Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Building a Legacy vs. Leaving a Legacy

The Rev. Bill Tully, Rector of St. Bartholomew's Church (where Julie Nelson, St. Edward's Priest Associate for Evangelism, once served) has written an excellent article in the Washington Post. Among his many keen observations, Bill stays this:
Episcopalians are the ultimate and extreme “legacy church.” No matter how committed the local rector is to change, no matter how deft she or he is in managing it, there is a huge and nearly immovable weight of tradition. Some of it is so good that it might--rightly reinterpreted and freshened--be the way forward to real growth in size and health. But it takes a lot of energy. We almost inevitably tilt backward for every step and a half we take forward.
I would very much agree. The very thing that is the most distinctive about the Episcopal Church--our stability--is also what makes it difficult for us to change. I've likened the Episcopal Church to a battleship or an aircraft carrier: incredibly difficult to sink, but also very difficult to turn! Unfortunately, the navy stopped making battleships years ago and the only thing that keeps aircraft carriers from going the same way is that they carry nimble and highly mobile aircraft. To continue the metaphor, evangelical mega-churches are aircraft carriers, Episcopal congregations are battleships. Both exist in an era when fast patrol boats seem much more suited to the way things need to be.

I have no real interest in leading The Church of What's Happening Now--a place that uncritically reacts to the current fashion and "felt needs" of the surrounding culture. Just troll around the Internet and you'll find a whole range of programs that are guaranteed to grow churches. In contrast to fashion, tradition is an excellent anchor in the midst of a cultural storm, holding us fast to the things that are important. However, tradition in and of itself is not enough. Tully goes on to say:
Bishop Budde of Washington is absolutely right about concentrating on the meat and potatoes of local congregational life: worship, music, compelling preaching, education, pastoral care. Taking stands on issues at the national level (where few people pay attention to us any longer) might be satisfying, but we’ve just about spent ourselves doing that.
That's what we're in the process of re-creating at St. Edward's: a place with vibrant worship, quality music, compelling preaching, a variety of educational offerings, and many ways of caring for others and being cared for as well. That kind of tradition is worth building on! The difficulty lies when we concentrate so much on leaving a legacy for "future generations" that we end up building and sustaining museums of ancient faith rather than concentrating on building a legacy alongside those right outside our doors that may not worship in the same way we are used to doing, but have a deep (perhaps even unnoticed) love of ritual, a more progressive theology, and a need for community. Building is challenging, but do-able!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fear and Leadership

In an organizational culture where respect and the dignity of individuals are held as the highest values, shame and blame don’t work as management styles. There is no leading by fear. --Brene Brown 
The above is just a portion of a brief, but excellent, blog post regarding the recent Penn State scandal. Her point is that any organization can create a culture that either fosters respect and accountability or fear and denial. Organizations that do the former are healthier, dynamic, and ultimately more successful organizations, though they are often not as outwardly peaceful as those that thrive on shame and blame. This is no less true of the church--churches where both staff and members actively engage in conversation with one another out of respect for "the dignity of every human being" (as our Baptismal Covenant says) may not look as peaceful or contented, but they are healthier, more dynamic places to be. Churches that enforce a kind of false peace based on shame and blame ultimately either slowly burn out or explode as individuals either take advantage of the system or our victimized by those who do.

There is a lot of fear around these days, both in the world and in the church. Both infrastructure and institutions built by previous generations seem to be disintegrating at an alarming rate. More and more people are feeling disenfranchised, cut off from any say in virtually any aspect of their lives. The Penn State scandal is but the latest in an unending parade of exposing the reality behind people and programs we thought we could trust. In a blog post by Thomas Day, he writes:
Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work. For those of us in our 20s and early 30s, this is not the world we are inheriting.

Day, at 31, was born in 1980, placing him on the cusp between Generation X and the Millennial generation. He lays the blame for this collapse on the leaders that the Baby Boomers have brought us--the logical extension of a generation that shunned institutions at the same time as they benefited from them. It is apparently our generation's sad duty to inform our children (millennials and those younger) that the American Dream is dead, the emperor has no clothes, and that the Great and Powerful Oz of the optimistic Boomer generation is no more than a lucky, grumpy old man.

