Last week, I made this point about parish clergy’s role in growing the church: The initial experience of visitors is overwhelmingly determined by their emotional connection to the clergy. Clergy need to put more time into preparation of not only their sermons, but also into how they preside, how they make announcements, indeed into their entire interaction with “the public” on Sunday. Rather than be trapped in the sacristy corralling acolytes before the liturgy or chatting with parishioners after the liturgy about a committee meeting, clergy must be out front greeting everyone, especially visitors, welcoming them, asking their names, and then making a point of following up with them after the liturgy.

This week I’m addressing how lay leaders are important partners in effective connection with visitors. The first significant role they play is to liberate clergy from much of the liturgical and logistical housekeeping chores on Sundays. And they may have to do this without the complete cooperation of the clergy. You see, we clergy sometimes are control freaks. Ok, more than sometimes. And since we can’t control the outcome of someone’s visit to church, we tend to focus on what we can control: Things like the order of acolytes for the procession or who’ll hand out bulletins to worshippers before the liturgy. Needless to say, this is the worst way clergy can steward their time on Sundays. And lay leaders are often co-dependent with clergy in this, leaving clergy to handle these “housekeeping” details and not insisting that everyone, clergy and laity alike, play their important role in welcoming visitors helping them make a connection with the clergy.

Another significant role lay leaders play in growing the church is their work of personal invitation to friends, co-workers, neighbors, and others to join the church in worship. Experience tells us that the invitation shouldn’t be impersonal, offered off-handedly or in a nonchalant way. The invitation must be highly personal, including an offer to bring them to church, sit with them during the Eucharist (helping them navigate the liturgy), and then personally introducing them to the parish clergy. The invitation also should include taking the clergy and visitor to lunch or coffee in the coming week (the vestry ought to set aside some money in the annual budget to pay for such “extravagances.”) If evangelism is as Martin Luther said: “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread,” then growing the church is one person inviting another person to be a part of our common life in the church.

What if every baptized member of our respective congregations saw it as their calling to bring one person into the life of the church each year? Just one person over 52 weeks. Our membership would double. A social media presence is important and so is a good website that’s visitor-friendly. I’m sure radio spots, online advertising, and the like have a place in drawing folk to our congregations. The data shows, however, that 3 out of 4 people join a church because somebody they knew (and trusted) personally invited them. Such personal invitations don’t cost much money (lunch, coffee?). Engaging in personal, one on one, connections is, however, costly of our time and energy. Important things are always costly. Need I remind us about the costliness of God’s grace?

+Scott

 

A clear proclamation of God’s redemption by our Lord Jesus grounds the growth of any church in its particular context. Yet, we must also be aware of the stance we take in such proclamation. It should be based an astute understanding of how people connect to and stay in a particular community. To do this, we have to avoid any wishful thinking or by clinging to certain sentimentalities we thought were true. Both stances are unhelpful.

One of the things we now know about human behavior and how we connect with others is that it’s not rational at the beginning. Our emotions, as David Brooks points out in The Social Animal, determine our first reactions to anything new. As much as we’d like to see ourselves as purely rational, we actually respond to new experiences emotionally. Only later might we reflect rationally. This means when people visit our churches, they need to make an emotional connection. And such emotional connections aren’t made to a new group of people as a whole. They are focused on the leader. In our case, the one up front wearing the unusual dress. If visitors can’t make an emotional connection with the clergy, then they likely won’t return. This doesn’t mean they must experience total adoration or that they must be swept off their feet by the clergy’s homiletical brilliance, but it does mean that visitors have to “connect” emotionally with the clergy. They have to be able to imagine the clergy as someone they could come to trust and relate to.

Now, we might think that it should be different; that visitors should connect with everyone in the liturgy and the pews, but what we know about human behavior doesn’t bear that out. The inconvenient truth is that the initial experience of visitors will be overwhelmingly determined by their emotional connection to the clergy. This reality should change the way we connect with visitors to church. Clergy need to put more time into preparation of not only their sermon, but also in how they preside, how they make announcements, indeed their entire interaction with “the public” on Sunday. Rather than be trapped in the sacristy corralling acolytes before the liturgy or chatting with parishioners after the liturgy about an upcoming committee meeting, the clergy ought to be out front greeting everyone, especially visitors, welcoming them, asking their names, and then making a point of following up with them after the liturgy to arrange to take them to lunch or to meet them for coffee in the next few days.

