Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New Rector Boot Camp - What Does It Need?

I've been recommending Bob Harris's new book "Entering Wonderland: A Toolkit for Pastors New to a Church" to some priests who are starting their first rectorate (senior pastor position.) I love Bob's techniques for getting to discover the soul of the congregation (see also the book with that name.) It's a challenge when one enters into a new system to get at the stories behind the stories, what the power dynamics are, where the scar tissue is...all of which are things that we need to know to minister well. All of these things are usually not in the parish profile you read when you applied for the position, nor are they usually spoken of when you interview with a search committee or a vestry.

The aforementioned resources are fabulous, but we might benefit from some other practical instruction, I'd wager.

In this diocese, a large one with a lot of parishes in flux right now, we've been talking about having a retreat for clergy who are in their first senior pastor (rector) position, sort of a boot camp to share the stuff we didn't learn in seminary or in other venues.

What would YOU want in such a boot camp? Stuff on how to sort out the financial condition of the parish? Stuff on how to encourage changes in leadership to replace folks who've sort of fossilized themselves into place? Stuff on creative ways to use the space to evangelize and/or raise funds? Stuff on staff management? Stuff on work/family/spiritual balance?

What do we need to know that we wouldn't learn elsewhere? What do you wish that YOU had been taught before you took your first head-of-staff position?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, December 7, 2014 Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8 “Make Straight the Way for…Whom?”


I am Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia and it is my delight to be here with you today, bringing greetings form your Bishops and Diocesan staff. I am your guide and adviser as Christ Church enters into its time of transition, having said farewell to Pierce, as you begin the process of your search for a new rector.

Oftentimes when we talk about the time of transition in a parish`s life, we hear the metaphor of journey. It is an apt one - it does feel like we are moving from one place, with one leader, to another, with a new leader. And like the Exodus, that journey of the people of Israel from enslavement in Egypt to the Promised land, a transition can feel frustrating, confusing, overly long, misdirected on occasion, lacking in a clear destination on other occasions...there is a reason why the Israelites muttered and complained. It took them 40 years to get from one place to the other!

I will guarantee you one thing as you travel on this journey - it will not take 40 years.

That is the good news. However, it will take some time and some work and perhaps a misstep along the way to get from Pierce’s ministry to the ministry of your next rector.

That would be a frightening bit of news for me to share with you, but for one fact: you do not walk this path alone.

And here I am going to shift metaphors, in a way that I hope will provide some comfort.

There is still a journey in this new metaphor, but I invite you to imagine another journey, one foretold in the ancient books of the people of God. Imagine a woman great with child, a child who is proclaimed to be the salvation of the world. Imagine her on a journey riding on the back of a donkey, with her husband walking ahead. Each jouncing step of the beast hurts her hips and resonates up her spine. This trip, so late in her pregnancy, is more than a little frightening. She knows her time is near, and yet her mother and other female relatives, the ones who should attend her as she gives birth to her first child, are not with her. It is just her, and her husband, and the tired donkey.

And yet one more...the one she carries, the one to whom she will give birth very soon, the one whom the angel identified as the Promised One. Mary knows that her God is making this journey with her, within her. She feels God's heartbeat under her ribcage. She groans as God's little feet kick against her full bladder. She aches, and every ache is sensed by the child within her, who knows her as every child carried by every mother does, but who also knows her as her God knows her. She may not have her mother with her, but she senses the presence of God in the core of her very being, because it is God she is carrying.

What a remarkable thing this is...God with her, Emmanuel, always present, always sensed, always in rhythm with the body of this woman who is the God-bearer. Barely more than a child herself, and yet entrusted with the work of bringing the world's savior into the world in human form.

She does not travel alone. God is with her.

So too with Christ Church, with each and every one of you. each one of you, young and old, male and female, married, single, whatever...God is with you. This beloved place is pregnant… pregnant with possibilities, pregnant with what the future holds for you as the Body of Christ. And the thing that will get you through this time of transition, this pregnancy, that will take you all the way to the new birth of a new relationship with your next rector, is that fact that you do not travel alone. God is within you, just as surely as God was within Mary. God is ever-present, with that God heartbeat in rhythm with yours. God is on the back of the donkey with you, when you have an uncomfortable feeling that you aren't going in the right direction, when you reach a crossroads point and you are not sure which way to go, when you wonder if you will ever get there, when you finally call a new rector and think "Will this be someone who will guide us with the same loving care that Pierce did?"

