Saturday, December 20, 2014

Scrap TREC's A001 — Or, on Having My Mind on TREC Changed (just a bit)

So, though others have been much more critical/cynical when it comes to the report of the Task Force for Reimagining the Church than I was in my last post, for the most part I stand my much of my analysis... with one small exception.

My significant disagreement with the report was its support for bi-vocational clergy as a part of the wave of the future—this despite the fact that we've been doing it for forty years, albeit begrudgingly. I argued that this model should not simply be held up, but that it is time for a critical analysis of whether or not it actually works. Does it have a positive effect upon congregations? Does it wind up burning out clergy who are expected to work more than they are compensated?

I concluded, "To wit, this is not bold thinking, it is the same tired thinking that has led to continued decline in the Episcopal Church over the past several decades. We don't need more support for this model. We need for the model to be evaluated, perhaps by a task force appointed by Executive Council (EC), and then determined if it can be saved or if it needs to be thrown out."

The Rev. Susan Snook — Priest,
Church Planter, and author of
first essay that changed my
thinking on TREC. Two points.
Well, Susan Snook has taken the thread I left dangling in that post and pulled the whole thing apart. As she says, "What worries me is TREC’s apparent prognosis. They don’t name it specifically in the report, but many of their recommendations seem to be aimed at providing palliative care for a patient that has entered a long, slow, inevitable decline."

Yes. This.

Seeing this suspected prognosis does indeed bring light to why several of their recommendations are being made. It entirely deconstructs their very first resolution (A001: Restructure for Spiritual Encounter) and reveals that it should probably be renamed to "Restructure for a Shrinking Church." As Snook notes, much of this resolution fits with what you do with a dying church, "You make arrangements for clergy to find other ways to make a living, you think of non-church ways to use the buildings to keep them open a bit longer, you try to find ways to provide pensions for people who can’t actually make a living in the church, you try to get seminaries to educate people for less money with more practical skills they can use elsewhere..."

In a recent conversation with my deanery chapter about bivocational ministry and ministry in small churches, I suggested a different model.

Part of the problem is that our canons allow a way for a "mission" congregation to become a full "parish" of a diocese, but they don't have a mechanism for the reverse. That is, when a congregation has slowly declined and lost all the markers that enabled them to receive parish status... what can you do? In most cases, the small struggling congregation does its best to act as though it is still a parish. Thus, if it cannot afford its own priest, it will maybe share a priest with another church. Or, maybe it will hire someone who only needs half-time work.

But I suspect that in most cases—not all, but most—this approach merely enables a congregation to continue as though little has changed, to pretend as though they are still a parish.

What if, instead, we created a mechanism whereby a parish could apply to return to mission status? It would have to be attractive—financial assistance in the budget, the specific attention, perhaps, of a diocesan missioner who is highly skilled and has a demonstrable track record for helping declining parishes reverse the trend as they return to a mission mindset. But for it to work there would also have to be a willingness to let go—the autonomy of the parish would need to let go so that hard changes could be made to reverse a decline, changes that very few small congregations are willing to make on their own.

If this mechanism existed, then the diocesan missioner, working with the mission church's council, could indeed appoint a priest in charge of that mission who was not simply someone who would take a less than full-time job at a small church, if need be. Perhaps a limited availability of mission funds would enable that church to hire someone full-time—and not just someone out of seminary, but a well-trained and experienced priest. Or, perhaps a more strategic (and explicitly time limited) use of a yoke with another smaller church in the area would enable them together to hire someone who does not merely take the diocesan minimum, but to create a salary that makes the position attractive for someone who might otherwise take more comfortable job at a larger church.

I don't know the specifics of how all this should work, but I do think that one essential part of "reimagining" that needs to take place—perhaps the most important reimagining we can do—is how exactly we do ministry in small member churches.

Thus, I'd say, let's scrap the entirety of Resolution A001, acknowledging that, in the end, it had less to do with spiritual encounter and more to do with how do we get people to hold the hands of churches as they die. Instead, let's come up with a substitute resolution called something like, "Restructuring for Local Mission." It could read something like this...
Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 78th General Convention urge Episcopal seminaries to work collectively by the appointing a Task Force on Clergy Formation comprised of members from each Episcopal seminary and tasked with two goals: (1) an exploration of the current structure the MDiv degree in our seminaries and whether they are indeed the competencies needed for Episcopal clergy to lead thriving congregations and (2) the creation of post-MDiv and Mdiv concentrations that focus on mission, evangelism, creating healthy congregations in areas of decline, and cultivating ethnic diversity in monocultural locales, with such task force  and Episcopal seminaries’ reportage of their progress to Executive Council and to each succeeding General Convention; and be it further 
Resolved, That every diocese—or geographic grouping of dioceses—appoint a Diocesan Missioner who has experience and a track record with effective ministry in small member churches and that Diocesan Councils and Commissions on Ministry, in collaboration with their Bishop and Diocesan Missioner, develop specific model for ministry in small member churches, such models to encourage growth and change, creating situations where highly trained and capable clergy can enter into these churches and begin to reverse decline, including a mechanism whereby a parish can return to mission status, exchanging autonomy in the status quo for time-limited expanded funding and the leadership of Diocesan Missioner; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Executive Council study what portion of our Churchwide budget supports evangelism and mission, both in small member churches and through church plants, and create a report for the 79th General Convention which provides specific suggestions for what percentage of our budget should be focused on this need and how such funds might enable the work of parishes and dioceses to reverse decline; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Trustees of the Church Pension Fund study the following and report
to the 79th General Convention: how a portion of the resources of that fund might be put to work in providing funding for clergy who seek to enter into training as missioners across our church; compensation models and pension benefits that may not be adequate or may be just in certain areas of the Church, particularly in dioceses outside the U.S.; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society develop a Churchwide Missioner, who will facilitate connections and lead our church in this movement towards reversing decline, revitalizing that which has become stagnate, and provide resources, conferences, and other opportunities for training leaders, lay and ordained, throughout the Episcopal Church, who desire to turn their local parishes into more effective staging points for Christian mission and evangelism.  
Now, I'm clearly not a resolution wordsmith. I'm a young, thirty-three, year old priest who has only been at this for six years. I'm an Alternate to General Convention—not a Deputy—and so have no standing to propose anything. Indeed, the actual mechanisms for all these pieces likely need to be rewritten by people with much more experience than I.

But I do think it is clear that Resolution A001 needs to be fundamentally rewritten to go from an offering of, in Snook's words, "palliative care" for a dying church. It is the first resolution coming from TREC and it needs to be bold. It needs to create an effect specific change in a way that connects the various parts of our church in a movement towards mission. It needs to... reimagine who we are.

To be clear, Resolution A002 still makes me very giddy because it seems very good and very needed. Resolution A003 probably needs to be tweaked to make it clear that it is not about keeping the dying alive a little longer (this is actually the real reason we need stricter rules about endowment spending, particularly when that spending is simply supporting the status quo and not enabling mission and change). The changes to Constitution and Canons, to CCABS, all of that that I said I liked so much in my last post... I still think all that needs to be there.

But this Resolution A001, this one needs to change. The question is, who will be the ones to change it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Don't Hold the Presses, Approve (most of) this Thing! — Initial Reflections on the TREC Report

Church nerds across the world rejoiced yesterday morning when, at 10:26am (at least for me) the Report of the Task Force to Reimagine the Church (TREC) landed in the e-mail inboxes of Deputies and Alternates to General Convention (GC) and began to be posted across the inter webs. (You can read the full report online here.)

It is a seventy-three page document... so have fun with that. When you dig into it (and I encourage you to do so), you'll want to know that the heart of the document is actually just nineteen pages long. The rest are appendices—some very important appendices—but appendices nonetheless.

I've gone through and done a first read of the document. Not only am I interested in it having previously written about TREC here and here, I am also an Alternate Clerical Deputy from the Diocese of Western Michigan (like, fourth alternate, I think, which means that my opinions will likely remain on this blog and not wind up on the floor anytime soon). Nonetheless, this is a really important process and is right up the alley of the sort of church stuff I enjoy, so I offer you my initial reflections. (Confession: I may have skimmed the specific resolutions in pages 53–73, trusting that the summary of the resolutions is accurate).

