Friday, May 29, 2015

The Presiding Bishop and General Convention

This morning I awoke to the happy news that my article with profiles of all four candidates for Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church has been published online and will soon appear in print in the June 6 issue of The Living Church. Having done profiles of two candidates in advance of the last election nine years ago (including one of Katherine Jefferts Schori, the eventual selection) I was pleased to be asked to do profiles of all four candidates this time.

As I noted in my article, we are in a very different era than we were in 2006--especially as far as the number and variety of information sources available to us. In 2006 the iPhone had not been announced and Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were in their infancy. Now, in only a few clicks, one can have more than enough information about the candidates as well as the General Convention as a whole. Scott Gunn has provided an excellent summary of the reports and resolutions of General Convention in his series of articles. Others have provided their own commentary, including an excellent series from Susan Snook in her blog and via the Acts 8 Moment group she helps lead. Speaking of the Acts 8 Moment, there is also the related Memorial to the Church at the newly-created Episcopal Resurrection site.

We are now less than one month away from the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church and, as you can well imagine, there are fast and furious discussions going on the House of Deputies and Bishops email list, the General Convention Facebook group, and via innumerable blogs. This coming convention promises to either be a transformational moment in which The Episcopal Church institutionally breaks itself open to facilitate more effective mission and ministry in the twenty-first century or the biggest disappointment in recent memory as the energy behind the near-unanimous vote for restructuring the Episcopal Church dissipates amid the realities of parochialism and turf wars. Bishop Andy Doyle has blogged about our human tendency towards limited vision here and I hope we are able to rise above such tendencies and truly position the church for twenty-first century ministry. We shall see.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

From Sheepdog to Lead Dog to--Listening Dog?

There is an old saying that if Jesus is the Great Shepherd and human beings are the sheep, then the clergy must be--sheepdogs. We even have collars! And, sometimes we clergy can feel that way--just barking at the sheep, trying to get them to do what we believe the Shepherd is calling us to do. And, frankly, most pastors I know don't have the energy to keep up that frantic pace and most "sheep" are tired of being barked at. So what's the solution?

Shut up and let the Great Shepherd speak. Listen to Him yourself. Help others listen, too.

As we approach the upcoming General Convention in the Episcopal Church, the upcoming general election in the United States, and the constant bombardment of apocalyptic thinking continues, I find myself being sucked into the temptation to simply do things faster or do more things, or find SOMETHING that will save the institutional church (and, oh yes, my job) from what seems a constant and inevitable death spiral. Yes, I know that may be overstating things. Yes, I know that there are plenty of examples of vibrant, growing churches. But mine is not (yet!) one of them and I can only go with what I have.

As I consider all of the challenges in the church and in the world, one disturbing thing was made clear to me in our bible study of the Gospel for this coming Sunday, often called Good Shepherd Sunday:

Jesus does not care about the institutional church.

Jesus makes it clear in and around the gospel passage that the "sheep" (a.k.a. the People of God) are his responsibility. He also makes clear that the "hired hands" (pastors?) are apt to run off and abandon the sheep at the slightest sign of trouble--maybe even for the best of reasons, I'm thinking. Maybe to get help. Maybe to try something else. Maybe just out of fatigue. Whatever it is, Jesus draws a very sharp distinction between the hired shepherds and Jesus as the Great Shepherd.

But it gets worse for us institutionally-minded folks.

Jesus not only says he is THE Shepherd and that hired shepherds are not always to be trusted to stick around, but turns around and pretty much indicts the Pharisees and temple authorities for being more concerned about preserving the temple than they are about caring for their people. They have, in effect, struck a bargain with the occupying Roman (pagan) forces--we won't bother you and we'll make sure the people don't rise up in revolt if you promise not to come in and destroy the city, including the temple. This was way before Karl Marx wrote that religion was the "opiate of the masses."

