My only living predecessor as rector at St. John’s (they all stay 30 years) has a theory about free-standing altars. He says the unintended consequence when they pulled them out from the walls for a more communal feel is that it turned the priest into the “guy behind the counter.” And from this perspective the priest does indeed appear like a shopkeeper or a liturgical bar tender.
Coinciding with a gradual decline in denominationalism — one that has since become the new reality — this has added to a dangerous model of consumerism in American church life. We’re all familiar with the concept of “church shopping.” People new to town visit a bunch of churches before deciding which one is the most comfortable or which one feeds them or which one meets their needs or where they feel a “connection” with the clergy. I’ve done the same thing — though sticking to a single denomination, you’ll be glad to know.
With the advent of the Model-T Ford, Americans moved away from the parish model where you simply attended the church in your neighborhood and stuck with it in good times and bad. These days, unless you live next door, most people pass a variety of churches on their Sunday morning trek to worship.
Clergy feed into this consumer approach to finding a parish when we joke with Sunday morning visitors about checking out the “competition” when what we really want to scream is “Pick me! Pick us!” And many newcomer programs spend a lot of time and energy on creating attractive packets that help “sell” the congregation to people who wander in looking for a church home.
Parishes should put their best foot forward and seek to communicate who they are — this is the main reason to have an engaging, updated web site and a vibrant presence on social media. And it’s why we need to be intentional about welcoming folks on Sunday mornings. But welcoming people into a community of faith shouldn’t feel like either a fraternity rush party or buying a new car. Nor should it risk “false advertising” as sometimes happens — people are welcomed, excited, pumped up by their new church only to realize there’s a lot less “there there” than they’d been led to believe.
But the consumer mentality transcends our welcoming of newcomers and can infect even the healthiest of parishes. Church programs become menu items for parishioners to select and then judge. We like the idea of having a large group of programs from which to choose — and even passionately advocate for more programs — even if we don’t actually participate in them.
This mentality also impacts stewardship: “I don’t like the direction of the parish (or the clergy) so I’m withholding my pledge. I pay good money and I expect good service.” Financial giving should come from a heart of gratitude to God; it’s not a fee for ecclesiastical service.
The knock on East-facing altars during the Liturgical Renewal Movement of the 1970’s was that they didn’t offer a participatory experience of worship. This was also at a time when the clergy did most of the talking during liturgy while facing “the wall” when celebrating the Eucharist rather than the people. Yet, having served churches with East-facing altars for the first nine years of my ministry, there’s also something unifying and transcendent in all facing the same way — toward God. This is neither the time nor place to renew this debate but it’s hard to look at the priest as the sacramental Pez dispenser when he/she is not standing behind the deli “counter.”
So recognizing there is a pervasive consumer culture in parish life, what can we do about it? Well, we can ignore it and hope it goes away or we can name it as something destructive to our communal faith lives. Why “destructive?” Because it pushes against Jesus’ call to discipleship. When we approach church as consumers we’re being passive, expecting others to do the work of ministry. And isn’t that what we tried to get away from with liturgical renewal? The idea that worship is akin to attending a choral arts society concert?
We don’t consume church, we are church. And that’s the approach that leads to spiritual transformation. If we aren’t engaging with body, mind, and spirit, we’re not fully invested in our faith which makes church just one more activity among myriad choices rather than the place out of which our entire lives flow.
I encourage you to think about ways you’ve unintentionally moved into a consumer mentality in your own parish life. Has it become a barrier to open, authentic, engaged relationship with the divine? What are some ways you might move past this approach to something more fruitful? How might you move past consumerism into a ministry of service to others?
And for the record, yes, I do want fries with that.
This past week (November 6th to be precise) we commemorated William Temple on the calendar of saints. Temple was a second generation Archbishop of Canterbury (his father was also the ABC), theologian, scholar, and advocate for social justice. I could go on but I am confident in your abilities to access Google.