I would note that I am choosing to offer my reactions below without having read ANYONE's thoughts thus far. So, this is one hundred percent my own thoughts. I reserve the right to read what others say and have my mind changed down the road... I've chosen this way not because I don't value the opinions of others who understand much of this better than I (trust me, I've got a list of blogs I am going to right after I hit publish on this), but because I wanted to try at first to give it a charitable and unbiased first reading. That said...

Introduction
Generally I find the prolegomena to reports like this a bit... unnecessary. Just tell us what do do! However, in the case of TREC's report, the introductory pieces are all really helpful. They acknowledge that structural change is not enough for the change we need in the church—including at the local level.

Lego Jesus sends out the Lego 70
In particular, I found the exegetical reflection on the sending out of the seventy in Luke 10 to be remarkably thoughtful and refreshing. What I found most refreshing about it was that it was good, basic, exegesis applied to our current situation. It even had three points—just smack on a poem and you've got an old-school sermon!

But, seriously, the call to the church at the beginning to (1) follow Jesus together, to go (2) into the neighborhood as agents of God's peacemaking and healing in our local context, and to (3) travel lightly... these are all good points for us to be called to as we consider what structure best makes sense for the church. After all, the way we structure ourselves is the way we choose to organize for doing the ministry of Christ in the world today.

THE THREE IMMEDIATE RESOLUTIONS

A0001 - Restructure for a Spiritual Encounter
By the title this one sounds rather promising. It calls seminaries to collaborate on a process that will create new structures, curricula, agrees, partnerships... etc. It's a bold call and has some clear points on it. It also calls for exploration of clergy compensation, an analysis of the current pension system, and a rather vague "development of a network...." I'll admit, I had to read that last "development of a network" resolve about eight times before I understood it.

I'm still not sure I do.

Thankfully, there are other things in the resolution tot all about.

Seminaries
With regard to seminaries, I think the call for new degrees makes sense. I'm the chair of the Commission on Ministry (COM) for our diocese and we've been working hard on creating a program of formation for deacons that makes sense and forms them into the deacons our bishop and community in the diocese is trying to raise up. I've several times wished there was some basic "deacon degree" that had a set of standards agreed upon across the church that we could use for forming deacons. I think they are correct elsewhere in this section where they note the canonical competencies are woefully insufficient for understanding and articulating what a well-formed deacon or priest might look like.

At the same time, I doubt that there will be many more degrees beyond the traditional M.Div.. Those academic realities already exist (the S.T.M. and the D.Min. are precisely that) and there are seminaries who are being much more creative with those degrees. Sewanee, where I did my S.T.M. and where I am currently finishing my D.Min., has created two new D.Min. degrees, one with a focus on Preaching and one on Liturgy. More movement in that direction would be great. I'd love to see specific foci in Church Planting, or Revitalization, or Ethnic Diversity.

The M.Div., however, is still an idea I generally support. The residential, three-year, Master of Divinity at an Episcopal seminary remains the preferred form of formation in our COM. I am in favor of the idea that there is one generalized degree (that absolutely could be restructured from its current implication), but still one generalized degree that seeks to give people the basic formation needed for priestly ministry.

The fear is that talk of change in formation will result in two possible realities: (1) priests that have not had the rigorous training necessary to serve faithfully and well as a priest and, more importantly, (2) the removal of the "in community" formation fostered by a residential seminary.

But beyond on all that, particularly tricky for this resolution is just how all this is going to be measured. You want to "look beyond competency," but what does that mean? Do we get rid of the academic competencies in the canons that (in theory) are measured by the General Ordination Exams? Do we make more competencies? Is competencies the wrong language?

This Resolution would call on the seminaries to figure all this out, but therein will lie the rub. Because, the real difficulty with the seminary portion of this resolution will be actually getting the seminaries (all of which are independent of each other, usually in competition) to work together on this. It could happen, but it will take convincing.

Clergy Compensation
With regard to Clergy Compensation, I'm an unpopular guy on this one because I think the current paradigm of what we need more of is (a) not new anymore and (b) is very likely a failed experiment.

Everyone has been saying for years that bivocational clergy is the future  (in TREC's language, "diverse ways for ordained clergy to make a living inside and outside the Church"). While I do think bivocational clergy (and those in yoked parishes) will continue to be present in the church, I am not convinced this is the best direction for us to continue to go as a church.

TREC, for some reason, seems to expect it as a given (on page 43, when they list the explanation that goes with the resolution, they say very clearly, "Newer clergy cannot assume that they will be able to make a sustainable living in the Church. Instead, they must have many skills they can use in both church and secular environments.")

Justin Barringer, a friend of mine,
who was one of the key subjects
of the article—and who has a beard
I can only aspire to emulate someday.
Why is this paradigm being assumed? Why is it not being challenged or, at the least, analyzed? Did no one on TREC read the excellent and provocative article this year in the Atlantic: Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy?

Rather that what they propose, I would argue that what is first needed is an evaluation of whether or not the bivocational and yoked models actually work. We have enough places that have done it in enough areas that a study shouldn't be that hard.

What would we find?

Do churches with bivocational clergy, in general, thrive and grow? Do the clergy find the work fulfilling?

Or, do these models simply enable small insular communities to continue doing things as they always have done them (we got a priest to say mass on Sundays, no need to change anything else about us to bring people in!)? Do these models lead to greater rates of clergy burnout and fatigue since the expectations are always there that, at the end of the day, you are their priest no matter the hours articulated in the Letter of Agreement. I have friends and colleagues who have served and are serving in these situations... their reports on the experience have been far from glowing.

To wit, this is not bold thinking, it is the same tired thinking that has led to continued decline in the Episcopal Church over the past several decades. We don't need more support for this model. We need for the model to be evaluated, perhaps by a task force appointed by Executive Council (EC), and then determined if it can be saved or if it needs to be thrown out.

The Pension Study is fine, but I doubt will lead to many changes. And, as I said, I'm not terribly sure what the Network Development paragraph is even suggesting.

Verdict? Amend the second resolved to evaluate rather than support the system. 

A002 – Reimagine Governance Structures
OK, to be honest, this was where I decided I wanted to write something. If nothing else, I wanted to add a resounding "Yay!" to this whole section of the document, particularly the move to a unicameral convention.

Speaking of better bishops, we
need to find out why our dioceses
are not electing the clearly called
women who are knocking at the door.
The reason why I think this one gets a shot at passing (though I know it will be controversial) is because it is very cleverly focused on calling upon our bishops to function differently. One of the reasons I've heard against a unicameral house is that clergy and lay deputies do not feel like they could speak their minds with their bishops present.

OK, if that's the case, then we need better bishops.

The call to mutual ministry reviews at all levels and especially the call to create a task force on the episcopacy are great ideas that hopefully will help this resolution move forward. I doubt the episcopacy needs to be reimagined. What I find much more likely is that the ancient role of the episkopos needs to be reclaimed and reasserted.

The lowering of the diocesan assessment I am comfortable with only if it will indeed be made canonically mandatory (with means for pastoral exception). This is a long overdue change and also something that will be vigorously fought against some dioceses that are fundamentally opposed to paying more than a meager portion of their assessment.

To those dioceses, I say with all gentleness and love... If you are a part of us, you have to pay what we have all agreed we need everyone to pay to do the ministry we all share as a church.

I hope this goes forward.

The specific way the unicameral house is created is rather clever. It still allows provision for any order to choose to deliberate or vote separately. It only allows bishops in active service to have a voice and vote in GC and "the Order of Bishops." This changes the current system (long unpopular with bishops but favored by deputies who know our retired bishops are much more diverse than our current bishops), of having retired bishops still retain voice and vote. It also enables a continuation of some form of the current House of Bishops, though now renamed as the Order of Bishops or, as described elsewhere in the document, a "Convocation of Bishops."

