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.