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Friday, May 20, 2011

Justice IS Orthodox Theology

Dave Walker
There is always lots of anxiety, in varying degrees and amounts, in the systemic body known as the church. It bubbles up and surfaces from time to time, depending on the time of year.

It usually happens just around this time as rectors, wardens, vestry members and treasurers look at the calendar with furrowed brow in anticipation of the trickle of pledges that will come in over the summer months of July and August.

That anxiety will continue to bubble in the heat of the summer, finally reaching a full boil in September when Finance Committees begin to make projections about the budget for the end of the year and begin to develop a budget for the following year.

Meanwhile, Stewardship Committees begin to plan Campaigns that simultaneously encourage people to "catch up on their pledge" while trying to inspire them to increase - or at least maintain, please - their pledge for next year.

It also happens just around this time every year as newly graduating seminarians scramble to hear their first "call" to ministry - or, more specifically, to get a church or agency, school or hospital - somebody, anybody, please - to hear and validate their vocation by offering them a position on staff.

Otherwise, the canons of The Episcopal Church say that a bishop ought not ordain the candidate for transitional diaconate and priesthood. It's the final 'hoop' in a path that is so littered with "one more thing" that it looks more like a demonic obstacle course than a spiritual journey to ordained service in God's one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Ah, I remember it well - without a shred of fondness.

Recently, over on HOB/D, the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv, the anxiety surfaced around the reported lack of jobs for newly graduating seminarians. Dire reports are given about bishops in otherwise financially secure dioceses releasing seminarians from their canonical ties to the diocese in order to pursue their vocations wherever they can.

That anxiety has always been with us, but the anxiety now becomes part of a deeper expression of the reality that curacies - those wonderful positions of ecclesiastical internship or residency in a large congregation or cathedral under the tutelage of a wise, older priest or dean - have now become almost as scarce as hen's teeth.

Assistant Priest or Assistant-to-the-Rector positions are also drying up and in danger of extinction.

One of the "orthodox" brothers on HOB/D - a curmudgeonly old chap who can regularly be relied upon to pull my last, poor, tired nerve - generously offered his opinion that perhaps "maybe, just maybe, if TEC returned to actually growing/planting orthodox and Biblically grounded congregations - there would not be a 'shortage' of full time positions for our clergy - new and otherwise. I know that this runs counter to the agenda of what many of 'those currently in charge' are following".

Funny, I thought the "agenda" of the church - including "those currently in charge" was the orthodox idea of the "mission of the church". It's in our "Outline of Faith", sometimes known as "The Catechism". It's in the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 845.

On page 855, we read about the church:
Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
Turns out, 'justice, peace and love' are thoroughly part of "orthodox theology" and are, in fact the 'agenda' of those 'currently in charge'.  And, rightly so.

Well, you know me. I had to respond:

Those churches that are doing the work of justice ARE growing and thriving. I can name at least ten of those churches without breaking a sweat. There are more. Many more.

Here's the thing: Over the last few months, I've been sitting with a few seminarians, looking over profiles of churches. Many of those profiles say the same thing.

They are a:
1. Vibrant community.
2. Which is Christ-centered.
3. And known for taking care of each other.
4. Are "warm and welcoming".
5. And have established "outreach programs".
6. And have an "enthusiastic" youth group (of mostly unknown number).
7. And have an average Sunday attendance of 100 (with 2-3 services)
They are looking for a priest who is:
1. A good listener.
2. A compassionate person.
3. An inspirational / outstanding preacher.
4. A good teacher - one who can relate to all ages of people.
5. Who can lead them into the future (which is not defined)
6. Provide them with / return them to" financial security".
7. Help them grow.
Mind you, nothing about the mission of the church. Nothing about "justice, peace and love". Nothing about the gospel. Nothing about leadership. Nothing about their new priest being a person of prayer, much less having a strong spirituality.

Nothing about their own vision of where God may be calling them. Nothing about why they want to grow - #7 - but one suspects it may have something to do with #6.

"All" they want is a pastor who can hold their hands, love them, listen to them, teach them, and/or be 'Superman/woman'.

At least, that's the way it sounds.

It's as if diocesan "deployment officers" - now known as "Transition Officers" among the many other titles in their portfolio - have been given a congregational version of one of those refrigerator magnet poetry games which they pass around to "churches in transition".

Just move around some words and phrases and make your own parish profile - or, three-fold leaflet, as seems to be currently in vogue - which contain links to the parish website which probably provide more information than many congregations realize they are making available about themselves.

Most of the seminarians I've spoken with look at these profiles, then look at me and say, "Really?" And then, they put those profiles at the bottom of the pile.

They come back to them, a few weeks later, because many of the interesting places are part time and they can't afford to work part time - or they would be willing to work part time as "Priest in Charge" for three years while the congregation gambles the rest of what's left in their endowment, but while the bishop in that diocese talks about mission and Jesus s/he doesn't have a vision, much less a plan for that congregation. 

