More on congregational systems

by Fletcher Lowe

I live in Richmond, VA, a reasonably large metropolitan area.  There are several Episcopal churches from which people can choose.  The congregation that I rectored several years ago made a conscious identity decision—to be known for its creative liturgy and for its community and international outreach.  To make that happen, the system of our congregational life was molded to affect that.  That meant having a liturgy team that could think out of the box.  It meant taking some initiative both toward community needs and international connections.

Every congregation makes decisions about its identity, some conscious, others not so. It has a system that is designed to produce certain results. The systemic question is, going back to the earlier discussion of 2 blogs ago, is your mission statement where your congregational system is?  The actual mission statement may be something that is unwritten, but really lived into—different from the one stated, yet securely at the heart of a congregation’s life. It’s how that congregation really functions and operates, its modus operandi. For example, a congregation’s mission statement may read that it believes in lay ministry, but practically its system only prepares/trains/honors laity who serve/minister in the congregation, e.g. lay eucharistic ministers, church school teachers, altar guild members.

So let’s take a congregation that really wants to live into a mission statement to empower the 99%, the lay folks, in their daily lives—the lives they live outside the church walls. Then conscious decisions are made in terms of its liturgy, pastoral care, communication, and formation which support that decision.  For example, in liturgy, how do the Sunday- and week-day- liturgies enhance the calling of all the Baptized. Through sermons, prayers of the people, the Dismissal?  On occasion are there liturgies or litanies that recognize the lay members in their work? Are there frequent Ministry Moments when congregants share their Sunday-Monday connection?  Depending on the congregation’s past, this may mean a systemic change.  But engaging with the questions makes clear the congregation’s desire to match its mission statement with its actual systemic actions.

The truth remains: A congregation’s system, not its statements, is what produces the kinds of members who fulfill that system.

So how do we redesign a congregation’s system?  Stay tuned.


Baptismal accountability

by Edward L. Lee, Jr.

In Wayne Schwab’s recent posting for Living God’s Mission titled “Designing the Right System” he posited this insight: If we want a church that gives primary emphasis to the concept of ministry in daily life then we have to  “redesign the system to produce the results you want.” That’s a big task given our current denominational and congregational traditions, practices, and governance structures. But he’s right.

An essential element in any redesign of our church systems will have to be member accountability. Why?  The church is a voluntary association of leaders and members. There are ways, both formal and informal, to hold leaders accountable. But there is little if ever any likelihood that all members will be held accountable for attitudes and behavior that contradict the norms and values of the church’s mission and ministry embodied in Baptism and articulated in the Baptismal Covenant (see Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305).

What is meaningful accountability in a community, a congregation of the baptized? Accountability means simply that: the ability to give an account. I Peter 3:15 puts it this way: “Always be prepared to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (NRSV) That hope is grounded in faithfulness to our baptism and the covenant we have with Christ in God’s mission in and for the world. That mission is daily and not just Sunday. It is in the fullness of our lives and not just in the confines of our home parish. The latter should be a place and community of empowerment, a system for supporting and affirming ministry in daily life.

How might a congregation exercise baptismal accountability? First, it makes it an expectation of membership, of what it means to be “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In short, that being baptized is serious and solemn business day in and day out.

Second, offer members regular opportunities to “give an accounting,” a mutual sharing of what ministry in daily life entails with all of its complexities, contradictions, challenges, and confusions.

And third, trust the community of the baptized to help answer the question, “How am I doing?” Baptismal accountability is not an inventory of success or failure, of pride or repentance, but of assessing with others how we live into and live out our baptismal mandate to see and serve God in the world as we daily encounter, endure, and embrace it.

Designing the right system

[Friends: I wrote this overview for a meeting of the steering team for Episcopalians on Baptismal Mission (EBM). They liked it and each member will post a blog commenting on various parts of it in the next few weeks. You may want to keep this on hand for future reference.  – Wayne Schwab]

Systems theory in brief (with apologies to its founder, W. E. Deming, Out of the Crisis, MIT Press, 2000):

  • Every organization is a system of many parts.
  • The system is designed to produce the results it is getting.
  • If you want different results, you have to redesign the system. Decide what results you want from the system.
  • Redesign the system to produce the results you want.

