Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Less Licensing and More Permission

As we think about equipping our church to equip the saints for ministry, here is a small suggestion.  Eliminate as much licensing as possible in our canons.  By licensing, I am not referring to the wide assortment of "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" merchandise available by your finer purveyors of ecclesiastical goods.  I'm referring to the licenses given by bishops to lay people for certain ministries, a list made significantly longer in 2009.  I think reducing these licenses is important for at least two reasons.

First, licenses are primarily used to curtail activities, not promote them.  Does anyone think that drivers' licenses are there to get more people to drive?  If we think that we need more evangelists, a licensing system is not the right solution to that problem.  Trainings may help.  Exposing people to effective evangelists might help.  Networks like the Episcopal Evangelism Network would almost certainly help.  Prayer for laborers into the harvest is a definite must.  Licenses, not so much.  Are we really so worried about spreading the good news the wrong way that we need to restrict who does it and how?

Second, a licensing process is not nearly as helpful in most situations as a mentoring process, especially for adults in ministry.  The best way to develop effective ministers in any sphere is to give them a little bit of ministry to do, have a mentor or coach reflect with them and provide the next piece of instruction, then send them out again.  If we want to develop lay preachers, we need to let people preach, give them feedback, and schedule the next time in the pulpit.  At some point, some folks will rise to the level that a bishop may send their name to the parishes in the diocese as a potential supply preacher.  This would achieve the same positives as a license, without hindering folks in a parish who might have something useful to say once or twice a year but really don't need to take four semesters of a Bible class.

The fewer requirements for lay ministry coming from outside the parish, the easier it is for pastors to unleash people's spiritual gifts in fruitful ministry. In an Acts 8 moment where the Spirit is leading us into very interesting new opportunities, we can either provide potential lay leaders with requirements to be met, or we can ask them how we can help them do what God is calling them to do.  I prefer the latter.                 

Monday, October 8, 2012

A St. Francis Miracle

OK, so the trendy October celebration at an Episcopal Church near you is a blessing of the animals for the Feast of St. Francis (October 4).  One near-by parish had llamas, as well as the regular cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs and black giraffes.  Alas, St. John's did not intend to welcome God's furrier friends this past Sunday, but it seems St. Francis has other plans.

After the 8:00am service, an usher came to the sacristy and said that someone was here to see me.  When I got to the lounge, a young man I'd never met before told me his story.  He lives in a nearby apartment, one which doesn't take pets.  Saturday evening, when he opened his front door, a beagle ran inside.  It had a collar on, with a broken lead attached.  He spent the night in his car with the dog, but he needed someone else to help him so he could go inside with his wife and 16 month-old son.

At this point, the little voice in the back of my head told me, "You're taking home a dog today."  I knew I would try every other alternative and probably have many reasons not to make this my problem, but it wasn't going to matter in the end.  After talking to dozens of people at church, having our new friend drive the dog to the Agway that might take it, and making any number of calls, the man went home to his family and my wife and daughters went home with the beagle.

The dog, who we eventually named Buddy, was quickly overwhelmed with our snoodle Heidi, so they stayed on opposite sides of a baby gate.  Every time I walked by, Heidi tried to jump into my arms to make sure I knew who was the primary dog in my life.  Then last night, because we are total softies, my eldest even slept down in the family room with Buddy, who is apparently quite a cuddler.

We had left messages yesterday for all sorts of people, and called the police and some others this morning, seemingly to no avail.  No one in town had lost a beagle.  During a parish funeral, we almost convinced the local Disciples of Christ minister who was assisting with the service to adopt him.  Then this afternoon we got a call.  A woman who runs the rescue where we had gotten our dog had gotten a call from someone whose beagle ran had broken a new lead Saturday night.  We had left a message for her earlier hoping that she had space to take the dog, but she didn't.  Instead, she was the person who got the call from Buddy's dad.  My wife talked to him, and we met him at the church to return Petey (which turned out to be Buddy's real name).

