Another Version of the Story

There is an alternate version of the nativity story, one known to millions since ancient times but I imagine completely strange to most Christians.  Like the stories told by Matthew and Luke, this other version reads like a dream, a vision from the lower depths of the Biblical imagination.  Joseph has no part in it.  It is a story about Mary, about what happens to her when she hears from an angel that she carries a child.  She flees to a desert place, in fear and alone.  When she feels the throes of childbirth, the story goes, she lies down in the trunk of a palm tree, and cries out, “O I wish that I had died.”  But a voice from below cries out back to her: “Do not despair.  Your Lord has provided a brook that runs at your feet, and if you shake the trunk of this palm tree it will drop fresh dates in your lap.  Therefore eat and drink and rejoice.”

What a striking way to re-imagine the birth of Jesus—not in a stable, but in an oasis in the middle of the desert, in a place where you can hear the distant roar of water, water hidden deep in the ground; a place where a brook runs at your feet, and where a voice from below, mingled with the sound of water, offers the comfort of salvation, salvation as luscious and lasting as the ripe dates brimming in your lap.

In the story, Mary immediately returns with her baby to her native village.  People don’t know what to make of her.  She makes a sign to them, pointing to the child.  They reply in disbelief: “How can we speak with a babe in the cradle.”  But then, as if in a dream at its most uncanny, the Babe himself speaks.  The infant—the Word without words (which is what the word “infant” means)—suddenly declares itself.  Here is what he says:

“I am the servant of God…His blessing is upon me wherever I go, and he has commanded me to be steadfast in prayer and to give alms to the poor as long as I shall live…I was blessed on the day I was born, and blessed I shall be at the day of my death; and may peace be upon me on the day when I shall be raised to life.”

As the reader might have guessed by now, this story that pays such deep homage to Mary and Jesus, this story that like Matthew’s seems to well up from a deep place below, is from the Qu’ran, the sacred text of millions of Muslims around the world.  It is amazing to think, at this time of deep mistrust between Muslims and Christians, that we share at least something of this old story, told by each of us in our own way.  There is much that divides us as we tell our stories, not least the Christian conviction that this child is God incarnate.  But the least we can do, in these dark and violent days, is to acknowledge with our Muslim neighbor the wonder of Jesus’s humanity, a humanity that can restore in us and for us the humanity of those we consider our enemies, and those who consider us theirs.

President Roger Ferlo

Episcopal Leadership in Uncertain Times

Amid signs of church decline and even greater signs of religious uncertainty, what steps can Episcopal leaders take? Whether you are a lay person or an ordained one, what can you call forth to guide you in an Episcopal way in such circumstances?

Awareness of the spiritual dynamism of the moment is crucial, as one of my colleagues has pointed out. Similarly reinvigoration of core leadership principles is a must. But how do we go forth as Episcopal leaders now? The answer is: we look to our historic tradition as Episcopalians and Anglicans for examples of leaders who also have faced unprecedented circumstances and uncertain times. Fortunately our history overflows with such figures and their examples prove timely.

He’s neither well known nor often cited, but he should be. For over thirty years Henry Callaway was a missionary of the Church of England to the Zulu tribe of South Africa. The last thirteen years of his tenure he was a bishop, from 1873 to 1886. He is recalled for initiative to translate scripture into the Zulu and for founding a theological college. The larger aspect of his achievement becomes clear when his work on liturgy is considered. Callaway thoughtfully adapted Anglican worship to the Zulu context. It is this effort that should instruct us.

Without dwelling on specifics here, what stands out is the way Callaway framed his task. Mission was not a one-way endeavor; he was not simply intent on conversion of the Zulu. Instead through liturgy Callaway sought touchstones – common values and forms of expression – where Zulu culture could resonate with historic Christian belief and practice. Anglicans, Callaway and other English missionaries believed, must embody the gifts of various cultures.

This has been Anglicanism’s genius: a belief that God’s imprint can be found in all circumstances, among all peoples. Mission entails focus on the best qualities of a people, seeing these as God-given, and then framing them in terms of Christ’s love for all. Mission cannot dismiss indigenous wisdom or earnest seeking after truth. Instead mission must encourage their movement toward a focus on incarnate, divine love.

We face a similar adaptive task today. As institutional religion’s influence and resonance with the culture have faded, spiritual energies have gained momentum. We must speak to the God-given imprint of those energies. We must learn to see ourselves apart from the institutional assumptions of the past. This naturally disorients us and drives home the reality of our new circumstances.

