Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Incarnational Revival in the Town Parish: a Neighborhood Apporach

Today’s guest Blog is by The Rev’d Dr. Robert M. Lewis, Rector of
St. Stephen’s Church, Grand Island, Nebraska
Times have been better for the town parish. Throughout Middle America it is this type of parish that is suffering through decline and in some cases, even death. Town parishes are often shifting from pastoral-sized models with full-time clergy to family-sized models with part-time or yoked clergy supply.  But what is the recipe for changing such an outcome?  Is there a silver bullet approach?  In most cases, the answer is no.  There is however one thing that I hold to be key in turning a declining town parish around, and that is incarnational perspective, in other words, embracing our neighborhoods.
Most town parishes have a history like mine.  It is over 100 years old. It has had a series of pastorates, some far too short to really get anything off the ground. There are stories of the “glory days” when churches were filled with far more people and Sunday Schools were filled with children. Those days, the standard Episcopalian had far more clout than most and our members were perceived as the movers and shakers in that town’s community.  But…those days are long gone.
In the town parishes I have known, this is a common lament with significant blaming:  culture, youth, technology, lack of duty, soccer games on Sunday mornings, and the list goes on. But one thing that town parishes never really had to do was look into their neighborhoods.  Town parishes grew used to evangelism by attraction and forgot that we are called to be witnesses of resurrection, that is, a vehicle that conveys all that is right, good, and gracious in our own neighborhoods.
One such turnaround was in a parish that I served as a consultant. The Priest-in-Charge was in ill health and projected a very “Father knows best” attitude. The Vestry had noticed (quite appropriately) that the congregation really did not look like the neighborhood.  The church was composed of an ethnic group that did not look like the neighborhood and they were significantly older as well.  The only outreach ministries were aimed at addiction, and those who attended those programs, drove for the program from a nearby town.  There seemed to be little interface with the neighborhood.  All that would change.
New life and new faces changed when that church decided to construct an open playground for the children of the neighborhood. Let’s be clear -this church had NO children, it was purely giving something away without hope of a return. A series of get to know meetings (always including free food) celebrated the playground’s debut in the neighborhood.  As people began to visit their neighbors, celebrating this gift to the neighborhood, relationships were formed, stories shared and slowly, new faces appeared at worship in this now “neighborhood” church.
Town parishes often do not sit next to residential neighborhoods. The last story was an unusual one. In fact, the standard model is the downtown church.  But here too, the incarnational approach of knowing your neighborhood can help.  (Spoiler alert, I lead this very town parish). I hear the same aforementioned laments. People tell me, “All the people I know already attend some other church.”  But the one thing that this parish did not look at – out of fear – was its own neighborhood.
I said WAS. We have turned a corner together. The neighborhood had plenty to engage:  addicts, the trafficked, the homeless, the lonely. It was these that I pointed out were our neighbors.  We began with a free lunch on Sundays. It is never fancy, just sandwiches, coffee and bottled water. At times, we get as many as 120 on a given Sunday and manage to always have money to keep the mission work going. At times the church is a little smelly and we have had to make adjustments for security as well.  But this activity has made us actually look our neighbors in the face, know their names and hear their stories.  Usually, folks just come for the meal, but occasionally, for worship as well.  
We also began embracing our neighborhood by going into a local school and providing an after-school Bible study. We chose the most impoverished school and one we knew might have some families that frequented our “Sandwich Sunday”. For many children, this is the only church that they have and a perfect jumping off point to bring new families in.  On Pentecost Sunday, we offered “open baptism” and invited through our neighborhood Bible study welcomed four new souls through baptism. (Just to be clear, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that Bible studies may occur in schools after hours if they allow for any outside after school groups whatsoever)
With any transition, there will be those who dislike it, and others who may actively sabotage a new initiative.  While that is really the subject for another blog, you can expect that you will need to do some campaigning to get the initiative across.  Invariably, when embracing your neighborhood, the detractors will quickly point out that these folks do not pledge or give (or give very little). I would be quick to point out that God always sees that what he wills is paid for. I have never had a hard time getting funds for our neighborhood ministries simply because we all see the effect they make.
I wish I could tell you that this one simple way of incarnationally welcoming your neighborhood would make a dramatic U-turn for any congregation. Instead, I offer it as a congregational development strategy and not a grow-your-church-quick initiative.  Embracing our neighborhood has changed us and poises us to look firmly at our present and not bemoan our lost past.  When we embrace only those initiates that promise rear ends in the seats, we often fail to realize that we have to grow together before we will ever grow numerically. A funny side effect did happen. It galvanized the Generation X folks of our parish to be the missioners in our neighborhood.   Although our numbers are only moderately climbing, the average age is much lower than 5 years ago and our vestry has no one over the age of 60.  It is a significant corner to turn.
We will not be who we once were.  That is part of the life cycle of a parish. If we stay just where we are, we never grow. Embracing our neighborhoods changed forever two parishes in active decline. It is a provocative question to ask ourselves, “Are we known by and involved with those in our neighborhood?”  If not, it’s time to get into your neighborhood.