This, of course, places a significant burden on the clergy to make emotional connections. And that time meeting for lunch or coffee is when the connection can be solidified, not through a “sales job” on visitors, but by listening with genuine interest to their life story and their spiritual longings. That’s when the clergy can connect the visitors’ lives and their spiritual longings to the congregation’s ministry, helping them see how the church can be their partner on their spiritual pilgrimage.

Next week, in Part Two, I’ll address how lay leaders can be important companions in effective connection to visitors mainly by liberating their clergy from much of the liturgical and logistical housekeeping chores on Sundays. Stay tuned!

+Scott

 

Jesus: The True Life of the Party (eCrozier #285)

Feasting, that is, eating and drinking, is a common occurrence in the Gospel narrative. Just about every story of Jesus or teaching from him centers around food and drink. People are throwing feasts and parties all the time in the Gospel. It was central to showing hospitality to people and it was also an occasion for community and fellowship.

The wedding at Cana in Galilee is our Gospel lesson for this Sunday. It was clearly a great feast. The consumption of wine was a part of the celebration. And why not? Two young people were just married. This wedding feast was an opportunity for the townspeople to celebrate, an opportunity that they no doubt did not have very often.

I like knowing the first sign Jesus made was changing water into wine because it gives fits to those who think the Christian faith is dreary and all about the things one cannot do. Those who define Christianity as a set of rules restricting fun and celebration have trouble dealing with a Lord who changes water into wine and who saves the party by helping the celebration continue. But besides helping the party continue, Jesus was offering a sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom. Wine became water, and the celebration continued. Water became wine, and best of all, the abundance of God’s love was manifest. God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us, is like a wedding celebration; it’s like a feast thrown by God to all who show up.

The Gospel is full of this image. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, when the son returns home, what does the father do? He throws a feast in his son’s honor to celebrate his return. Some of the most important teachings of Jesus come while he’s with his disciples or other folk gathered at a feast. One of the most powerful parables in the Gospel is of a wedding banquet that a king throws for his son’s wedding. He invites all the local people of stature and importance. They all give excuses why they cannot come, so the father instructs his servants to go out into the streets to invite everybody to the feast. In another parable, Jesus outrages the local keepers of political correctness by attending a feast given by a notorious sinner and tax-collector named Zacchaeus.

There are many other examples of feasts in the Gospel. So, it wasn’t out of Jesus’ character to show up at this wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. In fact, it was totally consistent with it. It was at such feasts that Jesus drew people into a new vision of what God was up to in the world. This vision proclaimed that God’s Kingdom is like a party where all people, regardless of who they are or where they come from, are invited to celebrate and dine with God’s Son.

If God’s Kingdom is a feast for all people, then we ought to be focused on that invitation. It’s both a birth announcement and a wedding announcement. It is what God has given birth to as well as what God has promised to do (like a marriage vow) in this world. It is also what God will continue to do in the life of the world.

So, let’s get invitations out. Jesus is the True Life of the Party.

+Scott

 

There’s a fine line between admiration and envy. Envy is admiration gone spiritually toxic when we no longer appreciate others for their accomplishments or virtues, but rather our admiration has devolved into resentment, desperately wanting what the other has. Often this stance has violent results on both interpersonal and communal levels. As the Epistle of James states in chapter 4: Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.

The late French historian and philosopher Rene Girard made this observation about our human condition a part of his theory of mimetic desire. Girard contended that all our desires are in a way derived from other people by what we see them desiring. This desire produces mimetic rivalry when other people have something we now crave (James 4). Girard said that virtually all human conflict originates in mimetic rivalry. Human culture dealt with this rivalry through religious scapegoat sacrifice, which “pays the debt” of the mimetic rivalry and thus ends the escalating violence. Girard went on to argue that in the Bible God denounces mimetic rivalry through the scapegoating of Jesus while still using his sacrifice to forgive and justify us.

