Back to the Rectory Porch

When I first interviewed with the St. George’s search committee – now, wow!, nearly nine years ago – they took me on a tour of this campus, a tour which of course included the rectory.  The rectory is a beautiful, stately, Cape Code-style home – grand and simple, while, at once, elegant without being too big.  Simply put, I love the house.

“What a beautiful front porch,” I mentioned, pointing to the broad covered porch that overlooks the church and churchyard, the belltower and parish hall.

“Indeed,” said one of the committee members, “many wonderful prayers have been offered here, and many sermons developed, too, I’m sure.”

When it came time to kickoff my own digital ministry, via this blog, the title instantly came to me: From the Rectory Porch.  (I seem to remember a Milton quote, somewhere in Paradise Lost about a porch, and try as I might — though I haven’t gone so far as re-reading it! — I haven’t come up with anything.)  But for those who might’ve been checking this site, here and there, for any new news or good gossip or, well, anything you’ve no doubt noticed a lull.  It’s not that little is happening in my life and at St. George’s.  Quite the opposite!  Little time has been spent, however, writing about my more situated ministry, pondering Milton, like I just tried to, above, or Herbert or any of those more quaint aspects of ministry in this place.  For one, I’ve been blogging – and blogging regularly for the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Practices series. I submit a blog for them every other week, and you can read behind most of those blogs to figure out what’s on my mind and what might be going on at St. George’s.front porch rocking chair

For another, St. George’s is in the midst of some very significant and holy conversations about who we are and what God’s future for this congregation might be.  You probably think I should’ve written “what our future is” – that being the obvious corollary to who we are – but I think identity and calling are not always the very same thing; connected, just not one and the same.  St. George’s is at a moment, right now, where we’re asking fundamental questions of our current operating model – namely, why does this one congregation, which has been and continues to grow, year after year, still operate with the assumption that we need to have one (full-time) priest, and should we, can we come up with a different, broader, more mission-focused model?  All the while, we’re also trying to invite God into this conversation so that our answer is not a dollars-and-cents fix, but a Gospel-based call.  Creating that space to discern, to wonder, to talk, to remain open to what God is calling me and us to become has taken a lot of focus and energy on my end.  It’s made me to set aside the writing and strategizing (which I confess is my go-to, maybe sometimes my ‘get-away’) and spend time in prayer and conversation with God’s people, one on one.

So that’s where I’ve been, in a nutshell.  Feeling excited and hopeful and, honestly, really optimistic about who we might become, if we lean into God’s future.  And, at the same time, still crazy busy trying to keep up all of these structures we’ve inherited and which I, personally, have also created.

By way of illustration, I’ll close with a slightly more amusing tale.

Yesterday, something came over me to write again for the Rectory Porch.  Maybe it was the rain and the chill; maybe that it was Ascension Day, after all, and I wanted to say something about the Ascension.  (That blog is halfway done, and still sitting on my desktop.)

I was deep into a fun little post – fun to me, mind you; not everyone thinks the history of liturgical observances of the Ascension in western Christianity is ‘fun.’  Like I said, I was about halfway through when the call came.  Iman had come down the night before and we made tentative plans to go out to lunch.  “A half hour,” I said to her, just after I said hello to the pest control guy who was out for his quarterly check on this campus. “Just a half hour, and I’ll be done.  Oh, by the way, the pest control guy is coming over to spray in and around the rectory.  Just let him in.  He knows what to do.”

Shortly thereafter, the phone rang.  It was Iman.  Looking up, across the churchyard, I could see Iman on the phone, her red rain jacket, outside, walking around with the dog, Phoebe.  “Greg, you need to come home right now,” she said.  “Phoebe got into something in the guy’s truck, and ate it.”  (If it were me talking, I’d have added lots and lots of exclamation points, but Iman is great under pressure and she’s not an exclamation-point kind of speaker.  If I could’ve better emphasized the periods in that statement, I’d have done so.  Come. Home. Now.)

Here’s how the rest of the afternoon felt:

Phoebe to the vet.  Iman back to the house so she could get her car (which we left there, not checking the time) so she can get to her afternoon appointment. Me back to the vet: pacing, worry .  “She should be fine,” the vet tech says. “Give her some of these pills…”   Something about blood work.  Something about rat poison inhibiting Vitamin K.  Note to self: Google ‘Vitamin K.’

“Oh, and continue to monitor her for any loose blood or vomit.”

Back at the rectory, Phoebe and me.  On vomit / loose blood watch.  Call from the lady who lives down the lane.  Something about her grandson, a tie, a presentation.  “I’m over at the rectory,” I say.  Moments later, a white truck pulls up.  Grandson gets out, on his way to make a final presentation for a business class he’s taking in college.  He forgot to how tie a tie.  (I’m afraid after all these years of wearing a backwards collar, I might’ve forgotten, too).  Necktie instruction in the rectory living room.  The dog is asleep, exhausted.

Neighbor lady, the grandmother, shows up in her golf cart.  We chat, something about gravestones.  Another truck pulls up.  “This the rectory?”  “Yes.”  “Need to mark phone lines before the perc test.”  Rectory septic went out, or is going out, or at any rate is going to be investigated for what’s wrong when the health department perc test happens Thursday of next week.

