Some reflections from a rookie deputy…

This is my first time as a deputy to General Convention. So while I’m tracking some of the big issues with interest, my experience of Convention is still very much just finding my footing and making sense of it all. I keep hoping I’ll find the time and the mental space to string a few thoughts together about some of the matters before Convention. But so far, this is what I’ve managed to write: a list of some of the things I’ve learned or discovered in my first five days as a General Convention deputy.

  • I hadn’t realized that the ten days of Convention would start with a heavy schedule of legislative committee hearings and meetings, and a light schedule of legislation, with (many) meetings winding down and the legislative schedule gearing up as the days move along. I knew that proposed legislation would undergo a lot of work at Convention, but hadn’t realized just how intensive and grueling that process could be.
  • Some members of our deputation have served on legislative committees, some (including myself) have not. Not being on a committee is less exhausting and more freeing in one respect; during those busy early days, there were no meetings I HAD to attend. On the other hand, that freedom is exhausting too – because instead of being bound to focus on one cluster of issues, you get to struggle to decide where to show up and speak up, when five or six important things are all being considered at the same time.
  • General Convention is big, but it’s not that big. It’s small enough that one powerfully-stated two-minute statement can (sometimes) have an impact. Which is terrifying, because it leaves me wondering whether, for every initiative or resolution that I like and that seems ill-fated, I could have been that voice, if I’d been in the right place at the right time with the right words. It’s a wee bit crazymaking.
  • I didn’t anticipate all the swag – candy, buttons, water bottles, Silly Putty, tote bags, lip balm, and more candy – that would come our way, not only from booths at the exhibit hall but also handed out by candidates for office or folks advocating for particular causes or organizations, and left on our deputation tables every morning.
  • There is a lot going on – and there is no master calendar. You have to look at least three different places to figure out everything that’s happening in any given hour, and even then, you’ll probably miss some stuff.
  • There is a lot going on – really, a lot. To take this morning as an example: today is Sunday, the day when we are said to have a bit of sabbath, since there were no early morning committee meetings and the morning Eucharist wasn’t until 10am. However, if I had rolled out of bed bright and early this morning, I could have participated in a 5K run for the Episcopal Church Women Triennium; a walk against gun violence; the Episcopal Women’s Caucus breakfast; and a meetup with women bishops to discuss the advancement of women’s ordained ministry in the church. (I did not do any of those things. What I needed most was some time to wander around town and not talk to anybody, so that’s what I did.)
  • Sometimes it’s a huge party, a great reunion with friends from all over the church. Sometimes it’s surprisingly lonely. Sometimes I would be happy not to see or talk to any other Episcopalians for a while.
  • It’s going on all. the. time. And it ALL feels urgent. I keep failing to call my kids. I come back to my room meaning to go to bed early, but I check in on Twitter and get all agitated about cuts to the Formation budget of the national church. The legislative sessions and committee meetings end for the day (eventually), but there’s enough reading, pondering, Tweeting, blogging, arguing, and praying, to keep you busy 24 hours a day.
  • There are lots of great cues for prayer; and I am finding it really hard to pray. That just makes me all the more grateful for all the people I know are praying for me.
  • I learned quickly that it’s a good idea to eat a good meal when I get a chance, even if it’s an odd time. General Convention’s daily schedule doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to my own normal daily rhythms.
  • I’m really glad I brought knitting. It keeps me busy but listening. If I weren’t knitting, I would drift off into other things during the boring bits (there are boring bits…), and then suddenly find myself with no idea what we’re voting on.
  • I have the impression that this is much less true than it used to be, thanks to the Virtual Binders and some simplifications in the Rules of Order; but you still really have to know what’s going on to know what’s going on. That’s true at many levels – understanding our parliamentary process, knowing the personalities of some of the vocal and/or influential players, understanding the backstories and histories on some issues and conversations. I’m learning, and I think I’m able to participate effectively; but I can see the value in attending a second and third and fourth time.
  • It’s surprisingly separated from parish life. When I go to just about any church gathering, I expect to end up with a long list of take-home ideas – follow up on that resource, have that conversation, sing that hymn. I’ve picked up some good odds and ends in the exhibit hall – but other than that, so far there is almost nothing on my General Convention take-home idea list. What we’re doing here is just too removed from my life, work, and ministry as a parish priest. I don’t know that that’s good or bad; it just is.

In which she lays down some rules about vocabulary.

I leave for General Convention tomorrow morning. During the next two weeks, I expect to witness and participate in a great many passionate conversations about how to make space for the Holy Spirit to bring new life to our congregations, and help us grow in faith, proclaim God’s good news, and serve our neighbors, faithfully and joyfully.

