Saturday, August 31, 2013

Part III: Where's the Hope (Now)?

About 1990, then five years after the final closure of the Venture in Mission Office in the Office of Stewardship Development, as Executive for Stewardship, I began to realize that there was waning interest in supporting stewardship as the main work of the Church from the Office of the Presiding Bishop (Browning). Ellen Cooke, the Vice President and Treasurer of the Episcopal Church and later awarded with five years of prison for her embezzlement at 815, removed from us The Stewardship Report newsletter with the never fulfilled promise of comparable space in Episcopal Life. Then we lost the income from our materials that had been held in a special fund from which we did research and development as we actually made income and were market driven by selling products that congregations actually wanted and used. Through a rather complex organizational/political maneuver the office of stewardship was broken up and dissolved into “offices” controlled by the Rev. Bill Caradine who came in with Bishop Stowe as VP for Mission under Browning about the same time. While the changes were not especially obvious publicly at first the key element that was removed was the source theology of stewardship out of MRI and its replacement by an evangelical theology based on “making a safe place” for people to come to tithing or at least percentage giving. That model prevailed inside the facade of a year round stewardship approach for many years and was finally incorporated into the fine work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship.

The importance of the change is that stewardship as the main work of the Church had at its core a deep commitment to leadership development based on personal and systemic transformation of the institutional church into “new creations,” and ones that by bringing hope could help the local, diocesan and national bodies become capable of maneuvering into mission projects that had local authenticity and effectiveness. Unlike most of the work of the staff offices of  the Church Center, the Office of Stewardship was itself constantly able to be responsive to defined needs we got from our “customers,” the clergy and people who were leading stewardship and needing our support. One our products, a video which people asked for to help them understand what “815” and the general Episcopal Church actually did in missionary efforts was nominated for an Emmy in the early ‘90’s. We had discovered that no one at 815 actually had consolidated a full listing of all mission projects in one way or another sponsored by “our dollars” because the staff was more interested in their own programs.

Once the center core of leadership development and commitment was removed and an evangelical approach inserted, then stewardship education slowly became more and more about personal giving and just a few steps later about institutional maintenance. When the statistics are  compared to the timing, it is becomes clear that MRI/VIM modeling of mission growth where new projects, new people and new money emerged was replaced by an increasing cascade of losses, institutional angst, “issue” orientation and demands for greater conformity around them. In short, the Episcopal Church became very self absorbed, much like an ill person who is less able to focus on anything or anyone except themselves. The hope was gone.

So now, in the chapel of the Episcopal Church Center, the following program is being offered: It’s All About Money! Fund Raising Symposium-- September 26 and 27, 2013 designed to meet survey results. Perhaps it does not sound that noxious until the whole core theology is seen in historic perspective. . . Where’s the hope???

Thursday, August 22, 2013

When My Rector (Pastor) Resigned

I have been ordained 52 years.  My spouse and I have attended and belonged to two different Episcopal Churches since I retired at the end of the year 2000.  We've been in our present parish two and a half years.  During this brief period of time it has been my privilege not only to mentor my priest but also to become his friend.  Even though he is seven years younger than my youngest child, I thought of him as a son.  We became very close and when he let me know that he was leaving I became very sad.

Several weeks ago I had a hunch that it was time for him to update his resume and personal profile, and I was going to talk to him about this at our next luncheon.  Then the Rector called me the Sunday before to tell me that he was going to resign the parish and take a position on the staff of a Diocesan Bishop.  It was then that I shared with him that I thought it was time for him and his family to move on.  Now then, was this the Holy Spirit or mere coincidence?  I like the idea that it was the movement of the Spirit of God.

I moved several times during the 40 years of my active parish ministry.  Each time I felt a measure of sadness and grief because I had made good friends with several members of each parish.  I missed them for a brief period of time, and many of us remained friends throughout our lives.  But I also had the energy and the drive to start up a new ministry in a new place and make new friends.  Therefore I moved on to my new set of relationships without a prolonged period of grief about leaving the old parish.  The point here is that for me, leaving a congregation as a priest is altogether different than being a parishioner and losing your priest.

Now I know the immediate sadness of losing a priest AS A PARISHIONER.  Sure, I know about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief and I've pastored many folks over the years as they coped with their losses.  And at my present age of 76 I've had to manage several acute losses in my own life.  But the sadness I feel in the loss of my young priest is surprising, startling and somewhat amazing.  I can't believe that it is happening to me because I am deluded enough to think that I'm immune to such things.  But the truth is that I was really unprepared for the grief that I felt precisely because I am a member of the parish.  At last I can truly identify with members of the parish and I truly understand what they are going through, because I am going through them myself.  I also understand in my head that the feelings of grief that I bear are perfectly normal even though it surely doesn't feel good.  Because of this my empathy for the congregation is acute.