Or, for that matter, the rest of the diocese. Just a lot of God-talk that sounds good - almost poetic - but has no schedule of implementation, no mechanism of accountability, no evaluative tool for on-going assessment and adjustment. Were that bishop a CEO of any other corporation, s/he would be fired.

So, these seminarians suck in their breath as they fill out the application for anything they can get. If they do get a job, they are willing to do whatever is necessary - or not do what is necessary to

(1) get ordained, and
(2) keep their jobs at least long enough until something else is available.

Most of those churches would never call a transitional deacon or a newly minted priest, anyway.

And, when they 'get' those jobs? Well, here are some sobering statistics:
A Duke University study found that eighty-five percent of seminary graduates entering the ministry leave within five years and 90% of all pastors will not stay to retirement (Kanipe, 2007, n.p.). This study also found that the North Georgia clergy attrition rate ran as high as 90% for those having served 20 years or more. These ministers apparently left to preserve what was left of their families, their sanity, their health and their faith (Kanipe).

According to studies by the Alban Institute and Fuller Seminary, 50% of ministers drop out of ministry within the first five years and many never to go back to church again (Meek et al., 2003,p. 340). LifeWay Christian Resources’ Department of Pastoral Ministries conducts an annual survey compiled in cooperation with Baptist State Convention Church Ministry Relations Teams and Directors of Missions. Their 1984 study on forced terminations in the Southern Baptist Convention indicated 1,056 pastors were terminated annually; four years later totals increased to 1,392 (B. Self, personal communication, March 17, Keeping Your Pastor (Stewart) Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences 13(3) 113
Oh, there are some outstanding churches with committed lay leadership and a vision of where they want to be and the person they need to help lead them there, but they are few and far between. Those who will take the risk of calling a newly minted priest are even more rare - if their bishop will even allow that.

What I'm saying is that the situation is both complex and complicated and we have an institutional system that is not equipped to tend to it.

I'm saying that we are trying to pour new wine into old wine skins.

I'm saying that this will not be solved by writing ten rules on the wall, following them closely, praying a prescribed way, using correct words, singing appropriate hymns and all will be well.

I'm saying that looking for simple answers/solutions to difficult questions/problems is killing the Body of Christ. We need a more systemic, holistic approach that involves collaboration among and between bishops, clergy and laity who have a vision of the Realm of God and a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I'm saying that justice is orthodox theology and what we need is to be less concerned about churches and numbers and jobs and more concerned about cultivating and empowering Christians who want to live and do the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But, I don't have any strong opinions about this.

No, none at all.


mdharnois said...

Yup, you have summed up my experience pretty well. My first two years were spent serving a three-congregation parish with an average of twelve worshipers at each point. I was lucky to escape with my life. The bishop there thought my unwillingness to just sit back and go down with the ship represented a lack of faithfulness. Next I spent two years at an open-country church which turned out to be run by one very vicious family. I was hospitalized after leaving there. My next opportunity was a small-town church that was in slow, gentle decline and went from being able to afford full-time clergy to not being able to do so while I was there. At that point I became one of the statistics you cite, as I could see that depending on the church for my livelihood was a losing proposition.

None of these places had any interest in witnessing and advocating for peace and justice. They were interested in their own maintenance. And the hierarchy was interested in having me maintain them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It's all so very sad. I'm sure it makes Jesus weep. I'm trying to figure out what went wrong - or, has it always been wrong? Does the church contain the seeds of its own destruction? One thing I know for sure: easy answers and 'good deacons' and 'compassionate priests' and 'affable bishops" are not the answer. Indeed, I think they are part of the problem.

mdharnois said...

It is very difficult to have an institutional structure, as an evil necessary to the accomplishment of mission, without becoming an institution (which has a lot in common with becoming a zombie.) As soon as the church, at any level, becomes an institution, then the first task of its leaders, whether clergy or lay, becomes the maintenance of the institution.

Some years ago I had the sad, painful experience of watching my best friend become a bishop. He was someone of a prophetic bent and had managed to get himself in trouble more than once by being impolitic; but over the course of two or three years, everything we had in common vanished as he came to see his calling from God as being the protection, defense and maintenance of an institution.

Dom said...

Very nice post! I have just two comments.

First, I absolutely cringe when I hear loaded expressions like "orthodox and Biblically grounded". It has been my experience that when someone yearns for a church like this, they often mean that they want a church that suppresses women and gay people. Very sad.

Second, it seems to me that many of the churches that are inwardly focused (more concern for their finances, buildings, etc.) are struggling financially. While many churches that genuinely try to serve Christ in other people are doing better. Maybe this is poetic justice.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

mdharnois - I have a friend in the running in an episcopal race right now. S/he has asked me, if s/he gets elected, to promise to hold him/her accountable. "I'm counting on you to tell me when I'm being an asshole," s/he said. To which I responded, "If you're giving me that responsibility, you're already in trouble. Here's the rule. It's the same one as applied before you were ordained priest. It will be the same if you are ordained bishop: If you think you're being an asshole, you probably already are."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dom - I couldn't agree with you more on both points you make. It's just so hard to get people to (1) hear the code language for prejudice (2) understand that the gospel requires a response to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Anonymous said...

