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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Wednesday Festival: Ten things we can do if we really want to change the Church

The Rev. Jeanne Finan at REMEMBER YOUR BAPTISM offers these 10 things to do if we REALLY want to change the Church.  Food for thought here!

We talk a lot about transformation and change in the Church. Are these just idle words or are we really serious about change? Do we enjoy patting ourselves on the backs more than we enjoy risking real change? Here are a few suggestions that might jumpstart change in our Church.

1. Under 40. Pass a resolution in your Diocese to only elect those younger than 40 to attend General Convention (or whatever it is you call your national gathering). Who does your diocese send to General Convention? Often it's the same lay and clergy deputies year after year after year? How many are under 40 years old? We say we care about the youth and that young people are the future of the Church. Let’s give them a tangible opportunity to shape the future of the Church. I would suggest that we use the same “under 40” guideline for our Diocesan Conventions, but we all know that some of our parishes would have no one to send from their congregations. Think about that, too.
(Full disclosure: I am 62 years old and, even though the "under 40" rule of thumb certainly excludes me, I love the idea of giving young people real voice and the vote).

2. Women only. Only allow female candidates for bishop for the next 250 years or so (that’s about how long only male candidates were on the ballots—and still are). If we had a more gender-balanced voice in the House of Bishops we might really change the Church. The last time we elected a bishop here in my Diocese, there was not even a woman on the ballot. When a member of the Search Committee was asked "Why?," his response was, "We couldn't find any women who were qualified." This was only seven years ago. Wow. Not a single qualified woman. I wonder how hard they looked?
(Full disclosure: I am a woman but harbor no personal call to the episcopacy. However, there are many gifted and qualified women who do feel called. Let’s elect them.)

3. Let retirement mean reinvention. Prevent parishes from hiring retired clergy for vacancies or even to assist. This is not to diminish the gifts of retired clergy, but they have had their time, they have their pension and they have the experience to open new opportunities for themselves. I know so many young clergy who are passed over for positions because there is a retired priest whom the parish can get on the cheap. Or there is a gaggle of retired clergy willing to serve for free. By inviting retired clergy to come back into parish ministry after retirement, we remove opportunities for young and newly ordained clergy and we also remove opportunities for retired clergy to go into the world and reinvent their ministry. Ever considered mission work? Ever considered how your presence as a volunteer at a food bank could change you and others? Ever considered how wearing a Wal-Mart blue vest or working on a grounds crew at a golf course might ripple the love of Christ into a hungry world? Celebrate the long ministry you have already enjoyed. Step aside so that young clergy can find jobs and begin to create their own ministry. Tent for God in new ways.
(Full disclosure: I am not retired yet but look forward to reinventing myself in a few years.)

4. Diversity: Ask questions. Take action. Don’t attend conferences that have only male speakers (or a single token female) or only white people on their agenda. Look at most homiletics conferences. Wow! Is Barbara Brown Taylor the only woman who has found her preaching voice? Question why your Bishop’s staff looks like the men’s locker room at the Country Club (AKA older white men). Where are God’s people of color? Diversity is a commitment not a buzz word.
(Full disclosure: I am white, beyond middle-aged—probably some would say old—female.)

5. Stop bargain shopping. Live and model being a community. Do the right thing, not the "cheap" thing. Episcopal Conference Centers exist to serve our Church. So why do we shop around for the cheapest deal? Oh, our college young adults don’t have enough money to have their retreat at our Diocesan Conference Centers—hmm…so then how do they drive those shiny new SUVs? Surely we can’t expect the Executive Committee—or Bishops—to stay in some rustic cabins? Stay with Church Health Insurance instead of getting your 29 year-old rector the cheapest insurance. Are we out for ourselves or are we here to be a Christian community? Stop balancing the budget on the backs of our staff and clergy. Women associates/assistants and women staff members are usually the first to be eliminated in a budget crunch or the infamous "reorganization." When will we lose the mentality of “she doesn’t really need a job”? We say the church is not a building but people; yet we preserve our buildings at all cost and eliminate people instead. Severance pay for a few measly months doesn’t make it right, Shame on us.
(Full-disclosure: My husband is the director of an Episcopal Conference Center. Incredible clergy and church staff I know have been “laid off” with little thought of the pain this causes. Those doing the laying off always use the phrase “after much prayer…” when making such an announcement. Just so you know--no one will ever believe you again when you talk about prayer.)