In fact, it is precisely this alliance between the temple authorities and the Roman forces that ends up getting Jesus crucified! And, lo and behold, less than 40 years later the temple is destroyed along with the city, and the people are scattered. It is so tempting to get ourselves wrapped up in institutions, in survival, in preservation, and in busyness. If we do so, we are apt to miss the voice of the Great Shepherd and left standing in the middle of a parched, overgrazed patch of ground wondering where all of the other sheep went. A useful reminder.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

TREC Post: A Proposal for Reimagining General Convention

Those who have been following the goings-on in the Episcopal Church are aware that the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (or TREC) has been hard at work for the last several years. That work culminated in a report issued last month. Unfortunately, it was long on good theology but short on specifics. So, by way of advancing the discussion forward, here are a few thoughts:

General Convention as a Unicameral Legislative Body

I like TREC's recommendation to make General Convention a unicameral legislative body rather than a bicameral legislature composed of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. I think the combined "house" can be called what it is--the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I think it makes a great deal of sense to have bishops sitting with the clergy and lay deputies from their diocese and thus having a chance for ongoing dialogue. I also think a "vote by orders" where one must receive a majority votes in the order of bishop, clergy (priests and deacons) and laity makes sense for controversial and/or important items.

Reduction of General Convention Deputations from four to three people

I am in favor of reducing the number of people on a diocesan deputation to General Convention from four to three (and three alternates). I say this fully aware that, as the first alternate clergy deputy, I would likely not have gone to General Convention this summer had that system been in place. The issue of diversity has arisen, but my take is that if a diocese is not electing a sufficiently diverse slate of deputies, simply enlarging the deputation isn't going to help that. If diversity of persons in a diocesan deputation is a persistent problem in your diocese, perhaps you need to do a little diversity work--or state flat out that you are attempting to elect a diverse slate and so you do not need five middle-aged straight white men to run. Also, one would need at least a dozen deputies to fully encompass the range of diversity that one might want (racial, sexual orientation, sex, etc...). Reducing the number of deputies would allow for a smaller venue, thereby reducing costs. Having three rather than four deputies but having one's diocesan bishop at the table means that there are four seats at each diocesan table (unless a diocese has more than one bishop).

NEW: Meet in General Convention every four years, 
and in Provincial Convention the two years in between

This is something I came up with, and I think it has a lot to recommend it. The idea is that General Convention will meet every four years, rather than the current three, and that the deputies to General Convention will also be deputies to a Provincial Convention which will meet two years prior to each General Convention. In other words, people will meet every two years--once as a Provincial Convention and once as a General Convention. Deputies would need to be elected no later than 90 days prior to each Provincial Convention and would remain deputies until their successors were elected four years later prior to the next Provincial Convention. I am aware that there is currently provision for the meeting of a "Provincial Synod," but it is not explicitly tied to General Convention in the way this would be. Provinces could certainly meet more often, if they wished.

I suggest this because I think that the provincial structure is the most underutilized piece of the Episcopal Church's governance structure. I can imagine my own province, Province 8, gathering and talking about missionary endeavors on the Pacific Rim, in Navajoland, and elsewhere in the western United States and pacific regions.  Other provinces might well have similar, more local, missional concerns. Provincial Conventions could also use smaller venues, keeping costs to a minimum.

With this set up, there would be several other changes:
  • There would no longer be any "B" (Bishop) or "D" (Deputy) resolutions considered at General Convention. All resolutions would either need to arise out of the work of a CCAB (or whatever their successor bodies are called) or from a diocese or province. B or D  resolutions would be submitted to Provincial Conventions and, assuming they passed, would be forwarded on to General Convention as "C" (provincial) resolutions. This would substantially decrease the number of resolutions at General Convention and screen out duplicate or frivolous resolutions. 
  • The Presiding Bishop would serve an eight (8) year term rather than a nine (9) year term. The term would begin at the close of the electing General Convention, go through the General Convention four years later, and end at the close of the General Convention eight years later. This would be one less General Convention than the current nine year term.
  • Both General Convention and Provincial Convention could and should be reduced to one week. Beginning on Monday morning and concluding with Eucharist on Sunday. One could also have a "pre-convention" from the previous Friday to Sunday to function is a "missionary convocation" similar to what TREC envisioned General Convention turning into.
So, that's my first try at suggesting a major change and an increased role for provinces. Responses welcome.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Being Offended vs. Being Concerned

I recently ran across this image (from Sue Fitzmaurice) which sums up a number of thoughts I've been having over the past few months regarding how easily we are "offended" at things and how few times that offense is translated into meaningful action. The Internet (and, more specifically, Facebook) allows the spreading of information, images, and opinions with a few clicks. Once we've done that, we can go on about our normal day. Some of these posts and articles we pass on are written specifically to elicit such clicks--they are designed to stimulate us to pass them along.