God is with you each step of the way. We who serve you at the diocesan offices are a part of your support team as you proceed - consider us your GPS through the process - but ultimately it is God who will direct you.

As you prepare to celebrate Mary's journey, bearing the Christ Child within her, and as you sing with the angels to rejoice in the child's birth, remember that God is within you, in this journey and in all your life's journeys, now and always.


Amen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Questions du jour for clergy friends

What were the big surprises you had when you accepted a call?

Were there things that congregations said that they wanted that they didn't really want?

Were there things that they didn't tell you about that turned into ugly little messes?

Were there moments when you realized that they had gifts that they didn't recognize?

Were there moments when you realized you only had half of an important story that someone should have told you earlier on, or before you accepted the call?

As I try to help parishes find their next priest, and as I try to help priests looking for new calls, I'm realizing what a poor job we do of telling the whole story...what has your experience been?

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Ch-ch-ch-changes Ch-ch-ch-churches

Part of this new position at the diocese is the odd condition of having no church home.

I left my parish behind when I left my call as rector there. They will do well and prosper under new leadership because they're great folks who understand what living the gospel means. Their fabulous deacon, The Woodworker, will be a source of continuation of God's love as they move through the space of transition.

And as I've said before, I'm in transition, too. So too my husband, who has said goodbye to friends and the choir at the old place.

So we're church shopping. Since I will often be presiding at various and sundry parishes throughout the diocese on Sundays, it's more of an issue for him than for me. He is ordained in a different denomination and does not work in a parish, but has come to love liturgy, so he's become an Episco-friend. Given my times away, a church that works for him is more important than one that works for me.

Odd thing when you're a priest going church shopping (particularly, since as my husband says "you know at least one person in every church in the diocese") - folks come up to greet you. Sometimes I wear the collar, sometimes not. But there really is at least one person in every place that knows me, so we cannot be anonymous. Not so bad a thing...as long as you greet my husband with the same interest and respect as you do me.

This has been a great reminder of what it is like to be a stranger (or at least somewhat a stranger) in a new place. Some places are large, and if you're a newcomer, you are easy to miss, since everybody doesn't know everybody and just assumes you're simply a member who normally attends another service. Some places are small and you stick out like a sore thumb, and you get inundated with folks wanting you to feel welcomed, which has its upsides and downsides. Some places just don't have the hospitality gene, so you sit with your significant other in your pew and at the passing of the peace, you greet each other, then look around to greet another person and they are studiously looking down, avoiding your line of sight.

Some places have orders of service that have the whole service, just about every word in it. Since I'm used to flipping through the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal, it's not really necessary for me, but it's a nice thing - keeps my head in the worship rather than in the logistics. Other places have orders of service with page numbers - that works fine for me, although not for all newcomers.

Then there is communion time. What's the plan for getting humanoids up to receive communion and back to their seats? Everyone says the ushers will guide you. Some places do that better than others. There is nothing that feels quite so awkward as turning to walk back to your pew and not knowing if you should go down the center aisle, down the side aisle, or through a mystery door ("I'll bid on Door Number Two, Bob!")

Signs. What door do I walk into? Sometimes it's obvious. Sometimes it's not. Signs help. Where are the restrooms? Please, by all that is holy and good, have good signage. I'm at the age where I don't give a darn about saying "where's the ladies' room?" but a 14 year old girl? Not so much. How do I get to the parish hall, since you've invited me to join everyone for coffee there? This morning, the rector was utterly clear in explaining how to get there...made it easy for all newcomers.

I'm learning, in ways that I was not always aware of when I was a parish priest, how the little things make a world of difference in making one feel welcomed.

Have we decided where our home parish will be? Nope. Lots more cool places to visit and consider.

But I am grateful for the welcome we've experienced thus far. It's going to be a hard decision!


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Been a while since I've posted anything...

I began a new position - assisting parishes and clergy in transition - at my diocese on October 1st. My own transition is serving as an object lesson in how disorientation and a steep learning curve make one a wee bit anxious.