On Sunday morning, the man who brought the dog said something interesting to me.  After we spent an hour or so looking for a solution and not finding any, he said, "I went to a nearby church, and the preacher just told me, 'We don't help with that.'  But you are willing to spend the time and try and help."  Now, I can totally understand a church with a clear boundary between it and an animal shelter.  At the same time, here is an unchurched person coming Sunday morning trying to do the right thing and having slept in his car all night to do it.  The way he's likely to feel the love of Jesus is finding some Christians who care as much as he does about this stray dog.  I'm not sure if he'll be back to church or not.  If he does, we can probably learn something from him about hospitality and care.

I'm also struck that the connection with the dog's original owner was one we were positioned to make.  Somehow we were an important link in God's return of a prodigal, and we were willing to be used by him.  Being part of Petey and his owner's reunion felt like God was at work.  Being part of the whole affair over the weekend felt like St. Francis has a sense of humor.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Opening the Door to Non-Episcopalian Congregations

As we look at structural changes in the Episcopal Church during the next three years, we need to develop some way to allow non-Episcopal/Anglican congregations to affiliate with our church.  This idea may seem odd, or even threatening.  But as we do God’s work more effectively as a national church, we should expect to attract congregations who want to join us but may not want identify as Episcopalian.

We know this happens with people in our pews.  On any given Sunday, our churches are filled with people from a variety of backgrounds.  Some have formally become Episcopalian, some may in the future, and some never will.  But all are part of our ministry and important for our mission.  In the same way, we should expect non-Episcopalian congregations (and even networks of congregations) to play a similar role in the life of our diocesan and national church.

Two sets of experiences have made me realize just how important our flexibility in this area could be.  The first is that a group of congregations from a number of mainline churches have hired a part-time missionary for our county.  A portion of his ministry is being out where people gather, like a downtown restaurant and a college student center, to build relationships with pre-Christians.  If he is successful, as he has been in the past, within a few months there will probably be prayer, Bible studies, one-on-one discipleship, and other ministry taking place in those sites.  They could also develop a group that wanted to worship together and form the core of a new church plant.  When they do, I hope they will be able to have an affiliation with the Episcopal Church, even if they don’t want to use the BCP at every worship service or have every lay worship leader certified by the local Episcopal bishop or sign up their very part-time clergy with the Church Pension Fund.  But we may be doing things at a deanery or diocesan level that could benefit them and that their participation could benefit us.  Maybe they want to be a multi-denominational church (as opposed to a non-denominational one) that maintained close bonds with PCUSA and the Episcopal Church.    We will want to include such communities in the life of our church, even if they aren’t necessarily “Episcopalian” congregations. We won’t need these mechanisms until creative church planting initiatives are successful, but we should assume such efforts will create thriving Christian communities.

My second experience is being part of a prayer group with a number of non-denominational, independent, and congregationally-governed churches.  As I listen to some of their struggles, I find that the Episcopal Church has figured out some things that give them fits.  The Clergy Tax Guide sent out by the Church Pension Fund would be a huge benefit to many independent church pastors.  Safeguarding God’s Children and Safeguarding God’s People would help them address difficult questions all churches face.  Our structured outreach programs from local food pantries to Episcopal Relief and Development can provide a way for smaller congregations to connect to those in need.  Any number of such efforts can lead local congregations into deeper relationships with the Episcopal Church.  These churches may not be interested in giving up their own backgrounds, but they may benefit from being regular participants in discussions we are having at the local or diocesan level about theology, ministry, mission and outreach.   We should be looking for ways to welcome voices of our Christian brothers and sisters as we serve our local communities together.  As our Diocesan and national church programs become less “command performances” and more helpful and life-giving, we should expect them to want to join us.

