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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Anxiety and Apathy

I sometimes wonder if there's an ecclesiastical version of Xanax I could slip into the communion wine in some diocesan Eucharistic services.

Just a little something to lower the diocesan anxiety level just a tad so that we might raise the resulting level of apathy in the pews.

Anxiety and apathy are old friends. They walk together and feed off each other.

It's not that bishops and diocesan staff don't have a reason to be anxious. I've been reading some diocesan reports and resolutions in preparation for diocesan conventions ('Tis the season) and while it appears that some churches are inching up their diocesan pledge by point two or three (0.2-03) or even 0.5 percentage points, the actual dollar amount is less than the year before (and the year before that) because the congregational budget has been cut.

This is obviously not good news for diocesan administrations who are trying to do all the things they used to do - and more - with less.

And yet, the cheerful spin is relentlessly, anxiously cheerful.

Oh, look how much money we gave away to these organizations! Oh, look at what the bishop said about this Highly Relevant cultural issue! Oh, look at all the pictures of all the young people of color acolyting at the diocesan event!

That's because, at least in part, diocesan communications staff are being hired to "sell the diocesan brand" rather than communicating diocesan news.

Which, of course, is because if the diocese were actually to print "The News", everyone would collapse into a state of anxiety and then slip into a near comatose state of apathy.

In more than a few dioceses I know, the theme of diocesan convention is about mission. Of course. It's the current rage, you know. All the cool Christians are doing it.

What's fascinating to me is that one bishop - Himself and in print - admits that he doesn't know how to define mission. Says we need to clarify what we mean by mission. Says that it must be defined by congregations in their own particular location.

Well, here's the thing: We do have a definition of mission. It's intentionally - and, for some, frustratingly - broad: "The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ".

There are some other helpful explanations that continue on page 855 of the BCP
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.
See? It's not so much that mission needs to be *defined* by congregations in their own particular location, it's that mission needs to be lived out in the particulars of the realities of their location.

Everything....*everything* - liturgy, music, pastoral care, and reaching out beyond the borders of the church - needs to be done in service of the restoration of the unity of God's people with God and each other in Christ.

So, for example, a church that says that it "welcomes absolutely everybody" but does not provide a good sound system for those who are hearing impaired or a wheelchair ramp or elevator for those who are physically impaired, or a worship service for their Hispanic or Asian neighbors in their own language or style is not fully living into the mission of the church.

Or, a church that provides maximum access into the church building and inclusion in their worship services but do not provide something - *anything* - to meet the corporal needs of their community - especially in terms of promoting "justice, peace and love" - is not fully living into the mission of the church.

And, I'm not talking about just throwing money at organizations who do these things, or depleting the rector's discretionary fund to help pay utilities or the rent - as important as that is (and it is increasingly important these days).

I'm talking about the 'sweat equity' of "all the members of the church" in actually making sandwiches or providing warm blankets or coats and maybe even distributing them at the local shelter.

Or, how about organizing a team of members to assist at a shelter a few nights a month? Or, working with Habitat for Humanity in building or remodeling or repairing a home? Or, helping to organize a bible study at the local jail or prison (and don't tell me there isn't one within less than 30 minutes from your church). Or, assisting or - how about this? - even hosting an ESL project in the Parish Hall?

I know one church that jokingly says that their unofficial mission statement is, "Hey, ya gotta eat."

They have a Sunday morning breakfast between services. Their coffee hours are amazing. Every special event features great food afterwards.

Last year, they raised a little in excess of $124,000 for the mission of the church and gave it all away. And, of course, they feed people the spiritual nourishment of Word and Sacrament every Sunday and once during the week at a Healing Eucharist.

It should not be a surprise, then, when I tell you that, last Sunday, the church was so full they ran out of bulletins. Pledges are up significantly this year - in this economy! There is, at this point, a 5% increase in new pledges. Their Youth Group is now double the size it was two years ago.

This is a church that is very clear about its mission - even if they don't have a snappy mission statement and the one they have is a little joke. It works.

I have seen a few advertisement for other churches and, at the bottom, it said,

"St. Swithens Church: We help people help themselves."

Another one said, simply: "St. Agatha's Church: We feed people."

A third said, "Holy Trinity Church: Inter-generational, International, Involved".

A fourth said, "St. James Church: Where everybody can be somebody."

This is not rocket science, people.

Indeed, it's downright biblical.

The Book of Acts is a study guide in how to live together in Christian community. The Pauline Epistles give us another glimpse into how the ancient church formed itself around the mission of Jesus.