Monday, June 4, 2018

How to Make the Right Decision

Imagine that your Vestry has been doing some planning and they have come to the decision that for further development, they need to hire a new staff member.  Maybe this is a full-time youth pastor, a paid Christian Education person, or an assistant clergy person.  They set out to communicate this to the parish especially during the stewardship program and set a target for how much additional income they will need.  Of the say $65,000 increase, you receive around $55,000.  The options seem to be (1) postpone the hiring until next year, (2) seek additional funding, or (3) borrow the money need (or borrow off the endowment or some other fund.)  What is the “right” decision?

Or imagine that the Vestry has launched a capital fund to remodel the Parish Hall and Christian Education wing of the Church.  Of the $400,000 needed, you receive pledges for $365,000.  Do you (1) ask for additional funding, (2) hold a fund raising event, (3) borrow the remaining dollars you need,  (4) postpone the remodel until economic conditions are more favorable, or (5) build what $365,000 will give you and leave the frills and finishing for a later time?  What is the “right” decision?

Recently, the Parish I attend developed a plan to finish off the interior of the Sanctuary.  In the late 90s with steady growth, the leaders hired an architect and came up with a plan to extend the old Sanctuary.  They only received about 85% of what they needed for the project, but they badly needed the additional seating.  The solution they chose was to extend the Sanctuary out but to avoid the costly relocation of the HAC system, they keep the lower ceiling.  The result was a classic A frame church with another half of the building with a lower ceiling and different lighting from that of the front section.  They got the extra pews, but the result looked unfinished at best and odd at worst.  With a new Rector well in place and a renewed growth of the congregation, the present vestry hired an architect.  They came up with a beautiful design that enhanced the whole worship space, extended and improved the A frame to the back doors, put in a whole new lighting and sound system, and more space for the growing choir. 

The Vestry had some capital reserves, some operating reserves, commitments from a few key families of matching gifts, so they proceeded and started a limited capital campaign for the matching gifts.  They told the congregation that the more they raised then the less they would have to borrow from the reserves.

By the time the campaign was over, two things happened.  First they received more than their goal. Second, the bids from the contractors were about $75,000 more than originally expected.  They ended up short by about $45,000.  They had told the congregation that if there was a short fall, they would remove some of the “enhancements” of the design.

This week, the Senior Warden wrote the congregation and gave both the good news and the bad news.  Then he announced the right decision.  The Vestry had voted to continue with the entire project and borrow both from the reserve capital fund and if no further funding comes in to borrow from the operating reserve.  The Warden noted that there was such interest in the beautiful enhancements and excitement about the project that they just believed this needed to go forward now. I will be sending in an extra check and I know others will too!

I wasn’t at the vestry mini retreat where this decision was made so I don’t know how this happened. Perhaps the present excitement in the parish combined with good and future directed leadership made it the right decision.  Or perhaps it is simply that the current leadership knows the price of having to live with a bad decision made a two decades ago. 

What I do know is how I have assisted other congregations in the midst of a major decision such as I asked you to imagine or ones similar to Grace Church in Georgetown where I volunteer to move courageously to the future.

I ask them to imagine that their children have grown up and several now are in the leadership of the Parish joined by people who have come to the church over time.  Then I ask them what are their options?  Then I ask which choice will leave those children thanking God for their decision?  Which one will have them saying “thank God that we had visionary and wise leaders back then?”  Which one will leave them sighing “what were they thinking” or excusing them because “it was the best they could do.” 

