Monday, May 4, 2015

Some Thoughts on Why Episcopal Parish Clergy Keep Failing -- Part 2


This is another entry in a short series I am writing on some of the apparently more common problems that are contributing to the failure of a number clergy in congregations. Please see the first in this series for the background and context for these comments.

3. Lack of Biblical Knowledge

What is the primary source of authority in Anglicanism? What is the touchstone, as it were, of authentic Christianity for us? Where is the guaranteed spring of renewal for the clergy? Where do we first go for sacred knowledge, insight into pastoral matters, and personal study of God's revealed will? 

If the Bible isn't our answer to these questions, we are evidence of the problem at hand.

The Bible is at the heart of our life as Christians and as clergy. The ability to draw from it freely in preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and leadership is essential. But years of over-using the Historical-Critical Method has weakened us. The gift of a faith liberated from the tyranny of our consumerist society becomes impossible when even the Scriptures have been conformed to that society, its prejudices and blind-spots. Too much reliance on only one way of "knowing" the Scriptures has cost us dearly.

In our rush to avoid being Right Wing Christians, Episcopalians have often ceded the Bible to our “adversaries.” The result has become a sad caricature of a religion of fear v. a religion of ignorance….with both extremes really being much more alike than different. Too many times, our clergy simply don’t know the Scriptures well enough to gain the strength they have to offer. This shows in our relative inability to draw from the Scriptures in teaching and preaching, aside from a few choice parts that we reference again and again because of their usefulness in emphasizing issues we support.

Episcopalians have, in the Daily Office and the Holy Eucharist, a splendid encounter with Scripture in the context of worship and personal devotion; indeed, we use a great deal of Bible in our common life and the Prayer Book is almost a tissue of Scripture. What seems to be missing for many of our clergy (and perhaps laity) is an ongoing spiritual immersion in Holy Writ in a way that leads to greater inner knowledge of God’s presence and will in our life. Without that inner and ongoing knowledge, the tendency is to base our life on what is popular, what will “sell,” or what others are saying. This means a faith that isn’t particularly resilient or deep, and it comes out in preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.

I believe that our formation for both lay and clergy members needs to undergo a major renovation of how we live with—and in—Holy Scripture, as well as the foundational theologians and mystics of the Christian faith (who themselves always are deeply knowledgeable in Sacred Scripture). We need more Bible knowledge (in an authentic Anglican manner) and less talking around the Scriptures.

4. Lack of knowledge about how to manage a small business

Most congregations function at some level as businesses. With so many Episcopal clergy having either no experience with or a very negative view of  business, it can be easy to dismiss this fact and try to treat the parish as something like a government office or an academic entity, where the sources of income and the plans for operations are remote and the administrative responsibilities fall on someone else.

I have often been grateful for the modicum of understanding I gained growing up of how a business relies on the goodwill of its staff and customers, as well as its relationships with various vendors (once more, we are back in the realm of how to make and sustain relationships). I also have found it very important to listen to those parishioners who are involved in business and what they do in order to make operations efficient, transparent, renewed, and healthy.

It has always been a temptation to try and wash one’s hands of the “dirty work” of dealing with staffing, monitoring finances, understanding budgets, looking for ways to cut overhead were possible (yet not damage the primary mission), etc. But this doesn’t work for long. Inattention to this dimension of parochial life will lead to crippling disorder in a short time.

It is often noted that most types of clergy training in the Episcopal Church contain no actual teaching or practicum in the administration of a parish or the running of business operations. This is just plain foolish. I remember suddenly having to deal with forms, budgets, planning instruments, and various decisions related to maintenance of a building and grounds. There were skilled people in the congregation to help, and I tried to remember that it wasn’t all up to me…but being a leader means, at the least, one must know how to delegate appropriately and to lead folks as a team towards a decision or a plan.

Shared ministry and an emphasis on The Ministry of All the Baptized has often been used as an excuse to avoid making the issue of business management a part of clergy training. I see this as a cop-out. When things go sideways in a congregation (the death of a long-time member who “did everything” about the building, the loss of a treasurer who alone understood the ins-and-outs of church finances, or the suspicion that someone in the parish is embezzling funds), it won’t do for the cleric to say “that’s not my department.” While the clergy cannot (and should not) solve every problem and control each outcome, abandonment of leadership is not an option and contrary to our ordination vows. Just knowing where to turn for help is often the most important step.

I am personally pretty weak in this area. But, knowing this means I have to work hard to find the best people in the parish to help, talk to people in other parishes or church settings about how to manage effectively, and accept responsibility when things go wrong. Most people do not expect clergy to be great managers or administrators…but they do expect us do our part and not act like it is beneath us.

I would recommend that some part of clergy discernment and formation be focussed on this aspect or ordained life...even if a person does not currently feel called to parish ministry. It is simply too pervasive a part of Church life to be ignored as we do currently. The costs, in terms of people, parishes, and dioceses, are too great when this dimension is undervalued.

5. Preaching canned sermons

Preaching is a hard art. It takes years for most clergy to come to a way of preaching that is authentic to themselves and yet effective for the congregation. For some, it will always be a real chore to give sermons (and for many of our victims, a real chore at times to hear them). Yet, there is no denying that preaching is one of the single most important and instrumental ways clergy lead a community and grow as disciples themselves. This is why preaching “canned” sermons from a book or a web site is a dangerous practice.

Preaching a simple sermon on the Scriptures of the day that issues from one’s own personal spiritual struggles and experience is far better than a tour-de-force by a Big Name Preacher read straight from the Internet (or tweaked here and there and read as one's own). What most people (except for the most picky intellectual snobs) want is an encounter with God in Word and Life. Preaching from someone else’s writing over and over tells a congregation that the clergy’s faith is essentially second-hand. It undermines that cleric’s ability as Jesus's servant and speak “with authority,” “not as the scribes.” Indeed, I have heard some clergy speak about preaching other's work in a way that seems little short of plagiarism. We have to do better.

I’m not talking about becoming some sort of Star of the Pulpit—actually, far from it. Many of our sermons will end up being effective for only a few people in church that day. Sometimes our sermons are just plain duds (leading to some humility, perhaps?). Yet, occasionally, our spiritual wrestlings with the texts and prayer are blessed by God and lead to insights that bring us to an exciting new place, a realization of God’s love, power, forgiveness, holiness, call to action, and much more. The sermons that arise from this personal struggle in faith are what speak to most people, inviting them into just that activity themselves, connecting their own journey to the wider life of the Church, helping heal old wounds, encouraging repentance, stoking hope and faith when it is running low, offering new tools for living and sharing the Christian witness…the list is endless.


The point is that being even a fairly mediocre preacher from our own experience is almost always better and more inspiring than being a peddler of other’s work. Reading and listening to sermons by others is a great and time-honored way to deepen, expand, and challenge our own way of preaching: but real preaching is a real labor: it is not meant to be easy, systematic, or "neat." It issues from God's love and yet also a trial of the soul. 

Using canned sermons—or developing a cycle of sermons once and then trotting them out for recitation each time those texts are used again—is a practice that should be confined to emergencies. The congregation comes to worship a Living God through the living Word in the presence of a living ordained disciple. Fresh, not canned, is best: this goes for preaching as well as eating.

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