6. Tithe. Yes, that means 10% of our income. We each get to decide gross or net but a 10% minimum is where we need to be. Regardless. Wonder why our churches can’t afford a full time priest or a youth minister or to build a second Habitat House each year? Imagine what we could do if everyone tithed. Yes, do give time and talent but cough up some cash too. The mandate to tithe is not to build the coffers of the church, it's to do God's work in the world and to do it abundantly.
(Full disclosure: I do tithe, but hey! I grew up in the Baptist Church; and yes, it is really hard but I can't imagine doing otherwise now.)

7. Wear the hat and heart of a visitor. If you didn’t already know where to park or where the bathrooms are or in what remote nook you hold coffee hour after the service, could you find your way? Think about how frustrated you have felt wandering the maze in a hospital or other unfamiliar building. Being physically lost is not what makes us want to return. Signage helps. Welcoming people help more. Thinks about how easy it is to find everything in a Starbucks—and to find the Starbucks itself!
(Full disclosure: I like feeling welcome in strange places. I don’t like feeling stupid. My son works for Starbucks.)

8. Welcome Babies. Can’t afford a nursery or nursery workers? Consider adding a designated space to welcome young children right in the worship space itself. They do this in churches all over Wales and England. A soft carpet, a few rocking chairs, and quiet toys (this is not the space to add a xylophone unless you need a music program as well) create a space which includes parents and children in worship.
(Full disclosure: I am the parent of two adult children and four grandchildren. I have no problem praying or praising God with the accompanying sounds of children.)

9. Pray. Every day. Prayer--it's not just for Sundays. We can get so busy “doing” that we forget to take time for stillness and quiet and to keep some empty space open for God. I would like to have put this as number 1 for what we can do to really change the church, but I was rather afraid folks wouldn't keep reading.
(Full disclosure: If I have time to brush my teeth each morning, I have time to pray.)

10. Be church. Be the people of God for the world not just a chapel where the only purpose of your existence is to get warm and cozy with one another and provide for your own. We are called to change the world. If we are really going to set free the gospel into the world, we need to step out of our own comfort zones and let go of using the church as a social club instead of a place to grow the kingdom of God.
(Full disclosure: Like you, I'm trying.Maybe we just need to try a little harder. )

Okay, so maybe you think these suggestions are a little overboard. People were locked in the Tower of London for less. But these thoughts were not written to hurt or condemn, but simply to try to look at church with a new vision. I wrote this to challenge myself. We talk a lot about transformation and change in the Church, but talk is so cheap. Perhaps the first step is to take an honest glance to see if the Emperor Church is naked and then to start looking for some clothes in our own closets.


  1. Thanks, Mary Beth for sharing this on the RevGalPals blog!

  2. I love most of these, but I take exception to the first two. ALL under 40 and ALL women is just as bad as NO ONE under 40 and no women. Ageism is alive and well in the church and it works in ALL directions. I could more easily go for all women bishops :) but seriously? Sexism is still sexism. We need to seriously consider the gifts people bring without regard to their age, gender, orientation, or even years of experience (although sometimes that is important). And we need to include people who aren't "like us". If we could seriously and prayerfully do that, we wouldn't need 1 and 2.

    The rest of them I whole-heartedly endorse.