I have found that seeing things from the view of their children often pushes people to see the big picture, sacrifice more, and make a courageous decision even in the face of those who say “we can’t afford it, or we can’t afford it now!”  

My suggestion is find a way to help your leaders face the consequences of short sighted and limited decision making from the point of view of those who will inherit and have to live with it.

Once last word, wouldn’t it be great if the current leaders of our Nation faced with growing demands on our budget, increased deficits, and conflicting priorities would make their decisions from the point of view of their children and grandchildren.  Maybe if they did, some current 10 year old who becomes a future President will declare them “the greatest generation!”  My vote right now is that the future President will say “what were they thinking back then and how could they have been so short-sighted about the future?”  

But we can hope. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Lessons Learned: Bishop Payne

In my last blog, I asked and answered the question of whether a Bishop can make a difference. My answer comes from my 9 years working directly with Bishop Claude Payne.  He made a difference and I am convinced Bishops do matter, but I am less optimistic about what they are actually doing now and whether they have a sense of urgency about our present situation.  I will leave that for you to decide.

Here I want to talk about six things that I learned from working with this outstanding leader and person about leadership.

First, People need time to talk themselves into a good decision!

Bishop Payne understood that no matter how good a diocesan solution to a problem or recommendation is, leaders on the local level need time to think it over.  Often at the end of a meeting with a Vestry, they would ask me what the Diocese wanted them to do.  I would pause and then say something like this, “You have heard our recommendations, but you will need time to talk about this among yourselves.  I am going to get in my car and drive home.  When you are ready to talk further, I will come back to support you.  We went from a diocese often in open conflict with local leaders to one trusted.  And people almost always talked themselves into the right decision or an even better one.

Second, no matter what is happening on the local level or how intense or dysfunctional the community is, the one thing we must not do as diocesan leaders is react! 

Calm and measured leadership, especially in a crisis or a conflict, sends a clear message that reason will persist.  In a crisis or polarized situation, the strongest voices get the air time, but the better leaders are often shouted down.  By not reacting, we set a tone for good leaders to be safe and come forward.  Once when I was struggling with a major issue in my parish in Seattle, I met for coffee with a Priest/therapist friend of mine.  After dumping for some time, he interrupted me with, “Can I ask you a question Kevin?  Is this the worse problem you have ever had to deal with as a Priest?”  I sat there stunned and then said, “Hell no!”  Then he went on, “So why are you so obsessed with this?”  I immediately felt my inner engine slow down, then my frustration began to ebb.  At the end of our time together, I thanked him and bought the coffee.  It was the cheapest counseling session that I ever had.

Third, to be an effective a leader, you must be willing to be consistent and this often means quite frankly being redundant.

Here Bishop Payne’s personality helped.  As an ESTJ on the Meyers-Briggs scale, he didn’t mind repeating himself.  Most of us NF and NT types do mind.  For example, we preach a sermon to our congregations on Vision and then just move on assuming everyone got it.  Bishop Payne kept sharing the Diocese of Texas Vision until our leaders started repeating it.  Then he kept repeating it. 

 Another example is that clergy and lay leaders decide on a year of Stewardship or Evangelism and just about the time that our members begin to get it, we move on to the next thing.  For ten years, Bishop Payne started every annual Clergy Conference with a review of our Mission and our core values with examples of how these got lived out.  I’ve learned in addition that many clergy bail on a subject just before it was about to take root.

Fourth, Bishop Payne was adamant that “A vision without a strategic plan is just a dream.”  One of his often repeated phrases was “It is true that the devil is in the details, but so are the Angels!”  We learned to attend to the details.  For example, when we engaged in revitalization of a congregation, we helped them get the right leader and work out their local vision.  Then we helped them put together the resources and steps they would need to move toward that vision;  in other words a strategic plan.

Fifth, Bishop Payne knew how to create buy in by local and diocesan leadership. 

Shortly after he became diocesan, he gathered the members of all the boards, commissions, endowment trustees of the Diocese in one place.  He shared the vision and the core values.  Then he told them, “What I need from you is for you to show me how your group can contribute to this vision and core values in cooperation with our other ministries?  In one meeting, he ended the turf holding, posturing, and competition that prevailed among our different entities.  Later, when I went to the Cathedral in Dallas, I did the same. 

