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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Of Tortoises and Hares


I've been thinking about the difference between the zeal - and anxiety - expressed by some of our Evangelical sisters and brothers who seem to get themselves into a "state" about the state of The Episcopal Church.

They seem to equate "growth" - as in increase in membership - with health. They twist themselves into absolute pretzels about numbers and formulas and growth charts and time lines.

One adage goes that if one has 'planted' a church and, after three years, one does not have an ASA (average Sunday attendance) of 60-100, one should proclaim the adventure as a failure, close up shop and move on.

They forecast dire predictions for TEC - "the hemorrhage continues unabated" - and scream that we are losing an average of 1,000 members a week. Some of them do this with absolute glee, but more simply ring their hands and criticize the leadership of the church for 'not doing more.'

Their 'missionary zeal' is not unknown in scripture and, in fact, it is quite laudable. Except, of course, when it is used to 'shame and blame', and used to bolster the position that we are not growing because of the 'progressive' movement of the church.

There's a great deal of anxiety about 'mission'.

Got a problem? They got a program.

On the other hand, we've also heard, at least in this diocese, a great deal about 'congregational development'. I understand this to mean that 'congregational development' is a way to increase membership from within - to build up the infrastructure and membership base of the church.

Lumped under this heading come things like 'evangelism' - which is pretty much cultural marketing programs dressed up in a baptismal outfit, understanding congregational size and character (Arlin Rothage's stuff), parish life-cycle stuff, how to identify long and short term goals and how to write a mission statement, dealing with conflict, along with leadership development - mostly of clergy.

Got a problem? They got a program.

It's not that I'm not concerned about either mission or congregational development. I am. But, I think we're missing a few fundamental things.

I think we have to stop, back up a bit and see the bigger picture. I think we need to look at what's happening in the context of our times. Not only do I mean that in terms of what's been happening in our culture over the last 40 years, I think we don't take seriously how that has affected the cultural climate of our churches.

There are lots of factors which have colluded to make church community in general and community worship in particular irrelevant to many. Parenting styles, the 'Age of Anesthesia', and 'affluenza,have all called into question the nature and importance of God in our lives and the relevance of being part of a community of faith.

Let us also not dismiss the current "troubles' in the communion. Instead of seeing doom and gloom, might this not simply be a time of 'pruning' in the vineyard. Is God doing a 'new thing' - not just in TEC, but for those who are leaving?

It's as simple as the new math I almost flunked in the 6th grade: If you ask the wrong question, you're not going to get the right answer. Actually, the "right answer" isn't as important as the questions you asked to get to the answer.

Then, there's the old adage of real estate: "Location, location, location."

I've never really understood the phenomenon but it can not be denied that people in the South understand 'church' differently than in the North. Even Episcopal Churches in places like Memphis, Mobile, and Atlanta see 700-1,000 'bums in the pew' on any given Sunday, while in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, we think we're 'fat and happy' if we have 250 - 300.

I see the 'smirks' on the faces of my sisters and brothers to the South and I admit to some 'pew envy'. However, I also know that a Northern Pine would not grow in Alabama. Neither would a Palm Tree grow in Vermont.

It's a different climate, a different soil, different people.

While programs like "Alpha" may work in the Diocese of Dallas, it would certainly not fly in the Diocese of Newark. Then again, "Via Media," which has been well received here would probably fall flat and stay off the desks of most of the bishops in the Dioceses Florida.

There's lots more to this issue. This is just what I could think of, sitting here, without even breaking a sweat.

I've been thinking lately of Aesop's Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare as a modern parable of the state of the church.

I think the Evangelicals are the anxious Hares. Goodness knows, I've spent a good amount of time in that 'rabbit warren'. But lately, I've been thinking a lot about the Tortoises I've known and loved. I'm beginning to think that there is much wisdom in the adage: 'Slow and steady wins the race'.

It's not that I'm not concerned about the state of the church. I am. But, I think we've been asking all the wrong questions and trying to "fix" the problem without first taking the time to make an accurate assessment and diagnosis.

For example, instead of asking, "How can we ordain LGBT people or bless their relationships?" why not ask, "What might God be doing, at this time and place in our history, in bringing so many LGBT people to the church? What can they teach us about what we might have taken for granted about human sexuality, covenanted relationships, commitment and service?"

If we started with those questions, we might end up in an entirely different place.

To be fair, we should also ask, "What is God doing in bringing all the orthodites into the church at this time? What can we learn from them about conserving, and their perspective of scripture and their passion and zeal?"

What if we started paying attention to that which God has already given us - the 'bums' that are already in the pew? What if, instead of placing all our anxiety in programs for 'mission' and 'congregational development', we decided to also invest in deepening spirituality and prayer?

What might happen if we tended to the spirits that are in the vines already growing in the vineyard? Made them stronger? Helped them grow deeper?

Instead of answering the question, "Got a problem?" with "I got a program," what if we asked:

Got a problem?

And the answer were: I got a prayer.

I just got off the phone with a parishioner who was telling me of a problem she's having at work. We talked for about 20 minutes and she said, "This has been helpful, thank you. Now , I should get back to work."

