Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reflections on the Local versus the Churchwide - Where is Our Ground?

Tomorrow will mark 14 days since the last day of Executive Council’s first meeting of this triennium. It feels to me both more distant than a mere 14 days ago and also more recent at various times here in northern Colorado. The pass-through of Superstorm Sandy has placed another layer of unreality to this passage of time and distance from the Church Center offices in New York City.

This is a fake photo of Superstorm Sandy. Credit: @ry_hudson
The East Coast metro areas, including the New Jersey shoreline, come through our television sets and computer monitors like fictional movie sets reflecting Sandy’s horrific water, wind, and fire destruction that strain credulity. We are much more accustomed and inured to the images of destruction and human misery from places like Haiti and Cuba, where the distance is also measured in otherness, racism, and classism. We “get” the poor; we have been told that they will always be with us.

Many Episcopalians have commented on the physical, psychological, and sometimes spiritual, distance of “Church Center” from where they have their daily being and encounters with the people with whom, and for whom, they serve. Some of those experiences of distance were the impetus for the General Convention resolution that directs the move away from 815 Second Avenue, New York City.

Building bridges is hard work. It must be directed both inward into the organization to bridge hierarchy, privilege, and factionalism, as well as outward into the community to bridge class, race, and languages. The long-term, sacrificial investment necessary for successful bridge building is enormous. Bridge building is a “both-and” endeavor alongside the more easily recognizable and accepted mission and ministry endeavors like feeding the poor and housing the homeless. And, let us not forget – there have always been casualties in bridge building.

Six-year terms for Executive Council members, interrupted by mid-term elections of half of Council, aren’t particularly conducive to the long-term perspective, institutional memory, and perseverance essential to institutional transformation. Because of both the structure of the volunteer Council members’ service and the election process in both General Convention and the provinces, we also typically don’t elect the charisms and skill sets needed for effective governance. Additionally, we don’t have representation of the wide diversity of the church amongst our elected leadership. One might ask, “so, what else is new?” (Much more on structure issues of participation to come in future posts.)

I have had recent conversations with folks here in Colorado, including my husband, another General Convention deputy, and a long-time friend whose ministry is to help congregants form healthy relationships with money, about my service at the churchwide level and its relevance to folks at the local level. I will continue to share my evolving thoughts on this subject in this blog as I gain awareness and clarity. Some of the recent “a-ha” moments have been a bit of a surprise and a definite challenge to my “druthers.”

I purposely volunteered to co-chair the stewardship “campaign” in my parish this season. Most Episcopal churches engage the topic of stewardship in the fall, as we build our budgets for the next calendar year and try to influence congregants to give generously to support the work of the local and wider church through messages of gratefulness, generosity, and tithing. A large part of my motivation for volunteering for this role is an overwhelming desire to reconnect with my home parish, the community that has raised me up for church leadership and the community that grounds me in my identity as a member of The Episcopal Church.

When I am away, which has been frequently in the past three to five years, I often have an underlying feeling of being adrift, unanchored, and sometimes, unsupported. It is true that my faith keeps me strong. However, it is also true that as people of an incarnational faith, who believe in a fully human Son of God, Jesus, we also need the incarnational presence of our communities of faith to succor us and make real for us our connection to the Kindom of God.

If one were to generalize, I would say that many of us Episcopalians tend to be relatively intellectual about our faith, experiencing God more in our heads than in our bodies, finding it generally easier, and also, more pleasurable, to talk about our relationship with God than to experience our relationship with God through hands-on, in-person relationships with the other in the communities where we make our homes. I do not say this as a judgment. I am merely making an observation. It is an observation that unsettles me, because I am beginning to see and to admit that I am myself frequently not relevant to vast swaths of the church, especially to the younger generations.

For the moment, in my parish, I’ve recruited six guest preachers to deliver a variety of stewardship messages, asking them to focus on formational topics that look beyond dollars and cents. I’ve also participated by leading African Bible Study on each Sunday’s Gospel between the 8:00 and 10:00 o’clock services. The Bible Study, more so than anything else, has really connected me spiritually with my parish family. I am happy to report that there is sufficient interest in the Bible Study for us to keep this effort going after Stewardship season is over.

Although I am a so-called “churchwide leader” in my capacity as a member of Executive Council and as chair of Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Advocacy and Networking for Mission, I believe that it is my membership and participation in my local parish where I must have my ground and being as a member of the Body of Christ. This is the place from which my participation in leadership must emanate. This is foundational for every one of us.

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