I made some choices that I believe have helped tamp down my worries at least a little.

1) Decorated my office and got it set up the way I like. Part of this was making the space my own, part of it was laying things out so that I would have a hospitable space when folks came in to meet with me, part of it was feeling that there was something with which I had some sense of completion.



2) I worked with my new deputy to set up information flows (who is the keeper of what info, who does what tasks, what can we both do, what requires his skill set more than mine or vice versa.) This had the benefit of forcing me to delegate, since I can get into the bad habit of holding onto everything, simply because I'm too nervous to let go. It had the additional benefit of being yet another training opportunity. He is learning the flow of our work, which is new to him, and I am learning some wonderful project management tools that he is comfortable with and which have been used by others in my line of work. Since my predecessor had no support staff, she kept everything in her head, which sometimes meant that things slipped through the cracks or didn't get timely attention. We think we've got a fighting chance to avoid that.

3) I talked at some length with my boss (the Canon to the Ordinary) and my boss's boss (the Bishop) to get clarity about their expectations, particularly in the early days. They were great about giving me assurance that when I (inevitably) err is some way, I am beloved and forgiven...but I should always have a plan to resolve my errors, to the extent that I can. 

4) I made friends with all the folks on staff in the building, and asked them for help. They're wonderful and gracious folks, and are delighted to help. For me, asking for help is sometimes a stretch, as if I think if I show a lack of knowledge I am demonstrating incompetence. But I've learned the hard way that it is better to ask for help to do something than to get something all screwed up and have to ask for assistance in repairing things (twice as much work for all and it only makes me seem idiotic). And the truth is that there are many things that I don't know. I'm incompetent on a regular basis. That's why God has placed me in the midst of helpful people. It is a good thing.

5) I make lists. I make lists of lists. I take notes. I ask questions. I like gathering data, and knowing how to find it once again when I need it. I keep a lot of stuff in EverNote - it's on the cloud, I can do keyword searches, I can do web clips, I can do all sorts of stuff. It's my big filing cabinet in the cloud.

6) I pray. I noticed in my first week that I was getting so wrapped around the axle over the vast quantity of new information that I was neglecting my prayer life. I'm still sloppier about it than I'd like, but I notice that when I do attend to it, the stress level is less.

So what do YOU do to keep the jimjams at bay when you begin in a new place?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, September 28, 2014 Philippians 2:1-13 “God at Work”




My beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

I could not have asked for a better text on which to preach this Sunday, my final Sunday with you all.

Now the fact of the matter is that I didn’t ask you to obey me, which is probably a good thing, since you are an independent bunch of folks and that would have been a high-risk proposition on my part.

But what you have done is to listen to what words of wisdom I’ve had to share with you, you have taken more of it in than I often realized, and you have taken on the responsibility of working out your own salvation.

That’s the scary part of being a parish priest – our task is to encourage you to take on the responsibility of working out your own salvation. If I say the wrong thing, it is possible you might take a wrong path to that end. If my words make it seem too hard, you might not even try. If I make it seem to easy, you might think you don’t actually have to do anything at all, that it will just fall into your lap.

But the work of salvation, the recognition that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that he died for us, that is something each and every one of us must take on. And some days it is harder than other days. Yes, Jesus died for us. Yes, we are saved by his actions, not our own. So what does working on our own salvation look like?

It means striving to be like Christ. Not just working on our own failings, but working on correcting the failings of the community and the world, to bring the reign of God closer to this troubled world. Working out our salvation is a corporate task – our communal task – as much as it is a personal one.

I know that sounds daunting. Jesus Christ is God. We are not. But at its simplest, it means that we put the needs of others ahead of our own. At its most complex and challenging, we embrace everyone else around us, even the ones who are different or scary or strange, as Christ embraces us and cares for us. It means, as Paul says in this passage, that we live in unity as we work out our salvation in community.

It would be challenging enough if the expectation of which Paul speaks was only that everybody at Epiphany would live in unity. We are a diverse group of people by age, gender, sexual orientation, race, theological understanding, political belief. Living in unity means stretching beyond the differences to the one thing that binds us – the love of Jesus Christ.