Sadly, many people, both within and outside the church, leave things there--in despair, at Good Friday, if you will. But we repeat over and over again that we are "Easter people," not stuck in the tomb of death but partaking of resurrection life. That is not some sort of "put on a happy face" Christianity. No, it acknowledges the reality of death, but asserts that such is not the end of the story. The reality of resurrection means that we can take a hard, deep, penetrating look at the world around us, name clearly the things which are not right about it, and then partner with God in the redemption of our broken, disintegrating, world. The challenge, of course, is actually adopting and living into an attitude of "realistic optimism" that sees things for what they are, but also for what they should and can be. And we need leaders, both within and outside the church, who are willing to be foolish and risk-taking enough to move forward in hope rather than allowing us to linger in despair.

By the grace of God, may I be one of them!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Uncle Steve" Jobs

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Much has been said and written about Steve Jobs after his death this past Wednesday. Having never known him personally, never even having worked at Apple, the only connection I have to him is as an Apple customer and stockholder. That said, many of my contemporaries and I feel almost as if we've lost a beloved but distant uncle. Growing up in Silicon Valley, the legend of Apple's first first "run" with the Apple II and Macintosh is eclipsed only by the legend of the rebirth of Apple with the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. I was still a small child when Johs graduated from the high school just south of the one I would attend a decade later, but I hit middle school about the time the Apple II emerged and I well recall the sheer joy of using a computer with color, speed (for its time), and floppy disks rather than cassette tapes.

So, in many ways, Steve Jobs was the author of my childhood obsession with computers. Perhaps that is why I and others of my generation mourn his passing so much.  The passion he brought to technology, the conviction that technology not only could but would change the world, is one that he lived out with single-minded determination.

This is not to say that Jobs was a saint. At least one blogger has some very pointed criticism of him, much of it on target. He was often ruthless in his pursuit of excellence. His desire to see his biography published so that "my kids will know me better" signals that, like many in Silicon Valley, he had the tendency to prioritize job over family. However, his genius for designing technology that people could (and did) fall in love with is unmatched in modern-day America. His famous commencement address at Stanford University ranks among the best ever.

Though I didn't know him, I use Apple technology almost every minute of every day. I wake up to the alarm from my iPhone, check my calendar on that same iPhone, work every day on a MacBook Pro, use my iPad to watch videos and read books, and pretty much just love Apple products with a passion. I hope that I can increasingly take this passion and "can do" spirit into my job as a clergy leader as well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back to blogging: Ecclesiastical Antibodies

After essentially taking the summer off from blogging, I'm back with fingers to keyboard. As Summer turns to Fall, I've been thinking a lot about change. At St. Edward's, where I continue to serve as Priest-in-Charge, we've absorbed more than our fair share of changes in my almost two years here. What is interesting is looking at corporations who also are confronted with such changes.

In an article today by Philip Elmer-Dewitt, he talks about a recent podcast by Horace Dediu. In the article, Elmer-Dewitt quotes Dediu as saying the following:
There's a phrase I like to use: "the corporate antibodies." These are things inside the company, as an organism, if you will. These are entities -- be they people or budgets or processes or rules in binders. These are things that are designed to eat up innovation. To eat up changes to the core business. Not because they are stupid. But they see this newcomer, this entrant, as a pathogen. As something that's damaging the organism. So they act, sometimes even collude, to destroy it.
Dediu goes on to draw a contrast between computer giant Hewlett-Packard (which recently gave up on its tablet computer and signaled that it is getting out of the PC market as well) and Apple (maker of the most popular tablet computer). Dediu's point, reiterated by Elmer-Dewitt, is that for innovation to take hold in an organization, the people promoting it have to be protected from the "corporate antibodies" that are out to destroy them, preferably protected by the CEO him/herself. Jobs tried to do that with the Macintosh, and was forced out of Apple by the "Apple II" forces. As fascinating as this is, one quote of Dediu at the end of the article really caught my eye:
[A certain innovation needed] this kind of champion at the very highest levels, someone who could endure the gestation for a long period of time. And that type of person is so rare as a CEO. Which is part of the mystique and magic of Steve Jobs. He's the only one that we know of  really that is able to do these types of schizophrenic things -- like maintain a sustaining business and its disruption within the same organization.
"Maintain a sustaining business and its disruption within the same organization." When I read that, it suddenly struck me: "That's what we are trying to do in the church!" We're trying to respond to the needs of a post-Christian world with new and innovative things that, more often than not, get "killed off" by "ecclesiastical antibodies" trying to preserve our "sustaining business." Developing something new alongside that, often referred to as "parallel development" is, in reality, trying to "maintain a sustaining business and its disruption within the same organization." That's really hard to do! The fact that one of the most compelling images of the church is the Body of Christ makes this metaphor even more apropos!

