Taking Clergy Health Seriously

What if clergy took their health more seriously?

When the days of having multiple clergy, staff and an army of women volunteers ended, the work became fragmented, stressful, and demanding.  Unprepared clergy suffer from depression and obesity – even if they know they love their work and the call.  Especially the smaller church pastor is often underequipped to handle the demands of building management, event planning, and performance that are each separately stressful upon the body.

I do not mourn the old days. I never knew them. And to some extent I enjoy the diversity of the workday and its challenges. My part-time staff is productive, helpful and supportive, so it’s manageable. I count my blessings, which are many.

But it’s easy to get overwhelmed. And for this reason, I wonder that clergy should have a rule about health. It should be non-negotiable, and may save the lives of a few clergy, and of some congregations.

And it might be like this.

The first rule of a priest is go to the gym. Every day. Do it first. Before work. Do it also for the health of the church. Because a priest that does not make a concerted, deliberate effort to do this work, will less effectively set important boundaries in other areas.

If it means postponing meetings until 11am, then do so.

If it means that you aren’t in the office until 10 or even 12, get to the gym.

Make it easy. If your gym has a locker, rent one.

If you need to just practice going to the gym, get there, take off your clothes, take a shower and then leave.

Put your clothes back on first.

If necessary, assure the parish. This will make you more productive, happier and they will be happier as well.  If they complain, we remind them that we want them to do the same, and find ways to be intentional about their own health.  Getting to the gym at a later office hour will still require that the tasks get done. It’s not license to leave early; trust that the impact of the exercise has shown to increase brain power. The work will more likely get done.

The consequences will have a cascading effect: exercise allows for better sleep; then it’s easier to workout again.  The pastor will have more energy.

What works for me? When I’m at my best I have a four day a week lifting program. It’s probably the only thing that keeps me going to the gym regularly.  The other day I do a very light 30 minute walk / run. Admittedly, I’m not always consistent. But a “rule” of life is not meant to be a whipping rod to lash oneself with guilt but an orientation to live into.

I recognize this is flip. But that first 20 minutes may change the nature of the day. It may begin with just walking. Wise priests might get a trainer or a coach for a few weeks to get started.

I suppose there are other things about health that are probably central. Jesus hates soda, including diet soda. Addicts trying to give that up can allow themselves flavored seltzer water.  And if thats not pleasing enough, try dark chocolate or beer.

Jesus loves beer and dark chocolate.

On Liberalism and Church decline: A response to Douthat

It’s true.  The church is losing numbers.  And yes, it has changed.

But I’m skeptical that the church’s decline has really been due to its liberality.  The liberal tradition is older.  Some trace it to Calvin, Luther or Erasmus; others Schleiermacher or Rahner; or the late 19th century pastors who dared to read Darwin.   Reading the bible was once a “liberal” act because it placed moral authority upon the reader rather than the clergy.  A few dare to trace liberalism to Jesus and the prophets.

The specific Religious Liberals, the modernists who conservatives critique have been around for more than 100 years.  Their authority and status built social security; promoted contraception and suffrage; they developed the framework that would build the UN, implement the Marshall Plan, justify decolonization and support civil rights.  They were church people who were comfortable in the halls of power, and had something to say.  For the most part, they were victorious.  Then in the 1960’s, in the midst of their success, that world changed.

This kerfuffle is not just about liberalism.  What changed is that the church became forced to compete.  And the pill.

As the economist Albert Hirschmann noted in Exit, Voice and Loyalty in the 1970s, Churches became less like families and more like franchises.   Previous generations did not leave a family.  In franchises, however, if the institution didn’t satisfy the congregants, who by this time had become consumers, they went elsewhere.  The beliefs of churches became products;  the doctrine of the church – or its practical mores – became another part of the free market.  And so, some left the church for other traditions, sports, or the church of rock and roll.   Some just decided to sleep in and didn’t care what the neighbors thought.  This liberalism freed us from some degree of oppression; it also liberated us from the burdens of obligation.  Thus attendance declined.

