Wednesday, September 12, 2012

You are an Advocate for the Church

You are an Advocate for the Episcopal Church and Your Congregation

Several years ago, I was asked to speak on evangelism and newcomer ministry in a Diocese where many of the clergy were unhappy with decisions and the direction of TEC. After my morning presentation, several of the clergy gathered around the coffee pot to ask me a challenging question. “How can you get people to join TEC?” For example, several said to me that when folks in their confirmation classes heard about the Church’s stand on certain controversial issues, they refused to join. I responded that this was such a good question that I would answer it at the beginning of my second talk. I am pretty sure that many did not like my answer, but I think it was right, and I still think it applies to our work.

I started my answer by reminding clergy that we are the chief apologists for both the wider Church and the local congregation. I then responded to the issue of confirmation participants not joining after hearing “what we believe.” I asked the clergy bluntly, “So, what are you telling them?” Of course, many were telling folks that, despite the local congregation’s “orthodoxy,” that TEC was teaching heresy and making immoral decisions. Of course, this explained perfectly why folks would not join. However, I was concerned with a more basic issue related to clergy leadership. At the end, I said this, “If you cannot stand before a group of people and give five good, enthusiastic, and positive reasons why a person should become a member of TEC and your congregation, then you should think about doing something else for a living.

Now, let me be clear, I am not saying that we clergy have to always affirm decisions by the Church. I am not saying that we should not be concerned with the Church’s direction or its current teaching. I have spoken openly from time to time about my unhappiness with our current national leadership. Given my theological perspective, I am not in agreement with the strong advocacy position taken by TEC in recent years. What I am saying is this: as ordained leaders we hold a critical role in advocating the values and nature of our community. We would understand this in any other organization. Can you imagine the owner of an Apple Store saying, “I am not sure you will really want to buy one of our products when you learn about our company?”

It comes down to this, no matter how I might feel at a particular moment about current issues or decisions, I am still the primary advocate for my community. So, what should I do if I find myself out of sorts with some action? I need to express this to “those in charge,” but then I have to find my way back to being able to say, “Let me give you five reasons why you should consider being a part of this community.”

Here are some things that I have highlighted over the years:

• The Episcopal Church is welcoming of all people, as our sign says, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!”

• We are a creedal Church, teaching what is essential and majoring on the majors and not the minors of faith.

• We are a biblical Church. We read more scripture each Sunday than many so-called “Bible” churches and we engage all of the Scriptures, not just the parts we like.

• We engage Scripture with our minds, willing to question and be taught. We engage with our hearts, willing to be changed. We engage with our Spirits, willing to be fed. We are biblical, but not rigid or literal in our engagement with Scripture’s meaning.

• We are a Sacramental Church. We practice the Sacraments (all of them) of the historic faith. We look for the sacred, the good, and the holy in life.

• We are a Church with structure and order. We have a balance of authority between clergy and laity, and we have a balance between local, regional, and national leadership. We base our life on mutual accountability and not rigid or repressive hierarchy.

• We are a Church with rich worship, enhanced by the Prayer Book, and drawing upon the best prayers of all the saints who have gone before us. We can worship within this framework both formally and informally.

• We are a Church that is willing to engage culture. We are not afraid of science or secular society. We don’t see the church as a fortress that must be protected from every new style of music or trends in culture. Anglicans have been business leaders, scientists, artists, writers, teachers, actors, songwriters and even pop music stars. We engage culture for the purpose of transforming it toward God’s Kingdom.

Of course, I spice these assertions with flavor from my local community. I could always say of the Cathedral in Dallas that “you won’t find a more loving and supportive community in time of need.” I often would speak of how our architecture revealed awe, wonder and transcendence.

In our role as leaders, remember that clergy are heralds of God’s Kingdom, spokespersons for the Church’s mission, and advocates of the values of our community.

You might read this blog and conclude that I am saying that it is important for our churches that we are advocates, and you would be right. However, I would add that it is just as important for us as leaders that we embrace this role and find ways to express our enthusiasm for the community we represent. Communities and organizations have a strange way of living up to their leaders’ expectations.