If Girard is just a little bit right, then it should be no surprise to us that marketers of merchandize capitalize on this mimetic desire and the consequent mimetic rivalry. Presented for your consideration: The Birkin Bag, a woman’s handbag that costs over $10,000. It’s a large, boxy, leather purse owned by the likes of the late Elizabeth Taylor and the very much alive Beyonce. Women apparently go on a waiting list just to get on the waiting list so they can then someday buy a Birkin Bag. They’re seemingly always out of stock, marketing the bag by playing hard to get. People who sell the bag haze potential purchasers, which then creates in the one being hazed a sense that some day she might be worthy enough to actually own a Birkin Bag. You can hear about it here: www.npr.org/2015/12/31/461627675/with-the-birkin-bag-hermes-plays-hard-to-get

In a way that echoes Girardian theory, NPR reported: “We all want to be part of some club that’s just out of our reach. NPR interviewed a woman who first saw a Birkin Bag being carried by a woman walking on her block. She then waited for over a year until she was finally found “worthy” enough to own one. She admitted she was well aware of being emotionally manipulated the whole time, but she now declares: “I just feel more confident when walking down the street with my Birkin on my shoulder. While she wasn’t willing to kill to get one (I assume, I don’t know), it was the focus of her attention for over a year. Now before I’m accused of picking on a particular gender, let me just write this: Big Pick-Up Trucks, or else, any New Electronic Gadget.

Girard was on to something. We know what’s happening to us, we know we’re being manipulated by mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry, and yet we still fall into this devilish trap, don’t we? Who will save us from our own selves? (see Romans 7:15-25).

+Scott

 

The Prince of Peace must be weeping for what we do to one another.

This month two deranged individuals murdered 14 souls in San Bernardino, California. They rationalized this heinous act as a fair and just response to a perceived attack on their culture and religion. Three years ago this month, another disturbed individual whose mental health and delusions were his rationale, murdered 26 souls, mostly children, in Newtown, Connecticut.

After San Bernardino, the cry from our elected officials was swift and clear: “The government must take action. We have to pass legislation to address this terrorist act. It must never happen again.” So legislation was quickly passed and more is planned. It seems the government has an important role in keeping us safe and our elected officials will “stop at nothing” to ensure our safety.

After Newtown, the cry from our elected officials was: “Let’s pray for the victims and their families. The government can’t take any action. We can’t pass any legislation to address these murderous acts so let’s hope they never happen again.” It seems the government has no role at all in our safety if it means conflicting with a particular interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. Our elected officials will “stop at everything” to avoid even considering what might be wrong with this interpretation.

The Prince of Peace must be weeping.

While the motivations behind both murderous acts were different, the acts themselves were surprisingly similar. And in both cases, the citizens who inflicted the carnage were able to legally obtain military-style weapons to do their evil. So, in both instances, the significant difference was how our elected officials responded.

When God became human at Christmas, God did not become a different kind of human from the rest of us. God entered our diseased, sinful, finite reality and became flesh to redeem us. God in a very vulnerable way said to all humanity: “Here’s my baby boy. He’s yours, too. Let’s see what happens.” And we know what happened. Over 30 years later we crucified God’s baby boy. Lethal violence is at the heart of the Christian narrative and God is trying to tell us something painful about ourselves through it.

Our violent, sinful nature should tell us something about ourselves that’s hard for us to hear. Left to our own devices, more often than we care to admit, we will choose violence and inflicting death as our first response to whatever appears to wrong us. But that should also help us shape how we order our public life. Knowing the violent sinners we are all, we must take steps to limit access to these murderous weapons. If not, such incidences will continue even more frequently.

The Prince of Peace is weeping: “Father, forgive them.” Are we listening to Jesus?

+Scott

 

Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not just yet.St. Augustine of Hippo

Advent is a season of preparation to welcome the birth of God in our midst. This Church season then has been marked traditionally by a time of repentance in the lives of Christ’s disciples. Indeed, the Scriptures of Advent shout out for us to repent, to change our whole way of thinking and acting so we might be a vessel for God’s mission in the world.

Of course, while we engage in such spiritual work we’re surrounded by a so-called “season of giving” where we try to be less Scrooge-like compared to the rest of the year. We assuage our consciences by collecting canned goods or volunteering here or there during this “season.” This gives us internal permission to check off the box that says: “I am a generous person.” But, I’m not interested in a seasonal harangue. Too many of us use this time of the year to judge others for not celebrating the real “reason for the season.” We can hardly expect others to do so when we’re so confused ourselves about what God becoming flesh means to our own lives as disciples of Jesus.

