In Search of Growth

By Kirk Petersen

The Rev. Jay Sidebotham probably is best known for the cartoons he has drawn for many years, but he also has a day job as director of RenewalWorks. It is a ministry of Forward Movement, which in turn is a ministry of the Episcopal Church. RenewalWorks describes itself as “a guided methodology of self-reflection, sharing, and workshop discussion,” which “challenges parishes to refocus on spiritual growth and to identify ways that God is calling them to grow.” The program recently released a research report on Episcopal churches, and I spoke with Sidebotham about it. The interview has been edited for length, clarity, and narrative flow.

I write a column called In Search of Growth. It primarily focuses on numerical growth, but also on spiritual growth, and of course the two can go hand in hand. What does your research show?
A friend asked me, “Why is it that Buddhist meditation halls, AA meetings, and yoga studios are packed, but the churches out there are not?” She opines that it has to do with the promise of transformation. People come expecting that they will leave differently.

Twenty-one percent of our folks are in churches that are described as “complacent,” which is basically saying that they don’t expect any transformation to happen at all. We had one church that did RenewalWorks and they were in that category and they wrote a new tagline: “St. Swithin’s: We’re spiritually shallow, and fine with that.” They were kidding, but it was an interesting bit of self-awareness. People really didn’t expect much to happen, and that has something of a self-fulfilling dimension to it. I think maybe that’s in the Bible.

There’s a lot of expectation of change in Alcoholics Anonymous or yoga. That has to be one of our core values in the Episcopal Church, and it hasn’t traditionally been. Probably for centuries, the Episcopal Church functioned by just being the church of power and the place to go if you wanted to connect and network. That has all dissipated, which I think is probably just fine. We are trying to help churches find their own pathways for growth and transformation.

In addition to the “complacent” churches, your research characterizes more than half of Episcopal churches as “troubled,” and most of the rest are “extroverted,” or devoted to service in the world.
Yep. For the troubled thing, there’s a sense in the churches that they are looking for more, they want to go deeper. They would like to grow spiritually and they’re not finding the avenues to do that. I take that as a great opportunity.

The extroverted churches are really committed to outreach but not exactly sure why that’s a Jesus thing. That’s also a great opportunity for clergy.

The complacent piece I find hard. Probably only the Holy Spirit can make people want what they don’t want, or what they don’t know.

You have a section [in the RenewalWorks report] about how clergy lose track of why they entered the priesthood in the first place, because of the stresses of being a rector. One of the reasons must be that our Episcopal priests are spread too thinly across too many churches. There are so many churches where they share a part-time rector with the church five miles down the road. And then the rector also drives for Uber on the side to make ends meet.
I think that’s right, I think that’s going to be a challenge for the future. Part of our work is trying to get lay leaders to understand that they’re spiritual leaders. That’s one way we’re going to enable some of these communities to keep going, by spreading that sense that the clergy aren’t the only spiritual leaders in the community, there’s a broader sense of ministry to all the people in the church, so how do you equip people to do that?

Churches need to say, what are we doing and how can we do fewer things better? How can we focus on our core mission, and are there things that we can stop doing? That’s a hard conversation. It’s not unlike the conversation the bishops have about whether some churches need to be closed. I pray for bishops because I think it must be a really hard job, to try to figure out how you address the need for closing churches. I run across that need in every diocese.

We can help clergy reconnect with why they got into this work in the first place. So much of the work of clergy removes them from that original calling and passion and excitement. In any job there’s stuff you have to do so you can do the part you like to do, but I think that for clergy, working on their own discipleship, their own joy in a relationship with God, is just really critical. I run across a lot of clergy who seem really bummed out and tired.

I don’t think we raise clergy in the Episcopal Church to be teachers in local parishes. I think for generations we’ve focused on them as pastors, which is obviously indispensable, but some of these places that seem to be thriving have put an emphasis on teaching.

How did you get involved in this work?
I was the rector of a big church in Chicago for 10 years, and about seven years into it, I was working my butt off, and I was finding that our pledging and our attendance was flat. I talked with colleagues about it, and we decided that flat was the new up.

It was really what prompted this work. I said there’s gotta be something else, we really have to focus on going deeper in our relationship with God, our relationship with Christ, and let the members follow — or not.

I think some churches say they’re going to focus on spiritual growth, and that makes some Episcopalians mad, and they leave. So I don’t necessarily think in the short run that this work is going to redound to numerical growth or more pledging units. I think it will result in growth in vitality; I’m not always sure it will grow numbers. And I don’t actually care that much about that.

I was in a church softball league once, and we were supposed to gather both teams for a prayer before every game. Some people were very uncomfortable with praying in public. There was a sense of “Go easy on the God stuff, we’re Episcopalians, you know.”
Interesting. Yes, we’ve certainly run across that. I’m deeply grateful for the articulation by our presiding bishop that we are “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” I think that helps us maintain that there’s a distinctive Anglican identity, but the goal is people becoming more centered in their relationship with God and Christ.

We find there are a lot of Episcopalians who say, “I’m not that interested in that.” I think for rectors, that’s actually helpful to know. What we’re trying to do in these workshops is to have that kind of conversation and to really get people to talk about their own understanding of why their faith matters.

We find people who say, “I sat behind this couple for 20 years at the 8 a.m. service, and I never had a sense of what was important to them about their faith.” We find this opens an opportunity to talk about that kind of experience, and I would characterize that as growth.

Earlier you talked about AA, and a huge part of AA is people telling their stories.
Of course. In our work we try to measure spiritual vitality in congregations, and a friend who is in AA told me that making a numerical measure of that is the dumbest thing she ever heard. I explained that we measure three categories: the church’s role in people’s spiritual lives; what people do when they’re not in church, whether it’s prayer or Scripture reading or whatever; and then faith in action, or outreach.

“That’s the program!” she said. “You make a commitment to be of service” [along with attending AA meetings and focusing on personal spirituality]. It was like a lightbulb went on. It made me think that there is some fundamental truth that our spiritual selves need those three components.

Episcopalians are often quite good on the church thing, although the statistics are changing. Our research shows that we’re distinctive in our mission and outreach work, although Episcopalians don’t necessarily know why that’s different from some of their [secular] volunteer efforts. One of the growth opportunities is to make the connection to discipleship in the kind of service we do in the world. But the daily spiritual practices, what people do when they’re not in church, is relatively lower than other denominations.

We tell churches to focus on things that feel authentic and helpful to your people, anything that we can do to focus on Scripture and create a deeper prayer life. We find with Episcopalians that the Eucharist seems to be transformative for many people, particularly as they begin to be intentional about a spiritual journey. Anything we can do to help people understand the Eucharist is helpful.

“These holy mysteries.”
Exactly. When I started this work, I wrote a thing called “Understanding the Eucharist,” and somebody quickly came up to me and said, “good luck.” I think I changed it to “Trying to Understand the Eucharist,” or some kind of Anglican waffle.

There is a lot we’ll never know, but there’s a lot we can know about why we worship the way we do, and I think people’s experience is enriched if they do that.

So there are barriers to growth in the Episcopal Church, but maybe that’s one thing in our favor: we practice the Eucharist every week, and a lot of denominations don’t.
Exactly. In a lot of churches, the sermon is the thing. That’s kind of iffy, because the sermon can be good or bad. But there’s constancy in the practice of the Eucharist that I’ve experienced personally. It’s not dependent on the personality of the presider, it’s got a power of its own.

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