The Unicameral House will now elect the Presiding Bishop (PB). In the current process, just the bishops electing and the clergy/lay deputies concurring). This is a fantastic change. The PB must be elected by a majority of all orders (the same way a diocesan bishop is elected) and will serve as the co-chair of GC. (More on the PB in the section on canonical changes below.)

The unicameral house will contain less deputies, now three clergy and three laity (instead of four of each). It also enables GC later to decide that two in each order is sufficient through a change in canon rather than requiring another change in constitutions. This is a streamlining move which is wise.

All of these are points I wholeheartedly support and seem to be the way forward.

Verdict? Pass and don't change a thing. 

A003 – Restructure Assets in Service of God’s Mission in the Future
This is an interesting resolution to me, not one I saw coming. On first read it strikes you as the sort of thing that is rather small potatoes when compared to what has gone before. But in reality, I think it might have the power for the most "on the ground" change.

We absolutely need to re-understand sacred space and how we use it. There is tremendous possibility for making our space more effective for ministries of justice and healing in our local communities. The meat in this one will be what kind of a resource the task force on this can create. Saying in a resolution that we should do something very rarely goes very far without someone telling us the whys and hows of getting it done.

The final resolved in this section is also long overdue. I actually proposed a resolution at our last Diocesan Convention trying to get a rule created for endowment spending policies. In the end, after feedback from my colleagues, I made a motion to refer it to our Diocesan Council for further work with the language. I do think that we need clearly articulated policies for how endowments can and cannot be spent in this church. Controversy around this only lowers peoples' willingness and sense of call to participate in giving to endowments.

Verdict? Pass it, but don't be surprised if it turns out to anger people when you try to use the buildings for something else or tell a church they're using their endowment wrong.

CHANGES TO CONSTITUTION AND CANONS
This section is also full of great stuff. In particular, the call to "evolve and focus the scope of our Church-wide agenda" and to turn that to a focus on "local faith formation and local mission" sounds fantastic. To wit, less resolutions about climate change and more work helping local churches make decisions that actually would impact climate change. That sort of thing is greatly needed and will clean up much of the extra legislative work of GC.

Presiding Officers
I already noted the change in the election of the PB. There is also now a "Presiding Deputy" (or PD) elected by the lay and clergy orders (strangely, bishops are not given a role and no reason is given for that). The new PD would now receive a stipend so that a greater number of lay and ordained deputies could serve as viable candidates. This is wise thinking.

Interestingly, the PB and PD would alternate presiding at sessions of GC—excellent way of making it clear that the PD is indeed a presiding person in a presiding role.

They propose a "clarification of the executive authority of the Presiding Bishop." Much of this truly is clarifying what is already the case, but watch out for those who claim that this is a takeover of the church. It will cause controversy from those who wanted to see a weakened PB, but I'm glad TREC took this approach. As I said in my first post on TREC, "Bishops have a particular ministry of teaching. They are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church. They are called to proclaim the gospel and to act in ways that will reconcile the world and build up the church of God. They are called to ordain... All of those seem to be the duties we would want to have in a "CEO"... that is, assuming that as an organization we are committed to proclaiming the Gospel, strengthening the ministry of the baptized, and carrying on Christ's ministry of reconciliation."

The only thing I'm disappointed in about TREC's final report is that they do not suggest that the PB remain the bishop of her or his diocese (or be given a new diocese). Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope have a diocese and it is rather nonsensical to have a Presiding Bishop who is not actually a bishop of any diocese. Clearly both he Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope have some pretty serious expectations as executives and leaders and don't see the need to divorce themselves from a diocesan relationship. What is keeping us from that?

The appointment of four officers (with the concurrence of the PD) in four specific areas is also a good idea. Once more, not a huge change from the current paradigm but a good clarification and one that gives EC authority, by two-thirds vote, to discharge any one of those four officers.

The creation of mutual ministry reviews among the PB, PD, and EC is another good idea that would hopefully create greater communication, transparency, and collegiality in work. In the section on rationale, they make clear that while giving the PB a clear role in directing the church-wide staff, they also do indeed expect a different type of accountability than we have seen in the past.

People will be suspicious and cynical about it being taken seriously, but that doesn't mean it cannot be taken seriously. The people in these roles will have the responsibility for making that decision. Not only do I agree with this but, once more, I think this will hopefully contribute to the likelihood of this passing.

Verdict? Don't freak out! Pass this and trust the Spirit's work in electing a PB!

Executive Council 
EC is rather significantly changed by focusing it on its governance role. Over the years EC has at times sought a more operational model with varying degrees of success. I would suggest that when it moves into an operational roles that degree of success is generally rather... low. At the end of a day, a governing board (particularly of that size) simply cannot manage the operations of an organization. By clearly taking that off the EC plate (and clarifying that it is on the PB's plate), they are fixing this problem.

Unfortunately there was nothing in TREC requiring altars
used in Eucharist at EC gatherings to first be cleared of
extraneous paper or the random bottle of port...
but one cannot have it all, I suppose. 
EC is also made much smaller, cut in half to 21 members while retaining proportionality among the orders involved. Their previous approach had all the members elected by GC. Gladly, that is gone to a much more reasonable approach: half elected at GC and half elected regionally at the provincial level. This ensures that we retain the geographic diversity needed on a body that is intended to fulfill a governance role. I am particularly glad to see that the Joint Standing Committee on Nominations will now create a description of what sorts of people with what skills should stand for election to this role. This will hopefully heighten the caliber of people who wind up in this role.

All of this section would enable Executive Council to function like a healthy board and as a healthy board. At the same time, they are not removing the relationship between EC and the staff at the church-wide office Instead, they are clear that "Church-wide mission staff will be measured and evaluated on specific objectives associated with specific priorities set and agreed to by the Executive Council." They are trying to balance this while still giving clearer roles as to who is responsible for what.

Verdict? Don't freak out! Pass this and know that a smaller EC with a more clearly defined role could actually be a much more powerful EC.

Excursus: The Fly in the Ointment
What's going to get TREC in this section is all the use of business and corporate language. In the appendix were they share the results of their listening process, structure and bureaucracy were highest in the list of things to get rid of. TREC has sought to couch this whole section by saying they are trying to get rid of current bureaucracy in order that we can function more effectively as a church. The business language will bite them in some corners—but it doesn't bother me in the least. I've always been a fan of taking the spoils of Egypt (insights from the business world about how organizations can function effectively, for example) for the use of God's people.

CCABS
All the Standing Committees would be gone now, except for two: Liturgy & Music and Constitution & Canons. Originally they were only going to keep the ones on Nominations and Budget and Finance... which seemed a little strange to me. Keeping Liturgy & Music and renaming it "Theology, Liturgy, and Music" indicates that TREC has heard that our liturgy is central to our sense of identity (it is far and above the highest rated response in the area of what we should hold onto). I think TREC understands that our liturgy is the sort of thing that cannot merely be handled by a task force but that does indeed require the constant presence of a Standing Committee.

Keeping Constitution and Canons (now renamed "Governance, Constitution, and Canons") makes sense right now—when we are seeking to reimagine our Governance, Constitution, and Canons. The idea that it might need the constant presence and monitoring of a Standing Committee seems likely to me as well.

They are also clear that the elimination of many of the CCABs does not mean everything will now be handled by ad hoc task forces. Indeed, they think one of the problems is an over-reliance on those task forces (including their own, they say in a tone that almost merits a smiley face after the comment). They suggest moving much of that work to the church-wide office, with the hiring of "world-class consultants" instead to address and engage difficult questions.

In theory, this sounds good to me, but I'll be curious how well it will work in practice. It will certainly be a difficult concept to support with those who are sure that all the church-wide office does is throw money away. They will have to demonstrate that the results from consultants instead of task forces does indeed merit the investment. I think it can, myself.

Verdict? Go for it... but be open to the possibility that we made discover that there are Standing Committees we really do need. 

Conclusion
None of us knew what we would see in the final TREC report. To be honest, I expected a lot more I would probably disagree with or, at the least, be suspicious of. In the end, I think this is a great report with recommendations I mostly agree with.