Finally, I would mention that Bishop Payne modeled for me that the commitment to be a leader meant a commitment to be a lifelong learner. 

Imagine what it was like to go to work at 48 years old with a 63 year old leader who constantly went to conferences, explored new ideas, read the latest on leadership and took what he learned and absorbed it into himself, his skills and leadership.  When he ran across helpful but challenging ideas, he would bring it to his staff.  One day he started our staff meeting with this question.  What has become taboo for our team, what can’t we talk about here?  There followed a difficult but creative conversation.  The result was that we all kept growing and learning. 

When we offered the Clear Vision Conferences for five years to share what we and three other dioceses had learned and our best practices, we would end with an evaluation.  One question we asked these diocesan leaders and staff was this.  What have you most learned from this time together?  Often they would answer, “If we had Bishop Payne for our Bishop then our work would be so much more meaningful and productive.”  Bishop Payne’s response when he read these was “they missed the point.  The problem isn’t that they have the wrong person to be their Bishop.  The problem is that they aren’t willing to become the kind of leaders who can caste a vision, have a plan, and pay the price of leading change.”

Some learned.  I was always left asking myself could I?  Can you? 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Lessons Learned: Can a Bishop Make a Difference?

In this blog, I am going to address a provocative question for Episcopalians and other Church bodies that have a Bishop.  The question is this; can a Bishop really make a difference?

In 1992, I was the Director of the Leadership Training Institute located in Evergreen, Colorado.  For 5 years, I had coordinated and lead a series of weeklong leadership development course for over 500 Episcopal clergy and around 800 lay leaders.  Then, the Board of Directors of Episcopal Renewal Ministries, the umbrella organization of the Institute, called a new Director.  Even though the new Director wanted me to continue my work, I knew that my time at the Institute was over.  What was I now to do?

What had I learned running the Institute?  I learned that we had dynamic and creative Episcopal Congregations throughout North America with outstanding clergy leadership.  I used many of them for our teams that presented at each event.  I had no doubt that TEC had a vibrant future given the quality of such leadership and so many capable leaders.  However, having spent my entire ministry from 26 years of age onward in the Episcopal Church, I had a churning question.  “Did it matter that we had Bishops?”

Let me be clear.  I had and still have a high doctrine of the Church and the three fold ministry of Deacons, Priests, and Bishop, or as we like to say it, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.  Yet I found that many of these creative congregations were notable outliers to their dioceses and often at best were tolerated by their Bishops.  I certainly had experienced this when I was Rector of a congregation in Southern Ohio.  Now, let me re-frame the question then forming in me.  “Could a Bishop really make a difference for the mission of a Diocese, or, were they merely obstacles toward the accomplishment of such a mission, or even worse, ecclesiastical remnants that had worn out their use? I realized that to answer this question, I had two choices.  I could attempt to become a Bishop or I could go to work for one. 

While pondering this and my transition.  A friend nominated me to enter the election in the Diocese of Texas for Bishop Coadjutor to follow Bishop Benitez.  I had no illusions that I could be elected there.  I knew folks in the Diocese and had spoken there on several occasions, but I was an outsider.  What I wanted was the experience of being in an election and telling people what I thought the ministry and work of a Bishop should be.

Ironically, and to make a long story short, Bishop Benitez and Claude Payne, who was elected as Coadjutor, were impressed with answers and ideas and to my surprise and delight, Bishop Benitez invited me to join his staff as the Canon for Mission. 

I spent the next year working directly with Bishop Payne and he extended to me the opportunity to continue in that position with even greater responsibility and authority in the training of our leaders in Texas.  As a personal side note for those interested, Bishop Payne would probably never have hired me had we not had that year together.  As one member of the staff said once to me, “Bishop Benitez had the wisdom to hire you, but had little idea how to use you.  Bishop Payne wasn’t sure he wanted you, but he learned quickly how to use you and your skills.”  Serendipitously and in God’s timing, it worked out and I spent almost 10 years working with an outstanding Bishop, leader and person who along with his great team made an incredible difference in the Diocese of Texas and its future.

When elected, Bishop Payne had been the Rector of St. Martin’s, Houston.  He was 62 years of age and I suspect for many in the Diocese he was seen as a somewhat short term interim.  However, the story he always told was this.  He and his wife Barbara were planning their retirement when he was asked to stand for Bishop.  He decided that he would only stand for election “if I could really make a difference.”  You may wish to pause right now and stop to think about the significance of that statement!  

