April 20th is my last Sunday at Community of the Living Spirit. I have been struggling with whether or not to write something about that situation. I have elected to do so because I think there are things we can learn from the CLS experience that will help any community grow stronger into the future.
Every faith community is unique. That uniqueness comes from a variety of factors, the most important of which are the history of the community, the members both past and present, the gifts of the clergy who have served the community, and the structure and polity of the community. In the end, a community is only as healthy as its biggest weakness allows it to be.
It is also true that every faith community has a life cycle not unlike that of a perennial plant. It has times of growth and times of dormition. It needs to be watered and it needs nutrients or it will first become irrelevant and later die. What does this mean in terms of parish life?
The first thing it means is that the lay leadership of any faith community must have a steady flow of fresh blood in and out of it. There is a tendency in most churches for ten percent of the membership to do ninety percent of the work. In small faith communities with under 30 members the whole community tends to become the core group and is subject to burn out. One of the ways we can avoid this are term limits on our vestry members, but that alone is not enough. It is also very important that we do not have committees that essentially exist only to pass a sign up list once or twice a year and have board meetings just for the sake of having meetings. The most helpful thing is to have a steady influx of visitors and (hopefully) new members to bring fresh energy and perspective to our family. Finally, we need to give folks permission to say they need a break from responsibility at church for a while to allow them to recharge their batteries.
The second thing a healthy parish does is when it gives someone responsibility for a task it also gives them the authority to carry it out. That has to be true for the clergy, the vestry members, committee members, the musicians (or the CD player), the volunteers, the person who cleans the bathroom, the ushers, the altar guild, the youth group leader – everybody. Nothing kills a church faster than tying the hands of the people who are trying to do the work.
The third thing a health faith community does is connect itself to other faith communities. At Love of God we do that partly as a parish of the Universal Anglican Church, partly by having clergy who are involved in religious communities, partly through our involvement in organizations like the Network of Independent Inclusive American Churches (NIIAC), and partly through our involvement in outreach ministries in the Waukesha community and beyond. When a church becomes isolated from what is going on in the broader church, it contracts a terminal illness. When an individual parish lacks a connection to what is going on in the broader church its perspective becomes distorted and narrowed causing all sorts of strange and unhealthy things to happen.
Fourth, a church simply must have a ministry of presence in the community. Giving money to support other ministries is great, but it is not enough to do ministry by checkbook – sitting behind our own four walls and never engaging the community personally and actively. This does not mean that every member of a church has to be out in the community, but it does mean that some members need to be on the street, so to speak, and report back to the larger community. Without this view beyond the walls, it is easy for a church to disintegrate into a social club.
Most importantly, a church needs to be steeped in prayer. There has to be a focus on God and on discerning what God would have us do as individuals and as a community. When we lose that focus, or when we start to believe that God exists to be manipulated by us, or that God never calls us to do anything that takes us out of our own comfort zone, we are no longer a faith community but instead some sort of mutual admiration society or social service club. There isn’t anything wrong with those kinds of groups, but they aren’t churches.
The role of a pastor in all of this is to call the faith community in to accountability. The pastor’s call is to lead, and he or she must lead in the direction that they discern God is calling the community. If the community falls into one of the traps I have listed above, the pastor is ethically required to try to set the ship back on course. When the members aren’t interested in that, or when they refuse to be led, it is time for the pastor to go.
It’s not that simple, however. Sometimes a vocal minority has the ability to take over a church and wreak all kinds of havoc. That happens when the lay leadership of a church becomes passive. Usually the lay leadership becomes passive because they believe that absence of conflict is the hallmark of a healthy community, when in reality absence of conflict is the result of avoidance and fear and sign of an unhealthy community. No church worth its salt runs away from hard choices. For a church to be worth anything, all members must have the freedom to speak their truth and no one voice can be allowed to dominate.
Are these problems a risk at Love of God? In the sense that they are potential problems in any community, they could happen here. That having been said, there are huge differences in the way Love of God conceives of itself as a parish and in the way we are structured that make such problems much less likely. CLS was born out of a sense of oppression at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, and so they structured themselves in such a way that the problems inherent in that community were all but inevitable.
Love of God came into existence first as St. Catherine of Siena Cathedral, which was born with no other agenda than to be the Cathedral parish of the Universal Anglican Church. With the passing of The Rev. Jack Pain, there was a strong sense of a need for rebirth in this community and so, after a period of prayer and discernment we relocated to Waukesha, chose a name with broader appeal, and were reborn not as an escape from anything, but rather to meet a need present in this community.
As I reflect on our history at Love of God, I am struck by how much it is a story of resurrection rather than escape. I would hasten to point out that for resurrection to occur we first had to allow St. Catherine’s to die – and that is a good thing. It is a good thing because from that letting go has arisen something living and wonderful.
Alleluia, Christ has risen!
The Lord has risen indeed, Alleluia!