The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” So wrote Thomas Paine in the first of his series of pamphlets formally entitled The American Crisis, and known informally by Paine’s pseudonym, Common Sense. Paine’s agenda was to inspire ambivalent countrymen to participate in the Revolution.
Paine’s remark describes more than British North America in 1776. The times we live in are trying, too. The urgencies and passions of the national election recently concluded have left us exhausted and smarting. We are brought up short when friends and family supposedly well-known to each other discover in one another opinions they never dreamt they had. We are living days where there is a brittle touchiness in the public discourse, and conversation can grow shrill very quickly. Nearly anything said by a person discovered to have different views is hyper-heard, ears listening suspiciously for unspoken implications and inferences, ready to impute to the speaker and the remark a snide or sinister meaning.
This is no way to live.
I have been tending God’s people for a long time, but that pastoral experience offers no break-through insights that might move public discourse past where it is right now. I am aware, though, that it is overheated, and many are not doing too well in effectively communicating with one another. Let me offer advice you didn’t ask for, but I pray you will find edifying generally and helpful specifically. Making no claims whatsoever that you won’t end up in a shouting match anyway, at least for the time being, if you insist on trying it, use these ground rules in political conversation:
Assume that your conversation partner loves the United States. Conversation must be grounded in this basic, respectful assumption. However erroneous their opinions may seem to you, there can be no constructive conversation if you impugn the other’s patriotism. If you begin a conversation openly or secretly questioning the other person’s patriotism, that tells both of you that you didn’t really want rational, constructive conversation anyway.
Talk as much to learn as to persuade. Great clouds of rhetoric are driven by one at the other with no intention of pursuing actual conversation. If all you want is to judge, and attempt to persuade them to your views, don’t bother.
If you feel yourself incapable of talking as much to learn as to persuade, remember the basics…address the point, the premise, the principal and not the personality. Personal judgment- ad hominem it’s called- and challenging a person rather than an idea is very poor debate form, and utterly ineffective for either learning or persuasion.
Talk in person, preferably to a single conversation partner, and not on the telephone or via the internet. The tone and timbre of voice, and intimate subtlety of facial expression, doubles the reliability of interpreting any conversation. In person, you will better govern how you express yourself, and more accurately perceive what your conversation partner means.
Avoid social media. The internet is rather like a bumper sticker- it broadcasts a unilateral broadside statement with no significant invitation to the reader to respond effectively. When people do respond, results are often caustic and ugly. Social media makes it easy to lob a verbal grenade, and say things you wouldn’t have the courage to say in person.
If you feel yourself incapable of resisting social media, 1) try harder to avoid it and 2) don’t do anything after supper. Please. Chances are you’re tired. You’ve just eaten, and your body requires more blood in your abdomen, which means there’s a bit less blood in your brain. You may have had a drink before dinner and perhaps one after dinner as well; if so, your inhibitions have been lowered. Fine. Just don’t get on the internet to express political views after supper. Please. To do so at that time of day, with or without the influence of alcohol, can be about as positive an experience as dialing up an old flame. You don’t want to come to breakfast asking, “What the devil was I thinking last night?!”
Talk while seated, eating a meal or drinking coffee. Standing body language can communicate more than even the occupant of the body consciously knows, and it can intimidate. Talking while seated puts everyone on a more equal footing precisely by not being on your feet. Food and drink are features of every single human life. The table is perhaps the most commonly shared and universally recognized place where human beings may find each other, and if a person is safe enough to sit to table with you, you’ve already said volumes to one another that is good.
…for what it’s worth….
Love you. See you in Church.
Thursdays-in-Lent this year will feature bible study as it relates to several ministries of The Episcopal Church. The series will undoubtedly provide information that many will not previously have known. I look forward to Thursdays-in-Lent each year; there is an authentic affection in the room- after all, we’ve known each other for a long time- and the lively conversation never fails to make me proud of us as a community of faith, and proud to be Rector of this parish. I especially look forward to leading Thursdays-in-Lent this year.
9 March, Federal Ministries (armed forces, VA facilities and federal prisons)
16 March, Episcopal Migration Ministries
23 March, The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, (The National Cathedral)
30 March, Office of Government Relations
6 April, Global Partnerships, and Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations
What we have begun has long-range implications. Current cultural shifts presage larger changes in the life of this and every other parish. The parish operates at a time in the life of the World and in the life of the Church where nearly every assumption we have is being challenged. This occurs in every generation, and ours is no different. Transitions feel pressing in our own time simply because we’re the ones alive to deal with them; we struggle to deal faithfully with those urgencies and priorities. We’re not necessarily answering new questions, we’re just answering our questions.