Iman and Carter back home; Iman picked her up from school, and they went to the grocery store.  Carter’s working on a mother’s day gift for Iman, who is not (yet, officially) her mom, of course, but whom Carter has come to adore and truly love, and for whom Carter is looking forward to the day, which is soon coming, when she is, officially, ‘Mommy.’

Carter and Iman
The finished project at this morning’s breakfast, Carter’s painting for Iman.

 

Friends come over for dinner.  It was going to be a 6 o’clock conversation at the parish hall about youth group, and the great work they’ve done and how we can work together to build it stronger next year and in coming years, but with Carter’s project and her shower and our dinner – you get it, I’m sure – the ‘meeting’ is moved to the rectory, and to the rectory dining room table, and to dinner.  It’s a much better meeting than it would’ve been, anyway, and even more wonderful to spend time together with friends, fellowshipping, praying, playing, eating, talking.

Even Carter got to stay up a little later than usual and play the second hand of a fun board game.

We all said goodnight.  Carter upstairs, saying our prayers, kisses and off to sleep.  I sat down in the living room chair.

I never even made it to the rectory porch.  It was too dark and cold last night, but also some kind of birds, back in March, made a nest in the one front porch light that’s missing a glass pane, so I left them alone for the past five or six weeks. Their bird babies are all grown and they flew away, just this week, so I went up there two nights ago and cleaned out the light fixture and removed the old nest — now ready to take the rocking chairs up from the basement, wash them, maybe paint a fresh coat, and set them up in prime porch position.

Just this morning, however, I saw a few more twigs and branches back in that same porch light, the one missing a pane.  I reached up and took them out.  This time, I’ll get ahead of those birds.  One round is enough.  I’m about to reclaim that porch.

 

And many a new, fresh prayer will be offered.  And the beginning of, I hope, many good sermons and stories will emerge.  And I know that God will continue to reveal His grace and goodness, His will and His hope for me and for us.  Right there, among so many other holy places, from the rectory porch.

NINE YEARS AGO, NINE YEARS FROM NOW

The list of nominees for Presiding Bishop (PB) of The Episcopal Church was just published.  (Or click here.)  The current person in the job is the Most Reverend – so, right there, being PB gives you a bump in adjectives – Katharine Jefferts Schori. She’s served for nine years and even though she’s young enough to have stood for election again she said, and I summarize, “No way!”

The Most Rev’d Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

A Presiding Bishop is the bishop who is elected by the other bishops for a nine year term as the presider, the President and convener of the assembly (House) of bishops.  She or he has to be nine years younger than the mandatory retirement age (72).  It used to be the bishop with the longest tenure, the senior-most bishop in the House of Bishops, and only in the last century did the Presiding Bishop have to relinquish his – it was all him’s back then – diocese and serve in a new job. During this summer’s General Convention in Salt Lake City, the bishops will go away to a nearby church; they will pray and sing and cast votes. The one with the majority is the winner.  The House of Deputies, meanwhile, has to and will in all likelihood consent to the election. Later this year, the newly elected PB will be seated at the Washington National Cathedral, the seat of the Presiding Bishop, and he or she will move into the penthouse apartment at The Episcopal Church Center in New York – a posh pad where, I imagine, the PB will probably only occasionally sleep and probably seldom, if ever, actually get to just ‘hang out’ because s/he will, very likely, become much more acquainted with airports and life on the move over the next nine years than his or her own home. And we wonder why Bishop Katharine is willing to let someone else take the job?

I’m not going to add to what, it seems, we all think the Presiding Bishop should do or be. That’s already been written, and we’re going to be talking a lot about the future of the PB’s role at this summer’s General Convention in the conversations about restructuring the church; just Google “Taskforce on Reimagining the Episcopal Church,” or TREC.  It’s obvious that the next PB needs to have a real knack at administration and preaching and motivation and change. The candidate needs to be strongly rooted in Christ and fearless and adaptive and you can add to this list any other quality that goes along with being a faithful disciple of Jesus and, for that matter, any other buzzword we like to toss about – entrepreneurial being one I hope will quickly come to see its end. Also, and let me vent for a moment, the job qualifications have already been published in a profile and via a search committee, the purpose and role of which, I’ll be honest, I have no clue as to why they even exist, let alone are funded to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars: the only people voting on this job are already bishops and they all pretty much know each other. End of rant.

What I want to share, however, is that I am going to pray for these nominees and, in so doing, pray for the ongoing renewal of this church. I ask you, too, to pray that our staid and steady institution will continue – and I mean continue – to become more and more like the Body of Christ, serving this world boldly because we have a bold message, and less and less like a fearful, former-Forbes 500 company.

Because nine years is a long time.

Nine years.

Just think of where you were, personally, professionally, vocationally, in your walk with Christ nine years ago. Nine years is a long time.