I am a bit worried, of course. What people have said all along is that though GC passed the resolution calling for the creation of TREC unanimously... once people see concrete changes proposed, that unanimity will likely fade. We've already seen that in many of the critical (and at times strangely hostile) responses to their work.

It will be up to General Convention now. I pray that they will receive this report, maybe tweak the resolutions a bit, but not change the heart and substance of what TREC has given us. Deputies need to trust that TREC did their homework. They need to give these changes a chance.

The Spirit is blowing... I just hope our General Convention won't close the windows to keep our favorite things from getting moved out of place.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

==

N.B. ~ I've started reading other responses and am surprised that this is one where Crusty Old Dean and I have vastly different impressions. The most obvious being that he is feeling very cynical about any of this going forward whereas I am hopeful that this has a chance (maybe because I am young and naive.) Outside of cynicism and his arguments that pieces of it are poorly written (I didn't find it nearly as bad as he did), his fundamental disagreements seem primarily to be with the canonical and constitutional pieces not being properly put together. On that, I trust people with more canonical skills than my own can take these recommended amendments and ensure they effect the goals outlined in the TREC report. The fundamental changes they are trying to make in the report I absolutely still support as outlined above.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Positive Move, but Issues Remain — Initial Thoughts on the Draft TEC Budget for the Next Triennium

Church nerds throughout TEC rejoiced yesterday to learn that The Executive Council has already released a preliminary draft of the budget for the next triennium (2016–2018). This release is earlier than required, according to Mtr. Susan Brown Snook, "because we would like to give people all over the church the opportunity to give us input and feedback." This is a marked improvement over the fiasco that the 2012 General Convention budget process turned out to be... so looking ahead, here are some initial thoughts.

Diocesan "Ask"
The raised exemption for a diocese to $200,000 is a kind and good thing to do. However, they also propose a gradually lower "asking" going from the current 19% to 18%, 16.5%, and finally 15% in 2018. I think this is one of the issues for which TREC needs to create a proposal. The current asking system is entirely optional because there are no consequences for not meeting the ask. Indeed, less than half of the dioceses in our church actually pay the full ask.

The ask needs to be changed to an apportionment and then set at a level that is fair, just, and provides the resources we need for ministry best done at the Churchwide level. Simply lowering the ask will not fix the problems we have with diocesan support for The Episcopal Church at the national and international level.

Salaries – Projected Health Insurance Premium Increases
In the next triennium, Executive Council projects that health insurance premiums will increase 8.5%. This is an indication that the cost of the church negotiating our own insurance, indeed the entire Denominational Healthcare Plan, is a complete failure.

When we consider the health exchanges, my own State of Michigan is seeing a variety of premium changes going on. Some are increasing (Humana will be up 17.6%, BCBS will be up 9.7%). Others are decreasing (Priority health is decreasing 5.5% and Molina is decreasing a whopping 21.6%).  In North Carolina, the insurance premiums on the exchange went up a meager 1% in the second year. In many states the projected increase on the exchanges is an average 2%.

However, even ignoring what's going on in the exchangers (which are still figuring this out in many ways, since they did not have historical underwriting data from which to create their initial premiums), our projected increases for the Church are still above the average price increase for the independent market—generally around 6% in recent years and, in Michigan, 4.6% last year.

The increasing cost of healthcare in the Episcopal Church has, as far as I can tell, actually gotten worse for most people under the denominational healthcare plan. Something else needs to be done for our churches (and for the Churchwide office) to be able to offer quality healthcare at rates that are at least comparable to what exists on the exchanges or the individual employer marketplace. If our health insurance premiums were not rising at such an exorbitant rate, imagine the mission an ministry we could do!

On the rest of expense side, I'm going to group my comments like the budget itself, under the categories of the Five Marks of Mission. (Though, to be honest, even I scratched my head as why some areas were included under one mark and not under another. For example, putting world mission work under Mark 3 instead of Mark 1 is an interesting choice... and one that likely reflects what much of the church believes mission work is—helping those in need instead of proclaiming the Gospel... but I digress...)

Mark 1: To Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
Mission Enterprise and Church Planting
I am delighted to see the proposed increases here, going from $2 million for Mission Enterprise Zones to $3 million. In particular, I am thrilled to see that the budget for Hispanic/Latino ministries is increasing nearly $100,000 and that this increase is for "church planting of Hispanic/Latino congregations." This is the kind of investment that it is great to see the Executive Council considering.

Mark 2: To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
Province IX
The increasing move to sustainability for Province IX is an encouraging sign. I simply hope that it is not rushed since Province IX remains one of the fastest growing provinces in our church (if not the fastest growing). I am all about investing in provinces, dioceses, and parishes that are doing the sort of ministry that creates growth and vibrancy.

Presiding Bishop's Office
The Presiding Bishop's office is scheduled to go up, but only a modest $100,000, much better than previous requested increases and one that seems primarily to be staff cost related (see above note about the health insurance rate increases...).

Mark 3: To respond to human need by loving service
Campus Ministry Grants
The decision to continue to increase our investment in Campus Ministry is an absolutely forward thinking and essential decision. I'm glad to see it.

Mark 4 To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
Poverty & Human Trafficking
Though this "mark of mission" does not see much change, a few items of change are significant. Increased funding for "Regional Poverty Conferences" and an event on human trafficking are the sort of work I know I'd like to see done under this mark. Good movement.

Mark 5: To strive safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain 
The fact that this mark has been decreased "in order to concentrate on the highest-priority areas: development of local networks focusing on creation care, and fellowships for specific projects" seems like an entirely reasonable and appropriate decision." I think that's all I will say on this one.

Supporting Mission through Local Efforts
Development Office
The significant increase in the Development Office ($1 million more than the previous triennium) will supposedly be offset bey the office raising $2 million dollars for the work of the church. Spending $1 million to raise $2 million might be a good idea... but the numbers on the whole thing seem a bit off to me. The office is basically going to raise the cost of its own existence and then another million... maybe. This should be a topic for conversation.

Stewardship Grant
In the previous triennium we put nearly $400,00 into Stewardship Development through TENS... I hope the Blue Book report will indicate what the result of that one-time grant was.

Anglican, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Work
Anglican Communion Commitment
I am beyond thrilled to see that our commitment to the Anglican Communion is returning to our earlier levels of giving. This is one area that had been slashed in previous budgets—a cut that made it hard to demonstrate to our Communion partners that we do indeed value the Communion and our relationships with our sister provinces. Returning to our previous commitment level here is a positive move in the right direction.

Ecumenical Budget
Our ecumenical budget is decreasing slightly, but it is primarily decreasing through models of ecumenical work that are not as vibrant as they once were, Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) being one example. Those organizations that are trying to restructure to function more effectively, like the National Council of Churches, are seeing an increase in our commitments. (Though, as I have written before, I have concerns about some of the direction of the NCC restructuring). 

Still, the overall decrease is something I don't like because I strongly believe much of the future of our church does indeed lie in greater and more vibrant ecumenical work... the problem is that many the current structures often seem not to be doing the ecumenical work that is actually needed. Once more, see here for my thoughts on that. (Hint, it's not living in DC and lobbying.)

Governance
It is also clear that this budget is also anticipating some of what TREC is proposing. The budget for CCABs has been significantly reduced, assuming "fewer CCABs or Task forces with fewer members but meeting more often." This is one aspect of restructuring on which there is much more agreement than others. But if it changes in the budget, that will indeed mean the General Convention needs to approve at least that portion of TREC's work...

Administration
The budget for "Legal Exp Churchwide Conflict Res." continues to increase, going from $2 million in the previous triennium to a proposed $2.5 million in the next. This is not sustainable in the long-term and while I vigorously support the retention of Episcopal church property and buildings, I hope we will see more Supreme Court decisions and negotiated settlements bringing an end to this unfortunate moment in the life of our church.

