State of Parish Address

I arrived at St Martin’s on the Feast of the Most Glorious and Most Holy Trinity -in secular time the 15th June 2014. At the outset, I felt it was important to set a few immediate priorities, ones that would enable me to begin to structure my relationship with the parish. I wanted to respond with confidence to the very strong signal given me in my interview process – that the parish was ready for change. The experience of change is always ambivalent. Change is yearned for while simultaneously resisted. That which we most long for is also the thing we often most fear.

The quandary for any incoming rector is how quickly to make changes. One argument suggests making change quickly so as to make good use of the honeymoon period when the community is at its most generous, excited about new possibilities, and open to change. The counter argument counsels that important change needs buy-in from the community experiencing the change. The level of buy-in needed to tackle difficult issues comes only with time and the discovery that the new rector is someone who can be trusted.

My initial assessment was that I was coming into a parish experiencing the ebb dynamic in its growth cycle. Like the tide, organizations flow towards fullness only to find after a period of time their energy begins to ebb. I felt I had arrived in a parish, which despite being a community of undreamed-of strength in terms of its human potential was experiencing life at low tide. In the State of Rhode Island, it’s low tide time more generally. There seems to be a fearfulness among many who wonder how much further the tide might continue to ebb before needed change can be embraced.

St Martin’s is a church that for many years has hovered around the transition point that marks the movement from the pastoral, to what I will call, the participative rather than the usual term program culture of parish organization. The pastoral church is focused on the priest at its center. The Rector is looked to for not only strategic leadership but is expected to have a hand in nearly everything that happens. The Vestry tends in this culture to micromanage community life. The problem is that at the upper end of the pastoral organization’s size, and this is where St Martin’s is, being priest centered and Vestry managed, inhibits growth. The expectation of priestly involvement in everything means that the parish cannot move beyond the limitations of one person’s capacity. The preoccupation of the Vestry with day-to-day management prevents it developing a higher level strategic vision.

In the participative parish leadership and initiative are more shared between Rector, Vestry, and membership. This is a community that possesses a higher and more dynamic level of spiritual capacity. The Rector does not have a hand in everything; he or she supported by assistant clergy is thus freed to attend to the strategic direction. Lay-led ministry teams are more active and autonomous. The Vestry relinquishes the day-to-day running of the parish to the paid Staff and is thereby freed to assist the Rector in mapping strategic direction of travel.

St Martin’s has been hovering at this transition point for a good many years. Recent history shows how difficult it is to secure this transition from pastoral to participative organizational culture. In some years, the parish has crossed the line. This has been marked by confidence and growth usually reflected in the appointment of assistant clergy, the strengthening of the paid staff, and by a surge in the vibrancy of lay ministries. Yet the experience of increased flow has repeatedly been followed by ebb. Energy ebbs back from participative to pastoral cultural modes, as confidence and resources to continue forward, falter.

What is it that flows only to then ebb? At one level, it can be tracked in terms of the crude measurements of money and bums on seats. More significantly, it is the flowing and ebbing of what truly makes a Christian community viable – its spiritual capacity.

In response to my assessment, over the last six months I have been signaling and where possible, implementing changes designed to stimulate the parish’s spiritual capacity. Where have these changes been?

Where have these changes been?

  1. The empowerment of the paid Staff through signaling my confidence in them. I have invited them as a team as well as individually, into my confidence. I believe members of Staff understand that I have confidence in them as a team, as well as in them individually. I have seen my task as one of empowering them to function at their optimal levels of skill, enthusiasm, and creativity. I have invited them into my thinking with the aim of engendering a style of a collaborative culture signaled by my valuing of their advice, wisdom, and support. An empowered, highly functional paid Staff, responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization is a hallmark of the participative parish culture.

There are budgetary implications to this empowerment. We will communicate about these in the presentation of the budget at the Annual Meeting. However, I want to emphasize that an increase in paid Staff capacity is the most effective way to lay the foundations for securing and sustaining our transition back t0 being a participative parish. By comparison the appointment of assistant clergy, while being infinitely more expensive, bears more limited fruit in supporting this transition, as this parish’s experience bears out.

  1. We engaged professional help to design and launch a new website. I was able over the summer to devote the time needed to write the content for this new website. At the same time, I began stimulating the use by our members of our parish FaceBook page. In the digital age, our web profile is our main communication with the wider world. Hardly anyone will visit us on a Sunday morning without first looking us up on the web. An active FaceBook page is one of the key indicators of energy among the membership. The website is where we profile who we are, and sound our theological and community tone to the wider world around us.