But if we can see this as a mission moment, in which God’s presence takes new form, then our ministries have fresh potential. Fortunately our tradition has a particular capacity to adapt, if we think imaginatively. Henry Callaway saw that every circumstance has basic, divine imprint and divine need. We can reframe our ministries along similar lines. Though it is not always attractive to say so, we can be quite proud of the Episcopal/ Anglican tradition we embody. It can serve us well in novel circumstances.

William L. Sachs
Chabraja Fellow

Love Will Abide

Protestantism is in decline and the “nones,” people with no religious preference or no religion at all, number upwards of 46 million. In this atmosphere I have to wonder: what kind of leadership does the church need in the future? Clearly there is a need for adaptive change: how are we to live, worship, and serve our neighbor when the church has little claim to the influence we once possessed?

Much attention is being given to the “nones.” As a former college president and teacher I have known thousands of college students for whom the church had no place in their lives. And they are fine with that. The young people in my classes were certainly not bad people. On the contrary. They were caring and sensitive individuals often filled with an idealism that surpassed anything my generation exhibited. But they are more interested in deeds than theological pronouncements, and most of what we debate in the church simply does not matter to them. College students have a significant interest in organizations like Teach For America, volunteer service programs, and movements to save the environment. They are comfortable with non-religious programs as well as interfaith programs that place service to others above individual beliefs–much more interested in belonging to groups that help people than in institutions that teach “right belief.” These young people may be speaking to us in prophetic ways.

I do not know what the church of the future will look like, but I do know we are swamped with lots of voices telling us how to lead in the future. I have studied many of these leadership theories–some good, some bad–and some we examined in our gathering in Ponte Vedra. What I believe is that in the midst of so much noise about leadership two characteristics remain relevant for future leaders–solitude and hope.

I am no enemy of the advances in instant communication, but I fear the potential loss of solitude. Leaders need quality time uninterrupted by Facebook, Twitter, iPods, and YouTube. Quality time, not thinking about how we compete with other faiths but how we cooperate to change lives for the better. Time to reflect on what we as individuals are doing to change the world and what concretely we are doing to serve our brothers and sisters. Time to be in touch with our genuine selves and quietly seek what God is calling us to do. Howard Thurman said this well in his 1980 address to the graduating class of Spelman College:

There is something in every one of you that waits, listening for the genuine in yourself—and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching…and if you cannot hear the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days at the end of strings that someone else pulls.

Leadership for tomorrow demands we identify the genuine in ourselves and then act on our core beliefs. What business are we in, anyway? It may just be that this question is best answered in prayer and solitude.

Solitude? Yes, and hope. While history offers no guarantee that religious institutions in America will survive as we have known them, history also confirms that love abides. As Christians we bet our lives on this truth and this belief is enough to move us as leaders into the future. Leaders know that we need not accept predictions about Christianity’s demise as a given. As leaders we know that we can influence the future, and we must address this future without being overwhelmed by the present. I am excited and hopeful about the future. I know our low membership numbers are a concern to many. I also realize that the church’s influence has been dramatically diminished. Yet leaders know opportunities come from chaos. Compare today with the early church. It certainly had no dominance. It was no major player at all. Yet it was a thorn in the flesh of a society that did not care for its sisters and brothers. And look what the Spirit accomplished!

So let us step back and observe what goes on around us. We dare not run from the facts and long wistfully for days that will not return again. Let us not worry too much about the “nones.” They may be more about service than we, and they may be a prophetic voice to us. Let us use our time in solitude to focus and remain genuine in the midst of continued change. And let us move forward with assurance that while our futures will always be in flux, love will abide. You can bet on it.

Robert Bottoms
Chabraja Fellow

What Can the Church Become?

A few weeks ago, through the generosity of the Chabraja Foundation,  my colleagues Diana Butler Bass, Bill Sachs and Bob Bottoms and I met at Christ Church, Ponte Vedra, Florida with a large gathering of Episcopal lay leaders and clergy drawn from many churches and congregations in the region.  We are especially grateful to Seabury alumnus Rick Westbury, rector of Christ Church, and his colleagues, for hosting this gathering.  Our topic was “Claiming the Episcopal Future,” with a particular focus on the new demands of leadership in a rapidly changing 21st century church.  The conversations were rich and deep.  Many participants expressed a strong desire to keep the conversation going on line.  What follows is the first in a series of reflections that we hope will stimulate further discussion, both among those who were with us in Ponte Vedra as well as with a wider on-line audience.