  3. And I totally want to quote some of these to my parish, especially 6, 7, and 10!

  4. To Rev. Dr. Mom...but by having # 1 and # 2 as part of the TEN THINGS it brings attention to the fact that we routinely exclude those under 40 and women even though we profess to be so inclusive as the church. I think we have to swing radically in the other direction sometimes to achieve a balance. We say we include people who aren't "like us" but look at most congregations on a Sunday morning--they are about as "alike" as one can have.
    Thanks for your comment and the opportunity to have more discussion on this!

  5. As a 50-year-old pastor who was never a young clergy person (ordained at 41), I feel caught in the middle. I want younger people to be included, but I resent being thrown out with the trash. In another five years you'll be urging me to retire so young people can have my job, as if I'm taking up oxygen better used by others. Please take into consideration that God calls people of all ages and every status to be in ministry, lay and ordained.

    RevGalBlogPals is perhaps unique in having both bloggers (members) and board members (our national/international governing body) with a fairly wide range of ages. Our Big Event attracts women from their 20s into their 60s. Would it be wise to limit that to those under 40, so their voices would be privileged? Or would we be cutting off dialogue across generational lines?

    Obviously this presses a hot button with me. I must admit I did not even read beyond number 1.

  6. AMEN!! Thanks for posting MB.
    #1 & #2 are pushbacks - like the NT Prof I had who would take any points for always referring to God as male, but would add a bonus point for always referring to God as female. He was a white male acutely aware of the need to swing the pendulum knowing it would only go so far.

  7. I would agree that ageism pushes both ways. Working in career placement at a seminary, I can see how challenging it can be if you are anything but 35 with a spouse and 2 cute children. Both older and younger candidates struggle, struggle, struggle.

    BUT in terms of attendance at GA, General Synod, General Conference, whatever your denominational "let's all meet in a large metro area and fight in the name of Jesus " meeting is, ageism definitely swings AGAINST younger voices, while we bemoan the fact that we are shrinking. I would vote in favor of the under 40 for GA rule. Of course, I'm over 40, so I can't vote!!!

  8. We do work hard in the UCC to assure balance of ages/genders and clergy/laity at General Synod.

  9. Martha you said very well what underlies my strong feelings about ageism in the church. Thank you.

    As for General Convention, at least in the three dioceses I've been involved in, younger delegates have and are being elected -- as young as just out of high school. I'm all for that, but don't rule out others who may bring fresh perspectives (yes even those of us over 40 can have fresh ideas!) and energy. Maybe term-limits would help address this issue better than what I see as just more ageism.

  10. I want to add, "Get rid of your building." Sacrilege, I know. Most congregations almost idolize their buildings even though they're inconvenient, inaccessible for many people, hideously expensive to maintain and mostly empty most of the time. But in my experience, when a community has no building, astonishing things happen: change is unavoidable. New forms of worship emerge almost organically. Attendees begin to relate to one another in new ways. Perspectives shift. Experiments happen and everyone learns, rapidly.

    If more congregations would take a serious look at what they could do with the proceeds from the sale of their church building and property, churches might become the dynamic, on-the-ground, in-our-midst places they ought to be.

  11. And while I'm at it I will confess one more piece of this that I don't think I've articulated before. When I was young I wasn't clergy b/c women weren't ALLOWED to be clergy and I wasn't even an active lay person because women didn't get those roles either (I'm not THAT old, but it was the south.) So I did answer my call as an older person (and I'm older than Martha). And now that my gender is less of an issue, I'm "too old" to matter in some circles. So I've felt it all around, and let me just say ageism and sexism are NEVER OKAY NO MATTER WHICH DIRECTION THEY ARE GOING.

    I loved my seminary class because it included people of all ages 20s-60s. We learned so much from each other that we would've missed out on if the age range had been restricted. I'm sure that is true in governing bodies too. So yes, let's include all ages, genders, etc. but let's don't replicate the errors of the past as we seek to compensate for them.

    Clearly a hot button for me, too.