I bring this up because of a quote attributed to him — he said something similar if not in these precise words:
“The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
I can think of a lot of people who would disagree quite vehemently with this statement. It’s not that they wouldn’t want to help the poor and downtrodden and needy. And it’s not that they don’t think it’s important to share the Gospel with those beyond the walls of the church. But, frankly, it’s countercultural to think beyond ourselves to such a degree. To support an institution like your own parish financially, emotionally, and spiritually and to think all the effort should go elsewhere is tough. We want if not all, at least SOME bang for our ecclesiastical buck!
It’s challenging to think about the church as a missionary society rather than as a club, a comfortable place where we can go and be with like-minded friends every week. And there’s no denying that this is an important aspect of parish life — Jesus called disciples not in isolation but into a community. It is the community of the baptized that gives us hope and encouragement to live lives of decency and faith and it is this community that offers pastoral care and help during times of crisis.
But think about Jesus’ approach. He didn’t say “Follow me” to a bunch of unsuspecting fishermen and then build a little stone chapel where they could gather once a week before going their separate ways. He invited them to follow him into a new relationship with the divine, into a new way of being, into a place of living hope, into a life of transformation.
Now, there must have been some days when the apostles looked at one another and said, “Don’t you think we have enough disciples? Can’t we stop this endless tour of the countryside? Into the boat, out of the boat, how many times do we have to cross the same body of water?”
But Jesus kept at it. He never stopped sharing the Good News, he never lost the hunger to change people’s lives. And that’s what he calls us to do as well, by whatever means or technology necessary.
As we rapidly move into a post-denominational world, I believe that the communities of faith that will thrive are the ones that take seriously the commitment to those who are not its members. The ones that are intentional about reaching out to draw people in; the ones that are passionate about sharing rather than hoarding this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted.
In a sense this concept of the church as an institution not primarily for the benefit of its members, is nothing new. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28) Jesus tells us to “Go make disciples of all nations,” thereby putting this concept in urgently poetic terms. As Jesus is taking leave of the disciples he doesn’t engage in a group hug; he encourages them to go out and draw others in. And that’s a critical piece to understanding the mission of the Church in the world.
Of course, if this was all Jesus told us to do we’d have to go sell our church buildings and hit the road. But he doesn’t. This is balanced with the call of Matthew 25 to serve those in need (“Just as you did it to the least of these you did it to me”) as well as the invitation to care for one another and bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). I think this form of pastoral care is well-imagined when Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8). He makes a home visit and comforts a member of his community.
A lot of the stress in parishes stems from the tension between looking inward and looking outward — between outreach and pastoral care and reaching out to the wider community. Everyone has an opinion on which one of these three is most important. Of course they must be held in creative tension which is difficult especially when it comes to budgeting financial resources as well as budgeting the limited number of hours in a clergy person’s day.
Parishes are most effective when they hold these three perspective in creative tension. Not by saying “no” to one at the expense of the other but by saying “yes” to all three. This doesn’t mean burn out the clergy and lay leaders in trying to be all things to all people but rather identifying those with gifts in each approach and encouraging them while simultaneously educating the entire congregation about the fact that these are not mutually exclusive.
I encourage you to reflect on Temple’s statement. In what ways does it resonate with you or challenge you? How has this tension played out in your own community of faith? Has it been creative or destructive? What can we do to better communicate this message?
“I don’t like my priest.” Someone — not one of my own parishioners — said this to me recently. It had nothing to do with what the clergyman in question was doing or failing to do in ministry. By all accounts this person’s priest is quite an effective pastor and leader. The parish is growing and he has a lot of support from various segments of the congregation. The issue, from this person’s perspective, was the priest’s personality. She just didn’t like him.
What happens when you don’t really like your parish priest? Does it matter? We certainly don’t “like” everyone we encounter in this life. Some people just rub us the wrong way. It may be something trivial like their voice or their wardrobe — superficial reasons to be sure but even such small things may mask deeper reasons. We throw labels around all the time when trying to explain what we don’t like about a person: arrogant, glad-hander, bully, suck-up. Often these accusations reveal our own biases or previous life experiences. Granted, sometimes the other person is actually just a jerk.
