Sabbatical Church Hopping

This is a reprint from Father Adam’s blog “The Black Giraffe” November 1, 2015

Today is the last day of a three month sabbatical.  During that time, my family and I have had the opportunity to visit a variety of other churches.  We have been to Episcopal churches, other mainline churches, evangelical churches, “mega-“churches, and an African-American church.  Here are some thoughts about those experiences.

1. In general, the quality of preaching is disappointing.  I could easily believe that the decline in church attendance is due solely to bad sermons.  In more than half the churches I visited, the quality of the preaching would have made me think twice about ever returning.  The four sermons not in this category (and yes, there were only four of them) were preached in an Episcopal church, an African-American Church, a mainline church and an evangelical church, so I’m not worried about style, but of substance.  The award for “Best Sermon Delivered To My Family While on Sabbatical” goes to Craig Thompson of East Side Church, Sharon, for his preaching on the paralytic being let down through the roof to see Jesus.  The criterion for the award is that his exegesis and delivery made enough of an impression that my daughter could talk about what he said two-and-a-half months later.
As a sermon listener, I would much rather hear a sermon from someone who has clearly been studying the scripture, trying to live it, and has some good news they desperately want to share with me, even if the sermon has serious flaws, than someone much more polished and sophisticated who thinks I need to hear their wisdom.
2. If the peace allots enough time for you to do more than hug your family and shake hands with the person in the pew behind you, it is too long.  Most churches have coffee hour to catch up with friends.  As a visitor, my experience of a “warm, welcoming peace” is standing there for five minutes, while every 30 seconds someone smiling comes up, shakes my hand, and then goes off to an extended conversation with someone they know better.  At some point, the well-meaning priest comes over, often asking a question and then ignoring the answer while being pulled away by a parishioner.
When an frustratingly long peace is followed by interminable announcements being read out of the bulletin that I have in front of me and have already read, I become so disengaged from whatever sense of worship may previously have been present that I just want to go home.
3. More sophisticated or professional music doesn’t make for better worship, but hearing people’s voices does.  I have been moved during this time by music done with choir and organ, with praise band, with “worship karaoke”, and with a couple of singers and an acoustic guitar.  Some styles and some songs I prefer to others, but all can be powerful.  What I did find that makes a difference, however, is being able to hear other people singing.  Ideally that means the entire congregation around me, but it also means that the instrumentation, whether organ, electronic, or otherwise, doesn’t drown out the choir or the worship leaders.  When worship music stops being primarily about people singing, something central is lost.  The other unexpected musical discovery of sabbatical: reading song lyrics off screens at the front can make it much easier to sing, including easier to sing hymns (although obviously singing in parts requires words and music in my hand).
door-lock-401714_19204. Unlock the doors and let people know how to get into the church.  Should I have to write this? No.  Do I?  Apparently.  The first church we visited was a terrible experience that started with the doors.  The doors that could be seen from the street were closed with no outside handle to open them.  The doors closest to the parking lot were all locked.  We only found the way into church because a uniformed security guard (!) came and showed us how to go into an adjacent building, up a flight of stairs, across a breezeway, down a hall, and through a door that had a handmade sign taped to it directing us to the sanctuary.  The kicker was when the rambling sermon described all the work the church was doing to reach out to the community.
5. Church pews can be very uncomfortable (and they don’t need to be).  When I am waiting for the opportunity to kneel down or stand up because sitting any longer has become unbearable (a condition worsened by bad preaching), the pew is a problem.  Everybody in the church doesn’t need their own barcalounger, but the environment doesn’t need to be a barrier either.  One church we visited replaced what were clearly very tight upright pews with more slanted, comfortable pews with much more space between them. (I could tell because the floor still had holes where the old pews were bolted in.  So work to be done, but a good first step.)
6. God is being worshiped by good people in a wide variety of settings.  Some of those settings are rather depressing, as congregations dwindle, but people are still gathering to pray for their needs and the needs of others, to praise God, and to do good work in the community.  All the issues mentioned above notwithstanding, in every place I went, I found a part of the Body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit showed up.
The Rev. Adam Trambley, St. John’s, Sharon, PA

A Church “Resolved” to Grow

Adam Trambley photo credit: Jim Steadman

Adam Trambley photo credit: Jim Steadman

By our own Fr. Adam Trambley and reprinted from the ‘House of Deputies News.’

In many ways, the 78th General Convention is nothing if not a convention about church growth. This designation may sound strange to deputies with paperless binders full of canonical amendments on structural minutiae and theological treatises on same-sex marriages and the proper channels to allow the Episcopal Church to perform them. Yet both of these items, as well as a number of other issues being discussed are, at heart, about church growth.

The sad reality is that our beloved Church is in the midst of sharp numerical decline. The House of Deputies State of the Church reports a 24% decrease in average Sunday attendance churchwide over the past ten years. The recognition of our problems prompted a unanimous decision in Indianapolis to commission the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). We knew then, and we know now, that we have to do something. This convention has an opportunity to decide what. The proposals fall into three general categories.

