Episcopal terms, a “rector” is commonly understood to be full-time, fully compensated priest in charge of a self supporting congregation – a “parish.”  A congregation not able to totally fund their expenses including a full-time priest is generally called a “mission” and the term “vicar” is used in place of “rector.”

As one older priest lamented, “we used to have a lot of rectors in our diocese but now -- not so many.”  National Church statistics prove his point: collectively the three contiguous dioceses represented in our group report information on 124 congregations with 80 (65%) being too small both in membership and dollars to have a rector; they are usually termed “family size” and have average Sunday attendance (ASA) under 50.  Eleven of these congregations have an average  Sunday attendance of fewer than 10 persons and twenty-five more congregations have ASA at 20 or less.  God love the people in these tiny congregations for their loyalty and their devotion.  But no rectors here anymore!
Above “family size” are “pastoral size” congregations with an ASA between 50 and 150.  The three dioceses have 33 (27 %) churches this size with several of them being very fragile.  Some are joined with family size congregations to be served in cluster ministries, or are yoked with another congregation to cut costs.  Many are forced to provide only minimum compensation and then call older clergy to avoid having to pay for family level medical insurance.  

Not a bright picture, 92% of the congregations in these three dioceses are not able to call a rector or can only obtain the services of a rector on a minimum or reduced cost basis. We have always hoped that with the right leadership (priest and bishop) and hard work by the membership, these congregations could grow.  So what has happened under a half a dozen dedicated bishops and scores of committed clergy?  Not one of these congregations has moved up a category in the past 10 years; several have moved down.  At best our strategies are a holding action and not a posture for meaningful growth. 

One question raised during free time at the conference asked, “Why do we need three dioceses, three bishops, and three staffs to superintend these 113 out of 124 small/tiny congregations?”  Others offered: “Nothing done the last 10 years by the Diocese has worked and yet these faithful are survivors.”  “Keep the decisions about resources at the local level where the people know best how to use them.”   “One diocese would be more logical.” 

Of course, these three dioceses do have about a half-dozen “program size” (ASA 150-350) and a half-dozen resource size (ASA above 350) congregations. Some of congregations in these categories have moved down in this past decade and others will do so in the coming decade; none have moved up.  Again, do we need three dioceses to superintend these dozen places?  Obviously the current system is broken, or more kindly, outdated.  “Agreed!” many shouted.  

After all this heavy talk, we charged our glasses and toasted Rectors, past, present, and future.