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Saturday, February 04, 2012

What's in it for you?

Agnus Day
Of all the things Jesus said and did, texts like this one from Mark 1:29-39 are the ones that make me squirm in my stiff white collar. We'll hear it tomorrow morning in church.

Jesus had no Temple or Church. No office hours. No one made an appointment to come see him. He went out to where the people were and preached and taught and healed them where they were.

He collected no salary or pension or health or life insurance. No travel or housing or continuing educational allowance. No car, in fact.

He hoofed it on foot, walking all over Israel, from the North to the South and sea to shining sea.

In a way, I envy him. He never had to worry about the Three Killer B's of Parish Ministry: Budgets, Boilers and Bishops. (There are another B-words some use to describe some of the people in the pew - or the pastor in the pulpit - but since this is a family blog, I'll refrain from elaboration.)

St. Paul told the early church in Corinth: "For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel". (1 Corinthians 9:16-23)

What he means by this, I think (and whoever knows what Paul is really thinking), is that he didn't want to give anyone any ammunition to discredit him or impugn his motives for preaching the Good News.

You have to admit, it's a powerful argument.

When I was going through the ordination process, someone on the Commission on Ministry asked me, "So, what's in this for you?" At the time, I was shocked and deeply resented the question. I was angry and hurt that anyone would question my motives.

Understand, please, that I was the fourth woman to go through the ordination process in a diocese that had been intensely hostile to ordaining women. I automatically assumed that his question was filled with gender bias.

Perhaps there was some of that in there, but I was comforted when I later learned that he asked that question of all aspirants for Holy Orders who came before the COM.

It's a good question. It's an important question. It's a question everyone who is doing any kind of ministry - lay or ordained - should ask themselves and each other: Why you are doing what you are doing in the church?

What are you getting out of it? I mean, besides the fact that you love Jesus and want to live a sacrificial life of servant ministry? What's in it for you, besides the good feeling that comes from feeling good and righteous and noble?

Tough question, isn't it? Makes you squirm a little, doesn't it?

The thing of it is that, unless we get clear about our motives for ministry, we set up ourselves and others for all sort and manner of power dynamics and dysfunction.

Agnus Day
There's an excellent article by Bradley N. Hill in this month's Christian Century: "An elephant in the room?: How meeting agendas get hijacked".

When someone claims there is an elephant in the room it generally means a huge and hot topic present that is so volatile everyone tacitly agrees to avoid it.

"The elephant," Hill writes, "is an obvious but hard truth that is not being addressed, in part because to face, name and own the related issue would be frightening. Honesty becomes taboo. No one wants to cause embarrassment. The group prefers avoidance and feigned ignorance to bold but painful confrontation. It is a form of denial."

More often than not, however, it's more like crying wolf in the midst of sheep. Or, yelling "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater.

It's a power-play.

"As a result," says Hill, "the elephant crier takes over the meeting and the elephant - whatever it is, however big or small - defines the terms of engagement. We must deal with the elephant before we can do anything else. The elephant crier usurps the agenda and owns the floor......Either way, any other discussion is cut off because of the urgency of this "new" issue.

I submit that the real issue in these cases can be found in the murky baptismal water of motivation for ministry.

I know I'm going to sound really, really jaded when I say this, but here it goes: I suspect that all this talk in the church - well, these days, in The Episcopal Church - about mission is not about mission but a power-play that serves the institutional church.

Here's why I say this: A plan that seeks to 'restructure for mission' which limits the power of the baptized but not ordained is not an honest plan. It's not at all about mission but institutional preservation.

The presenting problem would seem to be declining membership and finances. Instead of putting our energies into dealing with the problem, we invite a herd of elephants into the room which are not the problem but may be part of the diagnosis of the problem.

Besides "not doing mission" - which is a valid issue, here are some of those elephants I've heard:
 * Liturgy and music and preaching have to be more 'relevant' - the definition of which changes depending on which elephant is crying loudest.

* We've got to "get back" to using *only* the BCP.

* We've got to have more "creativity" and use language that is not only expansive and inclusive but more reflective of the times.
* We have to have more "ethnic" music.

* The sermons have to be shorter - or, longer - and more expository in nature.

* The liturgy has to be "fun" or (gasp!) "entertaining".

* The younger generation is not just missing, it's members are missing because they don't have a youth group or a designated meeting room, or they're not allowed to 'tweet' or 'text' during the service, or the "music doesn't speak to them", or the service is not otherwise "youth friendly".

* We don't "market" our church. We need a mission statement that relentlessly appears everywhere on everything: the agendas of every meeting, the committees of the Vestry and even the budget has to be organized around the mission statement.

* Unaddressed issues of 'sin' - primarily among the leadership, staff or members.