Conclusion
Overall, I'd say a good shot at a first budget—compared to last year, I would say this one is fantastic and awesome. I hope that members of the church will indeed receive this gracious gift of an early release and take a moment to read it all carefully and make their voice heard as well.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Take the cross down in order to take it up

My October 25, 2014, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, "Take the cross down in order to take it up,"
As a teenager growing up in Grand Haven, I remember walking down the boardwalk and seeing the cross displayed on Dewey Hill when it was up. I remember walking downtown during Christmas and seeing the Nativity scene displayed. I remember how much I enjoyed these public affirmations of my faith.
I also remember the first time I walked downtown during December when I returned in my late 20s as the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church. I remember looking up at the Nativity scene and raising an eyebrow. After all, the Episcopal Church follows the traditional observance of Advent — one that is focused upon silence, prayer and waiting, and not upon an early celebration of Christmas...

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Incarnation Cycle, Anglican Quests for Holiness, and John A. T. Robinson

Last month I completed my fourth summer of coursework toward a Doctor of Ministry with the Advanced Degrees Program at Sewanee's School of Theology. With my final papers turned in, all that now remains is to write a project thesis of around 100 pages.

Ideally, I would write that in the summer of 2015, but it looks like my energy next year is going to be poured in immersion Spanish-language training so that I can more effectively lead St. John's El Corazón Latino Ministry Initiative, seeking not only to find ways to welcome Latinos at our church but also for our church to lead the way in dismantling the segregation and prejudice that persists in Northwest Ottawa County.

That said, like I did last year, and the year before, I am posting below the papers I wrote for this summer's courses.

Liturgical Time, class taught by the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander (Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Liturgy, and Charles Todd Quintard Professor of Dogmatic Theology) and the Rev. Dr. Melissa M. Hartley (Associate Chaplain for the University of the South). A class that could also be retitled as "The Church Year is NOWHERE NEAR as simple and clear cut as you think it is!"

One Paper — A Robust Feast of the Incarnation: An Analysis of the Development of the Incarnation Cycle in English Christianity from the Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, with Application to Current Questions of Liturgical Practice

From the Introduction,
The liturgical calendar is something that most Christians in liturgical traditions take for granted. Those who have been raised in liturgical traditions assume that this is the way Christianity has been practiced since ancient times throughout the ages, the way it has always been. Those who have converted to a liturgical tradition from one that is not liturgical often perceive the church year as a way of reconnecting with ancient Christianity. At the same time, any scholar of liturgical history knows that the development of the church year came much more slowly and with much greater complexity than is often assumed. 
The Anglican tradition of Christianity is perhaps one of the most ancient streams that exist, with roots that may come from as early as the first century and with evidence of a developed enough Christian presence for an archbishop to attend a council in the early fourth century. From these earliest days, the Anglican tradition has had a tendency to do things differently than other areas, a tradition that has persisted throughout the centuries. For example, the English retained the practice of the new year beginning on March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation), up until the middle of the eighteenth century, long after most had started seeing January 1 as the beginning of a new year.  The sources and reasons for those differences are, unfortunately, often lost to history. However an exploration of the way that an aspect of Christianity developed in the Anglican tradition can reveal important new lenses to the Christian faith and can provide wonderful resources for critical reflection upon current practice. 
The nativity (or incarnation) cycle is an excellent example of where development in the British Isles happened differently than elsewhere, particularly differently than Rome. Even the common name “nativity cycle” betrays a later understanding of what is going on in this observance: a focus solely upon the birth of Christ instead the incarnation, a focus upon an historical event instead of the reality of God taking on flesh among us. Hence, I will be using “incarnation cycle” to refer to the celebrations and fasts related to the coming of God in Christ.  
It is often said that Anglicanism is an incarnational faith. What is particularly fascinating is that the peculiar Anglican focus upon the incarnation is much more ancient, much more rooted in specific liturgical observances of the church year, than is often realized.
Anglicanism: Love's Redeeming Work?, class taught by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin John King (Associate Professor of Church History at the School of Theology). I sort of asked him to teach a course using the text Love's Redeeming Work, knowing this was the only way I would get around to reading all 832 pages. Am I ever glad I did!

First Paper: The Distinctive Quest: A Critical Assessment of the Claims of Love's Redeeming Work & the Anglican Tradition of Christianity

From the Introduction,
Those in the Anglican tradition exist in a tradition that has always been a little hesitant to speak too strongly about a distinct identity. Indeed, at those times in our history when any one group has sought to do this, the experience has usually ended rather badly. As the editors of Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness  note, many books about Anglican identity are focused on questions of history, ecclesiology, or theology. They suspect, however, that the true value and distinctive nature of Anglicanism is actually found in our spiritual practice, in the peculiar way that Anglicans pursue holiness of life and deeper relationship with God.  
What is most fascinating as one reads this book is how easy it is to forget what age in which one is reading or what camp in which a particular author falls. Certain themes, ideas, and concepts appear again and again, across centuries and party lines, as clergy and laity invite the people of God deeper into the divine life. The contribution this book makes to a renewed appreciation of this reality—despite any (very fair and important!) qualms we might have about editorial decisions of which authors are included and how much space is devoted to each—is, indeed, immense.  
What seems to unite Anglicans is not merely a particular book of worship or a hierarchical system adapted to modern circumstances. What remains present is the idea that God truly does call us to holiness—and that the bedrock practices of that journey, regular prayer and Holy Eucharist, can indeed change our very selves. A persistent journey that seeks holiness of life and a deeper relationship with God can even change the world in which we live.

From the Introduction,
In a powerful image for the life of this controversial bishop, John Arthur Thomas Robinson was born in the precincts of the Canterbury Cathedral in 1919. His father, Arthur William Robinson served as a canon at the cathedral, as did his maternal grandfather. However, Arthur Robinson had married later in life, when he was sixty-two, and he died when his son, John, was only nine. John retained a close relationship to the church, even after his father’s death. Six of his uncles who also served as clergy persons, including one, J. Armitage Robinson, who was dean of Westminster and then Wells...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Affordable housing, living wages and a place for all

My October 1, 2014, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, "Affordable housing, living wages and a place for all,"
I was pleased to read last week that the Grand Haven Township Board has approved a new apartment complex for our area. The amenities sound lovely: a clubhouse, pool, dog park and two ponds.

What we don’t yet know is what rent will cost. Given the amenities, my guess is that it will not be the cheapest in town — which, perhaps, makes this a good time to raise some important questions about affordable housing in our area.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It’s been a horrific summer in the Middle East

My September 17, 2014, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, "It’s been a horrific summer in the Middle East,"
Please don’t tell anyone I told you about this,” the man told us with tears in his eyes, “I could lose my job.” In order to respect that request and protect his identity, I won’t tell you how I met the man. I won’t tell you when he told me this or what he did working for a major international company before everything got even worse in the West Bank.

But I will tell you that I can never forget the look of fear in his eyes. He was pointing out the bullet holes in the outside wall of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — the oldest Christian church still in daily use.

“Notice the bullet holes are all from guns fired outside the church,” he said. “You will find no bullet holes in anything out here due to people firing from inside.”...
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Reimagined Episcopal Church: Some Steps Forward, Some Steps Back

A few days ago, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), released an Open Letter to the Church, sharing the latest update on their thinking and their emerging recommendations, hoping the church would give them prayerful feedback.

This letter represents an evolution from their prior release of position papers (one of which I found a few things to disagree with...). This latest letter contains a lot of good thoughts and I truly do believe they are moving in a positive direction. It seems very clear to me that they are trying abundantly hard to listen to the church—as best you can in our virtual age. I know a few people on TREC and what impresses me most is that they are not there to do what they want, but they are there to try to listen hard to the church while also making recommendations that will move us forward.

Indeed, my biggest worry is not TREC's recommendations being imperfect (the only way anyone would think they were perfect would be if the disagreeing reader got to write their own recommendations!) My biggest worry is that the political camps in General Convention are too deeply entrenched for any significant change to go forward. 

As exhibit A, I would direct you to the Lead's story on the open letter, to which their actual lead to the article is, "The Taskforce for Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC) today released a report in which sets out a vision of an Episcopal Church led by a Presiding Bishop with few checks on his or her executive powers."

