Last week in Minneapolis I met with friends, colleagues, and leaders from around the Episcopal Church. We shared ideas, questions, images, and learnings from our various work in campus ministry, traditional churches, and community organizing. Here's a week-later sketch of some of what that productive time occasioned for me.
On the first night, we discovered a rich blend of hope and sadness. Hope, for the ways we have encountered God on the margins, in the cracks of the pavement so to speak, etc., which is to say the ways God continues to move and act in this world, surprising, sustaining, healing, restoring. Sadness, for the difficulties presented by an institutional decline we cannot fully lament.
At last year's national gathering of young adult and campus ministers, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry named some of the difficulties. The naming itself, by the Presiding Bishop, was inspiring and encouraging to many of us, as was his insistence that the stakes were not the existence of the church, but that part of the church sustained by the ways the church had accommodated itself to certain expressions of wealth. Additionally, Bishop Curry named the church's responsibility to protect the current generation of clergy from personal financial failure. I cannot overstate the helpfulness of this framing. After all, the years-long ordination process required many of us to assert that we could do no other than be clergy; if we had imagination for other careers, we were to do that, instead. Now, it is not uncommon for those in the process to be asked what else they will do to support (pay for) their vocations. It's different, not bad. And the ability of the Presiding Bishop to name the current reality while proclaiming his honest anticipation for the church to come is essential to leadership of the national church in 2018.
At that gathering last year in Austin, our worship included this song:
Chief among the acknowledgements that have attended confronting the church's institutional challenges is that we may have been measuring the wrong things. ASA (average Sunday attendance), for example. It's not that ASA is a bad number, but at best it's a number that needs another number. That is, it is not clear, exactly, what ASA measures. Faithfulness? Guilt? Consistency? Mission? The ability to find jobs with flexibility? Your guess is as good as mine. Plus, ASA completely punts more nuanced interest with respect to participation in the church. If, for example, forgiveness scholar Robert Enright is correct in his assertion that few people go to church to grow the church (my paraphrase), then we should always be theologically interested in a person's presence at church: "What does her presence reveal about how God is moving in their life, here and now? What is God showing them that leads them into the assembly of the faithful today?" I say "theologically interested" because I think theology informs how we read such moments. If Augustine, for example, is right that even gradually discovered awareness of our distance from God is a gift from God, then the story of a person's presence is also the story of the generous movement of God.
Back to the question of the things we measure. My friend Steve, who convened our Minneapolis gathering, brought to our time together the image of seeds and soil, along with the observation that it is naive to tend to church "plants" and the like without also tending the soil. Soil health may turn out to be our most important work. Steve shared this video:
After watching the video, I thought about how often the church is described as the thing we are building - the plant - such that prayers like this one become the exceptions that prove the rule. If, however, we are at least as much about soil health, then we'll plant some things, like kale, not because they will endure, but because they will remove toxicity from the soil. Likewise, other plants will benefit the soil as they become compost for it. In all of these things, we don't necessarily measure the plant lifespan but the quality of the nutrients each contributed to the health of the soil. In other words, compost adds a beautiful and encouraging dimension to drip castle descriptions of ministry.
Of course, all of this did nothing to diminish my long-time affinity for this beautiful poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front.
The soil / seed discussion is an important part of Bishop Curry's aforementioned discussion in Austin because the personal failures from which he notes the church is right to guard clergy are not purely financial. They are also the stress that results from the unrealistic matching of resources and objectives; they are the issues of self-esteem and identity that belong to those who are told it would all be different if only they did or were x, y, z, etc., when there is no proof or truth that any of this would be different if they did or were x, y, z, etc. Rediscovering the soil opens space for God's people to be in touch with the nutrients at the heart of the faith, and in a way that makes room for compost, that is, in a way that is capable of fruitful, God-open grief.
There's no denying that the church is changing. And also no denying that God continues to be seen in the changes and in the cracks where our institutions and individual identities grow weak. Indeed, this has been the promise all along. May God give us grace to follow in the way of the cross and find it to be the way of abundant life and peace.
More food for thought. "Can we manage it as an ecological system, instead of a crop?" (See below.)