Roger Ferlo
President, Bexley Hall and Seabury Western Seminaries

On October 9, the Pew Research Center released a new survey on American religious life, “Nones” On the Rise.  According to Pew’s findings, one in five Americans now identifies him- or herself as religiously “unaffiliated,” the largest number of us to ever report belonging to no religion.

The unaffiliated comprises atheists, agnostics, but the largest group of the unaffiliated are nothing-in-particular, most referring to themselves as “spiritual.”   The Pew data also reveals that most unaffiliated Americans report being comfortable with their choice.  Almost 90% of them say they are not looking for a faith or any kind of traditional theological certainty.  Although the Ponte Vedra gathering occurred before this particular report was issued, the trends have been clear for several years.  Together, we explored some of this territory, as I tried to open up questions raised by these folks, who now form a significant part of American culture.

Reading the new Pew report, however, is an eye-popping a collection of data that any church leader could ever try to read, mark, and inwardly digest.  The four major religious groups in the United States are now: Roman Catholics (22%), Unaffiliated (20%), Evangelical Protestants (19%), and Mainline Protestants (15%; point of information—Pew classifies Episcopalians in this category).  Taken together (along with Black Protestants and other minority Protestants), America’s once dominant Protestant majority has now slipped to 48% of the population, meaning that no single religious tradition (granted the words “single” and “Protestant” never fit together terribly well anyway) is 50% + 1.  In other words, sometime in the last year, the United States became—for the first time in history—a genuinely pluralistic nation.

When encountering such data, the response of many good church leaders is “How are we going to get them back?”  But I wonder if this is really the question we should ask.  Instead, I would like to suggest that the most important question facing the church is not how to increase our market share; rather, the question facing the church should be “How should we live in a meaningful way as faith community given these shifts?”

Despite the changes, much of mainline church life is still patterned on being in the majority and depends for moral formation, character development, and even Christian education on the support of a surrounding Christian culture in politics, media, schools, and arts.  Indeed even the name, “mainline,” recalls glory days of being big churches with big influence on the culture.  Our churches functioned best when the world around the church supported the church’s general vision, mission, and ethics.  For several decades, of course, mainline churches have not been the majority.  But, when all Protestants churches were considered together, we were still the largest religious group.  We could still take emotional comfort that our churches were still part of American’s mighty historic Protestant (used in the sociological sense) center and participate in the benefits of cultural leadership.

But now there is no center.  None.  Every group exists as a minority in a community of minorities, including everyone from Mormons to Muslims to atheists and evangelicals.  We are a country of many faiths, many truths, and indeed, many Gods. In the new setting, we need to know who we are with great clarity and personal commitment and, at the same time, be able to love our neighbors and work beyond faith boundaries to create a new shared sense of common good.  This will call for a different sort of church than the one we knew in the centuries that came before.

The Episcopal Church is being called to new life.  We must recreate our identity using the wisdom of the past and by embracing the questions of an emerging future—all of this played out in sure confidence that both the church and the world are arenas of God’s reign.  There is nothing wrong with being a minority; nothing wrong with living in a pluralistic society.  Christians have often done so.  And, judging from history, we are often more faithful, more creative, and more biblical when we are not in charge.

The Pew report shows clearly that there is no going back to what once was.  In the midst of these changes, the question is not “What is the church going to do?” but the question is “What can God’s church become?”  We live in times that are not a problem to be fixed, but times that are an opportunity to be embraced.

Diana Butler Bass
October 25, 2012

A Pilgrimage to Iona

The Isle of Iona, off the northwest coast of Scotland, has attracted pilgrims for more than two millennia.  It is a place, as described by George MacLeod, where the veil between heaven and earth is very thin.  This wind swept island with its thirteenth century abbey and nunnery and rich history of Celtic Christianity embodies the sacredness and oneness of all creation in ways that are overpowering, deeply personal and communal.  Today, it is a vibrant center of renewal attracting visitors and pilgrims from around the world who come to experience the beauty and wildness, the solitude and community, and inexplicable and inextricable presence of God in all creation.

Responding to the invitation of Bexley Hall and Seabury Western Seminaries to join in a week-long pilgrimage to Iona, a group of laity and clergy travelled together by air and land and sea to reach this remote island in the Hebrides off the western coast.  We stayed at the St. Columba Hotel with fabulous views of the sea and surrounding islands and the ancient abbey next door which has been restored and houses year round members of the Iona Community headquartered in Glasgow.