What a lot of people do when they don’t like their priest, of course, is simply leave the congregation in search of another one. In a culture where “church shopping” is an accepted practice, why not just shop around until you find a priest you like? A place where the priest’s personality better suits your own; a church where you could see yourself going out for a beer with your pastor.
But is “liking” the clergy really the point? For some, being friends with their clergy is the single most important thing in their spiritual life. People don’t like to admit this since it really should be all about God but the lines can become easily blurred. Whether we admit it or not, “liking” the clergy is a major part of why people attend particular congregations. We want them to know our names and our stories — something increasingly difficult in growing congregations.
In some ways this issue reminds me of the Donatist controversy of the early 4th century. In North Africa the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a wave of intense persecution against Christians blaming them for a series of plagues that led to economic instability. During this time any Christian who renounced the faith was spared. Christians who were caught with copies of Scripture (usually clergy) were especially susceptible to punishment — usually death. Many priests allowed their texts to be burned, thereby sparing their lives.
After Constantine succeeded Diocletian, the persecution eventually abated and disappeared entirely in 313 when the emperor declared tolerance for Christianity. A significant number of North Africans who remained faithful objected when the lapsed clergy again took up their positions. A group of purists led by Donatus, condemned these priests as Roman collaborators who defamed the memory of the martyrs. They declared the orders of the lapsed priests invalid and refused to accept the sacraments from them while the opposing party championed the concept of forgiveness for all.
Into this controversy stepped St. Augustine of Hippo, whose view was that it was the office of priest, not his personal character, that gave validity to the sacraments. This position won out and Donatism would go down in history as a classic heresy.
The point here is that an individual’s personal feelings about a priest are ultimately irrelevant. It’s the sacramental ministry that matters, not whether or not we “like” our clergy. Faith transcends personality. And while we all seek connection and relationship, it’s important to keep it in its proper perspective. Connection and relationship with Jesus Christ always comes first, the realization of which, I think, takes some pressure off both clergy and parishioners.
I hope the woman I spoke with doesn’t leave her community just because she doesn’t want to hang out with her priest. While a priest’s personality can set a tone for a congregation, a community of faith is more than just one person. It’s a rich tapestry of personalities and experiences — some that resonate with us, others that don’t — all working together to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
For some time now, the gold standard for measuring church growth has been Average Sunday Attendance (ASA). Go to any clergy conference and you’ll hear rectors tossing out their ASAs with great bravado. The assumption, of course, is that size matters and bigger is better. Though, if their ASA is dropping, you’ll hear the classic corollary: “It’s not about the numbers.”
In reality, ASA as a standard unit of measurement is a relatively recent phenomenon. For generations “communicants in good standing” was the normative measure of a congregation’s size. The national canons of the Episcopal Church still use this term, though it’s fallen out of contemporary usage.
Sec. 2 (a) All members of this Church who have received Holy Communion in this Church at least three times during the preceding year are to be considered communicants of this Church.
Sec. 3. All communicants of this Church who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered communicants in good standing.
It was only until more and more parishioners started signing up for what I like to call the “one or two Sunday a month plan” that ASA became a clearer measure of congregational size. For instance at my own parish, St. John’s in Hingham, MA, our ASA was 245 last year. Of course in a given month we would see a lot more than 245 people — while there is a core group that attends every week others come once or twice a month. Using ASA gives the best “snapshot” of the number of attendees on an average Sunday.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what isn’t included in these numbers and I keep coming back to online ministry. Just as online relationships are real relationships, online ministry is real ministry. Parishes that put effort and intentionality into social media and online communication with parishioners and others are reaching many people beyond the number recorded in the service register each week.
Even when people can’t make it to church, they read or listen to sermons online, they’re inspired by spiritual links in the weekly e-news, they feel connected to the community through pictures or videos posted via social media. These are all ways that a parish reaches out and touches people who identify themselves as “members” of the community.