Systems theory and bringing the concepts of Ministry in Daily Life to a congregation: 

  1. Your congregation is a system. Every system is designed to produce the results it is getting.
  2. What kind of members is your congregation producing?How many (%) believe they are sent on mission in each part of their daily lives – home and friends, work (paid or volunteer), community, wider world (from social norms to systems), leisure or play-time, seeking spiritual health, and congregation and its outreach?
  3. Your congregation is designed to produce the kinds of members it is producing. Off hand, only about 10-15% of our members believe they are sent on mission in each part of their daily lives.
  4. Redesign the system if you want to produce members who believe they are on mission in each part of daily life. We need to redesign our congregation.
  5. We need to redesign our congregation’s systems to produce the members we want to produce. We want to produce members who believe they are sent on mission in each part of their daily lives.
  6. What needs to be redesigned in our congregation to produce the kind of members we want? Apparently, “the mission of the church to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” is not working to produce members who believe they are sent on mission in each part of their daily lives. We need to rethink the congregation’s purpose, its mission.
  7. We need to involve all of our leaders in determining what needs to be changed. We need to involve all of the congregation’s leaders in rethinking the congregation’s mission, its purpose.
  8. We need to rely on all of the leaders to redesign the group or activity they lead around the congregation’s new purpose or mission.
  9. We need to keep in touch with the leaders to see how they are implementing the congregation’s new purpose or mission.
  10. Do this for 5-10 years and you will see a difference in the kind of members your congregation is producing.

So friends, what mission or purpose will produce the kind of members who want to believe they are sent on mission in every part of daily life?

Our mission has to begin with God’s mission:

  • God is on mission to make every part of daily life more loving and more just.
  • Jesus Christ is on God’s mission to make every part of daily life more loving and more just.
  • The church of Jesus Christ is on mission to make every part of daily life more loving and more just.
  • Our congregation is called to be part of God’s mission to make every part of daily life more loving and more just through Jesus Christ.

Making your mission statement count

By Wayne Schwab

What’s your church’s mission statement?

“Everybody knows it is to live the baptismal covenant!”   [Every church has some form of promises it asks of new members.]

Is that enough?  Does it really get into behavior?  Does it really get into what members actually do to make the world a better place?

In the Episcopal Church, the covenant is one and a third pages long (BCP pp. 304-5). The full page is about belief, regular worship, repentance for wrongdoing and return to the Lord.

Only a third of a page is about life in the world – about living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, loving your neighbor as yourself, working for peace and justice, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

How much the world needs members living that third of a page 24/7/365!  How much it needs members trying to live with love and justice wherever they are all the time!

That’s what your church’s mission statement should be about.

That means the primary purpose or mission statement of a church should be to help its members to live better every day.

What does such a mission statement look like?  Here is a short one for starters.

First Methodist / Annunciation Lutheran / Trinity Episcopal Church exists to support its members in their daily living as Christians.

Am I ever ‘enough’?

by Demi Prentiss

It’s easy to forget that Jesus calls each of us to be a world-changer, even if it’s only within the three-foot radius around us. Claiming our own every-day mission means living into our ability to offer – with God’s help – God’s compassion to those who come inside that three-foot zone – and maybe, sometimes, even beyond it.

Last week, via the daily email from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Brother Curtis Almquist offered this reminder:

Don’t ever apologize for what little you have and what little you are. Don’t ever apologize for that. God is well apprised of who we are and what we bring to the table of life. That is our offering….

There’s something about your own brokenness that informs what you have to give.  I’d even go so far as to say that the more you are broken, the more you have to give.… The bread is broken, and in the breaking is multiplied.  That is somehow your own story.

“God is well apprised of who we are and what we bring….” Just like the boy whose loaves and fishes fed a multitude (John 6:1-13), we are called to offer who we are and what we have. That’s enough, once we hand it over to the Power that created all we see and know. And sometimes, God gives us eyes to see the miracle that unfolds, once we’ve had the courage to believe that it’s God, not us, in charge of multiplication.

You are God’s viceroy, God’s representative.

You are God’s stand-in, a God Carrier.

You are precious; God depends on you.

God believes in you and has no one but you

To do the things that only you can do for God.