I’m down with all that. It’s good stuff. However, I think we’ll do each of those things better if we know which one we’re doing. I’ve noticed in the church that when we’re talking hopefully about the stuff we want to be doing more of – or talking in frustration about the things we are failing to do enough of – we tend to use a vocabulary that is somewhat muddled. This post is my not-so-humble attempt to lay out how I think we should sort out four key words: revitalization, evangelism, recruitment, and mission.

The good folks over at Episcopal Resurrection are bringing a resolution to Convention calling for the Church to organize human resources and funds for the revitalization of Episcopal congregations. That sounds to me like a very good thing, and I am likely to vote for it. But I would prefer to vote for it with a clearer sense of what they mean by “revitalization.”  (Let me say that I’m focusing on this resolution because it’s a particularly public and salient example of what I see as a widespread problem with sloppy vocabulary, and not because it’s egregious or unusual.)

Revitalization could mean a renewed focus on spiritual growth and Christian formation within the church as a whole and the life of each parish and diocese.  That’s important, and I’m for it. I’d like to propose that we call this “revitalization,” because that’s how I’ve heard the word used both in the church over the years; and because that’s essentially what mid-20th century anthropologist of religion Anthony Wallace was talking about in his seminal work on religious revitalization. This is revitalization, in Wallace’s terms: the core narrative/paradigm of the group fails to meet changed or changing circumstances, so the core narrative is revised and renewed, and the group doubles down on living into it fully, resulting in cultural transformation that, we hope, leads to new vitality and better adaptation to new circumstances. (Boy, is that where TEC is right now. I hope.)

Revitalization could mean finding fresh ways to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to be ambassadors of reconciliation and wholeness, in the world around us. I’d like to propose that we call that “evangelism.”* I hope I don’t have to defend or explain that vocabulary choice. I believe there is urgent need for such proclamation in our contemporary world. It’s important and I’m for it. That said, I think we need a great deal more clarity regarding the difference between evangelization and the next term I’m going to offer.

Revitalization could mean reaching out to add new members to our congregations. That can be good and holy work, if undertaken with humility and wisdom; I’m for it. I’d like to propose that we call this “recruitment.” I am 100% indebted to Nadia Bolz-Weber, speaking in Madison earlier this year, for drawing a clear distinction between evangelism and recruitment. She was speaking about her church’s strong public presence in their city, and how important and liberating it was for them to realize that those public events were effective evangelism – witnessing to the Gospel, to the God we love and serve – even when they were not effective recruitment, as they often were not. We’ve got a great example in my own congregation’s recent history: two years ago we invited retired Packer LeRoy Butler to speak about bullying at my parish, after another church retracted their invitation to LeRoy because he expressed support for another athlete who had recently come out of the closet. We went into that endeavor, which was a real stretch for us, hoping it might both be a witness for inclusive Christianity (evangelism) and gain us some new members (recruitment). Ultimately, the project was great evangelism, and lousy recruitment – while it renewed some members’ loyalty to the parish, I don’t believe we got a single new member directly from that very public moment in our life as a parish. And I’m OK with that. Because some of the time, possibly a lot of the time, evangelism and recruitment are not the same thing. And we live in a culture that’s pretty damn sensitive to covert agendas and sales pitches, so I increasingly think we’ll be more effective in evangelism – in simply sharing why faith is a source of joy, of strength, of hope for us – the more we can set aside our hopes for recruitment, and let recruitment be its own, clearly-defined project.

And finally, revitalization could mean getting out beyond our walls to serve our neighbors, and to join in God’s work of healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy, feeding, healing, nurture and advocacy in our communities and cities. This is very good stuff; I’m for it. I would like to propose that we call this “mission,“* following the use of the missional church movement and the key insight of late 20th century missiology: that our call to mission is a call to join in God’s mission (the missio Dei) in the world around us. I think most of our churches and outreach ministries are pretty clear on distinguishing mission and evangelism – our feeding programs and school supply drives are no-strings-attached, not limited to Episcopalians, Christians, or even those willing to accept a tract with good grace.

It’s possible that the Revitalization resolution actually means all these things. There are hints in its wording suggesting that it means most of them. If that’s the case, my hope would be that that would be made clear in the language of the resolution – that the intention is for an overarching and holistic process of renewal, to include revitalization, evangelism, recruitment, and mission. It’s all good stuff and I’m for it all. But I also know from experience, both first- and second-hand, that our agendas get messy and our effectiveness is compromised when we’re not sure which thing we’re doing or which purpose we’re pursuing, with a given ministry, plan or project.

TL;DR version: I’d love for The Episcopal Church, at all her levels, to double-down on revitalization, evangelism, recruitment, and mission; AND on knowing which is which, and which we’re doing/funding/planning/organizing for, in any given moment.