Sometime soon the search committee will start a ministry to look for a new rector.  But now is not the time to begin.  The members of the congregation need time to process their feelings.  As a trained interim I know that this is true. As a member of the congregation I know that this is true.  As an experienced parish priest I know that this is true.  Frankly, I'm clearly not ready for a new priest.  But with God's help and the help of other people in the parish, I will process my feelings of grief.  I will reach a stage of acceptance, just not now.

I will trust that the Holy Spirit will guide the vestry and the search committee.  But I really hope that they and the diocese do not rush into it.  As my friend and fellow blogger Gary Gilbertson says, "that's a recipe for disaster."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Bishop Speaks of Love Redefined

The Bishop Speaks of Love Redefined

Last Sunday my wife and I recognized our 50th anniversary of a life together. It is a wonderful time to reflect on our journey, to gather with our family, to be blessed in the worship of the church, and surrounded with the support and love of the community.

It was not a blessing of our marriage. It was a blessing of our relationship.

A friend of mine once started a sermon by saying: “I have some bad news. A terrible case of burnout has forced a sabbatical, if not full retirement of the word Love. It is in grave danger of becoming meaningless, and it needs a rest.”

I agreed with him, but before we completely jettison the word, let's try redefining it. Let's try to make love more than feelings of euphoria or just a word which is applied to almost everything from marriage to pizza and almost any thing else which one might imagine in between.

In the early 70's, a chaplain at the University of Maryland wrote a song. I do not remember the words, but I can still recall the title. “Love is a Verb.” The point of the song was to help people stop thinking of love as a feeling, and to begin to see it as a relationship.

That which we do with one another is what love is about. The way we trust, the way we are open, the way we show our vulnerability, and the way we accept the good and bad of our partners – this is what love is all about.

In one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories “Good Country People”, she describes an angry, bitter young woman. Originally she had been named Joy, but as her hatred for the world increased, she changed it to the most ugly name she could come up with. The young woman called herself, Hulga.

Hulga had a wooden leg. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to see how much the wooden leg had shaped her life. She was ashamed and embarrassed, hurt by what life had done to her. She did not find herself to be loveable, and therefore she was unable to love anything or anyone else.

In the story, a man comes to town, charms Hulga, and eventually talks her into having a date. As the story unfolds, cynical, tough Hulga finds herself trusting this man enough to do the unthinkable. She performs an act of love. She takes off her wooden leg and shows him where it is attached.

It is a strange story with an even more strange ending, but it points to something which is true for all of us.

First, we all have wooden legs. The things which we carry around, our inner wounds, those parts of ourselves for which we are embarrassed, ashamed of, memories, secrets we can never share; failures which we keep to ourselves.

Second, every now and again, in a loving relationship, we can come clean. Like Hulga, we can show another person our wooden leg, and share where it has become attached.

When we do that, we have the key to love. Love is that relationship of vulnerability and acceptance where we can be reacquainted with joy.

This is not making confession – it is not a matter of dumping the trash can on someone else.

It is about living with someone in a manner of care which is honorable, kind and lasting (even as long as 50 years or more).

There are chairs at the table, not withstanding our wooden legs. Love one another and your love will spread to others.

Do not worry about being perfect. The Jesus job has already been taken.


Saturday, August 10, 2013


The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant

A Recent Sermon


We are here today to celebrate the commitment of two gay men to the mystery of love. It is not just human love since they are invited to enter into a sacred covenant whereby God will manifest his love in a special, sacred and life-nourishing manner. If these men choose to accept this love, they will learn that they have been called to a life of loving intimacy.

In our information driven and rapidly changing culture, we are struggling to define and maintain the Christian concept of being a person. One of the essential ontological characteristics of being a person is the need to experience deep, loving and sacred manifestations of intimacy. It is for this reason that our Episcopal community has approved same sex blessings.

We have made this decision because all human beings, either gay or straight, have the need and God-given right to experience the completeness of their nature as social beings. Furthermore, the concept of sacred intimacy not only serves as a proper theological basis for a same sex blessing, but it serves to explain the nature of marriage as a sacrament. In other words, living a life of loving and sacred intimacy is a fundamental need and right of gay and straight people.

A Covenant of Intimacy

Intimacy is word that expresses the nature of a sacred love relationship.  It is from the Latin word intimus. In Spanish, it is intimo conversant. In French it is intime, meaning deep, internal and confidential
Loving intimacy occurs in time, but it is sacred time; it is not chronological time. It is not just one thing after another. It is time for manifestation. Intimacy means that in, through, and with time, something marvelous is about to manifest itself in these two loving mates.