The other shifts were the cultural changes that gave women more power; and in particular changed the way the culture thought about sex.  Granted, the changes have, when coupled with capital, not been easy; but the liberal church accommodated those changes in practice, if not in doctrine.  That’s the particular liberalism at stake now, and why monosexual and patriarchal institutions are flummoxed by the Episcopal church’s movement.  In the Episcopal church, gay people and women have power.  It is not equal to the power of straight, white men with hair, perhaps; and it still reflects the culture; but the voices are not mute.  And this change is what threatens business as usual.

The church, the liberal church, hadn’t prepared for these changes institutionally. As the culture changed, progressive Priests were trained in the pastoral – professional model, assuming the reign of Christendom, that the culture would naturally return to their roots.  We didn’t think the world would become a mission field as people joined other tribes.

And so I will agree with one element our conservative commentators imply:  our church’s liberalism, our personal branding, our identification with niche of the Christian progressives, will not substitute for strong and powerful leadership.  In a highly balkanized environment, where communities are self-selecting and religious labels are like brands, our work is cut out for us.

Putting a sign on our office door saying we are inviting persons isn’t going to convince anyone they should spend time in a Christian community.  As one atheist said to me, “I’ll never enter to church, but if I did, I’d go to an Episcopal one.  Especially if it had Gospel music and lap dancers.”  It felt great to get his approval; perhaps he needs not join a Christian community.  But our numbers, if they matter (and perhaps they don’t), aren’t going to suddenly change because we’ve got the right progressive credential or passed a resolution to illustrate how awesomely liberal we are.

Conservatives often say, “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.” I understand the sentiment.  For if our actions derive solely from cultural approval they will undoubtedly fail.  The qualities of leadership have much more to do with confidence, responsibility and an interest in other people than a particular political faith.  Certainly our rejoinder that the incarnation commands an openness is an appropriate one.  But its another task, and a very different one, to live that out.

The liberal church at this point could behave like Esau – it has inherited a church that once had power; but overwhelmed by the responsibility with the power and wealth that remains.  It could be too willing  to sell our inheritance for a moment of sustenance and temporary survival.  Or we complain:  “This expense could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”   Our shame about the misdeeds of the past may disable us from claiming a power and authority we could proclaim.  It seems righteous to diminish our ambiguous inheritance, but perhaps we would merely abdicate it to the market, and it would be sold for a pittance, and we’d continue to diminish our own voice.

Let’s admit that inclusivity is not necessarily inviting.   Shouting to the world “you’re invited” can be a meaningless act of theo-political theater.  What matters is our ability, person to person, to make connections within our communities – even if they do not directly benefit the church.  Our choices may signal to others that Episcopalians can fit in to educated society; that we can have coffee with religion’s cultured despisers, but our liberality will not substitute for the hard work of building relationships.  And this takes not merely resolutions, but another sort of resolve.  For it doesn’t matter if we’re liberals in the office.  It matters if we’re followers of our savior in the world.

The consequence is that clergy cannot merely be pleasant pastoral directors of its sheep-like congregations (who in Episcopal Churches behave nothing like sheep, by the way), but persons who seek to share in building a liberated humanity, one where the values of empire have been turned on its head.    That is not merely proclamation; nor is it pastoral care; it is the slow and steady work of reconstructing a certain sort of world.

And what of the snark, Church growth?  Nobody really knows how that happens:  it could be demographic luck; a handsome clergy family; strong laity; priests who’ve just stuck it out a long time.  One journalist suggested to me that the Episcopal church could grow if we just were more aggressive:  “You know your natural market, right?  Disenchanted Catholics.”

Of course, 50% of my church is exactly that.  Every priest knows the joke that church growth for Episcopalians means divorced Catholics and drinking protestants.  There are certainly some technical church growth habits parishes could practice more conscientously; but we still don’t know how to evaluate their success, and success isn’t guaranteed.  I will say that most of the people who’ve entered are those who want to be connected, and want a spiritual practice that sustains them in their life.

