Monday, January 24, 2011

No More Parking Lot Conversations

I have the privilege of working with congregations and their leaders as a bishop's staff member involved in congregational development. One of the persistent behaviors I witness among vestry members is their reluctance to speak up about lingering concerns in the course of their meetings.

I am sure there are many reasons for this reluctance including not wanting to rock the boat or appear disrespectful. Whatever the reservation, this silence forces issues to go underground only to surface in parking lot conversations. Yes, people literally lingering after meetings beside their cars to air feelings about what did or didn't happen in the vestry meeting. A modern day alternative might be to send a quick text message or email to a like-minded person who was also present to air concerns or judgments about what was or wasn't done. This might be automatic behavior that is not conscious of the impact it has on group process.

Any way you slice it, 'parking lot conversations' are unhealthy for a congregation and its leaders. They amount to informal caucusing outside the bounds of intentional gatherings of leaders who are entrusted with responsibility. They are symptomatic of lack of honest and respectful airing of leaders' observations. This behavior is often exhibited in congregations where there is lingering distrust and less than good relationships between leaders, often leaders and their clergy.

It is incumbent on leaders of faith communities to be very thoughtful about the ways in which they communicate with each other. Clandestine meetings, parking lot conversations, closely guarded incendiary emails are always destructive. Always. So how can leaders minimize these behaviors?

First, vestry members and clergy must face the reality that people will be tempted to act out in these ways, especially when things aren't going the way they would like to see happen. Knowing this, vestry member covenants of behavior and meeting norms should be established in every congregation. These covenants should be communicated on websites, newsletters, and in very visible, high traffic places in churches. These covenants should be agreed to by nominees for vestry elections and reviewed at the beginning of every vestry meeting. Many churches commission their vestries annually during a main worship service. This covenant can be read out loud and in unison by all the members being commissioned. This practice is not only a public promise but sets a tone of mutual trust that all who make this commitment will work to comply with it. A covenant is not only a promise one to the other, but an agreement to demonstrate holy manners in a faith community.

Covenants should be as brief as possible. Episcopalians are notorious for their wordiness! It is important to make them as brief and to the point or their effectiveness is diluted. Covenants should be written by a vestry or an appointed group and approved by a vestry after thoughtful review. A written covenant may remain intact for years or edited as deemed appropriate. The point is to have one, to let the congregation know that it represents a promise by its leaders to be honest, disciplined and respectful of their relationships with each other. The impact of covenants on the culture of a church can be powerful and positive. A community of faith should expect no less of its leaders.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

No Longer A Dirty Word

I am sitting on a plane returning from a meeting I facilitated of 30 Episcopal clergy, most under 50 years old, who gathered for three days to talk about the work of evangelism. They came from around the country, from small churches to cathedrals, from church plants to re-starts. The wonderful news is that these clergy from diverse theological perspectives agreed that evangelism is gaining a fresh and powerful emphasis in all of their ministries. They talked about the ‘why we do it’ and the ‘how we do it’. They shared stories of risking new ways to help their congregations gain greater understanding of the Great Commission mandate Jesus gave us all to share the Good News. They talked about the essential spiritual work that is needed to transform their congregations to be places that truly reflect the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. To be places where people are free to share their faith stories without fear, not only with peers but with others within their faith communities. They claimed we can no longer dismiss evangelism as if it were the work of televangelists and somehow beneath our dignity as Episcopalians to be about this work. They agreed that evangelism can never be a program given lip service again. No, these clergy were expressing the need to make evangelism central to the work of their churches.
There was a lot of sharing, confessing of failures, celebrating others successes, encouraging each other to return to their faith communities and work with the most influential 20% of their congregations to understand the essential nature of this focus for their churches.

It was interesting to observe much more conversation about the need to see transformation from within than taking the church out. However, this was a huge start. By the end of three days it was apparent that there is a new found sense of urgency to be about this work and for that I praise God. There can be no more ‘decades of evangelism’ that are miserable failures. This isn’t about a short term effort that everyone is relieved to see end. This is about saturating everything our churches do with a spirit of sharing the Gospel. It is about infusing the manifest love of God through our lives, our actions, our ministries so that the world can see that we are Christians. It is about inviting others to come and see and be a part of accepting and loving communities that seek the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to change lives and bless others.

This meeting went beyond being a rah-rah session. The depth of commitment from these young and hard work Episcopal clergy of all stripes was incredibly refreshing. I truly felt that evangelism may no longer be a dirty word, at least in the hearts of these 30 clergy. Praise God. It’s a start.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Not An Academic Exercise

Turn of the year, days off, how will I start out on the right footing? I made the decision to jump into my cluttered office and dig to the bottom of the stacks laying around my desk and get a CLEAN and clutter free start. Actually, it was fun going through the voluminous notes, copies of emails, articles, etc. It was hard to finish the clean up because I had to scan each and every piece for its importance. I wouldn't have saved them if they had not been important, right?? What I found were numerous articles and materials on evangelism, leadership and congregational development. Scanning these documents helped me realize the huge effort that has gone into well written, academically researched and thoughtful tomes on these subjects. As I delved deeper into these papers, I wondered, if leaders and those who follow spent as much time actually doing the work of evangelism and development as the time that has been spent writing about these things might the church not be facing the decline in attendance it is experiencing?

Have we justified not doing evangelism by writing about evangelism? Psychology and behavioral sciences have helped us greatly understand leadership and the ways that our congregations work as organizations. This is worthy and important knowledge that informs us. But does it motivate us to act and to change our familiar and comfortable ways of doing things? Maybe. I sure hope it has helped some people. But I am afraid the academic exercise of writing and studying these things assuages too much of our guilt about not getting out there and doing something. Or perhaps these academic exercises have been frustration relief valves for those of us who have the knowledge but haven't found outlets for action or have deluded ourselves into thinking that we don't, when it is really about unwillingness to do something.

I believe God is calling us to act. I believe the Good News of God in Christ doesn't have to be overly intellectualized. Evanglism is not an academic exercise. It is about modeling. It is about living a life that demonstrates what we believe. It is about saying outloud that we have experienced God's transforming love and power in very personal ways and then sharing those stories. It is about leading in ways that we know are mature and faithful, building relationships and sharing Christ's love with those we lead. It is about leading congregations into mission and ministry like never before, radically inviting and welcoming others to join in.

We can continue to write and read about evangelism, leadership and congregational development. However, by the end of 2011 all of us who assume responsibility for leadership in the church need to be able to say, "I shared, I worked, I put into action alot about what I have learned and I trust God will use it for building up the Kingdom."

Put down the articles and books. Vow to put into practice what you know and help others to do the same. Are you ready as a leader to take this challenge in 2011?