* In perusing the Blue Book, I was pleased to discover that the distinction between mission and evangelism, more or less as I outline it here, is laid out clearly by and used in the work of the Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism:

  • Mission: “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Book of Common Prayer, 855). “Mission is our response to God, stretching our personal and community boundaries to participate in God’s purpose to restore and heal all of creation” (2009 Blue Book report).
  • Evangelism: “To share by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (Book of Common Prayer, 306). Evangelism is sharing the love of Christ and the good news of God’s actions in our lives — the good news of the kingdom coming to life among us — in the language of the people, so that people can become disciples of Jesus Christ (2009 Blue Book report).

In which she reflects on a Candidate for Presiding Bishop.

I’d like to share a few words about the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, Bishop of Connecticut – or Ian, as I think of him, because he was my professor and my friend before he was a bishop.

I’m not campaigning for +Ian, to be clear. I have the extraordinary blessing of knowing two of the four candidates for Presiding Bishop. I spent a dozen years living in the Diocese of North Carolina, went through the discernment process there, and was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Michael Curry. As many others have said, I can easily see him as Presiding Bishop and would rejoice in his election.

I believe, however, that while the gifts +Michael would bring to the role of Presiding Bishop are more obvious and better known, the gifts +Ian would bring are no less substantial and valuable. Had I a vote to cast, I honestly don’t know how I would cast it. I’ve been noticing many comments in various online forums to this effect: “Bishop Curry would make such a great Presiding Bishop!” I have not the slightest desire to argue with that; he would, indeed. However, I’ve seen precious few folks saying, “Bishop Douglas would make such a great Presiding Bishop!” So I’m going to say it, here, and tell you a little bit about why I think so.

I first met Ian while I was working on my dissertation, a study of global alliances within the Anglican Communion that would become my book, Anglican Communion in Crisis. I was a doctoral student in the anthropology department at the University of North Carolina. At the time, Ian was on the faculty of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, and he was generous with his time and warm in his welcome in reviewing my work and offering constructive criticism. His presence at EDS, along with several other outstanding scholars, attracted me to that seminary two years later when I chose the place to earn my M.Div., having completed both my Ph.D. in anthropology and the early stages of my diocesan discernment process.

From Ian I learned an incalculable amount about the delicate and holy dance of being a progressive Christian who also cares passionately about relationship with the Anglicans in the global South, including those of more conservative theology. His compassion and wisdom helped me translate the academic cultural relativism of my anthropology degree into an open-hearted relational humility that always seeks understanding and relationship across difference, without subsuming or sacrificing one’s own convictions and experiences.

Long before he was a bishop (and I would guess very much still as a bishop), Ian was a missiologist – a person whose deep concern and longing for the church is that we live more fully into our sent-ness: sent to witness, serve, heal, reconcile. As a scholar of the Episcopal Church’s mission history, he possesses a keen understanding of the impulses to reach out beyond our stone walls and stained glass windows, and of the institutional and cultural barriers that, again and again, limit our vision and our reach. Ian was one of the faculty at EDS who taught me to think of the Church as a club that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members – and not as a memorial society for a deceased clergyman named Christ.

For those with diversity concerns about our PB slate: Yes, Ian is a straight white middle-class educated male, and he would be the first to admit it. And I know him to be wholeheartedly an ally of those who are “target” (to use the language of EDS’ Foundations of Theological Praxis course) – of women, of GLBTQ Christians, of people of color, of people living poverty in the U.S. and abroad. In my experience of him (not least as one of my  Foundations teachers), he is one of those persons of privilege whose impulse is always to seek ways to use his privilege to break down barriers and elevate others.

Personally, I think of Ian as a person of tremendous heart. He was incredibly supportive of me as a student who brought a young family with me to seminary. Whenever we met crossing the quad at EDS, he would greet my toddler son G heartily: “Hey, G-man!” If you have had the blessing and challenge of worshipping with young children, you know how precious it is to have folks who sit near you who will smile (or make funny faces) at your child – smile at *you* when the child gets noisy – and generally communicate, in gentle ways, that they are glad you’re there and that everything is fine. Ian and his family were that family for us, when we were attending St. James, Porter Square, with our toddler, and that’s not a thing you forget.

In conclusion: I think Bishop Douglas would make such a great Presiding Bishop. Thanks for reading. 🙂

A couple more links about +Ian…

About the Diocese of Connecticut’s moving its diocesan offices from a downtown mansion to a refurbished factory. “‘The mansion is no longer who we are, if it ever was,’ Douglas says.”

Tom Sramek, Jr., writing for The Living Church, does a nice job, I think, of sketching out +Ian’s background and gifts and especially his involvement with the wider Anglican Communion, a notable strength of his resume – his profile is second, following +Michael’s.