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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Reflections on Returning and Retreating

Those who have been following this blog know that I am currently on a two month Sabbatical. I've previously written on my sojourn on the "Holy Hill" at Virginia Theological Seminary for the eFormation conference and my brief visit to my parents' new (to them) house in North Carolina. Following my return from that trip, I had about almost two weeks at home, doing the usual around-the-house stuff. We also ended up with a new (to us) car, since it was increasingly clear that our beloved green van was reaching the end of its life. It was a little strange having just returned from a conference all about parish ministry and how we can and should use electronic media to help form and inform members of our parishes—and then be unable to actually implement the ideas for nearly two months! I doubt the ideas will leave me, but I’m used to being right back in the thick of parish ministry. Being back at home with nothing but rest (and to-do lists, of course) to do is an odd feeling indeed. It was good to have some time to be at home, as one of my Sabbatical goals is rest and reconnecting with family. 

After my brief time at home, it was time for the Ignation Spirituality Retreat at Mt. Calvary Monastery and Guest House in Santa Barbara. I heartily recommend this lovely oasis in the hills of Santa Barbara. We had wonderful weather (mid-70s) all week and the hospitality was outstanding. All of this was an excellent backdrop for our retreat. The retreat was entitled "The Feast: The Spirit of the Lord is Upon You! From Annunciation to Mission."It was based on Ignation spirituality, where we insert ourselves into the biblical narrative and reflect on what that narrative means for us in our own discipleship and apostleship (sending out). It is the first time that I have been on more than a weekend retreat since I was ordained nearly twenty years ago, and it was good to have some time that was specifically dedicated to sitting, praying, and reflecting on life and ministry. It was also good to have the guidance of the retreat's facilitiator, The Rev. Dr. Joseph Duggan, a spiritual director and priest in the Diocese of Northern California and, of more immediate impact to me, husband of The Rev. Stefani Schatz, a long-time friend. 

My reflections from my time there would be both too long and too personal for a public blog. Suffice it to say that my time there followed the theme of "letting go" that has become the theme of my Sabbatical. Most of the retreats I have attended have been full of programming and with minimal free time or “self-directed” time. This was the complete opposite. There was no programming, speaker, or seminars. There was an outline of scripture and reflection questions for each half-day (morning and afternoon) and an opportunity for one-on-one meetings with our retreat leader, but we were commended to observe the “lesser silence” in the morning and through noonday and the “greater silence” in the night, leaving just the afternoon and evening for any sort of social interaction between me and my four fellow retreat members. Now, I may be an introvert and an unstructured (perceiving) personality on the MBTI, but nearly five days of mostly silence and huge chunks of time for rest and reflection is something to which I had a hard time adjusting!growing awareness that what I may be called upon to be is a builder of spiritual infrastructure. 

During the retreat I read an article about Silicon Valley’s increasing fascination with, and fixation on, the newest thing and the last “app” to the exclusion of what enables that innovation to occur in the first place—semiconductors, chips, routers, etc… It occurred to me that this is also going on in the church—we strive for the latest and greatest thing (program, book, worship style, etc…) and sometimes neglect the basic infrastructure. This is especially true in this time of rapid change and transition. We alternate between frantically trying to keep pace with the latest spiritual trends and sitting in despair that we are unable to do so. Perhaps an emphasis on “spiritual infrastructure”—prayer, study, and intentional action—might be a good way of re-framing how we do and are church.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

eFormation on the Holy Hill, Part II

Day two (Tuesday) of eFormation primarily focused, for me, on video production. I took a seminar series on video pre-production, production, and post-production and we talked about how that might be used in a parish setting. Useful information, though i was thinking it could have been done in two sessions versus three. I also attended a "designing adult education in a twenty-first century church" or something similar. We talked a lot about how to do adult Christian formation with people who work or commute long hours or otherwise simply do not have an hour or two a week to spend. Perhaps the best seminar was one on "curating" information on Christian formation. Before this, my assumption is that people could simply look up whatever they wanted online. As was pointed out, however, there is so much information available that it is very useful to people for a church to compile a page of trusted sources for Christian formation. So, I'll be putting a web page together on our church web site.