I think many people seek election to the office of Bishop as a natural progression of their vocation and a fulfilment and affirmation of what they have done.  There is a big difference between these two attitudes.  What did Claude Payne do to create momentum and make a difference?  This, as you can imagine will take more than one blog, but let me begin with this.

In the interim period before becoming Diocesan Bishop, Claude Payne built his staff.  He worked through with us the articulation of the core values of the Church and the Diocese and prepared to hit the ground running.

He recast the image of the Diocese in one sentence that he shared at the council where he took over as Diocesan.  “What would happen if we stopped seeing the Diocese as an organization make up of 156 parishes and missions, a hospital, 40 some schools, and numerous committees and commissions and saw ourselves as ONE CHURCH with one mission lived out in local mission outposts of congregations, schools, outreach ministries, specialized chaplaincies, board and commissions?” 

Then he articulated the Mission of the Church, “To reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ” with its two core values of The Great Commission – to love one another, and the Great Commandment – to make disciples of all nations.  

From that moment onward, he never stopped articulating that vision of One Church with One Mission and Two Core Values and directing that all we did in the Diocese on every level was guided by and measured by that vision. 

For his first seven years, the Diocese of Texas was the fastest growing in TEC in in average Sunday attendance BOTH numbers and percentages.  We started 7 new congregations.  And the Net Disposal Income of all Congregations from stewardship DOUBLED!

In my next blog, I will expand on one of his greatest strength.  As Bishop Payne would say, “it is true that the devil is in the details, but so are the Angels!’  In other words, he knew how to put legs on this vision, to do the hard strategic work that had to follow from such a high vision. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Lessons Learned: Schaller on Leadership

I considered Lyle Schaller a teacher, mentor, and a friend at critical moments in my life. There is much I could say about him and his insights about congregational life were of great help to me as a leader and especially when Bishop Payne gave me the opportunity to work with the 156 congregations in the Diocese of Texas.  Almost all the teaching that I have done on Congregational Development came from him.  However, this series of blogs is about lessons I learned from others on leadership, so I will limit my comments here to four things that I learned from him that directly relate to leadership. 

When Stuck, Change your perspective

I learned from Schaller, that when a leader is stressed, we do the counterproductive thing of doubling down.  We do this with our intentions, by repeating them over and over.  We do this with our personality, overusing one of our strengths. We do this with our energy, working harder and harder and getting smaller results. Schaller taught models that allowed one to see things from a new perspective. 

For example, “Does this issue make sense if I, as a leader, apply the typical congregational life cycle to our situation?”  Another example is “Is this strategy going to be effective in a small pastoral sized church?” 

The big one that I often see in churches is that when the leader is challenged, he or she responds by once more repeating their intentions.  The assumption we make is that a challenge can be answered by clarifying what we have already said.  Seldom is a challenge to leaders about what we are saying.  Many times, it has to do with an inconsistency in what we say verses what we are actually doing.   Many of Schaller’s books give us tools to make just such a shift in our perspective. 

When I started working with the Vestry of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I was struck by how may intelligent people kept saying, “Dean, but what do you think we should do?”  I thought I was doing team building. As I reflected on this, I realized that I was acting like a consultant to the Vestry and not as the leader of a program sized congregation.  The Rector of a large parish acts more like the Director of a non-profit than a participative leader typical of smaller parishes. Once I started giving suggestions and saying which one made sense to me and my staff, it helped us get unstuck.

When It Isn’t Working, Ask Yourself the Right Questions

Quite honestly, when frustrated many clergy leaders ask “What is wrong with me?”  This is the wrong question.  The better one Schaller gave me was “Why am I frustrated and what can I do about it?”  This is also true for congregational leaders.


Once when working with a conflicted Vestry, I stopped an angry discussion and asked them to go around the room and define what each thought the issue really was.  We had 6 different answers from 9 Vestry members.  Realizing this, I challenged them to choose one of these and start from there. 

Manage both Content and Process

Schaller taught me that when a leadership team or any group is working, there are two dynamics going on.  One is the content and the other is the process.  His advice was simple; “If you are stuck on content, then ask a process question.  If you are stuck on process, ask a content question.”

