Church Building RIP.

Today the AP came out with the following report.

About halfway through Sunday service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, as worshipers passed around the collection plate, a chorus of screams pierced the air.

Chunks of the ceiling in the 52-year-old church near Hickory came crashing down on the crowd of 200 or so, striking about 14, who were later treated and released from nearby hospitals. A jagged piece of the ceiling, roughly 10 feet by 10 feet, dangled from exposed wires over the back pews as deacons struggled to guide panicking worshipers from the building.

“My jaw just dropped,” the Rev. Antonio Logan said. “I thought, ‘This can’t be real.'”

Yes.  Real.

Church buildings are an albatross around the church’s neck, especially for small congregations who have, as the cliche has it, an “edifice complex.”

Such a complex would be OK – but many parishioners are not in the habit of funding it; and newcomers haven’t built up a commitment to the church.  And sometimes it takes years.

To fund staff, maintenance, AND church growth is expensive, which is why church plants are often easier than church turnarounds.

The Pygmalion Effect

One aspect about church life is that when a congregation believes it can accomplish great things, they are more apt to do the work necessary to get there.  This is not the Law of Attraction, or The Secret.   But such confidence allows goals to be broken down into manageable tasks.    It is not a quick fix, nor is success guaranteed.  New challenges arise even in the midst of success.  We’ve done a great job at St. Barts at balancing the budget, but there’s always another pipe that needs to be fixed.

This idea is called The Pygmalion effect.  Expectations orient results.  Leaders who trust and enable their congregation will have greater success than those who withhold authority.   Students do better with teachers who believe in them. Children respond differently after getting hurt with a parent who expects tears, and a parent who expects tenacity.    It affects creativity as well – feeling like a sucky writer will not make one a better writer.  Writing with encouragement will get the work done.

Not to say that there aren’t times people truly get hurt.  Sometimes we need… improvement.  But a perspective that allows for opportunity and openness is frames our choices we see before us.  It’s not a matter of promoting optimism:  but if I trust my volunteers, we’re likely to do more than if I don’t trust them.  People can rise up to each other’s expectations.  There can be a great transformation.

The Clergy Abuse Scandal

Andrew Sullivan has a couple blog entries about how the Episcopal Church handles sex abuse cases.  It was not always like this – and Episcopal clergy have transgressed other boundaries – but I’ve seen the zero tolerance policy in action.

A few times a year I get a letter from the Bishop that I’m supposed to read aloud for the vestry.  It will have the name of a priest that has been inhibited, defrocked, or left the priesthood.  It’s yearly reminder of our humanity.

When I was studying for my doctorate, I did some research into the history of my parish.  I learned that in the early-mid 40’s a popular young priest had exposed himself to a couple young boys.

The parish was divided.  The vestry, it seemed, liked the priest.  They didn’t want him severely punished.   The wardens interceded on the priest’s behalf.  The bishop’s response was electric:  What would you do if it were your son?

The case went to court.  The bishop waited until the verdict came down, after which the priest was defrocked and banned.    In the letter to the priest, the bishop’s held him responsible for his actions, spelling out the damaging effects of his actions, while also expressing empathy in the midst of sadness and disappointment.   Bishop Manning, God Bless You.

I recognize this did not happen all the time.  But especially since women have been ordained, the Episcopal Church has slowly adopted a zero tolerance view toward abusers.

The current divisions in our communion may have some unintended consequences.  Bishops will hold gay clergy to the same standards as straight clergy.   Suspected Episcopal priest predators who should the correct pieties may leave to join the spinoff Anglican communities.  I think some of the partners of gay clergy might not be that happy to be required to marry; and I’ve heard plenty of rumors of dodgy traditionalist clergy.

To me, our current situation reveals how the bishop’s role can protect the victims. The episcopacy should challenge Congregations that protect the friendly clergy who’ve charmed them.   It may require protecting clergy who may be innocent.   But immediate attention and decisiveness are crucial in these situations.   And even bishops themselves shall be held up for scrutiny.