Wednesday was essentially a wrap-up day focusing on what people had learned about eFormation and looking forward to implimenting what we had learned. During lunch, we participated in a live-taping of "Easter People" the VTS Key Hall webcast.

Monday, June 02, 2014

eFormation on the Holy Hill




Old Chapel garden--where the altar once stood
For the first time in almost decade, I have returned to Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), my alma mater. I must say, it is a little strange wandering around buildings that hold so many memories from 20 years ago. The Addison Academic Center, brand new when I was here, is nearly two decades old. The old chapel is gone, consumed by fire several years ago and now a prayer garden. The new chapel is rising. Key Hall, once a classroom and storage space, is now the bright, airy location of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching. Can't believe it has been nearly 20 years since I left this place.

One thing that has not changed is the seminary's commitment to teaching and learning. It has been a privilege to be back here for a conference on "eFormation"--highlighting how electronic media have changed how we are formed as disciples of Jesus and how we help form others. Like any conference, there is far more available than one can hope to take in. I focused my attention on only a few. On Monday, I attended "Stealth Christian Formation" with Tim Schenck (pronounced skank--make of that what you will). Tim talked about how to make everything we do in church a formation opportunity--as exemplified by the phenomenal success of Lent Madness, which he launched several years ago.

The next seminar was "Getting Started with Online Christian Formation" with Chris Yaw. I decided to take this class because Good Samaritan is a subscriber to ChurchNext, Chris' online video educational site.  He had some good reflections on this very early venture into helping churches set up online schools for members new and old. It seems like a great way to both connect with people who may never darken the doors of our church (not exactly a great image, actually...) and to teach and form people within our church without having to make things up from scratch--which many clergy end up doing because they don't know what resources are there for things like Confirmation classes. It was a good presentation and motivated me to actually start our own online school through our parish web site.

Finally, I ended up attending a "Curating Faith Formation: Digital Content for Bible, Theology, Spirituality, and More" with Sharon Ely Pearson and John Roberto. This was a fascinating seminar highlighting not only the HUGE array of web sites and materials available, but the critical task of curating--filtering, if you will--those resources for one's own congregation via the church web site. Oddly, it never occurred to me that people would look on our web site for links to help them study the bible, raise their children with Christian values, or deal with the challenges of growing older. I figured that it was out there and they would just find it. As was pointed out, however, Google is notoriously unselective when presenting resources, so some human curating is both necessary and valuable.

So, all in all, a great day of learning. Also, a great night in the new(ish) "pub on campus--named "1823" for the year the seminary was founded.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Sabbatical: Back to Blogging

As of tomorrow morning, I will officially be on Sabbatical. A Sabbatical, for those not familiar with previous sabbatical, I'll be blogging fairly regularly.
The cleanest the office has been in years...
the term, is a lengthy period of rest, refreshment, and re-formation afforded to clergy and professors. Clergy Sabbaticals are not intended simply as a long period of rest and relaxation, but a time to step out of day-to-day church life, have some new experiences, learn some new things, and return to church rested, refreshed, and bearing new ideas and/or new perspectives that will assist in both congregational and personal ministry. As I did in my

My hopes and plans for this Sabbatical are threefold:
  1. Technology. I'm really eager to explore the world of blogging, video blogging, and social media in general more deeply. It seems like this is an emerging evangelistic medium and, as I am not a big fan of door-to-door evangelism, it also seems like it would be a great option and opportunity for me. I'll be attending the eFormation conference at Virginia Theological Seminary (my alma mater!) to get a taste of the possibilities. I'm also hoping to take some seminars on video production.
  2. Spirituality. One of the great ironies of professional pastoral ministry is that running the "business" of the church can often crown out time for deepening one's spiritual life. Since my last Sabbatical, I've been intrigued by Benedictine spirituality and will be doing some research on, and experimentation with, that. I'm also going to be attending a retreat at Mount Calvary Benedictine Monastery in Santa Barbara.
  3. Family and Household. The world runs really fast, and this is also true of pastoral ministry. I'm hoping and planning on doing a lot more focusing on my family and taking time to be with them. I'm also hoping to get some long-postponed projects completed around the Rectory, so we can more fully live here and make it completely our own.
That's pretty much it for now. No church in the morning for me--but lots of church this week!