Under the able leadership of John Philip Newell, renowned Celtic theologian, scholar, poet, liturgist, and former warden of the Iona Community, we explored the theme of “A New Harmony: the Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul.” His wife, Ali, for many years a spiritual director and now a campus minister at the University of Edinburgh, joined us and led us in learning music from the Celtic tradition and movement to ground us in body and spirit.

Our time together each day was marked by times of silent prayer in the St. Michael Chapel in the early morning and early evening where we sat in candlelight to keep watch and listen for the new harmony within and beyond ourselves.   Then we gathered for meals in the hotel dining room where our group met for breakfast and dinner, and much conversation and storytelling and laughter as we shared our daily experiences and food prepared from the local gardens and pastures on the island by a fabulous chef and staff.  Morning and evening prayer services within the soaring walls of the abbey were filled with worshippers from the island, the MacLeod Center, and our small hotel named to honor St. Columba who arrived on these shores in the sixth century.  Most days, we heard presentations by John Philip Newell and engaged in quiet reflection and discussion in small groups in the morning and late afternoon.  During lunchtimes and early afternoons we could explore the island, take walks, stroll through the gardens and the village, visit historic sites, and even take naps.

On Wednesday all of us participated in a pilgrimage over the island that was led by John Philip.  With packed lunches, rain gear, and colorful layers of clothing, we trudged as a motley crew along gravel roads and dirt paths, through pastures dotted with sheep, and over rocky hills with beautiful vistas of land and sea and the heavens filled with shifting clouds and rainbows that seem to bless our journey.  We stopped for meditation and prayer and Celtic chants on the bay where Columba and his monks arrived;  at the cross of St. Martin erected in the eight century; at the Augustinian nunnery ruins for which no written record remains and was built at about the same time as the Benedictine monastery; at the chapel of St. Oran that is the oldest building on the island and named after the first Columban monk to die;  and the Hermit’s Cell, now only a secluded ring of stones said to mark the place where Columba sought refuge from the busyness of life.  The pilgrimage was an experience of affirming the oneness of all things, how matter and spirit truly matter, and how we yearn for the true harmony that is at the heart of all creation.

Drawing on sources from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, John Philip helped us to explore and reflect upon the essential harmony of all things; the brokenness of the harmony in ourselves, church life, the human community, and the planet itself; and the rebirth of the essential harmony that may be reborn in new and radical ways.  We were challenged to “bring into relationship what has been broken, to have the courage to feel the brokenness; and to move into transformative action.”  He reminded us that the future of hope has not been decided and that we may have a part in shaping it.  We reflected on the resources available to us, what gifts we have to give, and the deepest treasures that we have to bring for the healing of the world.

At our closing celebration on the beach with the sun shining in full glory, the wind blowing, the sky and the sea as blue as ever, we chanted “The blessings of heaven, the blessings of earth, the blessings of sea and of sky.  On those we love this day and on every human family the gifts of heaven, the gifts of earth, the gifts of sea and of sky.”  John Philip reminded us more than once that we are asked to take up the cross, to remember that we come from the One who is our true center, that the way is one of love, that we are called to make whole and holy all of creation, to bear the cost of this moment in time.

Robert E. Reber
October 3, 2012

Getting Out of the Church Box at the Kellogg Summer Institute

What is the issue? What is the opportunity?

These two simple questions grabbed me as I participated in a week of learning from business school professors and reflecting with clergy and lay leaders at Seabury Western’s Leadership Institute. I took this course because I was looking for tools and practices that would support me as I transition from full-time parish ministry to working with Episcopal Service Corps, an Episcopal non-profit. I assumed the business professors would offer me new content and new ways of thinking about leading an organization. I found that was only partially true. The retired CEO leading a section on individual leadership outlined a personal reflection practice modeled on the Ignatian daily examen. A number of the case studies revealed that many successful companies offer customers an experience of connectedness and joy; the product sold is almost irrelevant… almost.

One of the most valuable aspects of the week was learning from the Kellogg professors, as they challenged me to think in very different terms about church and ministry. Most of the professors apologized for using business examples in class, yet that was one of the strengths of this program. To learn from the corporate world.  To unpack a business case study. To think differently. The challenge was in the translation, which many of us identified as the hard work of the course. Yet the work of translating is the work our parishioners are engaged in everyday. How does the employee behind the counter, the customer service rep, or the vice president translate their Sunday morning faith into action during an average workday? This course taught me a little about the business world and helped me to begin making the connections. I believe getting out of the ‘church box’ and stepping into the world most of our members inhabit makes me a better priest.