What this says to me in my ministry is that if I want to be a church leader that fosters and nurtures innovation, I have to be willing to protect it from ecclesiastical antibodies. I also have to be willing and strong enough to at least make the attempt to maintain what is and what may be its polar opposite in the same organization, the church. I think I'll sit with that for a while. This is even more timely on the recent news that Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO of Apple.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is it well with my soul?

As the church program year winds down and makes way for Summer, time and permission are given to all of us for a bit of reflection. Since this Fall will mark two years of my tenure as Priest-in-Charge of St. Edward's, and since we're in the midst of both a diocesan and parish strategic planning process, there have been reasons stacked upon reasons for such reflection. While I've begun the parish part of that reflection on the parish blog, it seems like at least some account (on this blog) of my personal reflections is warranted.

In my daily Facebook trolling, I came across this list of 10 Ways to Boost Spiritual Health. I recognize a number of spiritual disciplines--personal worship, journaling, prayer, personal (rather than simply professional) bible study--that I recall doing with much more faithfulness when I was in college and had newly discovered a more personal relationship with God in Christ. Like getting enough exercise and eating right, sometimes living life accidentally or on spiritual inertia can sneak up on a person. A good reminder.

As I read that "fitness list," I recalled another bit of wisdom shared by Brian McLaren, author of "Naked Spirituality" in his address at the 187th Commencement of Virginia Theological Seminary (my alma mater). He strongly encouraged the graduates (and, by extension, we alumni and friends) to guard and grow four friendships: with ourselves, with soul friends, with non-Christians, and with God. As McLaren said "it is sometimes difficult for those of us who are paid to be good to simply be good for nothing." Sometimes being a "professional Christian" gets in the way of simply being an intentional follower of Jesus Christ.

As I move through this summer of discernment, a big piece of my discernment is to look at where I have allowed my professional life to take over my personal life--in my relationship with my family and friends but also in crowding out hobbies and other things I do just because I like doing them. A good discipline for anyone, I'd say.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

If love wins...share it!

Nearly two months since my last post, I'm finally crawling out from underneath the pile of tasks on my plate (the pile of stuff on my desk is another matter...!) and have been giving some more serious thought to the shape of the twenty-first century church. There have been several items that have come across my screen lately that have caused me to pause and think more deeply. As you will note on the "Blogs I'm Following" list on the right, I follow the blog of Rachel Held Evans,  a self-proclaimed "writer, skeptic, and Christ-follower" whose reflections I've really enjoyed reading she recently appeared on an episode of Darkwood Brew, a "groundbreaking experimental web television program and Christian worship service" located in a coffeehouse in the Midwest.  After listening to that interview, and then going to the Darkwood Brew web site, I also happened upon an interview that they had done with Diana Butler Bass, who happens to have just come to the Diocese of El Camino Real a couple of weeks ago to talk about twenty-first century spirituality. Having recently published a book entitled A People's History of Christianity, she talked about the blend of spirituality and religiosity that is coming to dominate church and society in this second decade of the twenty-first century.

Both Rachel and Diana's interviews were a part of Darkwood Brew's series based upon Rob Bell's book Love Wins. The questioning title of the series is "If love wins, what now?" In both interviews, the point is made that the "orthodox" concept of, and concentration on, hell as a fiery place of eternal torment  is actually one born out of the Roman Emperor Constantine's fascination and obsession with the power of God to vanquish his enemies. Prior to that time, the Christian church was primarily focused on visions of heaven. If they even spared it a thought, hell was simply the place that was not heaven. It is when God's power is bound to earthly war and violence that hell becomes a punishment for enemies and unbelievers.

All of this is swirling around in my mind this morning as I contemplate this Sunday's lesson from the book of Acts, where (among other things, including ""It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.") Jesus says "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." That power is not presented as the power to coerce belief, but the power to witness to God's work in the world.