But the obligation to live in unity truly extends beyond these four walls, because Jesus Christ didn’t limit his love to his fellow Jews in Nazareth – he extended that love to everybody. Everybody. No exceptions. We can only live in unity if we act as community.

We already do that at Epiphany in many ways – mission trips, Lamb’s Basket, outreach lunches, CARITAS, among others – but it is not just an occasional thing. It has to be the manner of our entire lives together.

Seems impossible, right? Well, it would be were it not for what we get from God to help us. 

The line in the Epistle you just heard was “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” But a more helpful translation of the Greek might be “God is giving you the desire and the energy to do God’s work in the world.” All we have to do is pay attention to that desire and energy planted in us and act upon it.

Paul writes this letter to the Philippians from prison. He is far from them, yet he remembers them with great affection. His pastoral guidance shows his love for them, and his trust that they will understand that guidance is evident.

That is the thing about leaving a place that you have pastored and loved. It requires those of us who leave to trust those who have been left. Trust that the work will continue. Trust that the working out of salvation will still be central. Trust that the leaders, both lay and ordained, will continue to rejoice in the Good News of Jesus Christ. Trust that God will work out in this place, as in Philippi and in so many other places, the communal and personal salvation that is our joy and promise.

And I do trust that this will be true.

Why? Because I’ve seen it in action already.

This parish overcame the tensions of a conflict that preceded me, and due to Charles Poindexter’s brilliant and loving work, was on its way to full healing when I arrived. This parish suffered losses of some of our most faithful and senior members during my time here, and other individuals stepped up to leadership positions after those losses. This parish welcomed new members who now are active and beloved, some of whom now have leadership roles.

This parish adjusted with grace to changes I proposed, helped form three new priests and a deacon, gained a well-deserved reputation in the diocese as a healthy and strong community of faith, worked in concert with other faith traditions in shared service and worship, and changed lives within these walls and outside of them.

And it will continue to do so.

My time with you is drawing to a close, and I am grateful that I have had the privilege of serving you. You have formed me as a priest as I hope I have helped form you as Christians. But know that this time of change is not just about my departure, it is about being present to God giving you the desire and energy to continue to become what God intends. It is not just about loss, although we should be honest that parting is hard, but about what the future holds.

And so I end with a paraphrase of Paul’s words to the church in Philippi: dear friends, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more in the days to come in my absence, keep on working out your own salvation. God is at work in you and in this lovely place, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

Amen.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, September 21, 2014 Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16 “You Get What You Need”




This week a nice young man rang my doorbell, advertising a food delivery service called Relay Foods. You go online and list what you want, and they deliver it. Saves you a trip to the supermarket, offers foods from local farms and such. A nice service, with a reasonable fee for those who want to use it. It’s not a new business model – if you’re in northern Virginia, there’s a similar service called Peapod, through the Giant supermarket chain. And it’s not just in the USA - there’s a supermarket chain in England called Tesco, sort of like Krogers. 

They’ve also got this kind of service – you can order online what you want, and they will deliver it. And if they don’t have something you have asked for on your order, they’ll substitute the closest possible item available. So instead of Edy’s Cookie Dough Ice Cream, you might get Breyer’s. Tolerable, right?

Well, a story broke recently about a Tesco delivery gone wrong. A man placed his order, including a loaf of walnut bread, just the perfect thing for afternoon tea. Well, Tesco was out of walnut bread. What did they substitute? A whole octopus.

Now, I can’t come up with a reasonable explanation of why they thought the octopus was a good substitute, and when the company took a second look, they were embarrassed and gave the customer a refund and a gift card.

He wanted a loaf of walnut bread. He didn’t get what he wanted. Somehow, somebody thought that although he wanted walnut bread, he really needed an octopus – who knew?

Thank goodness God does a better job than Tesco, in sorting out our wants and giving us what we really need!

But the thing we need to wrestle with is this: we don’t always get what we want. We get what we need…sounds like an old Rolling Stones song, doesn’t it?

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.

What do we want? Love, family, stability, meaningful work, health, you can add whatever comes to mind to the list.