  12. I agree with Martha and Rev Dr Mom - I don't like ageism or sexism regardless of the direction it goes.

    With regard to #1, very few people under 40 in my congregation have any interested in voice+vote in our own congregation, let alone in anything at the regional or national denominational level. They are much more interested in personal spiritual formation and missional service, not in shaping congregational/denominational structures. I don't know what this means for the future of the structures. Will young adults be interested in this kind of involvement once they're no longer young? Who knows?

  13. In my Presbytery, if we were to only select folks under 40 we would have nobody to choose from. Why?

    In part because as long as the church insists on having meetings during working hours Monday-Friday we have a problem. And yet suggest a meeting on a Saturday and the clergy rise up in a stir -- they might have to forgo a wedding! (seriously, I have been part of that very discussion) BUt if people have to give up pay to attend a meeting we are uncosciously limiting lay involvement to people with very fliexible work hours, people who are independently wealthy, people who are self-employed, and retirees.

  14. I agree with what others have said about ageism and sexism, but (FULL DISCLOSURE I'm an almost 35 year old first/ONLY career female pastor) I guess I didn't go there with this particular post because I read those suggestions as at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Or, as another commenter said, like the pendulum swinging back. The lead in said that we could try these if we really wanted to "jumpstart" change. Those suggestions would certainly jumpstart something. They jumpstarted our conversation!

    I don't know Jeanne, but I'm fairly certain (or at least willing to give the benefit of the doubt) that she doesn't actually mean there should be no male bishops for the next 250 years and that people over 40 categorically have no good ideas.

    For me the extremes the post suggests pointes out places that others have been left out. The almost ridiculous nature of the proposal that only one gender would be considered for a role in the church points back on the almost ridiculous reality that exists now. Same with electing under 40s to all of our meetings/conventions/etc.

    I've noticed some of the same things as earthchick and RevGord, and with some frustration. We have a number of under 40 folks who have either remained in or made their way back to our "mainline" denom because of the history, tradition, stability, and intergenerational nature of our medium size church. Yet these same younger folks don't have a huge interest in being personally involved in the congregational/denominational structure that brings them all the things they are looking for. As one in their generation (but in a some ways not in it at all) this frustrates the heck out of me.

    Then at the same time the system makes it impossible for those who aren't at the top of the corporate totem pole to be involved with presbytery meetings, etc mostly held in the middle of the day.

    My husband, a 35 year old ruling elder (non-pastor "lay" leader in the eyes of other traditions), was very interested in being elected to go to the national General Assembly this year. He wasn't even able to apply to be elected because he doesn't currently serve on a presbytery committee, which he can't do because all of them meet during the weekday. He's a research economist state employee with 4 years of service (service to a different state before our most recent move didn't count for anything in terms of seniority, etc.). He doesn't get time off for church meetings in the day and vacation is 2 work weeks a year.

    Frustrating all around.

  15. As an older person, I have the freedom to be a tentmaker in a way that most young people do not. Ideally, yes, we'd configure our congregations and positions in a way that each pastor earns a living wage, but in reality, that would mean no church presence at all in my small town. While I am sensitive to the needs of young clergy, I also think that there are times when an older or retired pastor truly is the only person who realistically can be expected to do the job. I do get a little worried at the resentments and the implication that God rescinds our calls to pulpit ministry at a certain age.

  16. Thanks, Stephanie, for getting what I was trying to do with this post. Yes, this was to start a conversation, to upset some people and to get us all thinking in new ways (certainly myself included). I am most delighted that this post is kicking up this much discussion and pushing people's buttons. I need mine pushed too and some of you are doing just that. YAY! It makes me think and ponder and consider other ways of thinking and acting and being church.

    I will say that have seen first hand what happens when younger people are truly empowered to do ministry. It wasn't here but in the Diocese of Panama and it is pretty awesome. We say the "under 40's" aren't interested but I think we have to look a little deeper than that. Why aren't they interested? Do we really trust them? Do we really allow them their own voice--or are we just disappointed when they don't want to parrot our views?