And that brings us to Blessed Augustine. He, maybe more than any saint of the Church, personally lays it all out there. His desire to repent and take on Christian virtues, two of which he names as chastity and continence, but not just yet, is as honest as it comes. And if we’re honest as well, we do the same thing, especially during this season of repentance. So, we might ask God, for example, to grant us the virtue of generosity. Or, it could be another virtue like forgiving others, but let’s just stay with this seasonal virtue of generosity. We ask God then to help us become more generous. And we wait and we wait and we wait. And it never seems to come. We then shrug our shoulders, move on, and conclude that it might never happen.

There’s a story of an old priest who retires after nearly 50 years of serving poor mission churches. He asks God each morning as he says the Daily Office to allow him to win the Super Lotto so he’ll be more comfortable in his retirement. He prays this each day for a month. Nothing happens. He never wins the lottery. So, one morning while praying he cries in loud voice: “Lord, I served you for nearly 50 years and now I’d like some comfort. Why won’t you do this one thing for me?” Total silence. But then a loud voice from Heaven shouts: “Buy a lottery ticket, you fool, buy a lottery ticket!”

In our repentance, if we desire the virtue of generosity, then we should start by really practicing generosity. If we practice it again and again, well wake up one day and discover we’ve become a more generous person, not all the time (we are, after all, sinners), but much more so than we had been before. The same is true for other virtues that are a part of our repentance. If we want to be more forgiving, then we should start regularly forgiving others. When it comes to repentance, we “live in our heads” way too much. We overly spiritualize what it’s all about, which means we probably will never actually do it. And the new year will come and we’ll wonder why we never seem to grow much as disciples of Jesus Christ. For the love of Christ: “Buy a ticket!”

+Scott

 

According to new research reported on NPR, people who are experts in a particular field tend to become rigid and unwilling to consider alternative points of view related to their area of study. This is even true for people who aren’t really experts at all, but were helped to feel they were by the study researchers. They, too, became more rigid in their thinking about their field of “expertise” and became less likely to consider different points of view from their own. This is related to what’s known as “belief perseverance,“ the tendency to stay with a particular belief even though the body of evidence suggests one should reconsider. It’s also related to “confirmation bias” when one only interprets, favors, or recalls information that supports one’s already held conviction.

When I read such studies, I usually ask myself if such conclusions ring true from my own life experience and in my observation of how others seem to behave. In this case, boy does it ever. You see, I like to think of myself as an expert on many things. Maybe you do, too? Whether it’s Anglican theology, baseball game management, the deficiencies of mid-century modern architecture, or the tragedy of Mark Richt’s firing as the head football coach at UGA, I have an “expert” opinion. When I’m honest with myself, however, I have to admit I’m not an expert on any of those subjects. But part of me wants to believe I am. It seems we’re wired for such a tendency. I do have beliefs and views about each of the examples I listed. In some, I have more learned beliefs than in others, but truth demands my honesty. I’m not an expert in any.

And that brings us to yet another mass shooting this week, this time in San Bernadino. I can’t understand why we as a society are doing nothing substantial to curb the wide availability of assault-style automatic weapons, which are clearly designed to kill lots of people quickly. It’s seems obvious to me what needs to be done: we need to get all these assault weapons out of the hands of all but the law enforcement community. Is it my “belief perseverance” that leads me to that conclusion? Do I have “confirmation bias” in that I’m failing to seriously consider alternative points of view from my own when it comes to this kind of gun violence? I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. I try to listen to opposing views on this subject, but none of them makes any sense to me.

This is all part of our human sinfulness. We want to believe that our views and beliefs are superior to others; that our judgment on things is more insightful. I know my own tendency when another person challenges some belief I hold. Rather than consistently exercising Benedictine obedentia and listening deeply to what they say, I sometimes ignore them as they speak and begin to formulate a rebuttal to their position. Such spiritually immature behavior is the norm for all of us unless we discipline ourselves to respond differently. I’m working on developing more spiritual discipline in all this.