Become what you are.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Sharing their song

by Pam Tinsley

In the stillness of a lovely summer Saturday evening, an Episcopal church in the heart of the “none zone” was suddenly transformed when 42 high-school age singers lifted their voices in song. These Tacoma Youth Chorus choirs were sharing their gift of song with the local community before embarking on a two-week tour. They will soon share their song internationally in cathedrals in France and Germany and then at Canterbury Cathedral in the UK.

As the exquisite voices of these young women and men filled the church, the hearts of the audience were profoundly moved. My husband and I sat enchanted for over an hour as we listened to arrangements of sacred and secular music. For some arrangements the singers surrounded us, their voices blending sweetly behind and above us. At times our experience was almost transcendent, and by the concert’s end we felt renewed, even transformed.

We had been ministered to by these singers standing before the altar, beneath a large cross that was suspended from the ceiling.  I’d imagine, however, that the choirs would be shocked to hear me refer to their singing as a ministry. Many of these young people have never attended church, and most probably don’t now. And although the music program directors and tour chaperones are churched (though not all are active church-goers), their embrace of Christian values – caring, encouragement, compassion, selflessness, serving and seeking the best in others – has transformed the lives of these young people in countless ways. Not only have the singers developed a lifelong passion for music and learned the value of respect and hard work while having fun, they have developed deep friendships and have also inspired those around them by sharing their song – their singing and themselves.

And these young musicians will continue to share their song by passing this gift along to future generations. Five of the six chaperones are millennials, four of whom are TYC – and European tour – alums. Sharing the song that transformed their lives will in this way touch the lives of future children and grandchildren. This beauty will certainly live on!

Yes, this is ministry in daily life!

Practicing everyday justice

by Wayne Schwab

Let’s define justice – in a way that is both fresh and biblical. That means equal access – everyone gets equal access to the good things in life. For many, that can mean a home with good parenting, good schools, a job, and good health care. Equal access to the good things in life – that’s justice.

Here’s the story.  It’s about a mother and her nine-year-old daughter.  Where is justice in it?

Four friends have come to play with Sally. Sally has disappeared. She is under her bed crying. ”They don’t want to play with me.”

Sally has acted this way before. Sally imagines bad things – that they have come just to play on the new trampoline and might leave her out. “Sally, your friends have been looking all over the house for you.  They really want to play with you.”

She said it several times. Finally Sally came out. In time, Sally learned to see real friends liked her, not just her toys.  They had come to see her.

A happy ending. Sally, now a ninth-grader, has lots of friends; she’s a first-rate swimmer on the school’s team; and raises money for the team.

A loving parent, sure.  Did you catch her justice?

Justice for Sally was access to the good parenting every child is entitled to. Her mother did not say, “Sally doesn’t feel well – come back tomorrow.” For Sally, justice meant being taught to see things as they really are, not how she imagines them to be. Her friends really liked her, not just her toys.  Her mother made sure she could see the truth.

That’s some of the justice of good parenting – being taught how to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s only imagined.

Where do we find God’s kingdom?

by Fletcher Lowe

Several years ago, a friend of mine came to me and said that she felt a call to go to another country as a missionary.  In our conversation, I suggested that she spend a few weeks considering her current place as a teacher to be her mission field.  Later she came back with a new understanding.  She stayed in our city and developed a deep sense of calling with her teaching profession.

Kristina Muñoz, Aviano Elementary School gifted education teacher, watches students participate in a group exercise. Her passion is to help students learn and grow. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Areca T. Bell/Released)

Perhaps that was what Jesus was trying to say to his 12 apostles in Matthew 9:5-7. He was explicit – Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, rather go to the lost house of Israel.  As you GO, proclaim the good news: the kingdom of heaven is near. In short GO, but go to your own familiar territory. Now for some like Barnabas and Paul and countless others over the centuries, going to another place has been a calling.  But for most Jesus followers including you and me, our calling is right here.

We need to hear Jesus speaking to you and me where we live and move and have our being – namely our places of work, our communities and our homes.  You and I are called to GO there, to proclaim the good news: the kingdom. of heaven is near. If that sounds a bit grandiose and vague, let’s put some flesh on it.  Think the Baptismal Covenant.  It is our commissioning as the Baptized.  It spells out how we as the Baptized are to live into our Baptism daily, or in Jesus’ words: how we are to go to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near.

