A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Diocesan Lay Leader Retreat at Chapel Rock in Prescott. This is a service offered by the Diocese to its parishes and one which I highly recommend to all of you at some point in your lay leader ministries. Next year’s retreat date is posted on the Diocesan website and is Friday, March 6, 2015. Save the date!
The Diocese brought in a guest speaker, Clay Lein, Sr. Pastor of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Frisco, TX. Clay spoke on the theme of Transformation at four Plenary sessions. As well, in between these Plenary Sessions, were break-out sessions on a variety of topics to better inform lay leadership. There were sessions for:
• Junior and Senior Wardens,
• for Treasurers,
• for Clerks
• for Retreat Veterans about Strategic Planning, and another one for year round stellar stewardship
• a session with the Diocesan legal and financial counsel, on the role of the vestry
• a session on the history of the Episcopal Church and how it works
• a session on learning to work with different cultures
• bible study for lay leaders
My biggest problem was that I couldn’t attend all of these break-out sessions, and I wanted to!
At all times, Bishop Kirk Smith was present and highly accessible, asking and answering questions, and sharing with us his understanding and knowledge. Touching on a question that was raised yesterday evening, the Bishop told us that they are here to serve us; that their business is to look after us, all of us.
To facilitate this process, the Diocesan staff was present, leading some of the break-out sessions, ready with their knowledge to answer questions. Present were:
• Megan Traquair, Canon to the Ordinary
• Timothy Dombek, Canon for Stewardship & Planned Giving
• Nancy Shumaker, Canon for Children & Family
• Matt Marino, Canon for Youth
• Cathy Black, Canon for Administration & Asst. to the Bishop
• Nicole Krug, Canon for Media & Communications
• Sharon Graves, Administrative Assistant
• Janet Kaiser with the Episcopal Federal Credit Union
All these employees were accessible to answer any questions. I spent about twenty minutes during a coffee break discussing Safeguarding God’s Children with Sharon Graves, who is the Diocesan Administrator for Safeguarding.
An additional benefit of attending the retreat was that I got to meet folks from all around the diocese, although the Tucson crowd ended up sitting together by mid-day Saturday, which was very nice to get to know one another a little bit. Can’t remember their names, but I can their faces, and we had a good time.
The plenary sessions where Clay Lein spoke were especially helpful and interesting and I’d like to share his story with you.
Clay attended church regularly growing up but by the time he was a late teen, he had decided that church was worthless and that he was giving up on church and on God. HE went about his life, became an electrical engineer, then got an MBA. Clay also was an atheist who was married a preacher’s daughter. Then God proceeded to call Clay over the next several years although Clay didn’t realize that it was God calling, he just thought it was life happening. Clay’s wife attended church regularly, and so Clay was asked by the priest at his wife’s church if he could help with the baseball team, and Clay was passionate about baseball so he said yes, as long as you know I’m an atheist, the answer was no problem. Then he was asked to help with some other volunteer areas, and he answered yes, as long as you know I’m an atheist.
He was eventually asked to help as a youth camp counsellor for troubled youth and again his response….The retreat was at Chapel Rock, and the final night was one where the youth leaders had to pray over the youth who had shared their very personal stories. Clay figured, this isn’t a problem, I’ve got a Christian co-leader, they can do the praying over the youth, but the female leader with whom Clay had been paired told him she couldn’t do it. That left him to help these young people who needed and wanted prayers. As he tells it, he dropped into his “can do” mode, looked around, saw what the other leaders were doing and figured that this wouldn’t be too difficult, mentally rolled up his sleeves, and got to it.
After a couple of youth, he realized that the words were just coming out of him, and he wasn’t in control, that he was praying, and he wasn’t praying alone. By the end of the line of youth, the tears were streaming down his face, and he realized that he was no longer an atheist; that he had been touched as surely as the youth over whom he had prayed. Clay realized that his life had changed, that he had been transformed. So much so, that eventually, he became an Episcopalian minister.