Resting in the grace of Jesus gives us the courage for such disciplining of our immature reactivity. If we trust that God has reconciled the world through the cross of Christ, then when our beliefs or views are challenged, we don’t need to react to somehow prove that our convictions are superior to others. We don’t have to “prove” anything.

+Scott

 

“That’s not fair!” I said that a lot as a child when my older sister got to do something I didn’t get to do. It just didn’t seem right to me. My parents should have treated my sister and me the same. I heard the same things coming out of my own children’s mouths when they were young. Kelly and I would let one of our children do something and not the other two. That was “unfair!” It seems we’re all born with a built-in fairness barometer that determines from our perspective when life’s circumstances don’t go our way or appear to be fair to us.

We take this idea of fairness with us into adulthood. When we see someone cut in line outside a movie theatre, get preferential treatment at a busy restaurant, or get a social or economic benefit we think we deserve (or, possibly we think the other person does not deserve), we declare those situations to be “unfair.” Examples of this are programs like the SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as “food stamps”), animal grazingrights on government-owned lands, college admission standards, etc. We see some benefit or privilege going to someone else and we ask: “where’s mine? It’s not fair that they get that.”But fairness as a concept is sometimes trapped in the eyes of the beholder. It is often highly contextual and many times we do not know all the mitigating factors. Still, our fairness barometers go off because we presume that everyone should be treated equally all the time.

Fairness is not a Christian theological concept. In fact, our Christian faith is grounded on the central proposition that we are not treated fairly by God. Fairness would presume that we get what we deserve for our sins. It is out of God’s complete mercy that we don’t get what we deserve and are forgiven through the mediation of Jesus on the cross. So, we thank God that God is unfair, giving us a “benefit” that we have neither earned nor deserved. Grace, which is central to the Christian proclamation, is ultimate unfair deal.

This grace then should be incarnated in how we live with others. It should shape our leadership in the Church as well as how we make choices and act in relationship to others in the world. St Benedict in his Rule states that the abbot (the monastery’s leader) should treat all his monks differently, which may at times appear to be unfair. As Benedict writes: “One he must treat with mild goodness, another with reprimands, yet another with the power of persuasion, and thereby accommodate himself according to everyone’s nature and capacity of understanding, and thus adapt himself to the other, that he not hurt the flock entrusted to him.”

Notice how Benedict presumes the abbot is the one who must adapt in his relationships rather than the abbot assuming all those around him must adapt to him. Grace-filled living in the world is then about us adapting and changing our behavior toward others and not expecting them out of some cosmic or internal barometer of fairness to adapt to us. Put differently, grace insists that we be the “adults in the room,” that we not get sucked into insisting on fairness above all else, but rather recognize the deeper action of grace, which trumps fairness always.

 

The field of moral psychology endeavors to understand why people make moral choices and the rationale they use to justify their choices. One of moral psychology’s recurring findings is that we have a higher opinion of ourselves than we ought to have. Of course, St. Paul arrived at the same conclusion about human nature nearly 2000 years ago when he wrote that very same message to the Church in Rome (Romans 12:3).

Experiments and surveys have repeatedly shown that we believe we possess attributes that are better or more desirable than the average person. For example, we believe by a wide majority that we’re above average drivers. The same is true when we’re asked about a virtue such as honesty. A high percentage of us report that we’re more honest than the average person. Even folk in jail for theft report such superior honesty. High school students consistently judge themselves to be more popular than average. And nearly every state claims that their average student test scores are above the national average. Of course, since we know something about statistics, we know that such judgments about ourselves cannot be true.

Moral psychologists have termed this phenomenon The Lake Wobegon Effect. It’s named for the fictional town of Lake Wobegon from the radio program A Prairie Home Companion, where, according to host Garrison Keillor: “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

What these moral psychologists are documenting is as old as humanity. Our tradition names it as sin born from the cardinal sin of pride. Our creation story reminds us that Adam & Eve were quite clear that their judgment about a particular fruit in the Garden of Eden was superior to God’s judgment.

This truth about ourselves needs to be front and center when we spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yes, when sharing our faith with those who aren’t Christians we do need to have a “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” quality to it, because we do “know something they don’t know” when it comes to God’s grace in Jesus. But it’s how we share our faith with others that matters. It should be humble. We’re not morally superior to those outside the Christian faith. We may not even be morally above average.