    And yes! Absolutely frustrating when we have meetings in the middle of the work day and then wonder "where are the younger people?"

    Let's keep talking and challenging each other.

  17. And, amen to all the comments about barriers to participation. Our congregations do the same thing. For years, our PW met at 10 a.m. on Thursday and the average age was about 70. Go figure.

    Now I'll hush. :)

  18. We say the "under 40's" aren't interested but I think we have to look a little deeper than that. Why aren't they interested? Do we really trust them? Do we really allow them their own voice--or are we just disappointed when they don't want to parrot our views?

    Well, I would definitely answer yes - I trust them and allow them their own voice. Heck, I *am* one of them. Just turned 40, been in full-time ministry since I was 25, so I have always been one of the younger leaders within the congregations I've served. I have been given many opportunities for voice/leadership in my denomination at all levels, and I think that has been partly *because* was young and female.

    But. What I am finding more and more is that people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, at least the people I am ministering to and serving with, do not want (or feel they have the time for) the responsibilities of the work of leading or maintaining the institutions of congregation and/or denomination. They want opportunities for spiritual growth, relational connection, and meaningful service. Coming to board and council meetings just doesn't appeal to most of them (and in our church, those meetings always happen at nighttime or on the weekend, and always come with the guarantee of childcare - so we are doing everything we can to support working adults and parents).

    I am speaking, of course, in generalities, but that's what we're all doing. There are obviously some young adults who do take on these responsibilities. But more and more I am finding them to be the exception, not the norm.

  19. Btw, in writing this, I am not leveling a criticism at young adults for not wanting leadership roles in institutions. I am naming what I'm seeing as a shift in what people expect from church involvement. Older generations expected to serve on Trustees or help with funeral receptions. The younger generations in our church do not. Their expectations are different, and I think the church as an institution hasn't yet caught up with how to deal with that effectively.

  20. I am a member of my Presbytery council. I'm under 40, female, and have been ordained for 11 years. The closest person to my age around last night's meeting table was 20+ years my senior. It would be nice to have just one peer every once in a while.

  21. Yes, Earthchick! The difficulty of getting under 40's involved in governance isn't only a church problem. In conversations with other organizations (schools, unions, service groups) they are having the same problem with finding people to take on leadership roles. What I am hearing is that this is a group that wants to DO something, but have little, if any, interest in being involved in leadership. I have a hunch that some of this comes from the generational distrust of institutions, but we do need structure to get things done. So, it seems we're in a bit of a dilemma. Anyone got ideas about how to move forward on this?

  22. Great, lively discussion here. Thanks to you all! :)

  23. I am under 40 (under 30, even!) and I serve on several area committees. I am the youngest person on each, and if it were not "part of my job" (and if it didn't "look bad" to those up top) I would probably quit them both. One is a complete waste of time because it is incompetently chaired - and so despite having a substantial budget to allocate, our meetings are a waste of time - and the other because everything I suggest is different from "the way we've always done it" and it is HARD to be the only voice that is willing to speak up.

    People in their 20s, 30s, 40s may feel that our committees are not worth their time: if they aren't joining, ask why! Timing is one issue, but relevance (and stewardship of time and commitment) may be another.

    One of the most interesting challenges I heard was from someone pointing out our church's double standard around membership: we say that teens who are confirmed become full members of the community. Yet do we elect them as full members of our governing structures? And if not, why not?