Well, I'm pretty sure the report does more than set out a vision of "an Episcopal Church led by a Presiding Bishop with few checks on his or her executive powers." As I said on the House of Bishops / House of Deputies list serve, the fact that this was the big takeaway says more about the editorial slant of the Lead than it does about the report itself. Indeed, I think that there are other recommendations—two specifically—that are more jarring and more damaging to the future of the church than the idea that our leader be a bishop.

I'm on record with supporting a somewhat strengthened Presiding Bishop, but I think there is a deeper question the church must first answer.

Which Path Forward?
As I see it, other than the status quo, there are two options forward for our church. Everyone seems to agree that we need to revision ourselves as the missionary society we technically are. We need to find ways to support small and struggling congregations—but not just to support them but actually to equip them to enact changes that will help them grow once more. We need to take advantage of 21st century technology and increase the participation of all quarters of the church in our church's life. 

BUT, is this best accomplished through an increase in authority to a single leader or to an elected body? In times of struggle and change, do elected bodies or a single leader stand a better chance of charting a strong course forward and leading the church in that direction?

I would argue that a single leader has a greater capability to lead, particularly when supported by a strong working relationships with an elected body. Anyone who has ever been on a board knows that, absent a strong leader, a board, whether operating by consensus or majority vote, struggles to move quickly, decisively, and boldly. That's good—boards exist to slow decisions, to ensure adequate discernment and consultation exists. However, to be led solely by a board slows all decisions. Furthermore, in most organizations it is hard to get on a board (they tend to self-perpetuate), and so you wind up with an oligarchy. 

What's fascinating is that most of those who I have read who oppose a strengthened Presiding Bishop in this open letter seem to support a different option given by TREC in their earlier position paper: have Executive Council hire someone as a General Secretary to the church. 

What is the difference between a General Secretary and a Presiding Bishop? A General Secretary could be from the laity or the clergy while a Presiding Bishop is, obviously, a bishop. I think that, as the Episcopal Church, it make sense to retain our historic practice of being "episcopally led but synodically governed." 

But this is the more telling difference between the church: a Presiding Bishop is elected by the House of Bishops and confirmed by the House of Deputies whereas a General Secretary would be chosen by... Executive Council. 

And yet, all those who oppose a strengthened Presiding Bishop and want a General Secretary instead say over and over again that it is because the voice of all people, particularly the laity, needs to be heard. They say we cannot centralize power in an age of decentralization. And yet, their own preference seems to be a centralization of power in the Executive Council of the church by having them select our leader instead of the actual General Convention.

Of course, General Convention is also an elected body, but they are one that will, by its very nature, be much more representative than Executive Council.

Which brings me to specific suggestions I would have in light of TREC's open letter.

Changes to General Convention
I agree that the primary role of General Convention should indeed be a place of deliberative discernment and evolution for the church's view on large-scale issues. I do not know whether shortening the length of Convention is necessary (they seem overwhelmed at trying to accomplish everything at the current length). TREC suggests we need "efforts to focus and prioritize its legislative agenda." But if we do that AND shorten the length, we might wind up with a still harried and rushed experience. 

What I would prefer is to leave the length alone while prioritizing the legislation. Get rid of all legislation that is unnecessary to the actual function of our church. Then, see how General Convention feels once we have focused and prioritized the agenda. My guess is that there will be more time for breathing, more time for discernment. My guess is that the current length will then, for the first time in years, be sufficient for the task at hand.

I would also say that Crusty Old Dean's point that we need specific changes to focus and prioritize legislation is essential. Keep the legislative committees, but streamline the legislative process. Allow Executive Council to bring legislation directly to the floor of the house. Increase the needed sponsors for resolutions. Empower a body to combine legislation. I would also say we need an explicit statement about what sort of legislation we should consider at General Convention. Sometimes resolutions that express the "mind of the convention" on pressing political matters may be helpful—but those should be few and reserved for only the most important of questions. 

TREC also does not discuss changing the size or make-up of General Convention. As I said earlier, I think General Convention should move to a unicameral synod with the retained ability to call a vote by orders. Each diocese voting delegation should consist of the diocesan bishop, two priests/deacons, and two lay people, with an equal amount of alternates elected. That's is half the size of the current delegation. 

(I am on record for actually supporting all four orders being the delegation for General Convention—that is, instead of "clergy", having priests be one order in the house and deacons be another order. However, it could be that many dioceses don't have a robust enough diaconate for that to happen.... in my pie in the sky world, though, it seems to me that having deacons and priests each attend as their own order alongside laity and bishops would be ideal). 

But then, keep the budget you had for when your voting delegation was larger and also send people to General Convention not for voting but to participate in parallel workshops and training opportunities that would empower the church. The sort of person who may be a good General Convention delegate may not be the same as the person in your diocese you would send to a series of workshops on Young Adult ministry (and vice versa). 

Changes to the Presiding Officers
Change the Presiding Bishop to a role that is elected by the entire General Convention. Take a cue from our ELCA sisters and brothers and scrap the current nomination process (a process that will cost us a quarter of a million dollars this year!). Have the first ballot allow any eligible bishop to be elected. Then, in successive ballots, slowly drop off the lowest vote getters until you get to a person who is actually elected by a majority of the laity, priests/deacons, and bishops. This is not impossible in an age of electronic voting.

Then, do the same thing to elect a President of Deputies or Vice-President (or some other name)—but have that person be a lay person. The election process is the same as that for a Presiding Bishop. Envision the relationship as similar to that between a rector and a senior warden. 

Next, empower the Presiding Bishop to lead the church, assisted by the advice of the President of Deputies. Have the Presiding Bishop remain bishop of their diocese (even the Archbishop of Canterbury, even the Pope is bishop of a diocese!), but since General Convention is now paying the salary, the diocese can elect a suffragan (if need be) to assist. 

As TREC recommends, the Presiding Bishop remains "CEO of the Church, Chair of the Executive Council, and President of DFMS, with managerial responsibility for all DFMS staff" and the President of Deputies is "Vice President of the Church, Vice Chair of the Executive Council, and Vice President of DFMS." The Presiding Bishop nominates "Chief Operating Officer (COO), Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Legal Officer," with the concurrence of the President of Deputies. The Presiding Bishop retains the right to supervise, hire, and fire all staff (just like a rector). 

Changes to Executive Council
Here is one of the most significant disagreements I have with the TREC report. I agree with cutting the rise of Council in half (from forty to twenty), but they suggest those twenty all be elected at General Convention without attention to regional representation, eliminating the election of Executive Council members that currently also happens at regional provincial synods. 

No. 

Once again, as Crusty Old Dean notes, this would likely result in only a few provinces having adequate representation. Instead, I would reverse it. I would have the entire Executive Council elected at the regional provincial synods, with those synods being comprised not of independent synodical representatives, but of the Deputies and Alternates to General Convention (with both Deputies and Alternates having the right to vote at a provincial synod—current practice is that provincial synod is its own elected representative office). Each province elects one lay person and one bishop, priest, or deacon to sit on Executive Council. 

Changes to CCABs
TREC also suggests the "elimination of all Standing Commissions except the Joint Standing Committees on Nominations and Program, and Budget & Finance." Instead, the Presiding Offices "appoint such task forces as might be necessary to carry out the work of a GC on a triennium by triennium basis."

I agree with most of this... I think. So long as the Presiding Officers are vigorous in appointing task forces we need and pay attention both to rotating people into task force work that have not previously served while also bring people onto a task force who may have served in a similar task force previously. A balance between continuity and fresh ideas is essential. 

Changes to Churchwide Staff
The final—and most troubling!—recommendation is "a transition in the mission or program-related staff of DFMS to a primarily contractor-only model."

I am consistently shocked by the fact that a church like ours that speaks to strongly of the importance of justice and valuing all the baptized consistently treats lay employees so remarkably poorly. This new model eliminates salaries. It eliminates benefits. It is shocking. And it is wrong.