So, from this humble stance, what is it we are to share?

I want to propose three Bible verses that will help remind us of how we should spread the Good News of Jesus.

The first verse is Isaiah 55:1: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and drink!

Notice how the Prophet Isaiah pronounces God’s word here. Everyone who thirsts is invited. All should come and drink and eat without money or price. God’s invitation to humanity is complete and without condition. Isaiah’s prophecy is a bold declaration of God’s intention, made perfect in Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, that Jesus when he is lifted up on the cross will draw all people to himself.

That means Jesus is doing the drawing. Our congregations then must be places where we’re trained for our role, not Jesus’ role. It may be a conversation you have in the living room at Columba House. It may be you comforting an exhausted Scout Leader after his troop meets one night at your church. It may be you listening to a co-worker over coffee about her current troubles. Whenever and wherever, we need to say to everyone in our communities: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come!”

The second verse is Isaiah 25:9: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.”

Spreading the Good News involves us waiting for God to act. Our salvation, indeed the world’s salvation, isn’t our own doing. But our waiting should never be passive. It must be an active waiting, all the while recognizing that salvation is God’s action and God’s property, not ours.

If we remember that, then we’ll maintain a humble stance with those outside of our faith. Even though the Gospel is God’s bold declaration to the world, we should be compassionate and tender in how we share it, because we know many people have only received a false, toxic version of the Gospel.

Waiting for God to save is actually liberating. We’re free from playing the age-old game of who’s in and who’s out. We can collaborate with anyone, regardless of their faith, if they’re willing to do Gospel work with us in our communities.

If someone wants to partner with the Food for a Thousand Ministry at St Patrick’s, Albany or the community garden at the Oak Street Mission in Thomasville, we won’t worry if they don’t share our faith. We’ll feed hungry people with anyone. The Community Cares Café in Darien serves children whether or not they or their parents believe as we do. After all, we’re not on God’s “Program Committee.” We’re on God’s “Welcoming Committee.”

“Lo, it is God who saves us.” And we’ll share that Good News with anyone.

And the third and final verse is Matthew 28:19: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

It’s not a liturgical accident that each Sunday our deacons send us out with this short, powerful verb: “Go!” “Go” doesn’t mean, “stay.” “Go” doesn’t mean hang out inside the church walls until somebody shows up. And “Go” doesn’t mean being so hamstrung by political correctness that we refrain from sharing with others God’s forgiveness in Jesus. “Go” means, “Go!”  

Go into the communities of this diocese with a “humble boldness.” Go share good news with the poor. Go tell the spiritually blind that God wants to give them sight. Go speak to the spiritually thirsty and let them know how you’ve learned that Jesus is the Water of Life.

Go to everyone. Go to the NSA, the NRA, the NAACP, the Rotarians, the Elks Club, the Booster Club, the Garden Club, the Optimist’s Club, the Pessimist’s Club, just Go! Wherever God has placed you, Go!

When we actually do go, God does some amazing things.

  • The community youth group in McIntosh County decided to go and this last year we baptized five young people.
  • The Cornerstone Ministry in Augusta chose to go and now regularly has 35 or more youth participate. And some of those aren’t members of our churches. They’re being evangelized by our youth.
  • In the summer when we go to Lake Blackshear with the Good News, people respond. Because the people of Christ Church Cordele decided to go, their worship attendance has doubled in the last few years.

What might God do in our communities if we all decided to “go?” Because when we “go,” we discover God’s already there. When we go to the ends of the earth or just to the end of our block, we find Jesus already pitching his tent there.

My friends, I firmly believe that the future vitality of this Diocese is directly related to our collective willingness to “go.” Our vitality will only grow in direct proportion to the number of us who are willing to “go.” And, this going can’t be a clergy-centered movement. A few laity still think that since we pay many of our clergy to go, they themselves don’t have to go. But that’s not true. The clergy’s primary task is to equip the laity to be the ministers of the Gospel. As the great lay teacher & preacher Verna Dozier wrote: The layperson’s primary function is out there in the world.  And the wise Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, wrote: Nine-tenths of the Church’s work in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.

