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)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

4 Years Later: Nothing Changes in TEC Advertising (UPDATE: Except the responsiveness!)

UPDATE: If you click on the newest Episcopal Church advertising link, you now get the following rather than the ads:
Many thanks to those of you who have given us constructive comments on the billboard and postcard suggestions we had posted.  We agree that the concept needs more work, and we are going back to the drawing board with your ideas in mind.  We sincerely appreciate your feedback and encourage you to keep sharing your ideas and, when appropriate, your criticisms.  We take them all seriously. 
Well put and a good response--something that was not in evidence four years ago. So, things DO change! Well done, Episcopal Church Center staff!

As a prologue to this post, I want to say first of all that I love the Episcopal Church. I am an Episcopal priest because I love the combination of Word and Sacrament, the "big tent" theology that welcomes everyone, and the conviction that the love of God in Christ is transformational in people's lives. I'm one of a diminishing number of so-called "cradle Episcopalians" and a member of likely an even more rare group: Generation X cradle Episcopalians. I've spent nearly 20 years in the ordained ministry and with everything that is wonderful about the church there is one thing that continually amazes me about it:

How many times we shoot ourselves in the foot. Repeatedly.

Almost four years ago, I wrote a blog post critical of the Episcopal Church's new advertising campaign which came up with this attention-grabbing ad (sarcasm) which they paid a significant amount of money to put as a full-page ad in USA Today (see above). Not only was I underwhelmed and lamented the waste of time and money that this represented, but I also recalled the not very helpful fact that if any congregation wanted to use this ad and put their own church's name on it they were invited to "email us [Episcopal Church Center] and we will create a personalized ad for you." Had no one at Episcopal Church Center heard of Photoshop? Could we not be trusted to take the artwork provided and personalize it? Apparently not.

In the midst of this I was also notified by legal council at Episcopal Church center that I was not permitted to use the Episcopal Church shield unless I obeyed strict guidelines on its use. I could not put it on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other items in my Café Press shop. I was informed of this after I logged into my shop and found the images had been blocked and then had to ask why they were blocked. I haven't had time with my day job as parish priest to pursue the matter further. But apparently my efforts to advertise the Episcopal Church were not received in the spirit with which I offered them. Clearly no one was permitted to deviate from official materials.

In my blog post, I contrasted the USA Today ad with two ads that my colleague Frank Logue, then a parish priest and now Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia, put together in short order from the suggestions of two colleagues via Facebook:

The ad to the left is image-based rather than text-based, it has an attention-grabbing headline, it shows a picture of an actual ministry of the church with actual people. It shows a great view of a lovely worship space (of which the Episcopal Church has more than its fair share). Finally, it invites people to worship and service in the Episcopal Church--two things we do very well. What it does not do is explain all of the reasons that you really should give the Episcopal Church a try, in excruciating detail.

The other ad highlighted the multicultural nature of the Episcopal Church, gave a brief dig at the Republican Party, but otherwise pretty much said "we're a diverse, multi-age, multi-ethnic church" without using any of those words. Brilliant, and probably took him about an hour on his computer.

Fast forward four years and the Episcopal Church has now come up with brand new, cutting-edge, advertising materials that feature several phrases on a stained glass background, such as the ad:

Another clergy colleague has already voiced his opinion via an excellent blog post. My opinion is that we've progressed from wordy two-color bullet point ads in 2009 to less wordy, more snarky, and still image-less ads in 2013. Given the background graphics, this is something that many of my colleagues and I could have done in 15 minutes on a computer, if we had wanted to sound like a mother scolding her grandchildren who never write, never call, and just don't visit often enough. I won't inflict the others on you, but suffice it to say that they ads reinforce the stereotype that we're a bunch of old, rich, cranky white people who can't understand why our children and grandchildren don't come to church anymore. As someone on Facebook said in response: "These new ads somehow blend hipster elitism and stick-in-the-mud traditionalism into the same gooey mess."

Contrast that with the materials from the diocese of Ohio, which feature ads like this: 

Note that this does not conform to the national church's style standards (doesn't have the new shaded shield), but it is way more effective than what came out of the national church.

I would like ads worthy of the wonderful church that this is. I would like things like the advertising materials that the church posted but without the text, so that people could add pictures and their own clever text to the background. Perhaps even a repository where people can upload their own ad ideas. It is time to let go of the corporate command-and-control and bad 1980s style advertising and get into the twenty-first century where anyone with a computer and a basic image-editing program can do this kind of thing with a few resources at his or her disposal. And without offending anyone.