In a divided Vestry discussing the need for a new building and getting nowhere, I asked, “What would be the best way to resolve this matter?”  After further discussion, they delegated this to a special committee and asked them to come back with a recommendation.

Good Leaders Ask Others the Right Question at the Opportune Moment

Schaller taught that a good leader knows the power of asking the right question at the right moment.  Here is one of his classic ones: “If we decide to go ahead with this plan, what do you think the predictable resistances will be?”  

Here is what I said to my senior warden at a critical moment.  “I understand that you are against what I am recommending, but I am wondering why you are so angry about this.”  His first response was classic.  “I don’t know.”  Which do you think more important at that moment, his position or his anger?

And here is a question Schaller asked me, “Kevin, is this the most serious crisis that you’ve ever faced in ministry?”  “No, not at all,” I blurted out.  Then he asked, “So why are you so preoccupied by this?”  It didn’t take long for this question to bring an irrational fear to the surface that had me stuck.

And here is my favorite one that I have had to ask myself and others many times; “Is this a people problem or a system problem?”  Because as Schaller liked to point out, people problems need people solutions and system problems need a system solution, and it is not always clear at any moment which solution is really needed. 

It is painful to note how many congregations try to solve their dysfunctional systems problems by firing the Pastor.  Smart Leaders learn the difference.

As I reflect on this, I realize the wisdom and tools that Schaller gave me as a leader and how passing these on have helped many pastors and lay leaders become more effective. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lessons Learned: The Power of the Pulpit in Leadership

Years ago, I subscribed to “Preaching Today.”  They would mail out a monthly tape cassette with two sermons.  Between them were workshops and interviews that were quite helpful. There I found two great preachers and teachers who influenced me both as a preacher and a leader. One was Fred Craddock.  I used his book “Preaching” in workshops and when I taught preaching at the Stanton Center in Dallas.  My favorite, however, remains Bruce Thielemann.  If you have never heard one of his sermons, do a web search and listen.  You will be richly rewarded. He not only preached well, he also helped many of us learn the power of the pulpit in the arsenal of the clergy leader.  

Here are some important things that I learned from Thielemann.

Christianity is about BIG and IMPORTANT things. Do not waste your time explaining minor points from this Sunday’s lectionary.  Preaching allows us to set the main agenda and what is demanded from us as Christians and as the Church.   

I add a subset to this by always reminding Episcopal Clergy that if we don’t preach on the mission of THE church and our mission as a congregation, no one else will. And guess what, once a year is not enough to communicate its importance. 

Thielemann taught that our 15 to 20 minutes in the pulpit is an incredible opportunity for the preacher to be both a pastor and spiritual director to our people.  What did he mean? 

Thielemann pointed out that folks in our congregations suffer from a relatively common list of problems and affections. For examples:

            Relationship issues; love, betrayal, forgiveness, dysfunctional behavior, revenge, resentment

            Addiction, either in ourselves or in those we love

            Depression and its opposite, anxiety


            Grief and loss

You get the idea.  Then he would point out that the Scriptures are ripe with examples and stories that touch on these topics.  He suggested that the wise pastor should make a list of these maladies and periodically ask if our preaching helps those afflicted with these issues.  Sure, there are great saints who have wrestled with “the dark night of the soul,” but congregationally speaking, not so much.  However, depression? You can count on it! 

He added to this what we Episcopalians would call “Spiritual Direction.”  If we conceptualize any way of understanding spiritual growth, we realize that we have many parishioners moving along this path. We need to ask if we are helping them take that next step or even know there is a next step.  C.S. Lewis pointed out that Jesus offered unconditional forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery, but he demanded something of the rich young ruler.  Jesus understood that people need different directions based on where they were at that moment in their relationship to Christ.  

I hear a great deal of preaching in TEC about inclusiveness, grace, and unconditional love.  But Jesus didn’t say to James and John, “You fisherman understand that God loves you just the way you are?  Have a nice day fishing.”  He called them to intentional and sacrificial discipleship.  Many in our churches need to hear that call. 

This is how I ended my sermon on the 1st Sunday of Lent in my home congregation this year.