"Wait," I said, "before you go, let's have a little prayer, shall we?"

"Prayer?" she said. "You mean, now? On the phone?"

"Yes," I said. "Would that be okay?"

She was still a bit befuddled, but said, "Sure. I mean, okay."

So, we prayed. I have no idea what I said, but after I said, "Amen," there was this very loud silence at the end of my receiver.

"Hello?" I said, "Are you still there?"

She was weeping softly as she said, "Yes, yes. I'm still here."

I let her compose herself for a few seconds and then I heard her say, "You know, maybe if we had prayed at the beginning of this conversation, we wouldn't have needed to have this conversation."

Well, I think the conversation helped to better frame the prayer, but she does have a point.

Maybe if we spent more time in silence, we'd be able to hear God's answer to our prayers. Instead of constant chatter, what if we developed some 'consistent contemplation'? You know, times when people can come together not to think or talk or socialize with each other as much as listening for the Spirit in our midst.

I know. I sound like a Quaker. Well, you know what? Maybe that's not such a bad thing. Many of the solutions to the social problems in this country - like civil rights and suffrage - were led by Quakers.

We could learn a few things by being still and listening, along with our glorious music and eloquent books of prayers - common or uncommon.

So, while I enjoy my relationship with the Hares in my life, I'm going to start celebrating my "inner Tortoise" - and encouraging others to do that, as well.

"Slow and steady wins the race."

I think that's my new mantra for 2009.

15 comments:

David said...

'For example, instead of asking, "How can we ordain LGBT people or bless their relationships?" why not ask, "What might God be doing, at this time and place in our history, in bringing so many LGBT people to the church? What can they teach us about what we might have taken for granted about human sexuality, covenanted relationships, commitment and service?"'

Amen Sistah!

'What if we started paying attention to that which God has already given us - the 'bums' that are already in the pew? What if, instead of placing all our anxiety in programs for 'mission' and 'congregational development', we decided to also invest in deepening spirituality and prayer?'

And again I say Amen!

'Maybe if we spent more time in silence, we'd be able to hear God's answer to our prayers. Instead of constant chatter, what if we developed some 'consistent contemplation'? You know, times when people can come together not to think or talk or socialize with each other as much as listening for the Spirit in our midst.'

Elizabeth, you are so 'on the money' I'd dare to call this prophetic about the real call of the Holy Spirit is in these times. ie. being Church- the Body of Christ, rather than doing Church

Thank you, sweet sister

David@Montreal

whiteycat said...

Three cheers for the inner Tortois! Thanks, Elizabeth ... this is great and exactly what I needed to hear this morning.

IT said...

I agree, I don't think you need a program necessarily--being yourselves may be all it takes. We attended the "newcomer's brunch" at our local Cathedral. There were so many people that the staff had to scramble for more chairs and table settings. (It is my personal opinion that at least 3/4 of the potential newcomers were unhappy Roman Catholics,like my beloved). The Dean didn't deal with big issues. He simply expressed a radical welcome: "You are meant to be here now, and that's enough."

Sometimes welcome is all you need.

Sally said...

Double AMEN

And then, there's this.

I often wondered whilst being extruded through the process why it was that there were so many women like me, of a "certain age in the machinery with me. After futzing about with it, it finally dawned on me. God needed midwives.
Midwives to help in bringing in new life into the church.

Fr Craig said...

Elizabeth - another excellent column. I'm 2nd (5th, actually) career priest, ordained 7 years ago, and spent my first 5 years with two yoked parishes in rural Kansas. They were both shrinking, and I beat my head against the wall trying to figure out how to 'grow' them. I was in business before and I understand marketing, mission statements, etc. I came to conclude that a) there is always a potential group of seekers (any age) at any moment wondering how to build a relationship with God, b) the Episcopal church is not on their shopping list (admit it - most people don't know who/what we are - we are a 'niche' church), c) absent some kind of passion about our own relationship with God and about our parish, we won't invite others to 'come and see,' d) we and other mainlines are still living in that dreamworld of the baby boom when churches were bursting at the seams and most folks just want to 'go back' to the good old days. My answer? You build passion through hands on ministry (vs check book ministry) and we need to get savvy about advertising and marketing. We also need to avoid what I consider Evangelical heresy: doing whatever it takes to get people to come to worship. Doing that makes the church a provider of personal self esteem - and I am convinced that the Gospel is not about me, it's about the 'other' This is a hard sell, and I cannot point to success at my new cure (but it's only been 2 years). Problem? Everyone is just too damned busy to volunteer, etc. I truly don't know the answer, but it isn't rock music and power point and personal spiritual highs. There is a great paradox here, though: giving of myself to others IS a spiritual high - we're living into God's image and it feels good. Love your stuff, Elizabeth, and check you every day - have no idea how you have the energy to keep this blog up!!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Fr. Craig - "this blog" is how I keep my sanity. Sometimes the world spins so fast . . .you know?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

David - I probably should add that there are times when I know I'm asking the wrong questions about the 'orthodites'. I have to work on that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for all of your 'Amens'. I guess the other reason I write this blog is because there are such very smart people who agree with me. ;~)

Although, I have to confess that I also love it when you say, "Yes, but . . . ."