I am proud of my church.  Granted, in part we have taken the zero-tolerance rule precisely because we’ve seen what has happened in our sister church.  I believe What makes us truly different is not really Roman teaching.  I personally believe in the efficacy of the sacraments; the visible church; the communion of saints; and the witness of the Holy Father.   What may make us different is something completely different.  We’ve allowed our institution to change in order to make better decisions.  In the realm of sex abuse we’ve learned to listen to the laity.   We trust them.  If only we could rebuild our church.

Easter 4 Year C

Easter 4 Year C

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

After reading this week’s lectionary, I’m considering “how to build a church 101” sermon.  Or a “how not to build a church 101” if I can get some laughs out of it.

“Ignore the people around you,”  “use Schoenberg for a mass setting.”

In the first passage we read – from Acts of the Apostles – the disciples accomplish amazing wonders, including healing of a bedridden paralytic and the raising of Dorcas, of the unfortunate name, from the dead.  Transformation is promised and delivered.   Upon seeing the successes of the church, people believe.  They believe in the power.   Who needs health insurance when you’ve got Jesus!

From this pericope I might discuss power.  I believe that Christians are too shy about talking about power.   The assumption: “power corrupts.”   I’d spend some time looking at different sorts of power – physical power; spiritual power; monetary power.   I’d assess the chaotic nature of power, and the power required to create order.

Power from people with the best intentions can have terrible results; and power from individuals who are manipulative and self-interested may result in wonderful changes for the common good.  But I believe, generally, that power is inextricably linked with life itself.  God is a God of power.  Dim, vague and vascillating (as Whitehead once said), perhaps, but present nonetheless.

In the second reading, I imagine the Christians, in the midst of the apocalypse, declaring God’s glory.   It seems defiant, the chant of a team that’s been the underdog for so long on the verge of victory. God wins.    They’re Cubs fans.  Trusting in the power of the underdog above the power of… money and commerce.

Continue reading “Easter 4 Year C”

Annual Meeting

We had the annual meeting yesterday.  No priests were harmed in the process.  Or treasurers.  We didn’t discuss sexuality or the Anglican Communion.  We celebrated the best pledge drive we’d had in several years.

We did a few tasks differently this meeting.  The budget was far more detailed than before, and we sent it out for review to everybody in the congregation.  It was a risk.  We didn’t know of someone would complain about the price of stamps or my subscription to the New Yorker.

My reflections were, in sum, like so:

Thanks everybody, you rock.  Now here is what we need to do.

Now let’s do some work.   It’s simple.  Painfully so.  First, we love each other.  Then we do the work of loving as best as we can.  Then communicate this to the world.   Simple.

I just said this in longer paragraphs, with greater detail, which is where, it is said, the devil lies.

Christmas, etc

I’d like to wish you a Merry Christmas. And a Happy Christmas. I’d also like to wish you a Happy Hannukah and Happy Kwanzaa. And also a Merry Chanukah and a Merry Kwanzaa.

If you are an atheist, then just happy and merry to you.

Happy boxing day, December 26th, which is a day we celebrate our urge to kill our family members the day after, by not killing them, but by just boxing them around a bit. That’s the day we float like a butterfly, but sting like a bee, as a prophet once said.

Have you bought all your gifts? I haven’t bought any gifts yet. I’ll probably wait until after the New Year. It allows me to miss the rush and get to some post- New Year’s sales. I’m waiting for the 90% discount sales at Hermes.

I’d like to support the economy more, but for now, I’m just avoiding the madness. Not because I don’t like madness, and there’s nothing wrong with a little madness, if only because it helps you appreciate sanity. I just don’t want to be stuck in traffic.

Perhaps it is enough to sing some hymns and have a good dinner. Perhaps you will open that Chateauneuf du pape you’ve been saving from last year, when you splurged after a wine tasting one evening. Or you decided to get your ingredients from Whole Foods, including some wild mushrooms and artisenal cheese. Instead of spending a few hundred dollars on that diamond necklace, or getting some extravagant electronic device, you bought truffle oil for your mashed potatoes.