But many parishes, through official channels as well as the personal online ministry of their clergy (social media, blogs, sermons, things like, um, Lent Madness), reach many people well beyond the local community. This is also a critical part of ministry to the wider community — keeping God in the public conversation — which I believe all Christians but especially clergy have a responsibility to uphold.
The thing is, it takes a new congregational mentality to support this type of ministry. It’s not always quantifiable and the parish doesn’t “benefit” in the traditional sense. So it takes an open-minded congregation to recognize that this is all ministry — especially when it impacts those who will never officially join or even step foot inside the church building.
This is a new model of being the church and it naturally brings pushback from those with a more traditional, congregational, consumer-driven mindset. “Why waste time on Twitter when you’re mostly reaching people who will never pledge to the parish?” I sometimes hear. Or “He has time to write his monthly syndicated newspaper column but he can’t visit Edna in the nursing home more than once a month?”
My congregation is likely sick of hearing me say, “We are called to share the gospel, not hoard it.” It’s one of my mantras for ministry. But sharing the gospel means doing so in creative ways that transcend the way we’ve always done it. It means reaching out and sharing the Good News with others even if they will never become members of our own local tribe. As Christians, one of our mandates is to sow a lot of seeds. The internet allows us to do this in ways and in places never before imaginable. And just because we can’t quantify or monetize this approach doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage it.
So this is a call to push past the opposition you may encounter and continue to share the Gospel of Christ with reckless abandon. The Church is changing, the methods of communication have changed, but the essence of Christ’s message endures.
At our weekly staff meetings we’ve recently started praying our way through the parish directory. Each week at the conclusion of our meeting, one member of the staff slowly reads the names of two columns-worth of parishioners — about 18 families. There’s something profound about praying for the entire parish as we remember all of the souls in our care.
There are people who are very involved at St. John’s and others I’ve never met or whose names I don’t recognize. Just last week — we’re mired in the “D’s” right — we prayed for a member of the parish whose wife had just died. We all sort of paused in awe of the gentle moving of the Spirit.
What I really love about this concept is that it keeps us grounded on the importance of community formed in Christ’s name. It’s easy — especially at staff meetings — to get stuck on the logistics and minutiae of ministry. This practice helps us remember the main thrust of our ministry with and among God’s people.
Parish directories are funny things. Despite all the hard work involved in putting them together, they’re immediately out-of-date the moment they’re published. People die or move out of town; babies are born; some get mad at the rector and storm off in a huff; newcomers join the parish. Ultimately they’re mere snapshots of a particular moment in the life of community of faith.
Yet even knowing this, praying the parish directory feels like a sacred spiritual discipline.
And anyway, I’m confident that God alone, the God who can count every hair on our heads, has the one, truly updated directory.
In light of our recent Annual Parish Meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about church growth. If you know me, you’ll recognize this isn’t anything new — it’s one of my passions. But the Annual Meeting always provides that extra opportunity to take a step back, get out of the fray of daily ministry, and examine the broader view.
Out of curiosity, I ran some numbers for the three and a half years that I’ve been rector at St. John’s. Anecdotal evidence aside, I was stunned to see that our Average Sunday Attendance has increased 35%, pledging is up 50%, and we’ve doubled the size of the staff. That’s a lot of growth in a short period of time and, while there are many contributing factors, I do think there are some basic transferable ingredients to church growth.
Of course it all starts with leadership — both lay and ordained. I’m increasingly convinced that, to our mutual detriment, Episcopal Church culture minimizes the importance of strong clergy leadership. No, it’s not all about the priest. But show me a growing, vibrant, healthy congregation with poor clergy leadership — it doesn’t exist. Granted, strong leadership is all about encouraging, nurturing, and empowering members of the congregation to share the responsibility of leadership. But poor leaders are unwilling or unable to do this; thus stunting the ministry of all the baptized and the potential for growth.
For me, growth comes down to a passion for sharing the Gospel of Christ. We’re called to share this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted not to hoard it. And when we share the Gospel — boldly, radically, creatively — the church can’t help but grow!
