Living into our Discipleship

Looking for the Spark

At Trinity Cathedral I want to identify three elements facing us on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany. We have two difficult readings to contend with. Paul is writing to the Corinthians about internal divisions in the community and Matthew presents an image of being called to discipleship that seems so startling in its implications that the easy and safe response is to simply switch off and pretend we haven’t heard him. The third of our three elements concerns our Parish Annual Meeting, which we will hold immediately following the 10 A.M Eucharist. I feel compelled to link these seemingly disconnected elements.

In preparing to preach I like to read around on a website called TextWeek, out of Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota. This is one site where I can discover the preaching chatter relating to the texts appointed for the coming Sunday. I use the word chatter because reading this website is often an overwhelming experience that leaves me longing for silence. Yet, the value of reading the chatter on TextWeek lies not so much to seeing what others are saying but in the way this process helps me to find the spark that triggers my own reflections on our experience of struggling to be the Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central in downtown Phoenix.

I found the spark I needed this week in Brian Stoffregan’s[1] reflections on once attending a workshop by Bill Easum entitled “Stuck” congregations. It seems that the characteristic of stuck congregations is a preoccupation with who’s in control. Easum notes three groupings. There are the Deciders who make all the decisions. Then there are the Doers who carry out the Deciders wishes. The third group he calls the Ignored. The Ignored don’t get asked to do anything because the Deciders usually don’t know who these people are.

This insight struck home for me because it immediately brought to mind a comment I frequently hear around the precincts of Trinity Cathedral. It goes like this: Father Mark, isn’t it wonderful we have so many new people coming, Sunday by Sunday – pause– but who are these people? Another version of this is: Father Mark, you know, I look around and these days I don’t recognize half the congregation.

What happens in a stuck congregation is that over time the Deciders experience more and more difficult in finding enough Doers to maintain the structures. Easum suggests the path to becoming unstuck is when the Doers become Dreamers. This is an alarming development for the Deciders who instinctively hate Dreamers because Dreamers begin to question. They begin to realize that there must be more to church than serving on committees and maintaining the structures of the institution. Dreamers stop being Doers and in the minds of the Deciders they become part of the ranks of the Ignored. The resulting crisis forces the Deciders into becoming Controllers.  Dreamers usually won’t confront Controllers with the result that Dreamers will eventually move-on. Interesting though Easum’s analysis is, in my experience the boundaries are more blurred with some Deciders also being significant Doers. 

Making Connections

This last week I sat down with a long-term member of Trinity to listen to concerns about a perceived lack of transparency in some recent decision-making. I had to acknowledge that because of the short time frame within which some matters relating to the budget for 2014 had to be decided, decisions made appropriately by the Finance Committee had not been communicated very well. I felt I needed to take responsibility for this lapse. As is often the case, lack of transparency is really a failure in communication, rather than a conspiracy of concealment.

As our conversation developed beyond the matters of immediate concern this parishioner began to reminisce about an earlier time at Trinity when the congregation, a fraction of our present size was able to make a significant impact on the life of the City in terms of its social outreach. It is clear to me that they achieved this because in those days the Deciders and the Doers were largely the same group.  Together they comprised a small but highly invested congregation.

What interests me about this period is that while a small remnant struggled to keep the lights on and the structures in working order, their priority was nevertheless focused on making a difference in the world around them. Social outreach through service brought their discipleship to life. It was the energy of discipleship, not the privileges and duties of membership, that resulted in an incredible sense of dedicated purpose that literally was able to move mountains. In those days, the Deciders were the Doers and the peripheral group referred to by Easum as the Ignored had not yet developed. 

Building Connections

Our rapid growth, more and more evident over the last five years, has changed the nature of the Trinity community. Our current context is one in which the Deciders and the Doers don’t always share the sense of commonality, as evidenced by the need for the conversation I reported having this last week.

I have no doubt that the number of Doers is shrinking, because they no longer enjoy the sense of investment that comes from also sharing in Decision making functions. Many decision-making functions once exercised by the Doers as Deciders have as a consequence of our rapid growth, needed to pass to a strengthening paid Staff group.

One of my priorities during our recent interregnum was to actively strengthen the development of a strong Staff decision-making function in order to ensure efficient operation as a growing organization. Yet, I am acutely conscious of the two edged nature of this sword of development. A growing gulf between Deciders and Doers and the huge increase in the Ignored, a section within the congregation who are neither Deciders nor Doers poses dangers that Paul is alerting the Corinthians to: namely dangers to our structural cohesion, our mutual affection for one another, and our unity in striving for what he calls being of the same mind and same purpose.

Being of the same mind and purpose does not mean an inability to tolerate differences between us. Ours is a tradition the privileges community strengthened through the embracing of difference and diversity. Paul is declaring that being of the same mind and some purpose is a consequence not, of an intolerance of difference, but as a consequence of our shared baptism.

Paul’s message comes as freshly to us as it did to his Corinthian readers because although the content of the issues may change the dynamics of human community remain dishearteningly the same. Like the Corinthian Christians we too struggle with being formed by the demands of a call to discipleship. Discipleship is a stage that takes us beyond the privileges and duties of merely membership. Our Discipleship, Paul asserts, results not from being good people becoming better people, but from being baptized into a new creation brought about through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.

Where Trinity was once a small urban congregation famous for punching above our weight through the size of our discipleship footprint in the world, today we need to be alert to the paradox that our discipleship footprint in the world can also shrink  as a consequence of our growth in size.

Matthew’s depiction of the call of the disciples is startling and somewhat alarming if we take it seriously. I imagine that Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John, the sons of Zebedee dropped their nets and followed Jesus because they experienced being called into an intimacy of relationship with the Lord that offered them meaning and purpose for life that far exceeded their wildest expectations. Do we not yearn for the same experience of intimacy of relationship promising us meaning and purpose beyond our cautious rational expectations? As I listened in conversation this last week, I caught the echo of such an experience that some here still, can remember.

Concluding Remarks

What I currently notice is a gradual replacement of traditional Doers by Dreamers. This is partly a transformation of Doers into Dreamers. It is in greater part a generational decline in the number of Doers, who are being replaced by Dreamers. This is an indication of the generational shift in emphasis. Younger generations are less interested in being good servants and more concerned with spiritual seeking. This poses our church a challenge as well as an opportunity.

The real challenge Trinity faces is the urgent need for our continued growth in numbers to translate into an invitation for more and more spiritual seekers to become Dreamers and through dreaming become open to Christ’s call to enter the community of discipleship. Otherwise newcomers to our community risk ending up relegated to Bill Easum’s category of the Ignored; spiritual observers who remain largely uninvolved in the community of discipleship. For me this is the significant issue facing our congregational life as we move into 2014.

2014 has been announced by the arrival of a new Dean. I invite us to view this as the beginning of a new phase dreaming ourselves into a community marked-out by the quality of our discipleship as followers of Christ.

To those among us who recognize ourselves as part of the Ignored, meaning the growing number of spiritual seekers who as yet remain only spiritual observers of our common life, we can take a step to participate in this process of dreaming ourselves into discipleship. We can remain for the Annual Meeting that will immediately follow the end of the 10 Am Eucharist. Here we can take one small step towards fashioning an vision capable of responding to the challenges, and embracing the opportunities, of our life together in the coming year.

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