Wise choices. Truffle oil is far more important than a 75 inch plasma screen.

For the great theologian Schleiermacher, the feeling of the love of Christ was best represented by a family singing hymns around a piano after a delicious meal. He did not say it was found by a new camcorder.

Although the Flip is pretty cool.

The story of Christmas actually begins with the story of his return, with His words of peace and reconciliation. It begins with Easter. The body of believers began to understand that Christ’s love overcame the power of the gods who maliciously manipulated the lives around them. When they saw how being loved changed lives into lives that were full of potential, maganimity and creativity, they listened to the stories that were being told about Jesus’ early life, including his birth.

Tonight we celebrate the story of his birth.

And no, there is little historical evidence when or where. But we can recognize a few things within the events, the snippets of the lives told from the religious imagination of the people.

The first is that God is in surprises. The shepherds, Mary, and pretty much everyone, were a bit surprised. God as a baby makes God vulnerable and dependent, which is much different than the God who throws his weight around, making lives miserable. Granted, not all surprises are good, which is why we spend a lot of time avoiding them.

The second is that our life in the spirit is one of engagement. The child is dependent upon his family and the generosity of strangers. We are likewise truly dependent upon each other. And we’ll probably learn more about this as the year continues.

And last, Jesus loves a party. If there is a victory, if love does work, if there is justice at the end of time, if there is reason to hope, then we can afford to be magnanimous toward our enemies, patient in our work, and optimistic in our orientation. It may not get better for us, right here, in our individual lives, but the work we do together does make things better for others, even in the midst of individual sorrow and pain.

Therefore, we have plenty to celebrate about.

This is why the church placed Jesus’ birth square in the middle of Yuletide. Because the pagans had a good idea in holding parties, Christians agreed that the birth of Christ is a pretty good reason to party in itself.

So we’ll see you tonight at some time.

Overturning the Tables

Overturning the tables in the temple was probably the main reason Jesus got nailed to a cross.

The story seems to indicate a severe separation of commerce and church. Money in church? No way! Take it out!

However, I don’t think that the problem of money is the primary message. More crucial was the nature of trust. In overturning the tables, Jesus challenged how and who we are expected to trust.

Nate Silver, the writer in one of my favorite blogs, reports in the General Social Survey that people are losing their faith in everything. Only 20% of people have trust in organized religion – down 10% from 30% in 2000. Just a little more trust than in banks.

That’s not very reassuring if you’re in the organized religion business. And we only forgive sins, not debts.

I don’t think the lack of trust is an entirely a bad thing. Given the number of clergy scandals, even in White Plains, suspicion makes sense. But trust is how we are still called to live.

Jesus was redefining who we are to have trust in.

Overturning the temples was a pretty important symbolic act. At core, following Joseph Schumpeter, Jesus’ act represented creative destruction. Jesus predicted the temple will be destroyed and replaced by a body.

It may undermine the idea that holiness is bought; but Jesus also seems to undermine the ritual itself. When he overturns the tables, it may be that Jesus locates true transformation not first in the temple, or through commerce, but in his body. Transformation is embodied, and participating in the life of God means beginning with your own. It may require creative destruction.

Sometimes an alcoholic realizes they cannot stop drinking after an event of creative destruction. Then they are called to continue rupturing their entire context to keep sober. They stop going to bars; they end their destructive contexts. They begin a long process of recalibrating their habits and renewing themselves. This is hard work. But they can then begin to trust themselves around drink after a time of training themselves differently.

Perhaps this is what we are living through now – this time of creative destruction. out of the broken shards of the old church, a new one will be born. Even in our own parish, people who have left congregations that they could not trust, are rebuilding a new community. And perhaps this church will represent, with God’s grace, the hope of a new generation.