That means when we “go,” we don’t go to church, we “go” to the people and places of our lives taking the Good News of Jesus with us. And if the Good News of Jesus saves us, it will save anybody and everybody.

I know I’ve gone a bit long here, but please stay with me for a few more minutes. I want to end on a personal note. Some of you know that I was diagnosed with cancer two months ago. I’m happy to report to you that I’m cancer free today. And I’m most thankful for all of your prayers. I felt each one of them.

The Diocesan Staff has been amazing, as usual, dealing with their already full responsibilities while also picking up after me, which is nearly an impossible task.

I also couldn’t do even one small thing as the Bishop of Georgia if it weren’t for Kelly, who puts up with me even as I am and loves me anyway, far beyond what I deserve.

There were upsides to my getting cancer. It’s been a great excuse for getting out of stuff. When someone asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, all I had to do was say: “You know, I’d love to, but I have cancer.” That worked every time.

The other upside is that it’s sharpened my mind and soul. It’s helped me see how often I’ve taken for granted the truly wonderful people and blessings that surround me.

And cancer has helped me get clear about what I want my life to stand for and how I want to spend the rest of my days on this earth, however long that is.

So, to quote that wonderful hymn by the Reverend James Cleveland:

Right now, I don’t feel no ways tired!

I’m ready to “go!” And I hope you’re ready to “go,” too.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters”

Lo, this is our God who has saved us.”

Go, make disciples”

Deacons, please stand now wherever you are.  Please help me dismiss all of us from this overly long address with one powerful verb. It begins with a G and it ends with an O. On the count of three: One, two, three – Go!

 

My friends and colleagues, Bob Gallagher & Michelle Heyne, are currently writing a series of excellent blog posts on clergy transitions in congregations. You can find them here. The basic premise on which their posts are based is that there’s a natural, unavoidable process as a new priest arrives and begins his ministry with the congregation. There are three stages: Honeymoon, Disappointment, and then, if given time, Realistic Love & Reasonable Expectations. Let me explore each of these stages a bit from my own perspective and experience, but please do read their wonderfully insightful posts.

During the Honeymoon, as one might expect, everything is great. People love their new priest. One might hear things like: “Her sermons are great. She’s so personable and accessible, etc.” For the priest, she might be saying: “What great people! I’m so thankful to be here, etc.” But this is really a time of inflated and unreasonable expectations by everyone. Just like in a marriage, the honeymoon inevitably comes to an end. If it’s falsely extended, then fantasy and self-delusion rule the day. It has to end so that a more realistic and mature relationship can be born in the future.

The next stage is Disappointment. It has a door that swings both ways. Eventually, people learn their new priest isn’t perfect. An incident occurs or an interaction happens and they’re disappointed. The spiritually mature will accept this because they know the priest is human and won’t always live up to their expectations, but the less spiritually mature will murmur, gripe, and gossip (often in the parking lot) about what’s lacking in the new priest. The priest also must face his own disappointment when he, in due course, realizes the parish isn’t all he hoped for, that the people aren’t everything he wanted them to be. This is a crucial time for all. If it can be navigated with perspective, grace, and forbearance, then the fruit produced in the future can be glorious.

The third stage is a time of Realistic Love & Reasonable Expectations where the parish comes to love the priest for who he is, warts and all, and form reasonable expectations for the leadership he brings. And for the priest, it’s a time where she can fully accept the “mixed-bag” her parishioners are (aren’t we all?) and can love them as they are and not as she fantasizes them to be. She can even love those less spiritually mature folk who can’t accept her humanity, failures, and faults. This can be a time of great fruitfulness in the parish. Most often this happens sometime in the third year of the priest’s tenure (although it may be somewhat earlier or later) and it can last many years as long as together they remain focused on the spiritual practices of grace and forbearance.

Of course, sometimes a priest and people never make it to stage three. And occasionally, the stages can be quite short. I once had a honeymoon of about 20 minutes (a long story). If the priest and people don’t work together through the first two stages, they can get stuck, resentment can set in, and often either can emotionally and/or spirituallycheck out” even while staying in place. They must commit to work through the Honeymoon and Disappointment to reap the fruit of the shared love that will come.

+Scott