  24. I was ordained 2 years ago, at 56, and am aware that just as I really get going in ministry I will have to retire. In addition, when we left Zimbabwe so that I could be ordained in South Africa (the Church of the Province of Central Africa does not ordain women) we lost all our pension in the chaos of the Zimbabwean economy. This means that retirement age is fearsome for both my husband and me. I feel sore at the thought that just because I reach the required age, I will be put out on the dust heap when in fact I will just be getting going! But having said that I do agree we need younger people involved the church - not just as token young people but actually having a say.
    Secondly, I really agree about the church being more than a building. In the Diocese of Harare in Zimbabwe, Anglicans are suffering much persecution and cannot worship in their buildings, and have no access to their trust funds etc. Yet the church is vibrant and growing.
    And thirdly, a question. How does one motivate a congregation to tithe? Preaching has no effect at all. What does?

  25. Pat's comment points up something else about privilege. If you work in a denomination that does a good job providing a solid pension, it seems reasonable to say (mostly male) retirees who put in 35-40 years should stop working as pastors. After all, they get a pension. But in the UCC, where we have an annuity, I listened to my colleagues in an Interim Ministers group reel at the cut in their pension checks after the market went down in 2008. If I suddenly lost, as one of them did, $1000 a month in income, in a bad economy, I would be out there looking for a job in the field I knew best. Really, who wouldn't?
    Privilege also influences conversation about the sale of church buildings. If you live in a place where people are still buying, renovating, or developing new properties, selling might be an option that could finance new and innovative ministry. But the low-number congregation in a town where the mill closes probably has to make the best of the building it has. I think the building question is all about context. I'm fortunate to work in a building that is accessible, melding both a lovely old sanctuary and a fairly new fellowship space. We have parking and are willing and able to host 12-step groups and other community gatherings as well as a pet food pantry. We provide a usable space in a rural/suburban community that we can opt to rent out or "donate."
    But I've also worked in a congregation where selling the building would have been brilliant, ten or fifteen years ago, but which is of such diminished value now due to the economy that selling would not provide the nest egg a congregation would want to support a vibrant ministry, if in fact anyone would buy it now. All of which is to say that yes, shedding the building might be the answer in some places, but in others the building can facilitate the ministry.

  26. Thanks to earthchick for noting the generational differences in joining patterns. It's a few years old now, but Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone speaks to some of that.

    The real challenge then becomes attracting and incorporating younger people with different needs and desires while still ministering to older people with their own needs and desires. I think this is one place where small churches (most of us!) are at a real disadvantage and I would love to hear more about others' experiences in trying to do this.

  27. As a young woman who has been active in my local governing body, even chairing a committee, I am in the weird position of agreeing with everything here--the original list and the comments. I understand the original list RE numbers 1 and 2, in part because I have fought and struggled for the place of women pastors and young people and am so tired of hearing "well, we need a man to balance our staff" when if the staff were all men we would NEVER hear "we need a woman to balance our staff." For thousands of years every church and every church council was run 100% by men, but the instant it might be run 100% by women there is a problem. at what point might an all-female church staff balance the 98% of churches in the world run entirely by men?
    But at the same time, it's important to me to hear voices of different experience, whether that experience is age or gender or social location or geography. It's also important to me that the goal of the institution be to be transformed by God for the transformation of the world. If the meetings aren't a catalyst for doing something, they're not worth it to me. I think that's the larger problem in the church RE generational shift--of course young adults don't want to be involved in something that means meetings and propping up an institution: we have heard people complain about meetings our entire lives, and the stereotype of meetings is as a waste of time. It almost doesn't matter whether our church committees are not in fact a waste of time (though many I have experienced certainly are)--our culture views meetings as pointless, and in our overvaluing of busy-ness we have inadvertently continued to paint them so. "I don't have time for this meeting" is a common refrain--I have said it myself!--but I wonder if it just reinforces the idea that there are better things to do?

    I think 9 and 10 are my favorites, but I have to say I like that 1 and 2 generate so much discussion because they make us so much more uncomfortable...and I always wonder why that is. Why is it that the thought of handing our beloved institution over to women under 40 generates so much defensiveness in us, but being told to pray and to stop treating church like a club doesn't? Both hit us--at least in my congregation and denomination--at really visceral places, so why is one so much more inflammatory than the other?


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