Gives me reason to think things through again - because I really do value your opinions and perspectives.

Jim said...

I think you are on to something here. Maybe we need to stop developing another program and try to get on with God's. Maybe we need to shut up and listen.

I know I and my fellow mystics, lay and clergy try to listen.

Some years ago, my elder son asked me about my centering prayer discipline. I tried to explain it to him and as words work so badly -- failed. He finally asked me to show him.

So, we sat together and I offered a guided meditation. After about 3 minutes, he said, "Daddy this is hard!" I said he was right and that if and when he was ready, he would find a path.

Today, we share the Anglican Rosary in a couple ways. But his comment is still valid: this (listening) is hard. Worth doing: but none-the-less.

What troubles me about some folks, is that they are so willing to tell me what God said, but not to listen to God now. "Be still and know that I am God." Yup!

FWIW
jimB

David said...

call me simplistic perhaps, but my sense is that it begins with one single word- relationship.

our relationship, individually and collectively with God as a people, but equaly essential our relationship wih each other. and essentially church as an institution not only too often formalizes the former, it almost kills the latter.

case in point: a person i met over the holidays. she had been a cradle Anglican until her marriage to her Jewish fiance. Amazingly no conversion was required for their reform marriage, but their household was a Jewish one, and she lovingly and conscientiously kept kosher and performed the rituals and prayers.

upon the death of her husband of 30+ years, she found herself longing for something more and ended up exploring several of the Episcopal parishes in her mid-western American city where she lives.

three out of five she was never even asked her name (each of these parishes had two visits). one parish, after three or four visits, names were exchanged, hands shaken, and she was asked about envelopes. the fifth parish, she was actually mistaken at the altar rail for someone else, and denied the sacraments, and she left in tears. shamefully, it was only when she called back later for an explanation that she found out the reason.

so for Christmas she was back in Montreal,her home town, and wondering if things might be different here. she had a wonderful experience at our Cathedral here on Christmas Eve apparently, and at her former parish someone actually recognized her from more than 30 years ago.

But five churches, and to quote her, not one of them recognized her as a child of God.

FranIAm said...

...Maybe if we spent more time in silence, we'd be able to hear God's answer to our prayers. Instead of constant chatter, what if we developed some 'consistent contemplation'? You know, times when people can come together not to think or talk or socialize with each other as much as listening for the Spirit in our midst."

That is brilliant.

Joie said...

Haven't yet read the entry. First have to ask, is that an Aurthur Rackham illustration? I grew up with his books. Don't come across too many who know his work.

jsd said...

Having purposely transplanted myself in Vermont from Texas I couldn’t help but identify with your comments about North and South – there’s often been times when I felt like a Mesquite in the midst of Pines.

I hadn’t properly prepared myself for culture shock. Hospitality is displayed differently here in New England then down South. Upon first arrival many a conversation was spent watching the other person look like a deer caught in the headlights, but to a southerner is just normal conversation.

I often think my northern home could use a large dose of radical hospitality while my southern home could do with a bit more “are you sure you want to cast the first stone.”

I agree with the steady not so sure about the slow – there’s dangers to both too quickly and not quickly enough. But I think when one spends time in contemplation the first gift we give ourselves is one of self healing, the second is an enriching of our relationship with God, the third is then taking ourselves back into our communities. Contemplation and conversation – changing hearts.

Bill said...

Elizabeth, I think you are right when you said 'What if we started paying attention to that which God has already given us - the 'bums' that are already in the pew? What if, instead of placing all our anxiety in programs for 'mission' and 'congregational development', we decided to also invest in deepening spirituality and prayer?'

That’s kind of a quality vs. quantity issue and I like the concept. If you have true quality, quantity will follow. It’s a “by word of mouth” type endorsement like the recent movie “Slum Dog Millionaire”. Now it’s a Golden Globe winner and people will flock to see what they have been missing. But before that it was being passed on by word of mouth. “Man, you have to see this flick. I think you’ll love it.” The Episcopal Church has much in the same manner attracted many of the GLBT folks along with some disenfranchised RC’s. Why, because by word of mouth we came to know that we would be welcomed, even included.

I’m not one for the hard sell technique. I’m not an evangelical or a missionary. But, if a friend of mine is having a problem, or doesn’t feel really welcome in their current church, I will take the time to have a little private talk with them. I tell them my story and why I chose to become Episcopal. I don’t ask them to change, only to listen and think about it. Again, it’s word of mouth on a one to one basis and I think that that is the slow sure way, the tortoise way to bring people into the Church.

Kathryn said...

There are times when the existence of the Atlantic is a huge pain in almost anywhere you might care to mention...I feel very much like standing beneath your study window cheering heartily and thanking God for your words.
Today I spent some time with my wonderful Spir Dir talking about the difference between the Anglican concept of the parish priest "having the living" and the current model of task-oriented frantic management...I felt able to divert some of the task oriented angst that comes with being a new incumbent - and to see that there might be a better way. Then I came home, logged on, and read about it.
I'm so glad that the blog is a route to sanity for you - it's a huge help to others also.