I found Clay’s story particularly moving because he was an atheist, because he was hardnosed business person who somehow was able to open up to being transformed despite who he was. Clay was and is who he is —direct-speaking, hard-charging, focused, a numbers/linear type person, a person who admits to a large ego. This is who he is from what I could glean from the weekend’s sessions. But paradoxically, this isn’t who he is. He is a child of God, whose mission it is to transform others so that they may come to their realization that they also are children of God. Because of his moment of grace, of transformation, he is willing to be God’s agent in the world, to step up, say yes to God even when it seems absurd or impossible, and then step out of God’s way, letting God do the work through him, letting God make it happen. It was a fascinating image of this driven person, who says “yes” to God, sometimes struggling with that, and then he gets out of the way. For some of us, getting out of the way and trusting that God is working, is a really hard thing to do.
Raise your hand if you’re OCD, controlling, perfectionist, ego-driven, my way or the highway types. We think, we believe, we KNOW we’re in charge, right?
What Clay kept repeating was that we are children of God, it is God’s church, it is God’s work, and we are here for God — THY will be done. That God is in charge.
He had a funny couple of moments because he said when he came to this realization, it was actually a relief. It meant that he didn’t need to pretend that he knew what was going on anymore — and remember that this guy is an engineer and an MBA — that he could say, OK God. Thy will be done.
It was a little bit like watching the old Bill Cosby “Noah” skit where the Lord begins talking to Noah and telling him he had to build an ark and Noah fights and fights against God’s will, until the deluge arrives …
Just over a month ago, I received an email from the Episcopal Church Foundation — a link I highly recommend, very informative. One of the articles was written by Blair Pogue, Rector at St. Matthew’s Church in St. Paul’s, MN; ECF entitled the article in the teaser as “Finding Jesus on the Agenda” and it is about living life and working in discernment, particularly when it comes to the business side of the parish. Or, saying yes to God and then getting out of God’s way.
This would be a really interesting conversation to have here at St. Philip’s because we are so large, and so diverse, and so full of talent. We have engineers, we have MBA’s, we have Ph.D’s, we have dreamers and artists and scientists and numbers people, marketing folk, physicians, parents, educators, librarians…and so forth. And it seems to me that we frequently pull in divergent directions, or we pull into the details. When we pull into the details, as helpful and important as details are, that pulls us away from the focus, the mission, finding Jesus on the agenda.
I know that I frequently get caught up in the details of getting the job done, in the pursuit of perfection, in doing it my way. I need to stop, not just slow down, but stop, and remember that I sure as hell am not perfect, and that I won’t be able to create perfection, and I shouldn’t be beating up myself and others mentally when perfection isn’t achieved. That even though I like looking at the big picture, I don’t have the big picture. But God does.
So going back to the retreat, one of the things that Clay articulated was that we need to know our mission, the specific mission, and what is our mission from God. We need to know who we are. A small example of this is when I introduced myself to him and told him I was from St. Philip’s in Tucson and he immediately asked which Philip, the saint or the deacon.
I am not like some of you — lay theologians. I stood there like a fish out of water, thinking oh ****. Of course I was trying to control my reaction (see the paragraph above about control and perfection), so I was hoping that my external face was showing an expression of intelligent curiosity — “oh really, you don’t say, you know about those two Philips as well, eh?”
Inside however, my face was one of shock, yelling, “trick, this is a trick, no fair! Boy do I look and sound like a fool”. All I could muster was “St. Philip???” in a questioning voice. And he said very nicely, but very firmly, you need to know! So as soon as I could upon my return to Tucson, I cornered John and asked him.
Do any of you know the answer — the Saint or the Deacon? I do now.
So do you know the answer?
We now know where we come from.
Do we know our mission? At St. Philip’s In The Hills we are devoted to welcoming, encouraging, and empowering all to grow in faith and to do God’s work in the world.