“We Episcopal Clergy often suggest that our people give up and/or take on something for Lent. Most of these things, if we think about it, generally benefit us.  Wouldn’t all of us be better off having a little bit more of quiet time?  The problem is that this makes Christianity about what we do, not who we are.  If we really want to revolutionize our spiritual life this Lent, why not ask ourselves a much more penetrating question?  How am I not yet the person that God has called me to be in Christ?  Of course, this will require repentance and amendment of life, but you see Christianity is not about doing something, it is about being someone!

What does all this have to do with our leadership?  I can tell you.  The Priest who keeps the big issues before our people, demonstrates our compassion and love by addressing their wounds and hurts, and who applies the appropriate spiritual direction to the souls committed to our care, gain a place of influence in their hearts.  John Maxwell said it often and best, “They don’t care what you know till they know that you care.” 

Bruce Thielemann understood this and we should too. 


Monday, March 5, 2018

Lessons Learned: The Main Thing

Jane Hansen was one of the most remarkable Christian leaders I have ever known.  She was for many years the President of Aglow Ministries International headquartered in Seattle.  Most of my readers will not know her or much about Aglow Ministries, but I sat as a member of their advisory board for the 7 years I served as Rector of St. Luke’s in Seattle.  Aglow is an independent evangelistic ministry aimed at women and strongly associated with The Assemblies of God and also other various Pentecostal denominations.  For those 7 years, I watched one of the best managed Christian organizations that I have known.  Jane’s ministry team was very professional and at the same time a wonder example of a Christian team ministry.  Ironically as a woman, Jane would not have been allowed to be a pastor in her own denomination though she ran a ministry that vastly outnumbered any of their churches.

I was on the Advisory Board because my predecessor at St. Luke’s was before me.  I sort of inherited the position.  The board of Aglow has a bit of an unusual organization.  It was comprised of Jane and her Vice Presidents all of whom headed up a major division of Aglow.  The Advisory Board was made up of six area pastors most of whom headed large, 2000 plus ASA, congregations.  I wish I could say more about Aglow’s work back in the 80s, but it would take too long.  I want to focus one of the primary things that I learned from Jane.   

During one Board meeting a group made up of local fundamentalist and evangelical organizations made a presentation on abortion.  They represented a national organization that was trying to get every conservative denomination and para-church ministry to sign a common declaration opposing abortion in the strongest terms possible. After an hour of presenting their point of view, they concluded with how important it would be for Aglow Ministries to sign on and how strange it would be if they refused.

Now remember, all the board members were women, most were grandmothers, and all would have been clearly opposed to abortion.  After the group left, Jane asked the advisors for comments.  Three of the pastors were strongly in favor of them signing on. Three others of us weren’t so sure.  For me, it felt like the presenters were a bit intimidating and certainly they were pushing to get Aglow to sign on.

After we had spoken, Jane paused and looked at her board members.  Several of them were members of two of the Churches represent by advisors in the room.  She then asked if we would mind stepping out of the room for a few minutes while she had an conversation with her fellow leaders.  Half an hour later, we were invited back in.

“Well what did you decide?” asked one of the pastors who had been vocally in favor of them signing on. Jane pause, smiled, and then said gently, “We have decided that it would not be right for us to sign on to this declaration.”  

That Pastor looked stunned.  “Why not,” he angrily replied.  Here is how Jane answered: 

“Pastor, you know how all of us feel about his issue.  It was a difficult decision for us.  However, when we thought about our mission to introduce women to Jesus Christ it caused us to stop and ask this question; what if one woman decided not to attend an Aglow meeting because she once had an abortion? Then we would be failing to carry out our mission.” 

What did Jane and her associates grasp?  Long before secular writers wrote about this, they knew that a ministry, denomination, and congregation needed to remember to keep the main thing the main thing.

I have consulted with many congregations and worked with three dioceses and time after time I had to remind myself of the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing.  This is often a difficult discipline for leaders to keep.  Keeping it means that leaders need not to dilute their effectiveness by adding more and more good things to what they are called to do.  Next, leaders need a way to say “no” to what they are not called to do.  Of course, the discipline is dependent on two other things. 

1.      You have to know what the main thing is!

2.     You have to organize everything around it.  

Most Episcopal Churches that I’ve worked with have no idea what their main thing is.  When I ask leaders to share their mission and core values, I often find the mission is so vague that they are not able to build a strategy around it.  In addition, they will list 20 or more core values and some of these congregations have less than 100 people present on any given Sunday.  