I'm also conscious, as I click from one thing to another online, that people have plenty of opportunity to find out information about Christianity, of whatever flavor. I found all of the above from initially being directed to Rachel Held Evans' blog via (I think...) a Facebook posting. From there, I found Darkwood Brew, and from there I found Diana Butler Bass, who I had just seen in person and who had greeted me almost as an old friend, though we had only been Facebook friends until then. It strikes me that the "witness" that we bring is not primarily a witness of information, but a witness of re-creation and restoration--that God is constantly in the midst of re-creating and restoring this world in partnership with us. That sort of witness is worth sharing!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

"Contempervent" Worship

Many months ago I saw a video poking fun at so-called "contemporary worship" and have been searching for that video ever since. Today, it crossed my Facebook page, so here it is:

I do like songs that I hear on radio stations like K-LOVE, but I recognize the temptation to let the means of conveying the message of the Gospel become the Gospel itself. This is no less of a danger for more liturgical churches. Everyone has the temptation to say "It isn't worship if ____ isn't included." So, enjoy the humor but also get the point.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Government Involvement, Personal Freedom, and God's Purposes

OK, I'm going to go out on a limb here and post something more political. Fee free to skip if you wish. I'm one of that rare breed: a moderate Republican. Even rarer, I'm a Republican for Obama. I'm certainly not rare in that I'm (obviously) a Christian as well as a Republican. I do believe in limited government and that, in many cases, government has overstepped its original mandate to "establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, [and] insure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity..." (constitutional preamble). Just because a law can be passed or a program can be funded doesn't mean that it should.

That being said, I'm increasingly feeling like my fellow Republicans are using the current state and federal fiscal crises as a "license to kill" any program that they've wanted to do away with for years for ideological reasons, regardless of its costs and benefits. A perfect example is the program whose board I sit on--Live Oak Adult Day Services. It is a program that provides care for seniors who would otherwise need constant care from relatives or would be relegated to nursing homes. From a fiscal point of view this is a complete no-brainer: the support that government entities, foundations, and individual contributors give to this program is infinitesimal compared to the amount of money saved by allowing caregivers who would otherwise need to stay home with these folks the opportunity to work, by keeping these seniors out of (often Medicare-funded) nursing homes, and delaying the need for (often expensive) in-home care. If you look at the cost/benefit analysis, this program work and has good "bang for the buck". Yet cities that are strapped for cash are having a hard time finding even the limited funds now used to support the program. The key words here? It isn't a mandated program.  Other things are.

The whole problem with the personal freedom vs. government involvement debate can be illustrated on any public school playground. Left to themselves, people will generally act in their own short-term self interest. They will spend money now rather than wait and perhaps have to spend less later. They will not think about what they might need 5, 10, 20, or even 1 or 2 years out. Government exists, then to "promote the general welfare" by mandating that we take care of each other and of the instituions that will (God willing) take care of us when needed. Government funds alternative energy not because it is cheaper now than fossil fuels (although we're getting there, on both sides of that equation) but because it is in our long-term interest to develop alternative sources of energy. Government mandates energy efficiency (like increasingly efficient light bulbs) because we cannot sustain our current rate of energy consumption over the long term. Government funds programs like senior care, schools, and other service not because it has nothing else to do with the money, it does so because we need those institutions, either now for ourselves, our children, our parents, or our friends, their children and/or parents, or for us when we get to whatever stage in life that requires such services.

On the flip side, my fellow Republicans appear to have absolutely no problem continuing, even expanding, tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations, some of whom have even said that they don't need them! If "no government involvement" is good policy for social services, why isn't it good policy for corporate subsidies and tax breaks? The double standard is stunning.

OK, enough ranting. My hope and prayer (and it seems like more of a prayer than a hope) is that we will elect (and re-elect) those folks who are willing and able to rise above partisanship, to cut spending on or fix programs that are ineffective, to "promote the general welfare" by taking care of the most vulnerable folks around is (and, equally important, help them to help themselves), and "insure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity (i.e. future generations)" by tackling and solving major problems before our entire social and governmental fabric collapses--which seems increasingly likely as the days and weeks go on.

What does all of this have to do with God, one might ask. God allows us to make our own choices in this world. God also works through both individuals and institutions to accomplish God's purposes. God is especially concerned with the plight of the poor and powerless and has very little concern for the rich and powerful, except to warn them that their wealth and power are fleeting and are to be used for good and not for selfish ends. To say a policy or law is "Christian" that does not align with that concern for the poor and responsibility of the rich means one is being extremely selective in their Bible reading. No, we don't have unlimited funds or unlimited energy. We do have to make choices. May they be choices that are both in our long-term interest and also reflect God's concern for those without a seat a the table.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Beautiful Music

As we finish out the week of St. Patrick's Day, I thought I'd pass along a particularly great video clip from Celtic Woman, the musical group made famous by their appearance on PBS. Sure, they're a little over-produced, but their voices are angelic and the songs are fabulous. So, enjoy!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Vunerability and Radical Welcome

Another colleague of mine (as one of my seminary professors used to say "I am not original.") recently highlighted the following talk by Dr. Brene Brown discussing the necessity for vulnerability in our lives. Take a look:

This dovetails with the talk about Radical Welcome from The Rev. Stephanie Spellers at our clergy conference a couple of weeks ago. At that conference, she invited us to share with one other person two experiences: an experience of being unwelcome and an experience of being welcome. In the midst of that, I realized that my entire ministry has been about creating and nurturing community--a place where people feel welcome and connected. A place, frankly, where people can be free to be vulnerable and admit their imperfections.