My experience of the Churchwide Staff has been nothing but fantastic. I do believe that the staff could perhaps be reorganized—but the overarching concern should not be saving money but instead empowering ministry. The staff for ecumenical and interfaith relations has been slashed over the past few years—a remarkably bad decision given the increasing importance of ecumenical and interfaith relations at the local level in our times. One of the reasons why our diocese is still viable is because of our relationship with the ELCA!

Ask ourselves what work we want staffed at a churchwide level. A missioner for young adults, for Latino ministry, an ecumenical officer... what else? Create that staff, have Executive Council be the employer with the Presiding Bishop as the one with supervisory, hiring, and firing. 

Concluding Thoughts
As I said, TREC is moving in some very positive directions—though there are definitely a couple areas where I would raise caution flags. 

I simply pray that as they move forward they will continue to listen to the voice of the Spirit in the larger church... and that all of us will hold our own fears and anxieties lightly. Indeed, nothing short of the work of the Holy Spirit will enable TREC's final recommendations—no matter their final form—to make it through the various interests and groups that make-up General Convention.

Holy Spirit, who broods over the world, fill the hearts and minds of your servants on the Taskforce for Reimagining The Episcopal Church with wisdom, clarity, and courage.  Work in them as they examine and recommend reforms for the structure, governance, and administration of this branch of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. Help them propose reforms to more effectively proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to challenge the world to seek and serve Christ in all persons—loving our neighbors as ourselves—[MT4] and to be a blazing light for the kind of justice and peace that leads to all people respecting the dignity of every other human being.Be with The Episcopal Church that we may be open to the challenges that this Taskforce will bring to us, and help the whole church to discern your will for our future. In the name of Jesus Christ our Mediator, on whose life this Church was founded.  AMEN

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lessons for Independence Day from the Holy Trinity

My July 1, 2014, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, "Lessons for Independence Day from the Holy Trinity,"
Four years ago on July 4, I celebrated my first service as the rector of St. John’s. In preparation for the day, the interim rector and I noticed the strange coincidence that my first Sunday also happened to be a year when the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday.

In the Episcopal Church, Independence Day is actually a major feast of the church. That means it has its own collect (opening prayer), with readings and a Eucharistic preface assigned to it. Interestingly enough, our prayer book assigns the preface for Trinity Sunday to be used at worship on Independence Day.

Both Father Laycock and I remarked that this is an interesting choice — to call us to the Holy Trinity as a way of focusing worship on Independence Day...
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Be Made Clean

Below is my sermon from the closing Eucharist of the 2014 session of the Advanced Degrees Program of the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, TN.
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (8:1–4)
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ 
He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 
Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’
The Messianic secret always confused me growing up. I was raised an evangelical, in a tradition that put a significant emphasis on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. And so I never understood why it was that when Jesus would heal someone, like the leper in today’s Gospel reading, he would tell that person not to tell anyone what happened to him. Perhaps in telling people to keep their experiences of Jesus to themselves, Jesus was simply an excellent early Episcopalian.

This is now my fourth summer up on the Mountain, digging deeply into questions of theology, spirituality and the Christian faith. I have not been keeping this experience to myself, tweeting and Facebooking my way throughout class—sometimes I’m sure to the raised eyebrows of my professors. I have been trying to share with my congregation what it is exactly that I do for these three weeks each summer. I have not been keeping this experience to myself.

And though the relative paucity of posts from others on the ADP14 hashtag would indicate that not many of you have been tweeting or facebooking your way through classes with me, I’m sure that you will also find ways to share with your congregation the good experiences you’ve had in the program this year, the things you’ve learned, maybe even the things you learned that you had been wrong about all along. We clergy tend to be sharers, we have accepted this vocation because of our passion for telling people about our experience with God in Christ.

Jesus Heals the Leper
You know, I’m struck by this leper, the question he poses to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” It’s really a statement, of course, a statement of faith that he knows Christ can do this if he wants to, but the unspoken question underneath is… is Jesus willing? Maybe the leper was better about talking about Jesus, than coming out and asking Jesus for the healing he so desperately desired. But that’s getting awfully close to psychologizing the text, and I’d hate to get marked down on exegesis so late in the program.

Except for one thing, I wonder about you. Do you talk more about Jesus than to Jesus? Do you wrestle with papers and newsletter articles and sermons but then spend little time in quiet with Christ? Is there within you, somewhere deep within, beneath the clerical collars, the alb, stole and chasuble, is there a place within you that hurts sometimes? A place you would deeply like our Lord to cleanse?

Episcopalians are wrong, I think, in keeping our experience of Jesus to themselves. The Messianic secret, in all the forms the theory has taken over the past hundred or so years, remains somewhat of an enigma from a Scriptural standpoint. But the evangelistic call of Christ to share the good news is not an enigma. We have to do better at this, we clergy, we have to better equip our people to go out and talk.

But, perhaps, as clergy, we also have to learn that every moment of our life is not sermon fodder. Perhaps we have to know that some of those quiet places in our life are important, that they cannot be neglected, and that we need to hold them between us and God. Perhaps we need to step away from the laptop and seek the presence of Christ. Perhaps we need to stop telling people about Christ and to ask Christ, to ask our Lord, to please make us clean… all those wounded places, the struggle and self-doubt and anxiety… to heal us.

Because I have a hunch that if we did ask him we would discover that he is indeed willing. Amen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

There is a place for the broken

My June 18, 2014, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, "There is a place for the broken,"
“Oh, I don’t want to go to church. It is just full of hypocrites.”

I hear comments like this regularly from members of a rising group in America: the “nones.” This is those people who claim no religious affiliation — now nearly 20 percent of the population in the United States, including one-third of those ages 18-29.

And, every time I hear this comment, I grimace just a little. Because I know it is true.

I’ve been involved in the church my whole life, active in ministry of some sort since I was a campus minister in college 16 years ago, including the past six as a priest. I’ve seen that the church does indeed have our fair share of hypocrites — those who claim one thing with their lips but then do another in their actions. I’ve seen that selfishness, anger and gossip sometimes seem to be just as prevalent — if not more — in religious communities as in society at large...
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Choosing Death or Life: Reflections on 21st Century American Ecumenism in Light of the NCC's 2014 Christian Unity Gathering

We are at the end now of the 2014 Christian Unity Gathering of the National Council of Churches. I was sent by the Churchwide Office of The Episcopal Church to represent our church at the Conventing Table for Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith and Order.

At which point, I imagine, about half of you have already checked out of reading this post.

Still there?

Good.

Because I think that what this Gathering is wrestling with (and what this Gathering has not wrestled with) involves some profoundly important questions for contemporary Christianity. I hope you'll listen in as I think through some of them because I, because all ecumenists out there, need the wisdom of the larger body.

So, I want to begin with describing the Challenges of this Gathering but then I want to say what I find Hopeful about this Gathering.

Before I do, though, I want to be clear about something. I am a young clergy person, not an academic, and so I enter ecumenism with a very different lens than many of my other colleagues. Others have more experience and a broader view of the lay of the land—I think particularly of Crusty Old Dean (otherwise known as the former Assistant [and then Interim] Ecumenical Officer for The Episcopal Church) and his fantastic posts on the "Ecumenical Autumn" (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I don't have the training nor the breadth of him or other ecumenists who were cut from that cloth. Also, I am from the "Millennial Generation," but even I sometimes wonder if I am an aberration or example of that generation's impulses. Who knows. But the questions of Millenials and our engagement with the Christian Church are questions that are increasingly pressing.

All I do know is that I think the Ecumenical Movement is still desperately needed in today's Christianity. The question will be whether or not the current trajectories of that movement will lead to growth and vibrancy or only prolong an inevitable continued decline.

That said...

Challenges of a Struggling 21st Century Ecumenism
The National Council of Churches (NCC) recently went through a pretty significant restructuring of their work (you can read the report of the Task Force that engaged that work online here and the actual Restructuring Overview online here). This restructuring included the elimination of all former Commissions (including the Faith & Order Commission on which I served and which, as many Commissioners told me, predated the NCC). At the same time, the restructuring group created several "Convening Tables," including (ta da!) a Convening Table on Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith & Order alongside of three other Convening Tables. So, it's not like Faith & Order has gone away... perhaps.