So if sharing the Gospel is the key to church growth, the next logical question is what does it mean to share the Gospel?
It means looking outward, rather than exclusively inward.
It means reaching out to others — the less fortunate and those in need.
It means communicating in creative ways beyond the four walls of the church building.
It means flinging open the doors to welcome people and being intentional about incorporating them into the life of the parish.
It means thinking entrepreneurially about liturgical alternatives to Sunday morning worship that may look and feel and sound different but still reflect the core values of the community.
It means preaching engaging sermons that connect and relate rather than judge and deny.
It means music that uplifts and inspires.
It means listening for the still, small voice within rather than cowing to the anxiety-ridden, strident voice without.
It means leaving room for questions and mystery rather than providing simplistic answers.
It means joyfully inviting people to partake in the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.
These are hardly prescriptive. But if you’re ready to move forward into a new way of being church, I encourage you to reflect upon these. Perhaps with your vestry or parish leadership. You may have others to add to this list and I’d be delighted if you would share them.
Is it “all about the numbers?” Of course not. You can’t measure spiritual growth with statistics. But they can be important indicators of congregational health and vitality. And when more people are hearing and responding to the Gospel, we’re all living more deeply into our calling as Christians.
A young neighbor of mine recently told me about the “Rejection Hotline.” Basically, it’s a phone number young ladies can give to gentlemen suitors who are persistent yet undesirable to said young lady. When the young lad is ready to follow up on his “success,” he calls the number and, instead of reaching his potential new girlfriend, he hears a mocking recorded message telling him that he has been rejected.
Mean spirited? Funny? I guess it depends on your point of view — and whether or not you’ve ever been unlucky enough to be handed the number on a napkin. But somehow it got me thinking about a new voice messaging system for the rector’s phone.
Thank you for calling the Church of St. John the Beheaded. Please listen to the following menu items:
To complain about the rector, please press one.
If you would like to return to the 1928 Prayer Book, press one.
If you wish the rector’s spouse would join the altar guild, press two.
If you are displeased with the behavior of the rector’s children during church, press three.
If you feel the rector’s sermons are too long, press four.
If you feel the rector’s sermons are too short, press five.
If you think the rector never visits parishioners, press six.
If you are tired of deviled eggs at coffee hour, press seven.
If you think the rector talks too much about money, press eight.
If you think the rector needs to talk more about money, press nine.
If you do not like the rector’s new haircut or have other issues with his personal hygiene, press ten.
To reach the associate priest to triangulate the rector, please press two.
To commiserate about the rector’s poor preaching, press one.
To complain about any of the above topics, press two.
To leave an anonymous complaint about typos in the bulletin, please press three.
For all other negative comments or “brainstorms” on how to make the liturgy more relevant, please stay on the line to listen to this menu over and over again.
Complaining is actually a pretty insidious facet of parish life. That’s not to say that disagreement isn’t a natural part of community or that’s it’s somehow “bad.” Indeed open and honest communication about differences in opinion are signs of a healthy, vibrant community of faith. Show me a parish without any disagreements or areas of discord and I’ll show you a parish that is dying on the vine.
When parishes are vital and growing, they are, by definition, changing and people respond to change in a variety of ways. Often the mumbling and grumbling has little to do with the broader vision and course that is being set. It finds itself bubbling over in areas of ministry that are seemingly unconnected to growth — like the rector’s habit of bringing her dog to work (no one’s complained about Delilah!) or the choice of paint color in the parish library.
Staying the course that the parish leadership has set and not getting distracted by petty complaints is essential to living into God’s vision for the church. That’s not always easy as complaints can sap everyone’s time and emotional and spiritual energy.
I find it’s important to deal with complaints but not dwell on them. Once ministry becomes reactive, it gets mired in the muck of minutia. Thus parish leaders need to keep their heads up, their vision high, and allow the gospel to soar within both their souls and their setting.
Oh, and if you still insist on complaining? Congratulations, you’re the new committee chair.