We have spent decades formulating various ecumenical agreements, and these are all good things.  Yet, not all churches have an ecumenical affairs officer or the desire to spend years in theological discussions.  But they do want to be the best Christians they can be, and the Episcopal Church has many important gifts to give.  What we don’t have now are good structural mechanisms (or the openness) to allow non-Episcopalian congregations to have a role in our diocesan life.  Some of those congregations will be new missions becoming Episcopalian.  Some may be multi-denominational missions.  Some may be churches resembling us who are the only congregation of their denomination in the area that need our support and fellowship.  Some may have structures with very different strengths that need our strengths to succeed.  Some may just discover incense and sanctus bells for the first time and want to learn more about us.  Just as healthy congregations attract new members, a healthy denomination will attract new congregations.  When they show up, we should be prepared.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Top Ten Favorite Teas

Earl Grey Creme Tea
Today's mail included a flyer from Teavana, an upscale chain of stores that specialize in organic, fair trade loose teas.  I stumbled upon it when our family went to a mall in Pittsburgh late last December.  My daughters had Christmas money they couldn't wait to spend and our exchange student just liked to shop.  After about 10 minutes, I realized that the only store in the mall that held an real interest was this tea shop.  My wife made it for about five minutes until the very enthusiastic young saleswomen started discussing which green teas could be used on a salad after they were brewed.  Apparently, I was the only one in the family who found it fascinating.  Of course, I left having spent all my Christmas money on more tea than I had ever bought at one time.  This summer, I was delighted to find a Teavana outlet in the Indianapolis mall near General Convention, and had an very helpful discussion with the with our Cathedral's organist while drinking a cup of oolong.  Since I had to look at the 17 new teas they just came out with on-line, I was inspired to share some of my favorites.

1. Earl Grey Creme.  This Teavana creation is my current favorite.  It takes a basic black Earl Grey tea and adds vanilla and blue cornflowers to it.  I don't think the blue cornflowers add anything except color, but the vanilla transforms Earl Grey tea, which I've never been overly enthused about, into a really good tea.  It doesn't hurt that this is also one of Teavana's more reasonable priced options.

2. Darjeeling.  This "champagne of teas" is probably my all-time favorite.  It isn't as strong as some other black teas, but it tends to be smooth and really, really nice.  The Teavana Darjeeling is very good and the leaves can be used for multiple infusions, but it is also very expensive and the caffeine content of tea decreases dramatically after the first brewing.  Twinnings or Bigelow also make solid Darjeeling teas at more reasonable prices. 

3. Jasmine Green Tea. I like various green teas, but one the best flavored ones is with jasmine flowers.  When they had organic Jasmine Green Tea out at coffee hour my first Sunday at Trinity, Warren, I knew I had accepted the right call.

4. Prince of Wales Tea.  A Twinnings black tea with a smooth and mild taste.  Not sure why it is so good, but I like it.

5. Lady Grey Tea.  Another Twinnings black tea that takes Earl Grey and adds orange and lemon.

6. Giant Eagle Market District store brand teas are pretty good, especially for the price.  I like their Green Tea with Ginseng and Lemon in particular.

7. Green-Black Tea blends. Mixing green and black teas together makes a very nice drink, as well.  The flavor seems smoother and more delicate than black tea on it's own, but a bit more bracing than just green tea.  Just take unflavored green and black tea bags and steep them in a teapot together for about 2 minutes.

8. Tension Tamer Tea.  An herbal tea by Celestial Seasonings that feels calming while also being interesting to drink. If someone suggests I have a cup, I know I probably need one.

9. English Breakfast.  A solid black tea with a stimulating flavor and caffeine content. 

10. Candy Cane Lane gets the last slot as the favorite of my wife and daughter.  This Celestial Seasonings offering is a decaffeinated green tea with peppermint, vanilla, and other festive holiday tastes.

Honorable Mentions:  Oolong Tea, JavaVana Mate, and Gunpowder Green Tea (Country Fair sometimes carries a Numi version which is a nice treat when travelling), and any variety drunk with friends.