Frankly, and highly ironically, the church often makes this difficult. One would think that a faith tradition that is founded on the paradox of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ would be the most welcoming to imperfect, shameful, vulnerable people. Instead, we've put ourselves out there as perfect people who have it together and just need a little touch-up or polish on Sunday mornings. Our perhaps unintentional message is that you are welcome to come to church if you are certain of what you believe, your life is nearly perfect, and you can navigate your way around a church service pretty easily.

I seriously doubt anyone qualifies to come to church under those restrictions.

Few people are certain of what they believe, and the ones that are most certain are often the most resistant to growing in their faith and understanding. Few people's lives qualify as anything close to perfect, especially in the world we live in today. Few people who have not grown up in the church have any idea what to do and when to do it.

So where does that leave me as a pastor and priest and St. Edward's as a congregation? It means that we need to be intentional about creating a place where anyone, doubter, seeker, or curious visitor, can explore the Christian faith. We need to be explicit that our church is a  place where you don't need to be perfect to walk in the door. We need to be helpful to those people who enter our doors for the first time so that they can be participants and not just spectators in our services. Finally, we need to proclaim far and wide that we're doing this, we're going to repeatedly fail at it, but we're going to keep trying.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ministry of The Word and Sacrament

One of my colleagues passed this along to me:

Walter Brueggemann is arguably one of the primary movers and shakers in the theological world today. His critique, sparked by a conversation with a rabbi, that we as preachers spend the bulk of our time engaged in everything but preaching or preparing for preaching, and end up devoting a few remaining hours in our week after we've exhausted ourselves with other things, strikes a little too close to home for comfort. My desk is currently strewn not with books, articles, and sermon drafts, but with catalogs, various pieces of mail, budget drafts, and various other items primarily having to do with administration and the day-to-day minutia of running a religious non-profit corporation that happens to be a church. And, yes, I generally do not get to serious sermon preparation until later in the week, occasionally even sitting in front of a computer screen on Saturday evening finishing up what I'm going to say the next morning!

That fact sparks in me a thought about the different names that we're called as ordained ministers: pastors (means "shepherd"), priests (not very much anymore), ministers (though much more ministry is done by the many church members serving in the community), and (in my case) "Father" (which places the priest in the role as "father" of the church "family", which is often less than helpful). I know if few, if any, times in which I've been referred to as "preacher"--and yet that is a key part of what I do each week: speak God's words to God's people. My ordination vows place as one my primary tasks the "ministry of Word and Sacrament", by which is primarily meant preaching and administering the sacraments. Those two tasks do not seem to have the same urgency during the week as the "running the shop" tasks do, nor are preachers generally rewarded or given points for reading and studying. If a church member or board member asks a pastor "What are you up to today?" and receives the answer "Well, doing a lot of reading and some prayer" it sounds almost as if he or she is taking a vacation! That is because most people work at jobs that not only don't require much study (and zero prayer) but often preclude study and prayer. Thus, the often unconscious reaction for most folks is "Wow, I wish that I could get paid to sit around and read and pray!"

The fact is, however, that we our primary calling is feeding the flock of Christ. Jesus' first post-resurrection commission to Peter was "feed my sheep." Putting aside the comparison of church members to sheep, as preachers and pastors we cannot give what we do not have. If we have not studied and prayed, we will give shallow, largely meaningless sermons that do not even come close to satisfying the spiritual hunger that God places in each one of us. Perhaps we need to take more seriously the rabbinical side of our calling--to be the teacher and the scholar.

One of the things that I hope and plan to do this year is to get a bit more focus on my preaching--both by setting aside more time for preparation and by focusing my continuing education funds and time on honing those skills. Preaching is one of my gifts. Administration is not. However, since others can do administration but not as many can do preaching, it makes sense to hone my strengths rather than attempting to shore up my weak areas.