However, there is also evidence, all over the country,  of thriving liberal churches.  Not all are megachurches, but they are healthy, self sustaining and making a difference.  I can name a few immediately.   They have strong, uncompromising, inviting leadership.  They communicate to the needs of the people; they organize; they are social entrepreneurs.  The congregants are excited about their congregations.  Powerful and connected leadership builds churches.  It’s built conservative churches.  It can build liberal ones.

Liberalism was never the reason the church declined; but I suggest neither shall it be our savior.   It is enough that we will remember our risen Lord; and because he is risen, we are fearless; to risk loving the unloved.

On Bulletins

Penelope at One Can Not Have Too Large a Party (How True!) asks about the use of putting everything in the Sunday Bulletin.

I’m for it.  The arguments against it are trivial.

It was once a serious issue in my congregation.  I had started, over time, to include more information in our weekly bulletin.  Initially it was simply the responses of the congregation.  Then I included more of the priest text.  Soon, the hymns.  Announcements.

No papers flying about.  No need to juggle books and worry about choosing the right one.  Ushers freed from handing out the various additional hymnals when we needed them.  We included sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop.  We could use more from the Book of Occasional Services.  It was full, and comprehensive.  Like Anglican and Catholic Christianity should be.

Of course, this caused a little consternation.  Our bulletins have become fairly thick, including the lessons, ministry schedules and announcements.    But of course, quietly, a few asked why we didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or the hymnal any more (although we often still did for non-Sunday worship), and more complained about the destruction of large forests for the sake of the priest’s pride.  “We’ll help people who are visiting” they would assert confidently.

The sentiment was generous, but I’d never seen it happen.

The central question I posed back to them: what do recent members and visitors think?  Has it made worship more comfortable for them?  Did they come to our congregation because they wanted to become more familiar with the books?  Or were they coming to be a part of a hospitable, welcoming community?  Most of the few individuals who raised the questions about the bulletin were people who grew up in the church.  After many years of formation, the seasoned don’t experience our service the same way visitors and seeker do.  I’d change it back if that’s what our recent members desired.

Some enjoy learning the intricacies of worship and its complexity.  But a service that is too obscure can also be an unnecessary stumbling bloc to individuals looking for a community or a spiritual home.  So my criteria for analyzing whether a bulletin should be complete, is to first learn what the new members think.

And let’s face it:  saving paper is a ridiculous criteria.  Perhaps once we’ve given up seating meat twice a week; forgone air travel; started walking or riding our bike as a primary transportation, then we can get all fussy about paper. Download it on an ereader!  But until then, it seems to be miserliness masked as righteousness; a sacrificing of hospitality for some reason that cannot be fathomed.

But there are three challenges a full bulletin does not accomplish on its own.

A full bulletin is merely one example of hospitality.  But it cannot, on its own, overcome a parish that does not really want to grow.  It comes out of a generous spirit; it does not create it. It cannot hide it.

A full bulletin cannot mask rushed, incompetent, or lazy worship.  Worship that does not allow for some silence and reverence; that has cringe worthy music and singing; and includes dull, tepid and inauthentic preaching; will not be aided by a comprehensive bulletin, even if it is illuminated by hand by a order of monks with gold leaf.

Having a complete bulletin also does not excuse any pastor from teaching, in some fashion, the tradition.  We should be actively, continuously, repeatedly, be helping people explore their relationship with the transcendent using the many practices at our disposal, whether it be the symbols we hold, the words we read, or the prayers we say.  Those who want to learn about the Daily Office, about asperges and anointing, church seasons and colors, should be offered those opportunities.  And certainly, we can deepen people’s spirituality as best we can, so that they do not need even the bulletin or the BCP.  They can just look up, around, and participate in the liturgy by simply lifting their hearts to God, and learning to listen.