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Freedom and Noblesse Obliege

I recently had a brief Facebook conversation with an old friend in response to a Fox News opinion article with the headline: School bans Christmas trees, the colors read and green. I gave a somewhat snarky reply that neither trees nor the colors red and green were actually Christian. Her more gracious reply was that it was a matter of freedom and that people's rights to practice their religion were being infringed in order not to offend those of other faiths. The article concludes:
"So this is what it’s come to, America. You’ve got college-educated teacher terrified to put a toy elf on the shelf because she might get sued by the ACLU or some other left wing anti-Christmas group."
Now I will grant that adults and children should be able to celebrate whatever religious holiday they choose to without fear of peer pressure or reprisal. People should be able to discuss and celebrate the holidays of Christmas (Christians), Hanukkah (Jews), Kwanzaa (African-Americans), Bodhi Day. (Buddhists), or any other religious holiday in December. But I do think that we white Anglo-Saxon Protestants need to be a little bit careful of crying "persecution" every time our expressions of faith are limited or, let's be honest, our dominant-culture privilege is infringed upon.

I was pleased to be able to attend a a local production of Fiddler on the Roof and was struck, not for the first time, by what real persecution looks like. The story is set in 1905 in Tsarist Russia and while the focus is on the erosion of tradition" in Tevye's family and his small village of Anatevka, the wider story is the encroachment of the outside world--specifically the eviction of Jews from their villages on the instructions of Tsar Nicholas II. As I sat there in a warm, dry, safe theater paid for by taxpayer money watching this show that I had paid money for without a second thought, it came to me afresh how fortunate I am as a white, heterosexual, employed, upper-middle class Protestant Christian American. I own what I own and do not need to worry about its being taken away from me. I had eaten a good meal and was not worried about from where my next meal would come. I could get in my car and be reasonably sure that it will take me home quickly and without incident. I was unlikely to be stopped by law enforcement on the way home and asked why I am in that wealthy community (Saratoga, CA). I have many freedoms that others can only dream of.

This is why I am very reluctant to claim persecution and wary when I see others in my similar situation do so. Yes, we need to guard against government dictating what we can or cannot do--because the ultimate result of unchecked government power is what happened to Tevye and his neighbors--and later to over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. We also need to be wary of those who simply decry money and corporations, because the revolution such cries sparked in Russia resulted in communism. But when most of my contemporaries cry "persecution" they are often instead railing against the diminished white privilege (even unconsciously) which is a hallmark of the increasingly multicultural nature of this country. Yes, other races, religious traditions, sexual minorities, and people long on the margins of society are claiming an increasing share of what used to be power reserved to the majority population--a majority that is decreasing by the hour. Politically, we are seeing congressional districts redrawn to protect this diminishing privilege and seeing an increasingly inequitable dispersion of wealth. Culturally, we are feeling the death-throes of a culture in which there will be no dominant culture any longer. I also think of Nelson Mandella, who died this week, as he struggled against the dominant (though numerically minority) culture in South Africa. Such struggles make complaints about "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" seem foolish.

My point in this lengthy post is that rather than whining about persecution and fighting an increasingly desperate battle against multiculturalism, those of us with power should instead shoulder the ancient notion of noblesse obliege--the notion that those with power have an obligation to empower those with less power and to use our power for justice rather than subjugation. As Christians, we of all people should be aware of the dangers of temporal power and the power of love and sacrifice to triumph over the world. As we move towards Christmas, may we take seriously Jesus words:
"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48b)