But we don’t always get that. Sometimes the ones that we love don’t love us back, or even are hurtful – witness the roundhouse punch that Ray Rice gave his fiancĂ©e in that elevator. Sometimes we want family, but are estranged from them because of past hurts. Sometimes we can’t get the work that we would like to do, and have to work in something that feels like hard, slow, boring torture to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Sometimes our bodies or our minds fail us – we become ill. And sometimes these illnesses cannot be cured.

We don’t always get what we want.

But somehow, we get what we need. A wise friend might help a woman who is being mistreated to leave, or might help the abuser to see how wrong this behavior is. We might create a new family of friends who love and support us, if our own biological family must be kept at a distance. A job that keeps us solvent might be a way-station to something better, or we might learn something about the work that surprises us and gives us pleasure. Our bodies might be imperfect or broken, but we can find comfort in the care of family, the ministrations of good doctors and nurses, the safety of residing in a community designed to support us in our infirmity.

There might be moments of joy even when we think we have not gotten what we wanted.

For me almost twenty years ago, as a divorced mom, I thought my life was in a deep hole from which I could never resurface. Love had betrayed me. I was in financial distress. I had to find another job, and there were none to be found. My children were worried, I was terrified, and there seemed to be no answer to my prayers.

Until there was.

A friend helped me find a job. Not a local job, to be sure, but a job that would pay me well enough to take care of my children. Another friend let me stay with his family until I could get a place of my own. I slowly started to trust that things would get better. And after a while, after swearing that I would never trust another man again, I found the most loving and trustworthy and smart and cute guy in the world and fell in love again.

What I had wanted was for my former husband to realize the error of his ways and work to stay married and stable. What I had wanted was not to get divorced. What I had wanted was to continue working with him in the company we had started.

I didn’t get what I wanted. I got what God knew I needed.

God does that.

Think of the story of Moses. Moses has led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and now they are headed to the new place that God has prepared for them. It is a long journey. They are walking in the desert and cannot find enough food and water. They are complaining about it, understandably.

And what do the Israelites tell Moses they want? “We wish were back in Egypt where there was lots of food.” But God has another idea: the food will be delivered to them on the spot. Sort of like RelayFoods in the desert. First bread, and then when it becomes clear that they need something more than bread, then quails. God delivers, not necessarily what they want, but what they need, bread and meat to strengthen them for the continued journey.

They got what they needed.

So too the parable we’ve heard in the Gospel today. There’s a vineyard owner, and he wants to hire day laborers to work in the vineyard. He hires some of them first thing in the morning, after agreeing to the usual daily wage. Those workers are happy – they’ve got a day’s work and a fair wage for the day. At midday, the owner realizes that he will need more helpers, so he hires on some more workers. He tells them he will pay them the normal daily wage. These noontime workers are happy – they’ll work the whole afternoon and early evening and be paid as if they were working all day. In the late afternoon, the work is almost done, but the all-day workers are tired and slowing down, and he didn’t hire a whole bunch of the noontime guys, so he goes and hires a few more workers to finish up the job. He says “I’ll pay you the daily wage if you come now and help us finish up.”

It’s a sweet deal for those last hired, right? A full day’s pay for a few hours work. And the ones who were hired in the morning get a little ticked off, and say “that’s not fair!” You could wonder if they wanted more money themselves, or less for the ones who were hired later, because that makes economic sense to them. But they had agreed to a fair wage for their day’s labor. Do they want more money? Yes. Do they need more money? Not really – they were originally happy with the agreed upon wage.

They didn’t get what they wanted. They got what they needed.

But wants and needs are not just stories from ancient times.

What do you want? You may want me to stay as your rector. I love you for loving me and thinking I do an okay job as your rector, but God wants me to go to my new position at Mayo House.

So if you can’t get what you want, what do you need?

Someone to help you get through the first few weeks of my departure, as you remember that you are capable of doing much of the work of this parish as laypersons.

Someone to help you discern and dream about where God is leading you next, because this is an ever-changing community, and who and where you are now is different than it was just five years ago.

Someone to be your next rector, who will take you the next steps in your journey…places that I could not be able to take you.

It’s alright to be worried about whether your needs are going to be met – know that God will meet those needs.

Your wants? Not so much. Some may happen, some may not. But no matter what, trust that the Lord will always, always supply your needs. 

Amen.