But we do this in steps.  Certainly do not skimp on strong worship; work hard on your sermons; love the stranger.  As you have done these these, you will find a complete bulletin will be a useful tool for everyone.

Church Building RIP.

Today the AP came out with the following report.

About halfway through Sunday service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, as worshipers passed around the collection plate, a chorus of screams pierced the air.

Chunks of the ceiling in the 52-year-old church near Hickory came crashing down on the crowd of 200 or so, striking about 14, who were later treated and released from nearby hospitals. A jagged piece of the ceiling, roughly 10 feet by 10 feet, dangled from exposed wires over the back pews as deacons struggled to guide panicking worshipers from the building.

“My jaw just dropped,” the Rev. Antonio Logan said. “I thought, ‘This can’t be real.'”

Yes.  Real.

Church buildings are an albatross around the church’s neck, especially for small congregations who have, as the cliche has it, an “edifice complex.”

Such a complex would be OK – but many parishioners are not in the habit of funding it; and newcomers haven’t built up a commitment to the church.  And sometimes it takes years.

To fund staff, maintenance, AND church growth is expensive, which is why church plants are often easier than church turnarounds.

Ernesto Cortes, Jr.

I was recently reminded about this fellow.

When one woman asks him to explain how he “motivates” people to support a cause with actions as well as words, the storm rolls in. Cortés can scarcely conceal his impatience. “Perhaps I prejudge you unfairly,” he begins, “but when I hear your question, what I think you’re really saying is, ‘How can I convince people to do what’s good? How do I get them to do what’s right? How do I get them to follow my agenda?’ ” He pauses, frowning. “That’s not organizing. What I mean by organizing is getting you to recognize what’s in your best interest. Getting you to recognize that you have a child, that you have a career and a life to lead, and that there are some things that are obstacles to the quality of your life. I need to get you to see how you can affect those things through relationships with other people. And it’s only going to happen if you engage in some kind of struggle.”

He pauses to let it all sink in. “We organize people not just around issues, but around their values,” he says. “The issues fade, and people lose interest in them. But what they really care about remains: family, dignity, justice, and hope. We need power to protect what we value.”

In churches, we call this asset based congregational development.  Begin where people are, not where you think they should be.

Easter 4 Year C

Easter 4 Year C

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

After reading this week’s lectionary, I’m considering “how to build a church 101” sermon.  Or a “how not to build a church 101” if I can get some laughs out of it.

“Ignore the people around you,”  “use Schoenberg for a mass setting.”

In the first passage we read – from Acts of the Apostles – the disciples accomplish amazing wonders, including healing of a bedridden paralytic and the raising of Dorcas, of the unfortunate name, from the dead.  Transformation is promised and delivered.   Upon seeing the successes of the church, people believe.  They believe in the power.   Who needs health insurance when you’ve got Jesus!

From this pericope I might discuss power.  I believe that Christians are too shy about talking about power.   The assumption: “power corrupts.”   I’d spend some time looking at different sorts of power – physical power; spiritual power; monetary power.   I’d assess the chaotic nature of power, and the power required to create order.

Power from people with the best intentions can have terrible results; and power from individuals who are manipulative and self-interested may result in wonderful changes for the common good.  But I believe, generally, that power is inextricably linked with life itself.  God is a God of power.  Dim, vague and vascillating (as Whitehead once said), perhaps, but present nonetheless.

In the second reading, I imagine the Christians, in the midst of the apocalypse, declaring God’s glory.   It seems defiant, the chant of a team that’s been the underdog for so long on the verge of victory. God wins.    They’re Cubs fans.  Trusting in the power of the underdog above the power of… money and commerce.

Continue reading

Hospitality and Church

A essay about Starbucks, wifi and church in the USA today.

“Styrofoam cups in church, Father. Kids running up and down the aisles. Can you believe it?”

It’s here. A parishioner asked me if we could serve eggnog before the Christmas eve service. She’d provide the nog.