* The congregation has never 'healed' from past disastrous leadership. They need 'time'.

* "Money follows mission". (This one makes me cringe. Every. Time.) If we just started doing the mission of the church - whatever that is - we'd have lots of money for the church. (As if those were two separate things.)
Mind you, these may be valid components of the reason congregations (and dioceses) are stuck and do not have something we like to call 'vitality' but, like 'mission', we're not really certain what that means.

We don't really have a consistent set of 'vital signs' to be able to determine whether or not a congregation has 'vitality'. Clearly, the old weights and measurements of ASA (Average Sunday Attendance), numbers of Baptisms, Marriages and Funeral, the number of children in Church School, and the Accounts Balance Sheet do not give the whole picture.

What if we looked at other standards, like, say, how many of the congregants feel that what they hear in church on Sunday shapes and forms what they do the rest of the week?

Or, how many of the church members have a strong sense that they are better equipped to be moral agents in their families, neighborhoods, and work and market places in the world because they are members of a faith community?

Or, here's my own, personal favorite 'vital signs' of a faith community:
How is 'church' defined - locally, diocesan, nationally and internationally?

How many would say that the church is a vehicle of transformation and healing?

Do the community members see themselves as servants of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Do the ordained leaders model servant leadership?

Do people in the congregation sense the living presence of the Risen Christ?

Is the focus of the church on what happens on Sunday morning or does what happen on Sunday morning shape and form what happens in the church - and the world - the rest of the week?

What risks has this community taken - what sacrifices has it (and it's individual members and leaders) made - for the Gospel?

Is the wilderness wild enough for them to confront their demons?

Is the desert dry enough for them to let die what needs to die?

Is the well deep enough for everyone who is thirsty to drink?

Is the spiritual food rich enough for everyone who hungers to be fed - and empowers and enables them to go out and feed others?
There are lots of reasons for church decline and financial difficulties, but crying 'mission' as the elephant in the room is to not confront some of the more difficult problems inherent in the fact that 'trickle down ecclesiology' - financial support of the institutional church at diocesan and national levels as the major focus of the church - has become *the mission* of the church.

Jesus came to save and heal others - not the church.

I remember hearing the rector of the congregation that supported me in ordination process preach, "The church that lives for itself, dies by itself." That is the picture that is emerging from the last Executive Council meeting. Clearly, that is the picture we'll be confronted with at General Convention in July in Indianapolis.

Clearly, that's not the picture we see in either Sunday's Gospel or in the snapshot Paul gives us of the early church in Corinth.

There's a little non-denominational evangelical church up the road from me that always has sayings on the church sign out front that sometimes makes me angry, sometimes makes me laugh, and sometimes makes me squirm.

This month, the sign reads: "Free coffee and eternal life at every service."

The gospel, says St. Paul, is "free of charge". He says that this is lest anyone question or impugn the motives of those who bring the Glad Tidings of God in Christ as we read it in the Gospels.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The Gospel was spread and the church grew and has lasted for centuries.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. (from Sunday's lectionary).
I know, I know. It makes me squirm, especially as I sit here typing this on my seven-year old $600 lap top in my nice warm home on the water, living frugally but comfortably on the pension I earned which is calculated by the income I received from working for the institutional church and the itinerant ministry I now perform.

Perhaps squirming is the beginning of the process of transformation. You know, the way you decide to begin to diet and exercise when you begin to feel too snug in your favorite jeans.

Perhaps transformation begins with the clarifying question, "So, what's in this for you?"

I suspect that question is the biggest elephant in the room.


Matthew said...

I agree that it is a good question but at this point I have become so jaded with COM's and candidates before them that I wonder if you get an honest response anyway? People have to learned to speak in code to provide the canned answer, even to this question, that I wonder if you get honesty. Those who are honest, I think, sometimes are punished or rejected. For example, I once asked a rector privately why he went to seminary and he said, Oh, I dunno, I wanted to get out of the Vietnam war and needed to stay in college a few more years and figured seminary would be easier than law school. I once asked another rector why he went to a particular church and he said simply, "The money. That's all. They offered more and I needed more with teenage kids." Are we prepared to accept these answers? a COM? And if not, we have to find a way to dis-incentivize that dishonesty we have now where people memorize the canned answers and move through, many of whom are just as mediocre as the rejects. I suspect that is the case with the dueling budgets. They don't want to reveal the "real reason." It would sound bad, even tawdry, so hence the spin and talking points about mission.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I know what you're saying is true AND I know lots of clergy who are superior servant leaders. Those who are a cut above the rest are all clear about why they do what they do: they love Jesus. Full stop. At least when clergy work for ....shall we say "other reasons" know why you get what you got.