As a priest, the other side of that coin–how can the church learn from and incorporate some best business practices?–also intrigues me.

Taking a step back and viewing ministry through a marketing lens, a negotiating lens, or even the lens of competitive advantage was fascinating. Learning not only that my ministry needs a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account, but why all three need to be polished and engaging was helpful and a little overwhelming. Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers alike expect it. What surprised me was many members of the Silent Generation are also getting online to connect with their grandchildren; they might as well connect with their parish online too. Having a good website isn’t necessarily a competitive advantage, but having a lousy online presence could be a disadvantage as newcomers to your community visit you virtually before ever walking through your red doors.

Want to do all you can to make sure the important vote at vestry or the next annual meeting goes according to plan? It might matter where at the table you sit or how the question is posed. It definitely matters whether the vote is blind ballot or a show of hands according to Dr. Robert Livingston, assistant professor of management and organizations. We were encouraged to understand and utilize the same insights into human psychology that business professionals often employ to navigate important decisions and negotiations. Not as a means to manipulate, but to understand leadership through a different lens and in very concrete terms.

And why not? Churches are communities made up of people, just as businesses are.

People are people. And whether they are in a for-profit company, a parish, or non-profit, the ways to motivate, inspire, lead, and serve them tend to be consistent. I thought I would need a major overhaul of my skills to lead at a non-profit, and it took a cohort of business school professors to show me that ultimately people want to be valued, recognized, and respected–no matter the setting. People also desire meaningful work and contributing to something larger than themselves, which is precisely where the church can offer guidance and formation. Living out faith at a car rental company, an amusement park, or hospital… discovering the connections between business school and seminary was exactly the kind of translating I needed for my work at Episcopal Service Corps.

Let us go forth into the world indeed!

–The Rev. Amity Carrubba is the executive director of the Episcopal Service Corps. She received a Woman’s Board scholarship to attend this summer’s program.

Leading Through Resistance: A Reflection on the Kellogg School Summer Institute

“Will we venture into the pockets of human need where others cannot or will not go? Because that’s where the Gospel stands, most precariously situated.”–Sister Donna Markham, OP.

Last year I attended Seabury’s Kellogg School Summer Institute and it was one of the best continuing education experiences I’ve had to date. So the choice to return for the 2012 class was an easy one. Rare is the educational experience that moves from a morning session with an economist talking about competitive advantages and the rental car industry, to an afternoon of listening to a Dominican sister teach about leading transformative change by seeking God and following the Gospels. Rarer still is the opportunity to reflect in community, allowing for the piecing and parsing of all that has been offered, so that not only are there ideas, but actual tools for leading.

In this year’s session, I’ve been particularly drawn to the focus on leading and working through resistance to change. In one session we were reminded about the importance of self-reflection and balance, not for the sake of navel gazing, but because it allows us the space to see what the bigger vision is, where the God is calling us to go. Likewise, other sessions have focused on the importance of how to begin to name hard truths, with compassion and love, so that the mission of the Gospel can be seen and lived.

From a practical perspective, we leave many of these sessions with tools or action plans of how we might begin this work at the local level. As I imagine the immediate work that needs to done in my context, these skills are quickly morphing into a roadmap. Time talking with peers about how this work might be done helps to create a clear path for what is most important and how ideas might be implemented in the parish.

Perhaps most interesting to me juxtaposition between the academics and the constant call to remember the work that truly needs to be done–the work of the Gospel. Sister Donna Markham offered very practical steps to help move a congregation or system forward even in the midst of conflict. And that work, as she presented it, can not be done outside of remembering who we are and why we are in business. Are we willing to go where the need is for the sake of the Gospel? Are we, as leaders, willing to sit at the foot of the cross? Because sometimes leading through change and resistance requires just that.

I am incredibly fortunate to journey with a vibrant and healthy congregation that keeps its bickering to a minimum and is bold and brave in trying new ideas if they think it will create a place of welcome for the seeker and a home for the Christ who meets us everyday. Yet even so, the gifts and tools offered this week will make me a stronger leader. The reminder to create space to reflect, to find balance in order to better lead, to be honest even when, or perhaps especially when, it would be easier to ignore what needs to be said–these are all vital skills for moving a congregation forward. I’m grateful to have them in my tool kit.

–The Rev. Sarah K. Fisher is the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Chicago. She received a Woman’s Board scholarship to attend this summer’s program.