Amid the questions, lest we think that everything is up for grabs, please ground yourselves remembering that there are ancient and irreducible understandings of common life; there is now and always has been one Church - just one- and we as a parish are among >140 expressions of the ministry of that one Church. That reality joins us to sister parishes in our diocese whose lives are a lot more like ours than we imagine; we are all in this together- when one prospers we all prosper, when one suffers we all suffer. It has always been true and remains true that we gather at the Altar and the Font sustained by the sacramental life of the Church. It has always been true and remains true that full authorization for ministry proceeds from baptism, and all ordained ministry proceeds from the ministry of the bishop. It has always been true and remains true that the Church really does find a way to fund the ministries to which it is called, one way or another. These things remain as they have been for the entire life of the Church, and they won’t change. But how we organize ourselves for ministry either as a diocese or as a parish in this or any age are perpetually open questions.
Those perpetually open questions at our time in history re-examine the nature of Christian community, and the funding of parish ministry generally and of ordained ministry specifically. The average age of parishioners is going up, the number of them is dwindling slowly, and while we are blessed to live in an affluent community, it is precisely that affluence that prevents many young families from being able to afford living here. The Sunday morning Eucharistic assembly is losing its claim on millions, and how the Church gathers to be Church is no longer the ‘Sunday-best, 10am-service, lunch-afterwards” experience with which we were raised. These data are not unique to Beach Haven; we are just one among hundreds of parishes in this diocese and many other dioceses with the same limitations. These data project what may appear to be a declining arc into the future as we can see it. That can make us sad, or even despairing, as we contemplate the future; however, sadness and despair are choices. Sadness or despair are not thrust upon us, we choose them, and we let ourselves off the hook if we do.
We are blessed and fortunate to have some time. We have sound financial leadership, and vibrant ministries to offer; said another way, we are both vital and viable as a parish. Thank God for that! We really do have choices about how we meet our financial challenges as they come to us; we know this because we are already meeting the challenges our ministries bring to us now. When ministry is strong, money always seems to find it. Thank God for that!
Of course we depend each year on the pledged income received. Holy Innocents’ is one of the most generous parishes I know anything about. Year in, year out, the faithful offer back to God from their abundance, and that faithful base is the foundation upon which daily ministry here stands. Like other ancient features of the Church, our generosity will remain unchanged- we’ve been at it so long that it is not just what we do, it’s who we are. Thank God for that too!
The parish is blessed with substantial restricted funds; these are monies some of which can never be spent in principal, and some of which are to be spent as sparingly as possible. The Wardens and Vestry are able to provide balanced budgets because we have the capacity to authorize the funding of any annual shortfall with these restricted funds. We give ourselves that out each year, and with vigilance throughout the year, we usually do not need anywhere near as much as we thought we might at the beginning of any given budget year. But every time we make such resolutions, whether we use any of the money that year or not, we are asking our ancestors to pay our bills for us, and we permit ourselves the possibility of using a capital asset to pay an operating expense. We know how that game ends- sooner or later the capital asset is exhausted while the operating expenses remain. It’s not an optimal plan, but it is available to us in the short run as a way to balance the budget and move forward, and under those circumstances, I suppose it’s a rainy day fund that gets spent when it’s raining. But in the longer run, if we are to maintain the way we do business now, we will do so either with increased pledged income, or a slow diminution of the restricted funds.
In addition to the mindful, prudent work of King Sparks and the Finance Committee, Chuck Hall and the Stewardship Committee have begun several things that are positive, chosen responses to these realities. These responses include New Consecration Sunday, legacy giving, and the birthday club.
The birthday club is fun and it’s painless. That’s a good thing. It’s an opportunity to make a gift on a day when you are receiving gifts. My birthday club gift this year is $6400- one dollar for each year the Lord has given me. I hope you will join me as we cycle through 2017, and make gifts to the birthday club on your day. These gifts will be used in mission and ministry.
New Consecration Sunday has inspired us, friends. Now in our second year, we made a statement to ourselves on last New Consecration Sunday: more than half of the pledging households were physically in Church that day, and we added 10 new pledges for 2017. This is evidence that Chuck Hall and his committee prepared us to hear The Holy Spirit speak, and we responded.
Legacy giving is something we’ve been passive about- most parishes are passive about it. Not any more. The Stewardship Committee plans a couple of events later in the year that will encourage us to respond by making legacy provisions in our Wills…gifts that serve the life and ministries of the parish after we’re dead. The parish is in my Will; is it in yours?
In the big picture, we can of course choose complete retrenchment- do as little as possible so as to make our restricted funds last as long as they can, prolonging what we believe to be the inevitable. And another choice is a planned, multi-year draw-down of our restricted funds so that as pledged income very slowly contracts we can sustain our present parish life; this, like retrenchment, defines us by what we don’t have and what we’re afraid of, rather than by what we are doing now and hope to do in the future. Neither option has any joy in it. Both examples assume that the basis of how we do things remains unchanged, and in both examples we struggle to fit the money to sustain an unchanging pattern of life.
There is a third alternative, and it involves neither pledged income nor restricted funds. It involves changing our habits and how we do things.