The first category is a large set of resolutions designed to remove barriers to church growth by making our church structures more effective. Most of the TREC proposals and the numerous structural proposals from various committees, commission agencies and boards (CCABs), provinces, and other groups are designed toward this end. (Disclaimer: I am part of a group that has written a number of resolutions published on EpiscopalResurrection.org and am the proposer of two structural resolutions.) Nobody believes that restructuring is the only answer. But just like a plant might need to be repotted if it is going to grow, the church may need to clarify staff positions, examine the utility dioceses and provinces, and streamline how we do business if we expect to get the right amount of sun and rain. These resolutions will be considered mostly on their practical merits. Will their proposed changes really accomplish what they hope to accomplish?

The second category of resolutions proposes revisions to our theology and practice in order to remove barriers to church growth and evangelism. One of these resolutions is C023, which would allow unbaptized persons to receive communion in certain circumstances. A number of resolutions deal with marriage equality. Marriage equality is seen as a matter of justice, but it also opens doors to those unable to be married in other traditions and removes a barrier to evangelizing younger people who generally have a more progressive attitude towards marriage. The debate on these matters will likely be framed more in terms of theology and identity than of practical implications. Whatever we do in these areas, however, will have a concrete effect on church growth, probably more helpful in some parts of the church and more problematic in others.

The third category of church growth resolutions are direct proposals for church growth and evangelism. These initiatives all have potential to bear good fruit, and the primary debate about them is likely to center on how to find funding to undertake as many as possible. Here is a brief rundown on some of the proposals.

The last General Convention established Mission Enterprise Zones. In 2013 and 2014 the Episcopal Church distributed 38 grants totaling roughly $1.7 million. With local matches, this meant that about $3.5 million was dedicated to creative new missionary outposts of our church. These grants ranged from planting a church among the Hmong community in Minneapolis to a coffee shop with a church in Alabama to the multi-cultural rejuvenation of a Hawaiian preaching station. At least two resolutions this year propose continuing and expanding Mission Enterprise Zones.

One resolution proposes creating a capacity to plant churches. With a goal of 50 new church plants this triennium, D005 would put in place a variety of necessary supports that would allow the church to begin a church-planting pipeline. Components of this vision include grants to create three seminary faculty positions on church planting, development of an Episcopal church planting training program, recruitment and training of church planters (including $1 million to develop and implement bilingual and bicultural leaders for Latino/Hispanic ministries), staff support, and direct support for church plants. Dioceses receiving church planting grants would be expected to contribute matching funds.

Another groundbreaking resolution proposes that we use a significant portion of our current communications budget to launch a digital evangelism effort. The Rev. Jake Dell, manager of digital marketing and advertising sales for the Episcopal Church, undertook a beta test with the Diocese of New York and Forward Movement that targeted people who asked significant questions about faith and spirituality online and worked to connect them with a local Episcopal priest. This resolution would allow a full-scale launch of that initial work. Components include developing editorial content to answer real-life questions, funding advertising to attract and build an audience, and creating the capacity to connect people asking questions with local ministries. This project doesn’t create virtual communities, but uses sophisticated Internet expertise to connect hurting people who are seeking answers online with the church in their community.

One other resolution, D009, recognizes that church growth involves not only new congregations and initiatives, but also the revitalization of existing ones. It proposes to create a network of regional church revitalization consultants that can help local congregations, as well as providing training opportunities for clergy and lay leaders. The resolution also establishes a Congregational Revitalization Venture Fund to make grants to existing congregations, with special attention given to congregations reaching out to underrepresented populations.

Accomplishing any of these proposals will require not only the support of convention, but also the prayer of the church and the creativity and sharpened pencils of PB&F—the Program, Budget and Finance Committee.

The Rev. Adam Trambley, clergy deputy from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, is rector of St. John’s Church in Sharon, Pennsylvania.

Bishop Sean Signs on to “A Memorial to the Church”

Excerpted from a press release

Group calls for The Episcopal Church “to act with boldness to proclaim the gospel”

Bishop Sean along with a group of General Convention deputies, bishops, and others have released A Memorial to the Church (click here to see), calling for The Episcopal Church to “act with boldness to proclaim the gospel.” One member of the group, the Rev. Adam Trambley, deputy from Northwestern Pennsylvania said, “We hope this letter to the church will prompt significant action both at General Convention and among all Episcopalians.”

Inspired by the conversation begun by the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church, the memorial calls for the church “to recommit itself to the spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life, to go into our neighborhoods boldly with church planters and church revitalizers, and to restructure our church for the mission God is laying before us today.”

General Convention typically considers resolutions, but The Episcopal Church’s canons and rules of order also provide for memorials, which are written in the form of letters to the church. The Muhlenberg Memorial of 1853 is perhaps the most famous of the the memorials, and while its immediate effect was slight, it changed the conversation inside the church in a way that later led to liturgical change and other shifts to meet the needs of that time. The hope is that this memorial will lead to change within our church to promote evangelism and discipleship.