Give us the tools. Get out of the way. And talk to folks who don't currently go to church before you do this again. Please.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Relief and (Re-) Development: Desparation and Dependency

Good intentions without action don't accomplish much, but what action is needed?.
I recently finished reading the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert Lupton. Perhaps the best part of the book is this one: 2001, six years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and long after the city should have shifted to long-term development projects, churches and mission organizations still "market" the crisis and volunteers continue to flow into the city by the thousands, distributing free food and clothing to "victims." When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.
He quotes Roger Sandberg, former Haiti country director of Medair, in defining a progression from relief to development:
First stop, relief. Relief work occurs during and immediately following an emergency and includes not only life-saving interventions but also the alleviation of suffering.
Second stop, rehabilitation. Rehabilitation follows and overlaps with the relief phase. Rehabilitative work increases the capacity of a local community, enabling them to better respond to future crises. Rehabilitation also seeks to promote projects that restore services or livelihoods to a preexisting or improved level.
Third stop, development. Development interventions follow and overlap relief and rehabilitation phases. Development work is long term. It seeks to improve the standard of living for a population over many years or decades. In the best-case scenario, relief and rehabilitation inverventions are done with long-term development in mind....Very roughly, we might say that relief, rehabilitation, and development phases respectively last months, years, and decades.
This particular distinction between relief, rehabilitation, and development has been on my mind in the last several months in three areas of my life: local, national, and international.

On a local level, as a parish priest I respond to urgent crises through small grants from my discretionary fund--a fund set up by the church to be used at my discretion (hence the name) to address needs as they arise. Most of the time, it is used to do things like provide two quarts of oil and a tank of gas to needy folks heading for San Francisco or a hotel room for a mother and her kids fleeing an abusive husband/father. This is all good to do, but leaves me feeling dissatisfied because I know that I'm simply doing relief work, not solving the underlying problems. It also frustrates and angers me when I see an unending procession of need, sometimes event the same people over and over again. I have the dual feeling of being angry at being taken advantage of and yet ashamed of that anger because i know that ninety-five percent of thse folks have few other options.

On a national level, I've watched with increasing frustration as our national debate regarding cuts to the Supplimental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) between, if you believe the two sides, the heartless, cold-blooded Republicans and the bleeding-heart, dependency-fostering Democrats. Below the partisan posturing is a disagreement about whether (and when) relief of suffering should stop and whether (and when) government should be in the business of rehabilitation and development to help people lift themselves out of poverty and need. There seems to be little discussion of how the government can facilitate increasing the capacity of people to respond to future crises--just whether we should still send checks or not. Additionally, the notion of separating people into "givers" and "takers" strikes me as a profoundly unhelpful way of wrestsling with the need to go beyond relief to rehabilitation and development. Throwing a drowning person a life-ring will not foster dependency. Jumping in and trying to hold them up means that both of you end up drowning.

On an international level, several months ago I spent a week in Haiti. That country is perhaps the poster child (yes, I appreciate the irony of the phrase) for perpetual relief verging on the toxic. Literally billions of dollars have been spent there, often with major strings attached in the name of accountability. At the parish I serve, St. Edward's, we are a part of consortium of churches and a school that have a relationship with St. Patrick's Church and School in LaCorbe, Haiti. Having had a relationship with people there for many years, we are beginning to discuss how to move from continually addressing immediate needs to building the capacity for the community to begin to provide for themselves. There is certainly a tension between what they perceive as their immediate needs and what we hope for as far as long term rehabilitation and development. Part of the challenge is that we have the luxury of taking the long view. A good example is that there is a need for a power source at this fairly remote chruch and school. As enlightened, developed-world folks, we would prefer to set up a small solar installation that would then be self-sustaining. However, our partner in Haiti would like a gasoline generator so that he could haul it around and use it for a variety of congregations and schools. Both make sense in their own way. On the one hand, we don't want to do what so many NGOs have done in Haiti and impose our own will on them. On the other, we don't really want to perpetuate a reliance on expensive fossel fruels. Difficult decisions.

I have no easy answers to any of this, but it does strike me that we need to be having these sorts of conversations at all levels of government and within our churches. Just writing a check, as much as it helps in the short-term, stops at relief without moving beyond that. If we can get to the point of true partnership where we help people to get and stay on their feet, perhaps we can move beyond the gridlock in both government and society.