I wonder: What if we committed to not passing along anything we aren't personally committed to doing something about? Doing something beyond passing the information along, I mean. It is easy for me to read an article and, with a few clicks, drop it into my Facebook feed for all of my friends to see and pass along. While there is some value in making people aware of instances of poverty, injustice, greed, and violence, perhaps we should see that as a first step in addressing those issues, not the last.

Something to think about in this new year.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Of Resolutions and Transformations

As 2014 came to a close and 2015 opened, I decided to commit to three New Year's Resolutions:

1) Pray every day (Daily Office or something else).
2) Post a blog entry at least every week (to get my thoughts out).
3) De-clutter my life and home in the next six months.

A fairly good list, I'd say. I started out with the prayer goal, as I noticed that is is all too easy for me, even as a priest, to get so  busy doing what I believe God has called me to do that I forget to actually "check in" with God to see if I am still supposed to be doing what I'm doing. Prayer can be 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or 45 minutes, so I should be able to make that one.

I started out with the goal of posting a blog entry every day, but as I've missed January 1, that clearly isn't an achievable goal for me. I'm figuring that if I can manage to post at least one blog entry a week, that will be a good start towards a more regular blogging schedule.

The life and home de-cluttering is my biggest hurdle. Like many people I know, I have accumulated a TON of stuff in my life, and I have moved that stuff several times. I have too many books in my office (many of which I no longer consult, especially in the age of the Internet). I have leftover items from when my parents moved sitting in my garage (anyone need any electrical receptacles or switches?) and I just, in general, have too many things lying around my closet, bedroom, and house. So, by July 1 of this year, I hope and plan to have as much stuff out of here as possible and the rest stored neatly.

As I read the above, and as I think about Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, the church I serve, and what we will be doing in 2015, I know that any changes that I hope to lead there really start with me. I love change, I just don't like TO chnage! But obviously the way of have been doing life and ministry is not generating the transformed church that I hope and pray Good Samaritan will be. No, it isn't solely up to me, but it does start with me. If I can begin to transform my own habits, perhaps I can more effectively help the church grown and prosper.

Onward to 2015!

Friday, July 25, 2014

An Episcopal Priest and World Domination

WDS 2014 getting ready to roll!
This is the third (and last) major conference I decided to attend during my sabbatical. Actually, it is the first that I decided to attend--right after the one I attended last year. Just like last year, however, one of my recurring questions was: "How am I going to explain to my congregation why I spent sabbatical money attending a conference entitled the World Domination Summit? This is not a church conference. It isn't even a conference about the Christian faith, though it arguably is a conference about faith.

When I am asked why I am attending this conference, I generally say the same thing--I attend because it is a conference unlike any other. Most conferences are "how to" conferences. In my case, most are about how to pray more, grow your church, reach out to the "unchurched", address the spiritual needs of Millennials (the "unreached people group" of our time) or something similar. It is also what might be called an "insiders" conference. Mostly it is church people talking with church people. The World Domination Summit is different. It is a multicultural, multigenerational gathering of people from a huge variety of backgrounds--from a woman I met who repurposes used clothing as fashionable new clothing to someone I met who is beginning to think about how to use her recovery from a disease via nutrition as a business, to me, an Episcopal priest. It also isn't a "how to" as much as it is a "why do" conference.