We are not where I want us to be digitally speaking. Yet, we have made a good start. In addition to now posting sermons in blog form on our website the next step is for them to appear as video and audio podcasts. The next phase of development is to move towards greater video, and less text dominated web format.

The missing demographic at St Martin’s is the late 20’s-40 age groups. A more vital web presence, radical Biblically based preaching, traditional worship, and accessible teaching on daily spiritual practice as a support in stress filled lives, are the key elements of spiritual capacity that in my experience, attracts the spiritual seekers in this age demographic.

  1. Empowerment of worship and education ministries has been and will continue to be a key priority for me. As Episcopalians, we define ourselves not through statements of belief, but through the central quality of our worship, which is the key defining characteristic of our Anglican Tradition.

Ministries of welcome and new member incorporation are part of our worship life. Our welcome ministry has had a good restart, but we need fuller membership buy-in and participation. Our growth will be limited by the speed at which everyone comes to embrace a model of every member ministry. 

Our Christian Formation ministries are where we attract and nurture our members in the active phases of family life. The nurturance of Christian family life is a complex process today. Once, families defined their spiritual lives through participation in Church Communities. Today, many other demands draw families away from Church involvement and we continue to live in this place of cultural tension.

  1. In the fall, the Staff, and I, supported by the Wardens worked very hard to implement a structured, and theologically led, Annual Renewal Campaign. The theology of financial giving seemed to many to be something they had not considered before. Placing gratitude at the heart of our financial thinking is a long-term sell in many Episcopal Churches. Yet, I am encouraged by the start that we have made together. There is very good news to report and more about this will be shared by our Junior Warden Sean Mulholland and our Treasurer Dennis Stark at the Annual Meeting. However, let me note that both the good and bad news is that we now generate an equivalent dollar value with half the number of pledging units we had in 2005. Sean will talk us through that story and its longer-term trend implications at the Annual Meeting.

The Lections today offer us two images of discipleship. In our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jonah we have an image of reluctance and outright refusal in response to God’s call. Jonah shows a very pissed-off attitude towards God. First he refuses to accept God’s call for him to preach to Nineveh, instead sailing away on a ship in the opposite direction. After being punished by being thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by a whale, Jonah after the symbolic three days is eventually spewed up on the beach near Nineveh. He reluctantly enters the city and after traveling through the metropolis for a day calls the Ninevites to repent or else face the wrath of God. To his surprise, they heed his call, from highest to lowest. When God sees this he relents. In the next chapter, we read that Jonah is mightily pissed-off about this. He angrily tells God, see I could have told you back home that you would act like this. So why have you caused me all this grief only to go soft on Nineveh?

We can contrast Jonah’s call and response with the call by Jesus of his first disciples – Simon, his brother Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee. They immediately drop everything they are doing and follow Jesus. Mark’s depiction of the call of the disciples is cryptic in the extreme. He presents a rather idealized image of a response to God’s call, unquestioning, completely trusting, and willing to give up everything else for the cause of following Jesus.

Jonah is a man who counts the cost of heeding God’s call and he seems to think the price is way too high. Simon, Andrew, James, and John seem heedless of the cost of the call to follow Jesus. Yet as we move through Mark’s Gospel we learn of the more mixed and ambivalent response of his disciples to God’s call.

Paul’s advice to the Corinthians tells us that we should live as if there is no time to loose. It’s just not possible to put off the call of God, thinking there is plenty of time tomorrow to think about this. Paul hints at the possibility of what if there is no tomorrow. How would this affect our decision-making process today?

So my question to all of us is what kind of disciples are we? How much time do we think we have to make up our minds? These are great questions on the Sunday of the Annual Parochial Meeting at St Martin’s, Providence. It’s the answers to these questions that will, or will not, catalyze us towards an increase in the spiritual capacity as the St Martin’s Community becomes more truly magnetic, thereby pulling more and more of those on the search for meaning and purpose beyond mere worldly satisfactions, into its heart.

One thought on “State of Parish Address

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  1. Thank you for making your Parish Address available to this Episcopalian in AZ. I realize your message is meant for your St. Martin’s parish, but it is filled with such wisdom, and has helped me understand the path to a healthy and growing church. I applaud your thoughts on making your sermons available on pod casts and video. They have always been a great inspiration to me, and when I summered in remote MT, your pod cast sermons were my link to the message and the Episcopal church. I look forward to hearing them again. Thank you.

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