The congregation that I served in Seattle was just like this.  They had way too many good things and no way of centering on what the main thing was.  So my first work was to find the main thing.  Then we set to work carrying out strategies that made the main thing the main thing.  In three years, the congregation, already large by Episcopal standards, became the largest it had ever been in its history.  Then we launched a daughter congregation as a part of our strategy. 

My advice to every leader is to always Make the Main Thing the Main Thing! 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Leadership: Lessons Learned

I am starting a series of blogs on lessons on leadership that I learned from others.  As you can imagine, with 42 years of active ministry, I had a chance to learn from a number of great teachers, mentors, and peers.  I do hope you will respond and possible even share stories of your own. 

My second year at Berkeley Divinity School, the seminary called the Rev. Michael Allen to be our Dean.  It was a very tumultuous time for both or society and for our School.  Michael led the school through the process of merging with Yale and becoming The Berkeley Center at Yale Divinity School, making Episcopalians the largest denomination at YDS.  He was an unusual choice for Dean because he did not come from an academic background.  He had been Rector of St. Mark’s in the Bowery in New York.  It was a cutting edge activist congregation with a very diverse membership and a strong commitment to serving the needy of that area.

Dean Allen had been a reporter who responded to a call to consider ordination by Bishop James Pike after he had interviewed the controversial Bishop.  He attended the EDS and ordained in the Diocese of New York.  I do not think it fair to call Dean Allen a Progressive, he was much too radical than that.  He was either liked or hated by both the faculty and students who were very polarized about the future of the Seminary and his leadership style.  I liked him and he was very helpful to me in a number of ways.  Later in life, we drifted apart over a number of issues, but I always remained grateful for what I learned from him.

Michael believed passionately that faith and courage were inseparable!  He taught this and modeled in in a number of ways.  He would point out that being a leader of the Church demanded courage.  Often for him this meant courage to speak out against injustice and courage to speak up for those who had no voice.  This brings me to his main message and the key lesson that I learned. 

Faith demands courage on our part.  If our faith is not demanding this from us, then it really isn’t faith.  I learned from him that where I was called to be most faithful as a Priest and Christian was the area where courage was being demanded of me.

“What is faith when everything is going well?” he would ask.  Whether this mean standing up to someone in power (say a Bishop, and I’ve needed that at times!) or facing up to cancer, or facing up to people who disrespect your, or those who even hate you for your beliefs, or standing up to members of a congregation that speak ill of you, all need courage. 

I have often shared this with parishioners and friends when they faced difficulties.  It always had a way of strengthening them.  Instead of seeing the “faith” as something they had to hang on to no matter how they felt, they could see faith for what it was, a call to be courageous, a good soldier of the cross, no matter the circumstances. 

Not a surprise that two of Dean Allen’s favorite hymns were “They Caste Their Nets in Galilee” and “Am I a soldier of the Cross.”

This leads me to two important aspects of this truth.  First, I was working with a congregation where the Vestry and Rector were in conflict and they had brought Peter Steinke, a great teacher and consultant, to work with them.  The Rector had definitely pushed the leaders beyond their comfort zone and they had decided that the best way to deal with this was to force him to resign.  Eventually, he did.  He just couldn’t take their criticism and hostility and who could blame him.  Steinke came in to debrief the Vestry in the aftermath and carried out his listener and consultant role well. After the meeting, I asked him what he really thought of all this.  In summary, this is how he described situation.  

The Rector was like a lot of clergy I have worked with over the years.  He saw what needed to be done and he took action to make it happen.  When he got resistance and sabotage, he was at first naively surprised thinking he could just charm his way through it all.  When this failed, he became angry and discouraged.  He was leading change beyond his capacity to deal with anger, criticism, and pushback.  They read that from him and pushed even harder. He failed to count the possible cost of the changes, rally allies to his side, and have the courage to persevere.  In the end, they just wore him out and then they bought him out.    

Faithful leadership takes courage.  Dean Allen understood this.

Second, What is the greatest obstacle that many clergy (and yes I include myself in this at times) face in leading; the desire to have people love us, and the inability to accept that often when you do the right thing, many will NOT!

I would have followed Dean Allen into any battle.  Ironically, I would also say this about Bishop Ben Benitez.  I didn’t always agree with either of them, but I would have followed them to the gates of hell.