The tag line for WDS is "living an extraordinary life in a conventional world." And there are some extraordinary people, both on stage and in the audience, most of whom likely think that they are ordinary. WDS has given me an opportunity to interact with a variety of culturally creative people who examplify the WDS core values of community, adventure, and service. Unlike many people I have met in the church, WDS doesn't just assume or value community, it celebrates community. Where else can you receive a "high five" as you come in the door for each session?
High fives entering the auditorium
Are we ever that excited about church? WDS also promotes adventure--most often by example. Hearing stories of people moving beyond their fears to accomplish some truly remarkable things (even if it is to simply live their lives by design rather than expectation) is truly inspirational. Finally, WDS invites people into service. This is far from the "live your life on your terms and make lots of money doing it" conference. It is more like a "do something good for yourself and for the world" conference. Speaker after speaker, and attendee after attendee, shared stories of how they have put themselves out there in service to others and, in doing so, found themselves living extraordinary lives.

As I did last year, I find myself reflecting on how much my faith in Jesus Christ should and does help me to live a life of courage and purpose. A life, as Michael Hyatt suggested, is designed rather than driven. I also think about how much fear and timidity often hold me back from following through on many of the ideas I have. Finally, I realize that daily life itself often conspires to distract us and divert us from doing the things we believe we are called to do.

I feel pretty confident in asserting that I was the only Episcopal priest out of 3,000 people that attended the World Domination Summit this year. I hope and pray that I can continue to work on living an uncommon and faithful life in the midst. Equally, I hope and pray that I can inspire members of the congregation I serve to do the same.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Money as Fuel and the Why of What We Do

"In bad, unhealthy cultures, money is the goal....The great organizations, the great leaders, see money as a tool to further fuel whatever it is they are building. Of course they want financial success, because the more money they have. the more that they can protect their people....They see money as fuel, not as a destination." -- Simon Sinek
One of the great things about a sabbatical is not simply that one gets to go to a conference or seminar just because one is curious about it, but the fact that there is time to simply explore ideas. A couple of years ago, I ran across Jonathan Fields' Good Life Project, a video series of conversations with creative and interesting people. The above quote came from a recent conversation with Simon Sinek, where he talks about the power of serving others and fostering a corporate culture of safety so that people feel free to risk without reprisal if their idea or project fails.
He makes a comparison between General Electric, which was led by Jack Welch and focused on maximizing shareholder value, even to the extent of laying off people who didn't sufficiently contribute to the bottom line, and Costco, whose founder Jim Sinegal, set up a culture that pays workers well and values them. He noted that while the stock price of  GE fluctuated wildly since 1986 when  Costco went public, over the long-term one would have realized a 600% return on GE stock and a 1200% return on Costco stock if one sold each today. His point is that if you aim for wealth, you fail. If you aim for service, you win.

I've been thinking about how one might apply that to the church. In a TED talk he gave, Simon talks about the fact that people buy the "why" of what you do rather than the "what" that you are selling. In other words, people buy into the dream that is promised, not the product that is produced. We talk an awful lot about "stewardship" in the church--encouraging, almost demanding, that people give money to the church as a spiritual exercise. But in spite of that at least annual exhortation, people generally give the same amount--and it is generally anywhere from 1 to 2 percent of their income rather than the 10 percent tithe that is the "minimum standard of giving" in the Episcopal Church. Why? I suspect it is because we focus on all of the "products" (programs, worship, etc...) we are producing and not on why we are doing what we are doing. What is the dream into which we are inviting people to literally buy? If it is "keep the clergy employed, the lights on, and the services going," that isn't very compelling.

If, however, Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, and other churches, can make a compelling case for why we do what we do, and can care for people to such an extent that they will feel safe venturing out in faith, trust will naturally be built and presumably people will be willing to extend themselves both financially and physically in service to that dream. It then ceases to be about money and becomes a question of whether we have enough "fuel" to do the things that God has called us to do. Just like fuel for a car, everyone knows that the church needs money in order to do the things that God has called us to do, even in order to survive to do those things. Like a car, however, the question of where we are going with the full tank of gas that we have is an important one, especially if there is an expectation that our tank will be repeatedly refilled. People who give to churches rightly expect to know where the church is going and what the church is doing. However, they want to know even more what the dream is--what is the vision of the future toward which we aspire? That is the task before the Vestry and the clergy in the coming months and years: to define the dream.