Whereas the former Faith & Order Commission met twice a year, now the NCC calls together one annual Christian Unity Gathering at which all the Convening Tables are present. Supposedly, this will help ensure we are in communication with each other and working together towards issues of mutual concern to the member communions of the NCC.

However, there is a part of me that feels like this is so much re-arranging of the deck chairs—and not a very good rearranging at that. It seems to me that what has actually happened is that Justice & Advocacy has now taken the lead role at the National Council of Churches. The NCC offices are now located in Washington, DC. Our First Christian Unity Gathering was held at the Washington-Dulles Hilton. The restructured NCC has laid out two key issues for us all to focus on: (1) Mass Incarceration and (2) Interfaith Relations with a focus on Peace-making.

Justice. Advocacy. Let's sign some petitions and change policies and programs in our government given the mandate of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I want to be very clear. I am a huge proponent of Justice and Advocacy work. Go to Twitter and search for #NCCCUG — you will see some fantastic points made by the speakers in our plenary sessions about the scourge of Mass Incarceration, several of which I myself quoted in tweets. The church must be mobilized around this and other issues of our day. Absolutely. I cannot wait to get back to St. John's in Grand Haven and talk to people about how our parish can engage this issue.

What I wonder, though, is whether Justice & Advocacy truly is the sole work of ecumenism in the twenty-first century. Is other ecumenical engagement (like, for example, traditional Faith & Order discussions on church-dividing and church-uniting issues) now going to be co-opted, used entirely in service to Justice and Advocacy concerns?

But perhaps even more troubling is that the pivot to Justice & Advocacy seems to continue the great weakness of late twentieth and early twenty-first century American (particularly mainline) Christianity—a longing for the return of Christendom. We want to come together to be a powerful voice to get Congress and the Courts and the President to listen to us. We want to be a force to reckoned with in Society. Because we know what's right.

Yet, we are not. We are not a force to be reckoned with. In the end, very few media outlets or news organizations probably care about the work and energy stirred up in these past two days at a hotel outside of Washington, DC. And even if they did, the question remains: should we, as the church, want them to care?

When we had power, back in the days of Christendom, we had a pretty bad habit of using that power poorly. We protected ourselves instead seeing a mandate to act in ways both healing and reconciling. If we get the power back, would we use it better than we used to?

Maybe instead of mobilizing around petitions, we should mobilize resources in local ways, help congregations see the plight of prisoners in jails and correctional facilities near them, encourage those congregations to become communities who truly care about prisoners, who advocate for forgiveness, who ensure they can indeed re-enter society in a way that is healing and healthy.

Maybe instead of cozying up to power to get the church's way, we should cozy up to Christ in the powerless that Christ may have his way with us.

My other worry about the pivot to Justice & Advocacy is that it seems to accept division among churches as a given that should not be worried about. We have lost a sense of the sin of schism that still besets the Church. As COD quotes H. Richard Niebuhr's classic, Social Sources of American Denominationalism in one of the above essays, “Denominationalism in the Christian Church is an acknowledged hypocrisy. It is a compromise made far too lightly, between Christianity and the world. It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste system of society.”

Take the question of Eucharistic hospitality, for instance. My heart breaks that at a Christian Unity Gathering like the one I have attended, we cannot bless bread and wine and eat it in memory of Christ. The fact that we are so broken that we cannot partake in the sacramental act that unifies believers with Christ and his sacrifice is tragic—the fact that it doesn't seem to bother anyone is unconscionable.

Not only is this accepting of the sin of division troubling ("why talk about theological issues that divide us when there is real work to be done?" seems to be the thinking of the day) it is bears a remarkable ignorance when it comes to the current re-arranging of Christianity happening all around us. These theological issues still divide churches but they rarely divide the Christians in the pews.

Which brings me to my hopes...

Hopes for a Flowering 21st Century Ecumenism
More and more, people choose a local congregation because of they like the social justice work, or the programs for formation, or the worship... rarely do they choose a local congregation because it is a member of their denominational affiliation. The old labels of "conservative" and "liberal" of "mainline" and "evangelical" are becoming increasingly nonsensical. Clergy and parishioners are both increasingly identifying around new polarities, many of which are yet to be identified.

I, for instance, represent a stream in the Episcopal Church focused on traditional approaches to liturgy and music, drawing from the well of the Christian spiritual tradition, intent on arguing for the inherent belovedness and dignity of all people, particularly the marginalized, and yet still formed deeply by the Biblical text and a passion that people come to know the grace of God. To put it more simply, my politics are liberal, my liturgy conservative, my preaching evangelical, and my spiritual life pietistic. Furthermore, a lot of those choices don't come from traditional sources. I am liberal on same-sex marriage because I believe this so-called liberality comes from a close reading of the Biblical text, not because I buy the traditional arguments of liberal Christianity. I believe in same-sex marriage because I believe in marriage—and I think that is a counter-cultural statement in today's context.

All of that to say, we now face the possibility of engaging in ecumenical dialogue that recognizes that many of our old categories simply no longer ring true. There is renewed possibility for convergence and communion. A careful analysis of the new polarities and streams arising across denominational lines, streams that are already present in the pews if not recognized by the leadership of communions, could yield remarkable fruit for a new unity that seems to be breaking out among Christians.

But if Faith & Order is only seen as the "theological dialogue" portion of Justice & Advocacy work... well, then we will miss this opportunity.

Now, after being admittedly a bit grumpy about the Justice & Advocacy work, I need to say that there are other aspects of it that make me profoundly hopeful. For example, our focus on the scourge of Mass Incarceration during the past two days was very clear in acknowledging the racial dimensions of this work. An increased awareness of the persistence of racism both in Christian division and also in societal issues is one that is deeply needed.

This new era into which the ecumenical movement is entering needs to continue to look closely at the racial dimensions of what divides us as Christians. The comfort (or ignorance) many predominantly white churches have when it comes to the slow holocaust of young people of color occurring in our prisons and correctional facilities is heartbreaking and terrifying all at once.

And this awareness of the racial dimensions of struggle is also entering more fully into Faith & Order concerns in ways that are new and life-giving. At our final Convening Table meeting today, one participant shared the pain that discussion of Mass Incarceration brings up in his spirit, given his own experiences of racial profiling and mistreatment by the authorities.... and he brought that up in a conversation regarding the theological predispositions our respective traditions bring to the table when considering these issues. We need more engagement around these realities, recognizing that theology is lived out in the bodies—particularly the mistreated bodies—of the baptized.

So, where do I go now?
I came to this Christian Unity Gathering intending to determine whether or not I will continue to accept my appointment to this work or if I would write the Churchwide Office and ask to exit out of it. It's too early to tell, I think, what direction this restructuring will take. I have significant concerns, as I've outlined above, but I have just enough hope to want to try and see if I can be a part of the solution, even if only a small part.

So I accepted a role as Co-Convener of a subgroup of the Convening Table on Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith & Order. I'm going to work with a colleague I just met and try and facilitate our subgroup's engagement with the question of how our theology informs the justice work we do when it comes to the issues of Mass Incarceration and Interfaith Relations. (Spoiler alert: I have a feeling one of my strongest emphases is going to be on Eucharistic hospitality and our ability to discern Christ's body among the incarcerated, drawing a bit, perhaps, from one of the most powerful books I've ever read on Eucharist).

I'm going to dig in and see what work I can be a part of because I truly believe these issues and questions, these challenges and hopes, are simply too important for me to bow out at this point.

I titled this post "Choosing Death or Life," drawing from the choices laid before the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 30. I don't know which choices will bring death and which will bring life when it comes to contemporary American ecumenism. But I do believe that if we are willing to wrestle with these choices, to wrestle with the challenges and hopes of the many who do care about modern ecumenism, that God will bless and guide our work.

And we will see... in the weeks and months and maybe even years to come we will see what will become of the Ecumenical Movement in 21st Century America. We will see what we can do to fulfill, as best as we are able, Christ's prayer that we all be one.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect at the Great Vigil of Easter, BCP 291)