In time (Faith)
In time, I see in the experience of the past and future, and now I see the manifestation of love. It means in a relationship committed to sacred intimacy that the couple will transcend to a higher level of value, knowledge and feelings. If sacred intimacy is the goal, then in an extraordinary way God will clearly manifest his burning, divine love. They will become a beautiful story.
Into me see (Individuation)
Please see into my heart. See into to my soul and find the beauty of my individuality. I promise to discover the beauty of your unique soul and delight in your beautiful and powerful individuality. I will see you, and you will see me over time. If we do not share in the beauty of our individual nature, then we run the danger of becoming narcissistic and lonely individuals.
In time mates see (Co-journeying)
I promise this day to enter into an intimate co- journey. We will grow in time in mutual respect. We will journey through life together. When we are old, we will tell the marvelous story of a life time of spiritual intimacy.  The text of our journey will be written in every wonderful wrinkle of intimacy on our aging faces and the touch of our hands. We will move through time together. Yes, young love is beautiful and promising, but mystery and a transcendent beauty is found in old love. If we do not journey together, then it merely becomes a relationship of an unhealthy codependence.
( Intimacy) Into my sea
We bath in a sea of wonderful family, true friends and Christian community. You have true friends here at your blessing. You will move in worthwhile social cycles of increasing spiritual value. If you do not discover the blessing of a loving community of quality people, then life will become an existence of busyness and boredom only to be relieved in play.
Therefore on this solemn occasion of your Covenant, I pray that:


·         You will continue to grow in the mystery of God’s intimacy, as his love is expressed in the living of your  covenant

·         You will find divine purpose

·         You will continuously learn to share this sacred blessing as a Christian example of God’s grace

·         You will discover your souls in this sacred relationship

·         You will know the power of spiritual vitality

·         You will know happiness

·         You will be free of pain

·         You will find the ease in a changing world.

Finally as your Priest and a Priest of the Church, I apologize to you and the rest of the gay community here today. I apologize for my past bigotry towards gays and my intolerant and ignorance-based attitudes of the past. I do not have the authority to make an apology for the Church, but I suggest that this liturgy for same sex blessings is a liturgical act of reconciliation.




Saturday, August 3, 2013

Rectors - Resign, Get Fired, Retire, Die

So what’s a congregation to do when a Rectorship is open, for whatever reason?  The answer to that question is critical to their future!  Who can argue that it is God’s plan to place the right priest in the right place at the right time?  Numerous books and articles have been written to provide guidance to congregations, diocesan staffs and transition specialists on what must be accomplished and even how to accomplish it.  Nevertheless, the same old mistakes and strategies prevail to the determent of all concerned.    

Most congregants want a new Rector as soon as possible and furthermore they want the person to be just like or very opposite the one leaving.  What will we do without you?” Or, “We’ll never find anyone we like as well!”  Or, if they were not happy with the rector, then you might hear, “Thank God.”  In any case, focusing on getting someone new in place is not the starting point. First parish members need to resolve their feelings of loss, grief, anger, relief, guilt and panic about the future.

Neil Simon wrote a play titled “The Second Time Around” which showcases the difficulty of starting a new relationship before recovering or resolving a prior commitment.  Still, congregations  practice denial by saying, “we’re an exception to the rule.”  So, some congregations say goodbye to the departing rector on one Sunday and welcome the new rector within weeks; a recipe for failure.  Some quickly choose to promote an Assistant because “the show must go on and we actually like this person better anyway.” 

Friends, never start looking for a new Rector until the former one is well gone and the grief work effected.  Equally true – even though there are a few places where promoting an Assistant worked, for the most part promoting an Assistant to Rector turns the person into an unintentional interim which is problematic.  

Smaller congregations or those with budget problems often choose to buy “supple clergy” for worship and pastoral duties, try to bank some dollars, and turn over the interim process work to the diocese.  The truth is few dioceses have the time or the expertise to actually take on these duties and do them well, not to mention the always present conflict of interest.  The first, the very first, task is to see if the parish can obtain the services of a trained and credentialed interim rector or at least a trained interim consultant or experienced interim clergy team.  Don’t be stampeded into starting the business of naming committees and setting agendas too soon.   

The time will come when a congregation is ready to begin determining what skills will be needed in the new rector if the parish mission and goals are to be accomplished. Soon enough, months not weeks later, the congregation, working through the vestry or a special search committee, will seek and interview candidates.  Once I asked a vestry this question:  “Assuming you needed the services of a Cardiologist and your applicants were the following: a Neurologist, an Urologist, a Dentist, a recent Medical School graduate, and an EMT with great references – who would you hire?”  You guessed it. More than half of the vestry named someone from the list.  The remaining few got it right - “None of the above!” But it happens all the time! Search Committees present candidates who fail to meet the needs of the congregation because these candidates are the only ones who showed an interest, or they are the only candidates the parish thinks it can afford.  Just as disastrous, dioceses often try to push clergy that need to move or are newly ordained and need a place; again clearly a conflict of interest.  The right person is out there but you may need to say “none of the above” a time or two. 

Sound ominous?  In fact a well done transition process is an exciting spiritual journey and educational endeavor for the whole congregation.  The best advice is to take your time and do it right!