Of course, if the clergy agreed to accept no pay like the Quakers, and we remembered that the church is its people and not these silly buildings then there is no need worry about financially supporting the instutional church.

After B.L. was killed I went to church expecting to hear a sermon on how a christain does not rejoice at the death of another. Did I hear that sermon? Nope, nada, nyet. Instead I heard a bland apolitical sermon on the importance of the Eucharist. Nice but couldn't the priest have dovetailed in the idea that christ is present in every creation?
Perhaps, the priest is too concerned with keeping his/her livilihood then pronouncing the commandments and teachings. Just a thought.

Dale said...

Yes, social justice is very orthodox, but the question of to which demographic we should be directing our social justice work is a completely different discussion. And its probably good that clergy who don't want to minister "to" congregations don't pursue such jobs. Having some fresh-out-of-seminary cleric show up and toss out established outreach ministries because he or she has pet demographics that the congregation hasn't pursued is destructive to congregations. During transitions, we pray for God to send a "faithful pastor" to "equip us for our ministries," not someone to redesign a parish in his or her own image.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous - Thanks for your visit and your comments. Next time, please leave your name. Thanks.

With regard to bin Laden's death. I'm not sure how I would have preached on it. I know what I wrote in my Blog but preaching is a very different matter. Want to know why St. Paul seems to contradict himself? He was preaching to very different communities.

Just a thought from one who takes preaching as serious as a heart attack.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dale, I get your point but with all do respect, the "wipe the slate clean" approach is rarely one done by a newly minted priest. More like an arrogant older priest who has determined that negotiation and consensus building is for wimps and has determined to take matters in her/his own hands.

Always a bad move in Christian community. As Saul Alinsky said, "A leader without a following is just a person out for a walk."

Now - changing the culture of a congregation - say, from "Lord/Lady Bountiful of Suburbia" distributing sweet, white gloved charity to an understanding of gospel-centered mission? That's a cross I'm willing to die on. And, almost did.

Dale said...

I think a congregation with a ministry of check writing is still worthwhile if the checks are being put to good use. My former parish was a Lady Bountiful of Suburbia model, and the new conservative Rector was an ex-seminary professor who wanted to teach and make himself the NT Wright of the region, but nobody wanted to sit through the boring lectures, so he began retaliating against all the volunteers, saying volunteers had to be appointed by the Rector, from a list of people who attend his Adult Ed sessions. So the outreach to the homeless and the food pantries has almost died off completely, and all of a sudden a single week of VBS each summer is considered "community outreach." Anyway, I am probably a little bitter. Parishes have cultures, clergy need to be aware of the cultures of parishes and be capable of ministering to the congregations they serve.

J. Michael Povey said...

See also

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Good article, Michael. I'm always glad to see an Episcopal bishop quoted - especially when eh says something brilliant.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dale - Yours was a particular - and peculiar - situation. At least the church supported outreach despite the rector's inclinations to the contrary (shame on him). I'm sure you know that's not what I'm talking about. I know many rectors of suburban congregations who are literally dragging their congregations into more than check-writing ministry - sometimes, at their own professional and spiritual peril. It's a disgrace!

walter said...

An interesting connotation, Elizabeth, of Orthodox Christianity; better said, a brilliant connotation of Orthodox Christianity.

Walter Vitale

Michel S. said...

I like Bp. Rickel's base camp metaphor -- a UU minister, Andrew Pakula, used the same metaphor here; quite interesting convergence given the organizational differences.

Institutions, I think, can be both a boon and a bane. That both decentralized (UCC, UUA) and more hierarchical (TEC, ELCA) denominations are facing the same problem might indicate that the problem is not the structure per se, but how it's used .. hopefully prominent ecumenical campaigns such as Belief Out Loud (and churches participating in is the way forward (and prominent inclusive messages such as the UCC's bouncer ad campaign... has TEC done something similar recently?)

Bill Carroll said...

For Bin Laden's death, I wasn't preaching. I'm not sure if I would have mentioned it or not. I certainly wouldn't have preached a bland, apolitical sermon on the nature of the Eucharist. Such a sermon is probably getting the Eucharist wrong.

What I did do, since I was presiding, was pray the collect for our enemies (BCP, p. 816, no. 6) at the conclusion of the Prayers of the People.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

That sounded like a wise decision, Bill

walter said...

I wonder, Elizabeth, if a Christian decision for its very own nature could ever be wise? A particular thank you, Elizabeth, for the stimulation you inspire me in this particular morning of awareness of my boredom. May the Lord find a-way out in me of this cursed boredom (maledetta noia).

Walter Vitale