Think about this for a moment:  Every time that you and I

  • Proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,
  • Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves;
  • Strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being,

we are helping the kingdom to break through into real life.

The Lord’s Prayer reminds us: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven.  Whenever we do that “everyday” work – proclaim, love, seek and serve, strive, respect – we join forces with God in bringing God’s kingdom on earth.  So, let us GO forth into our worlds of home and work and community rejoicing in the power of the Spirit! Alleluia.

Seeing God at work

by Demi Prentiss

A large part of living our ministries in daily life is cultivating the ability to perceive where God is acting, and then aligning ourselves with what God is up to. Understanding ourselves as co-creators with God – partners in a whole-life commitment to increasing love and justice in the world – is a life-giving, purposeful way of living God’s dream for our lives.

So how do you see where God is acting? How can you tell?

Look at events. In those events in our world that are clearly life-giving, it’s pretty easy to say, “Yes, God’s at work here.” But what about the terrible events? The heart-wrenching, “it-can’t-be” events? Take a page out of Fred Rogers’ book – look for the helpers. In the “Cajun navy” that jumped into john-boats to rescue neighbors and strangers when the floods came. In the three strangers who defended Muslim teenagers on a commuter train. In the teacher who spots the middle-schooler who’s being abused at home, or trafficked. In the midst of the brokenness around us, God is working in and through the helpers.

A young survivor is gently extracted from the wreckage of Korean Airlines flight 801 by U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and Guam civilian rescuers.

Look at people. Especially, look at the people we tend to overlook – the bank teller, the cab driver, the grocery checker or bagger, the janitor, the bag lady. Look at those around you who are acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3). As you can, take a pause, take up your courage, and speak a word of hope or encouragement or simple acknowledgment of their humanity. Looking into their eyes, look for the light of God. You won’t always find it, particularly the first time. But practice makes it lots easier. The Celts claimed that the lark said, “Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.”

Look at the world – both the natural and the created one.  All around us, God is showing up and showing off, as Reggie McNeal likes to say. In a leaf or a feather. In the music of the rain and the crash of a water fall. In the heart-grabbing poetry of inspiring architecture.  In the shadow of Earth pushing the twilight across the landscape until night falls. In the joy of an unexpected reunion.

Look inside your heart.  Take the time to notice what ignites your passion. Or what makes your pulse race.  Or unleashes tears. God’s invitation to partnership is showing up in those moments.

My friend Mary Earle often reminded me, “The Holy Spirit is a crass opportunist.” Pay attention to what you observe, and what you discern as God opens your eyes. As William Blake’s “Pentecost” reminds us, “Unless the eye catch fire, the God will not be seen.”

Noisy Church

by Pam Tinsley

The church I attend is a “noisy church.” When worshipping in the church, we can easily hear voices from the narthex. Sunday school classes meet in the parish hall directly beneath the church, and we often hear our children’s “joyful noise”. Our church is also located on a busy street corner, not far from a fire station, so that during a service, if you don’t hear a group of motorcycles roaring by, you’ll hear the siren of an ambulance responding to someone in need!

This all used to bother me until I realized that this noise – and seeming distraction – is actually a good reminder of where we are called to be – that we find Jesus out in the noisy, messy world, not simply in the peaceful tranquility of a sacred worship space.

And isn’t that really where church should be? Jesus calls us to be his followers. He calls us to learn from him and then to act, to be like him: to heal, to serve, to feed his sheep. Instead of remaining entirely separate, we – the church – are called to respond to people, to reach out to others, to be in the world. As much as we might like to remain inside the walls of the church, Jesus sends us out to serve as his body in the world.

Our “noisy church” is a good reminder, then, that our ministry as baptized Christians takes place whenever and wherever we intentionally listen to God and ask, “What is God doing here, right now, that I can join?”  Jesus sends us to live into our baptism in our daily lives. We transform our ordinary occupations into Christian vocation by becoming Christ-centered in our actions and words – even if we are not speaking direct words of evangelism.

Now, the challenge is to live that out every day, intentionally, in the midst of our noisy lives, on the noisy street corner – which may be your own home, the grocery store, or in your workplace! That’s where Jesus is!