This June a major decision will be made. Someone will be chosen to lead, and the effects of that choice will ripple outwards for years. This new leader will form disciples, teach a new generation of Christians, model charity and servanthood, strengthen relationships within the church, and open doors to those outside our walls. This new ministry will be challenging: the leader we chose will have to work with different constituencies, build consensus, teach and learn at the same time, and bathe daily tasks in prayer. In the end, we trust and hope that this chosen leader will bring a new season of vitality and growth.
I’m referring to the choice of a new children’s choir director at my parish. This new leader will work with a dozen to twenty elementary-age children. Many of these kids are the children of newcomers or those who’ve been members for only a few years. Our new children’s choir director will have a pivotal role in forming disciples for the Lord Jesus.
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church happens this summer too and a new Presiding Bishop will be chosen. The person the bishops select as their next presider in the House of Bishops and, as a consequence, as a figurehead or executive of sorts for this province of the Anglican Communion known as the Episcopal Church matters a great deal. Let me be perfectly clear: the PB election is very important. But I wonder sometimes about what we might call the economy of energy. A wise senior priest once told me, as I wrestled with various issues in my last parish, that a careful pastor puts energy and attention where real ministry matters. And in the end we have only so much energy and focus to spend; there are only so many hours in one day. For me — a parish priest at a growing church, who teaches on the side for two institutions, who has two ongoing research projects, and who has a spouse, as well as two children under the age of 3 — thirty additional minutes of free-time in a day is a luxury akin to George Constanza’s desire to be wrapped in velvet.
As the result of a recent move, I came across my copy of the Windsor Report published more than a decade ago in October 2004. It is filled with my highlighter marks and marginalia. Frankly, I’m astonished that I had the energy, time, and (to be blunt) optimism to dissect this document. Fast-forward to the end of the last decade. I was an unmarried grad student, and I regularly explained to my brothers and sisters in our parish that we are not Congregationalists and that as Episcopalians we are involved in the lives of others in our diocese, TEC, and the Communion. With grave insistence, I declared that burrowing down in parochialism is not an option.
I still believe that. I call myself a Catholic after all. At the same time, however, I’m also aware that a very large percentage of our churches will be closed in the next generation and, further, those churches which will be open in a generation will have been led by men and women (lay and ordained) who have preached the word, administered the sacraments, provided pastoral direction, and put energy where energy needs to be. When the subject of General Convention comes up, I confess that it feels like it’s an endless merry-go-round of disappointment (a costly one at that), and my response winds up being taken from Ben Folds Five, “whatever and ever Amen.” (That’s two 90s references if you’re counting.)
This is a careful but important balance. No matter how exhausted they are, every Episcopalian needs to be concerned about who the next Presiding Bishop will be (in addition to the other major matters coming before GC). I have evangelical friends who rationalize the whole thing by simply saying that the Church is merely a human affinity group which exists to spread the Gospel and that it really doesn’t matter who’s up the food chain of the human organization called Church — just focus, they might say, on the parish. While that would offer me an easy route, I can’t buy that kind of ecclesiology. The Church, the bride of Christ, a body called into being by God himself is being fitted and prepared day by day in its pilgrimage for the wedding feast (to borrow from Augustine). And I can’t help but recall the words spoken to me when I was ordained priest, “take your share in the councils of the church.”
I’m sure there are priests who love taking their “share in the councils of the church.” They race with excitement to the next diocesan convention, write resolutions, perfect them, and lobby for them. Make no mistake, I am very concerned about the work of the Church. I simply define the “work of the Church” primarily as those kids, their parents, and the calling of a new choir director, which I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The work of the Church is only secondarily about electing someone to occupy an office in New York. Faithful disciples and priests neglect neither.
I confess my failures: I have a giant 12-month marker calendar in my office, and, while there are dozens of events and programs noted, General Convention is not even marked. I will not apologize, however, for putting the lion’s share of my energy into preparing for the 100 children who will be on my doorstep for Vacation Bible School at the end of July.
Check your parish’s bulletin and listen closely at coffee hour. What are people in your congregation talking about? Is it General Convention, or is it the booming ministries your church is offering your community? Hopefully it’s both.
“The Vineyard of the Lord,” a painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) hangs in St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg. Luther and other reformers are presented as working steadily in a vineyard. While others neglect, tear down, or abuse the fields, Luther and others prune, tend, and cultivate.
The featured image is a detail of “The Vineyard of the Lord.” The 2009 photo was taken by Nick Thompson and is licensed under Creative Commons.