Smaller and older, with less money than a generation ago, The Episcopal Church is re-tooling, and we are not alone. Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, UCC, and Moravian churches and so many others are doing the same, exploring alternatives. Among the most observable signs of these alternatives addresses ordained ministry. The era where a typical parish is served full time by a seminary trained priest, fully compensated by that parish, is drawing to a close. You and I are the last generation for quite some time to come of clergy and parishes that fit that profile. The so-called 20th Century corporate model for Church is giving way to the reemergence of older, smaller patterns of life; this does not mean we’re damaged or dying, it means we’re changing. There’s a difference between the two, but both damaged/dying and changing are choices, not inevitabilities.
This should not distress us, and it should not surprise us. Please remember that our founding missionary, James Hart Lamb, was a medical doctor who was also a priest, serving simultaneously as a physician and as rector of Trinity parish in Moorestown. It should comfort us to recall that from 1882 until 1936, Holy Innocents’ had no full-time resident clergy, and we did not become a parish until 1954. Emergent patterns concerning ordained ministry very often are not new; they are in many cases the recovery of older models. So, for example, we see that rectories were essential 100 years ago, and about 40 years ago many were sold off, and now once again, the rectory is the most valuable single asset any parish may have as they contemplate the presence of ordained ministry. How we recruit, form, deploy and sustain clergy now is not how we will do so in five years, never mind the next generation.
Holy Innocents’ is moving toward choices to be made, not eventualities to be endured. It is not inconceivable for example that in the next 5 to 15 years, Holy Innocents’ will be a smaller parish- not seasonal and remaining fully functioning- overseen by a priest-in-charge or bishop whose cash compensation from the parish is not full-time. Part-time ministry is an irrational concept- those of us in ordained ministry know that ministry is full-time even if the cash compensation isn’t, but the idea is that the expectations of such a person would not be ‘full-time’ in the way they are now. This anticipates a person for whom at least a portion of their income is a non-parochial source, perhaps a retiree or bi-vocational professional.
Another possibility is the notion that we open ourselves to The Holy Spirit to embrace a very old model, calling a bilingual priest to lead us in becoming a missionary outpost serving the immigrant population of the Island. As inspiring as I find that possibility, I do not sense the will or the strength in the parish to do this…no complaint, but a report.
Yet another older pattern suggests a person who simultaneously offers two ministries within the Church, sharing her/his time between Holy Innocents’ and some other Church entity, the compensation for such a person being shared by agreement between the two Church entities.
These and many other options are not evidence of failure, they are evidence of adaptation and evolution. It is a fair premise to assert that we’re no good to God if we’re not here; the only way our absence will happen is if we choose it by remaining unchanged in our assumptions, expectations and habits. Adaptation and evolution applies to the people of the diocese, the parish and the ordained leadership of the Church. It means that what has been is not what will be, and expectations on the parts of all persons will change.
Having this conversation is evidence that God gave us an opening during the sabbatical to begin cultural changes. Having this conversation and thinking about these things neither damns us, nor predisposes us to any particular path or outcome. The only danger this conversation risks is making money the ministry instead of making ministry the generator for the funding needed to do it. Having this conversation and thinking about these things makes us smarter and more faithful. It means we are prepared and not afraid. It means that we are willing to be honest about ourselves so that we make positive choices ahead of time rather than changing awkwardly by default.
When we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done,” it is an acknowledgment of present reality as well as future hope. The Kingdom has already begun but is not yet fully manifested. That’s another way to describe us- the Church….we, like the Kingdom, are already/not yet. We are in God’s hands, and we are in God’s heart as we always have been, and that Truth invites us to flourish now and in the days to come.
Love you. See you in Church.
My remarks to the Annual Meeting (our 20th together!) are never complete without expressing my thanks to so many. Our lay leadership is devoted, engaged and smart. Our Vestry leads from a place of deep spiritual awareness and joyful vision. There are dozens of people working through Flower Guild, Finance, Altar Guild, Stewardship, Buildings and Grounds, ECW, Vestry, Hospitality, Choir, Acolytes, Memorial Garden, Human Trafficking and IJM, and Church School to glorify God and bring Him more and more into the lives of people here in Beach Haven and in places none of us will ever see. I am grateful past adequate expression for all that is done by you here in His Name and for His sake. I am especially grateful to those who, though not daily, are very frequently co-workers in the vineyard: Buildings and Grounds Chairperson Richard Cashel, Minister of Music Ellen Dondero, Church Wardens Judith Hamilton and Bill Kehr, and our parish administrator Jean Paich….thanks y’all.
| Sunday Holy Eucharist ~ with music
Perhaps you're a visitor on Long Beach Island. Maybe you haven't been in Church for a while and would like to start back. Whatever is going on in your life, you are welcome at Holy Innocents. Your past affiliations don't mean nearly as much to us as your present affiliation with us.
410 South Atlantic Ave
between Atlantic and Beach)
Beach Haven, New Jersey 08008