Many Voices, Many Approaches, One Vision

What do you get when you combine a love for the church, strong collegiality, and a willingness to engage the difficult issues facing the church with honesty?  You get my experience of the latest clergy retreat.

I was invited by Bishop Sean and Vanessa to make a presentation at the diocesan clergy retreat this past February at Olmstead Manor.  It was an honor as a lay professional to be included in a clergy event, let alone make a presentation at such an event.  The openness and welcome I experienced from all of my clergy colleagues was a joy – there was a deep sense of mutuality and support for each of our ministries.

The entire retreat was a series of peer-led presentations on the future of the church and the issues associated with that future.  Presentations were given by John Downey, Stacey Fussell, Jason Shank, Melinda Hall, Bishop Sean, and myself.  Each of us come from very different congregations and contexts each with unique assets and challenges.

What was so exciting about the retreat was that all of our presentations acknowledged the challenges facing the Episcopal Church with honesty – mainly that mainline Christianity is in decline across our country.  Not only did we begin with the same basic premise, but each presentation ended with a love for the church, love for Jesus Christ, and the hope of the resurrection to be manifested in our diocese.

The most fascinating part of the presentations was how each of us through our individual contextual lenses addressed the challenges and how to resolve them for the sake of the Gospel.  Some of us focused on statistical trends, others on life cycles of churches, some on the need for planting churches, others on the church’s need to be more visible in the community, and I focused on the need for authentic relational community between three equally important entities: God, church leaders, and congregants.

Why did this retreat excite me?  Because the presentations showed just how diverse and gifted are the leaders of our diocese.  The Spirit of God manifested in powerful ways through those open, honest conversations showing us that innovation and resurrection are possible.  And not only are innovation and resurrection possible, but we have been given the resources on all levels of leadership from laity to clergy, from our smallest congregations to the diocese as a whole, to make the changes necessary to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ through our beloved Episcopal tradition for generations to come.  Now that’s Good News!

Craig Dressler is Associate for Parish Life at St. Mark’s Erie. 

Speak Boldly:  A Two-Track Approach to Christian Education and Formation

Throughout the season of Lent, we at St. Mark’s felt stirred to offer formation for all ages in a way that we had never done previously.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know what that was.  Personally, I knew that I needed to teach something that would be life-giving to me and would therefore feed the congregation in a new way through my energy and excitement.  For me, that meant teaching something about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) – more on that in a moment.

Of course, the Hebrew Bible wasn’t going to tap the interest of everyone in the congregation, so we needed something else to offer alongside.  With all of the recent changes in the local political landscape, the increase in issues like opioid overdose, and a bankrupt public school district, we felt called as disciples to learn more about those issues.  So we set forth to run a forum featuring influential public leaders to be run parallel to the Hebrew Bible class.  For six weeks in Eastertide, we began as a community with a meal (prepared by the culinary students at the Charter School for Excellence) and then broke off into our classes:  Public Forum, The Story of Creation for kids, and the Hebrew Bible class.

The Hebrew Bible class had one main purpose:  to teach the students about the origins, structure, and historical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.  It was intentionally not a devotional “bible study,” but rather an abbreviated introductory level Hebrew Bible course one would encounter in seminary.  The 26 students were excited and equally apprehensive because they knew they were going to face some challenges to their faiths along with way.  However, we knew that we could trust each other and that all opinions and questions were valued and respected.

Why teach such a class?  First, Jesus was Jewish.  Therefore the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were His scriptures that informed His faith and His teachings as our Messiah found in the New Testament.  Second, we are called to be peacemakers in the world.  How better to more deeply understand our Jewish brothers and sisters than through a deeper knowledge of their scriptures and our shared history? Third, there are many things as English readers of ancient Hebrew texts that we miss (symbolism, sarcasm, euphemism, parallelism, poetry, etc.) that once realized make the scriptures come alive in a new and powerful way.  Fourth, and perhaps most important, this deep study of the Hebrew Bible in college and seminary liberated my personal faith.  It caused me to think anew and ask the difficult questions I had previously been afraid to ask.  That freedom to ask hard questions is necessary for deepening one’s walk with Christ.

For six weeks, we prayed, studied, argued, sang, and shared revelatory moments together.  From Creation to the Exodus, from myth to commandment, from festivals to prophecies, from sex to poetry, we covered it and we had fun while doing it.  Can the 26 students speak fluent Hebrew?  No, but they can speak a few important Hebrew words and relate them back to their own walks with God.  Can the 26 students identify all of the writers in the Torah?  No, but they now know that there are many voices, faiths, and perspectives found in those books; and that there is much beauty in the unifying work of God in bringing all of those writings together to give us what we have today.  And finally, can the 26 students tell us everything there is to know about God’s character in the Hebrew Bible?  No, but they can certainly proclaim that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not the stereotyped old angry man in the sky, but is the same living, loving, merciful God we know in Christ today.  And for that I say, Alleluia!

Craig Dressler is Associate for Parish Life at St. Mark’s, Erie.

“One Church” Mission Conference 2015 (Part 3)

Click here to see Part 1

Click here to see part 2

“We are One Church of miraculous expectations, made up of all sorts and conditions of folks, being equipped to be disciples who make disciples through the ministry of our missionary outposts through the transformational power of the Holy Spirit.”  , Bishop Claude E. Payne, Diocese of Texas, 1998, The Gathering, Clear Vision Conference

Watch Craig Dressler, below, speak about an example of “One Church” at work.