The Rev. Susan Brown Snook, deputy from Arizona, said, “In addition to the memorial, our group is offering several resolutions (Click here to see) to support the call to discipleship and transformation.” She added that signers to the memorial do not necessarily support any or all of the nine resolutions.

The package of resolutions includes action
— Encouraging a significant commitment to church planting
— Promoting revitalization of existing congregations
— Amending the Constitution & Canons to permit more structural flexibility
— Clarifying roles of churchwide officers
— Creating a task force to look at episcopal elections
— Eliminating the provincial structure within The Episcopal Church

The text of the memorial and all nine resolutions, along with explanatory material, is available at www.episcopalresurrection.org. Those who wish to add their names as signatories should email endorse@episcopalresurrection.org and include their full name and whether they are a bishop, deputy, alternate deputy, or other. Those who endorse the memorial may not necessarily agree with the nine resolutions proposed by the drafting committee.

These materials were written by a group consisting of Trambley and Brown Snook, along with the Rev. Tom Ferguson; the Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, deputy from Southern Ohio; the Rev. Canon Frank Logue, deputy from Georgia; Mr. Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, deputy from Indianapolis; and the Rev. Steve Pankey, deputy from Central Gulf Coast.

The quote below is excerpted from “A Memorial to the Church:”

“We have a choice before us. We can continue, valiantly and tragically, to try to save all the rights and privileges we have previously enjoyed. We can continue to watch our church dwindle until it someday becomes an endowed museum to the faith of our forebears. We can continue business as usual until we lose our common life entirely.

Or we can lose our life for Jesus’ sake so that we might save it.”

Episcopal Congregations: What? Why? How?

This is a reprint from Father Adam’s blog “The Black Giraffe” on Feb. 7, 2015

The Acts 8 Moment Blogforce proposed these two questions:

  • What is the mission of the congregation?
  • How should it be structured to serve its mission?

Before thinking about mission and structure, I realized I needed a working definition of what a congregation in the Episcopal Church is today.  While I’m sure more theologically deep and ecclesiologially sophisticated definitions could be offered, a working definition for most congregations is:

Episcopal Congregation: a group of people who meet in the same place for worship on Sunday.

Of course, exceptions exist.  Some congregations are multi-site.  A few congregations worship at times other than Sunday morning.  Emergent churches and fresh expressions sites are experimenting with different models.  But in the end, our Book-of-Common-Prayer-based church identifies its congregations as the group of folks who gather for worship in a particular place, even if some gather at 8:00am and some at 10:00am.

Given this definition, the de facto mission of most congregations begins with hosting a Sunday morning worship service.  Since the 1979 prayer book, the liturgical movement, and our increasing denominational niche as the liberal catholic church, in many places a congregation’s primary focus is offering a Sunday morning Eucharist.

I might be accused of circular logic here.  If a congregation is defined by their Sunday worship, then their worship would be their primary goal.  The circularity makes my argument no less true, however.  This definition and mission has structural implications that are also observable.  Our congregations are structured to provide Sunday morning worship as effectively as possible.  Budgets focus on ensuring a priest to celebrate mass, a sanctuary, and a musician.  (If you have any questions about this, look at the budget differences in most congregations for the costs associated with worship and the costs associated with almost any other mission priority.)  Lay participation is often associated with liturgical ministries, as well, and the members of the choir, altar guild, acolytes, readers, ushers, etc., often outnumber people involved in other church ministries.

These details are particularly true for smaller congregations that have resources for only one or two priorities.  Larger congregations with greater resources can carry out the first priority of worship effectively and still have money and volunteers to accomplish other goals.

While I agree that worship is important, and is one of the priorities of a congregation — maybe even the first among equals — our current over-focus on the Sunday morning event is killing our churches.  For a congregation to thrive it needs inspiring worship, but it also needs evangelism and loving relationships and small groups and a number of other components (for one useful analysis, see the Natural Church Development materials).  Too often, when things are going badly in the Episcopal Church, we tinker with our worship service rather than increasing our evangelism or starting a new ministry in the community or dealing with the conflict that drives away every visitor who actually talks to anyone at coffee hour.

Instead of making worship services the primary mission of our congregations, we should redefine our mission as creating a healthy, growing community of disciples.  Worship will be one important component, but so will private devotions, fellowship opportunities, personal and corporate evangelism, and any number of other practical ways that we live out loving God, loving our neighbors and baptizing all nations while teaching them everything Jesus commanded.  The mission of our congregations, and the mission of the church at every level, should involve being a community that lives out the Great Commandment and Great Commission.

The structure of congregations, then, should be whatever allows a group of people in a particular place to live into that mission.  Given our traditions in the Episcopal Church, part of the structure of our congregations will involve democratically elected lay governance with appropriate clergy leadership along with financial transparency, administrative competency, connection to the diocese and larger church, and other best practices of non-profit and religious corporations.

As this refocusing of mission is happening, some places are realizing that budget, building and other resources also need to be refocused.  These discussions and changes can all be very positive moves as our congregations worry less about filling our emptying pews and more about being a healthy, growing community of disciples.

Father Adam Trambley, St. John’s Sharon