The thing of it is that the bishop is the "Chief Missioner" of the diocese. The canons don't say that, exactly, but they're pretty clear in the expectation that the bishop will lead the way in mission.

It's the bishop's primary role. Interestingly enough, that's one of the reasons the boundaries around each diocese are so firm and clear. No Shepherd stealing any other Shepherd's sheep. Because, the role of the Shepherd is to care for the sheep - AND - to seek out the lost sheep and bring them into the fold.

S/he can't do that very well if the system is shot through-and-through with his/her anxiety about the finances of the diocese - even if there's good reason for that anxiety.

What inevitably happens when the leadership is anxious is that the base becomes apathetic.

That's biblical, too. "Without a vision, the people perish".

I swear one of these years I'm going to go to General Convention with a button that is circled in red with a red line through it and it will read: "No more nice guys".

I'll also donate a bunch of them to Episcopal Search Committees and Commissions on Ministries.

Don't get me wrong. "Nice people" are fine. Churches are always full of them. And, lots of people who aren't so nice but want you to think they are. Which is why they "appear" in church.

We need leaders. Non-anxious leaders who will see the possibilities and provide guidance and inspiration and - wait for it - support and resources for their ordained and lay leaders in local congregations who are trying - really, really trying - to figure out how to do the mission of the church where God has called them to live and move and have their being.

When congregations and clergy get no support or resource or guidance from "The Chief Missioner" because the level of anxiety is so high it's paralyzing, they fall prey to apathy.

Yes, my tombstone will be engraved with the following words, "They didn't ask me."

Here's what I know that I want you to know before I die - even if you didn't ask:

The focus on and clarity of mission is the best ecclesiastical Xanax I know.

Don't wait for your "Chief Missioner". Decide on the one thing - just one thing - you can do right where you are and do that. Then, look for other people to join you in doing that one thing - or a variation on whatever it is that helps to" restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."

Because, hey, everybody's gotta do something while we wait for Christ to return.

Wait! Here's a thought: Maybe He already has. Maybe He's here already. Walking among us. Disguised as a person hungry for food or affection, or imprisoned by addiction, or enslaved by poverty.

Hey, maybe it's the Body of Christ that is besieged by anxiety or near comatose with apathy and needs ministering to before it can minister to others.

Quick! Everybody! Get busy! There's lots of work to be done!

And, Jesus is watching.


bafreeman42 said...

This piece is so spot on I just had to respond. Claiming your mission is not brain surgery. But so many of our sisters and brothers who are ordained have gravitated to this vocation to experience something spiritual, to counsel and pastor and be kind and NOT to be entrepreneurs. But that is what we need---to love God, love people and to LEAD them towards a defined and mutually agree upon mission. Liz --you are wonderful. Keep writing and I'll keep reading and lurking as your admirer! Your friend, Bruce Freeman

Leslie Y said...

Anxiety can be such a burden and can make it difficult to feel as though you are living life. I found this website that provides great techniques on how to take control of anxiety, I definitely suggest taking a look.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey there, Bruce. So good to hear from you. Hey, y'all, can you tell we went to seminary together? Bruce is a kick-ass priest AND a genuinely nice guy. Hey, Bruce, here's the deal: you keep doing your work for Jesus and I'll keep lurking and admiring you.

Mary O'Shaughnessy said...

Here's a video about how St. Luke in the Fields lives out its mission in some ways (it doesn't include food pantry support, shelter support, Myanmar orphanage support, and some other stuff):

This past year we responded to 95 requests for new member information.

Hutch said...

Having recently been at a church with a GREAT slogan - that they did not mean as evidenced by their actions towards one another - I am a little tired of great slogans. Just say what you mean, people. We love everyone as long as they do things the way we always did them, are just like us and don't rock the boat. Mission - why we have been feeding the same people for ____ years. We don't need to change. Look at our lovely little black children we are teaching Old English hymns to and paying to get taught - not that they or their families attend this church. And let's try to reward the "more deserving" of the poor we serve. Am I getting jaded and tired of the whole thing? You betcha. Tired of seeing good people hurt by other people that claim they are God's chosen and practicing His love. I hope not. But, I think I am also just in a foul mood about the instituitional church lately, anyway.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Leslie Y - It's not only a burden to the person, when that person is the leader, it's a burden to the whole system.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary - God bless you and your church. It's amazing how this whole mission thing works. Probably because it's so central to our identity as Christians. It's really irresistible.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hutch - the church can often put people in a Really Foul Mood. Take a break. Do your own thing. Invite others to "Come and see". You'll be amazed at the good it does your soul.

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