Do we know what we do? What is our Godly mission, if you will? What do we want to achieve by being leaders in the church, by being Christians?
Know what you want to achieve.
What I took away from the retreat was the idea of a type of spiritual strategic planning. We undertook strategic planning a couple of years ago, led by John’s experience and excitement with the St. Alban’s conference he attended, led by Susan Beaumont who wrote “Inside the Large Congregation”. From John’s experience at the conference, he organized the strategic planning with Timothy Dombek, and we undertook to plan our future, our dreams, our goals.
It was a fascinating experience. When a diverse group of people come together to dream, to dialogue, to work together as a team, saying YES to one another and to the vision, then much can be accomplished. Over the course of months, we created categories of areas, with individual lists in the categories of goals. That list is almost 90% complete now — parish retreat, campus signage, Women’s Advent Service, collection baskets in Comfy Space, Labyrinth events, Web Design and new website, to name but a few.
If we can achieve that type of success with material issues, then what can we achieve if we do a spiritual strategic planning regarding who/what we are?
What is our goal?
Is our goal to provide a beautiful welcome?
Or is it to offer the opportunity to be transformed via all of the above?
When I turned up to one of the Ashes to Go stations this year, I saw very clearly the hunger in people for something more. People want this connection. We need to be filled, transformed. Our lives are so fast and so connected, that it becomes almost impossible for us to slow down and sit and be. When the teams go to the streets, they offer that momentary break in the hamster wheel, offering solace.
In Susan Anderson-Smith’s sermon this past Sunday on the Gospel of Jesus at the well with Samaritan Woman, Susan said:
The gospel witnesses to the gift of God for all of God’s children. In the vulnerability of an interdependent community, in the insistence upon relationship, in the commitment to stand in the margins of life, in the breaking down of barriers, Jesus shows us a new way to learn about one another, to claim one another as kin, to learn the truth of one another, and to learn that we need one another. True worship takes place not at a sacred mountain, or an ornate altar, or even a shared ancestral well, but in a relationship with the person of Jesus — the wellspring and mountaintop of hope and peace — revealed in the face of every child of God.
This is transformation. We offer water at the well, we offer love.
What I would like to see occur this year so that we can offer transformation to all, is:
1. Prosaically, a closer and clearer understanding of how vestry and commissioners work together. This will involve strategic thinking and partnering; it will involve brainstorming so that we can more effectively use the time, talent and treasures with which we have been blessed. This work of partnering has already begun, and will continue with the April joint meeting for vestry and commissioners, and this ongoing clarification and focusing will be a goal for this year.
2. Visiting Teams to other churches and faith traditions to see what they do that we might want to do as well; to see where they may be better at certain things, and where we may be better. To create more bonds with other faith communities; to improve.
3. Just as we have Ashes to Go, have Services to Go, taking the services to the streets and the parks, to the bus depot downtown. Perhaps partnering with other faith traditions to do these services, similar to what the committee for the Prevention of Gun Violence did with the Tucson Memorial Service.
4. Have a joint After School Music Program monthly dinner with the ASMP kids, their parents and our parish. Break down those walls.
5. Figure out how we can do, really do, Outreach. We have lots of Outreach opportunities, and we have some really committed people, so how do we make this more a part of our psyche?
6. Last, but for me most importantly, a way for us to find Jesus on the Agenda so that we always are aware that we are not in charge, that God is at the helm and if we can turn up and say yes to God working through each of us — clergy, staff and parishioners, together on the God Team — then we can achieve anything.
We transform by knowing who we are and what we want to achieve. We transform by acknowledging that we all need each other. We transform by saying yes to each other, yes to God, and then getting out of the way. By trusting that if God really and truly is in charge, then God will be present.
And then, we are doing God’s work in the world.
—Alison Lee, Senior Warden
Presented at the Vestry/Parish Leadership Retreat, March 29, 2014