For me, I was in a different city, in a different place, a very different chapter in my life. I had darker glasses and darker hair. (I still see brown hair on top of my head; it’s just the person I see in pictures of me has a lot more gray!) Nine years ago, I was not married nor was I, yet, a father. I wasn’t on Facebook, and I’m not sure I knew anyone who was. Some of my friends had joined this new thing called Netflix but I still walked to my local video store. Nine years ago, I had only one email address. I hadn’t heard of Twitter, and a hashtag probably sounded like something I’d order for breakfast.

1970’s “Runaway Besteller”!

Nine years ago I thought of The Episcopal Church as an institution, something kind of like the company for which I work and if I worked hard enough and played the company game I would find my way on to a happy and successful career. I thought I could venture from job to job, from ministry to ministry, from curacy to rectorate, from smaller church to bigger church and onward. I hadn’t yet accepted a call to Valley Lee, to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to the Diocese of Washington.  Nine years ago, I was serving in a very impactful and formational curacy in the Diocese of Chicago.

Nine years is also a long time in the life of an institution. In 2006, the year Presiding Bishop Katharine was elected, the Episcopal Church had 7,095 parishes and missions; in 2013 (the last numbers on record) that number dropped to 6,622, a 6% drop. Nearly 300,000 active baptized members dropped off in those seven years; from 2,154,572 (2006) to 1,866,758 (2013), a 13% loss. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), the only number that actually means anything, plummeted 18%; from 2006’s 765,326 to 2013’s 623,691. (Just look at how the minimal decline in parishes compares with the significant decline in people. To me, it says we are much quicker to save institutions than focus on the people.) The percentage of congregations with an ASA of less than 100 increased from 63% in 2006 to 69% in 2013 whereas the percentage of congregations with ASA of 300 or more decreased from 6% to 4% in that same time period.

In nine years the world changed. Society has been shaped more significantly and at a faster pace than in the nine years prior to this past near-decade, and that trend will only continue. I don’t blame Bishop Katharine or the leadership of the Episcopal Church, even though I am unafraid to call out failures. It’s that a lot of changes have happened and will happen and only more rapidly continue to happen nine-years after nine-years after nine-years.

What matters, what makes the difference, I’d say, is who we are as we stand in the midst of these changes, and where our values lead us. Standby, because I’m getting to some good news.

The most transformative and abundant change in my life in the last nine years has been fatherhood. There’s something about fatherhood, parenthood, family that tethers you in a profound and lasting way to this world. Some months ago, I heard a father interviewed and he described the moment he saw his son as the moment in which he became, he said, “hostage to the world.” It’s a phrase that struck me, pierced my heart and not in a negative way. Fatherhood means that you’re in it, for life. What a gift to be all in.

Nine years ago I’m not so sure I was all in in my own personal and vocational life, and not completely in my professional life, either. Nine years ago, I’m not so sure The Episcopal Church was all in, either. We didn’t seem completely in on our message of healing a broken world, of being a voice for the voiceless and, quite literally, becoming the kind of body that lives and breathes reconciliation.

We’ve had some hard fights these past nine years, and they only appear to be about about property and money and who owns what. Those are just symptoms. The root issue is whether we, as an institution, are all in in becoming the Body of Christ – whether we are prepared to put our resources and our substance and our physical presence, including our legacies and our histories and our money, into becoming the kind of people and the kinds of communities in which all are welcome and where Christ, in so doing, is made known.

I’ve learned this message and, to some degree, I’ve had to learn it the hard way. I’ve learned the most important thing is that my life is always, already wrapped up in Christ’s, and that if I have anything I have integrity and wellness. I’ve learned how important it is to be a good father to my daughter and a broken-yet-redeemed person of God. I’ve learned that honesty and vulnerability are so much more important than keeping up appearances in the world. I’ve had to learn that it is better to remain rooted in a community than keep thinking – and worrying – about the future. I’ve had to learn that it is my integrity in the here and now that makes a difference, and that our lives preach greater sermons than our words. I’ve learned through practice and I’ve learned through trial that I am invited, daily, to plant myself deeply, firmly in Christ. And, in fact, I’ve learned how much God transforms my simple gifts, say, a few loaves and some fish — but that God in Christ only does so when I’ve made that first step to pay attention and be still, when I’ve come to know that nothing, nothing can shake me from expecting God to do what God has said God would.

Nine years ago, St. George’s, Valley Lee was fearful and broken and scattered and uncertain. Nine years ago, this church didn’t know it had much of a future, and they really weren’t all in, either. And God brought us together. God didn’t bring me, the rector, to change and grow this institution. God brought me to a place which needed to learn new things and become a new body, so that I, myself, could also learn new things and become a new body, and that both of us, together, would grow in Him.

The numbers don’t show this growth; not yet, at least. The numbers currently show the opposite of growth. But anecdotally, which I know is not data, and across social media, which I didn’t even have nine years ago, I sense that a tide is shifting, the church is turning, and the Gospel is picking up momentum. I sense that more Valley Lee’s are coming online, more risks are being taken, and Christ is being incarnated in even more special and remarkable ways, ways we haven’t yet seen. Ever. And I expect or, at least, hope that over the next nine years we will be even more all in.