Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Joe Duggan at St. John's in the Wilderness in Glenbrook, Nevada on the Second Sunday After Pentecost. Readings: 2Cor 4:13-5:1 and Mark 3: 20-35. Sermon posted has been slightly modified for this blog. I have posted this sermon as a way to share why I am passionate about the ministry of Congregational Seasons.
I was the priest that led St. Stephen’s Church in Reno, Nevada through a yearlong discernment process that led the vestry and congregation to decide to close. St. Stephen’s Reno was a grace-filled close. There was no element of the death of a parish, but rather a true celebration of its life. My ministry with the people of St. Stephen’s was my most exhilarating experience as a priest. I had the privilege to witness the raw vulnerability, faith, grief, courage and love of the people of St. Stephen’s. I had the privilege to see a congregation discover life in new forms. I hope to have many more opportunities to see the people of at risk congregations discover new life in Christ.
One of St. Stephen’s greatest successes as a total ministry congregation was that their members were involved in many ministries throughout Reno-Sparks, Nevada. Not a single one of their ministries was dependent on having a church building! This alone is an extraordinary accomplishment for any congregation. All of St. Stephen’s ministries continue uninterrupted now two years later.
During the year of discernment with St. Stephen’s we all felt that we were going through it alone. At the time we looked for resources like checklists to make sure we were doing everything we could to make responsible decisions. We had to create everything ourselves including a statement of congregational dissolution for the Standing Committee. There were no examples available in the Canons of The Episcopal Church. Nor could we find checklists on the manner in which to handle church furnishings and other assets. We got through it, but it was a challenge.
After St. Stephen’s closed I discovered that thirty Episcopal parishes had closed that year. One parish church in Northern California closed the same day that St. Stephen’s closed. Thirty Episcopal congregations had closed each year for five years. I also discovered that the number of parish closings were likely to double and possibly even triple over the next five years.
In his state of the diocese address this year Bishop Bennison in the Diocese of Pennsylvania said 60 of the 141 churches are soon to become non-traditional parishes; that is, unable to sustain a traditional ministry with a full-time priest, property and program. Bishop Bennison preached that, “having fewer parish buildings will not diminish, our efforts to fulfill the Gospel, but rather free us up for ministry.” The Diocese of Pennsylvania is not alone.
My experience with St. Stephen’s gave me a heart for Episcopal congregations in transition. I particularly have a heart and empathy for the people in congregations that often face these challenges alone with little support from the national church or local dioceses.
Today it is all too easy for the people and congregations to fall off the radar in dioceses as they struggle alone. Among the St. Stephen’s members 95% were shepherded to one of three area Episcopal churches due in large part to the generous welcome of these area rectors and their vestries.
The part of the transformational change needed is through neighboring congregations. In Reno-Sparks, Trinity, St. Paul’s and St. Catherine’s churches are each moving away from the dominant Episcopal culture where parishes compete against one another for members. The rectors of these three Episcopal Churches collegially work together. People freely attend worship in all three congregations from time to time and participate in the fullness of the three parishes’ offerings and their opportunities to gather.
I am writing a transitions guide for dioceses and at risk congregations of The Episcopal Church because I want Episcopalians to know that they are not alone and that there is abundant hope. Review drafts will be ready in a few weeks in time for General Convention. Later this summer I will self-publish the first edition. The idea behind the transitions guide is to offer to congregations at risk resources to help them become more vital and viable.
In the last few months I have learned so much about congregational vitality and viability. One of the things I have learned is that there is much fear, shame and denial about at risk congregations. Who among us is not more pleased to talk about life than death? It is far too easy for us to lean on our Episcopal polity and let congregations make even unhealthy decisions that often lead to churches closing without hope.
I am working to connect vitality to viability to help congregations discover new life in Christ and reenergize their baptismal ministries. In some cases congregations’ only choice will be to close, but I hope that when and if they do that they will close in the transparent and grace-filled ways that St. St. Stephen’s closed. St. Stephen’s closing led to new life for all.
Today in the second reading we heard, “We have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” This house referred to in the second reading is the Church. The church is the people of God. The church is where two or three are gathered. All of us have come to more often associate church with place, such as with this beautiful building overlooking Lake Tahoe.
Looking back over the history of Christ’s public ministry, the church was mobile and fluid. The church was dispersed and moved from place to place. So the second reading reminds us to hold our treasure of Episcopal Church buildings more lightly so that our energy and passion is directed to the eternal church that is always vital and viable due to Christ’s gift to us. We are Christ’s own forever. We are not beloved on a conditional basis while we are members of a vital and viable local church.
Many Episcopal congregations throughout the nation are discovering their identity as a dispersed church. Even here in the Diocese of Nevada two congregations meet in other than their own church buildings. In both these cases these congregations want their own church building. In other dioceses throughout the country, some congregations that meet in alternate space have absolutely no desire for their own building. These congregations celebrate the privilege of using their pledge resources exclusively for mission.
In the Gospel we heard, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” In the research I have conducted for the book I am writing I have learned the primary cause for congregations in decline. The primary cause is not what you might think. It is not the cause I would have first named. Of course there are old buildings to maintain. Some parishes are in decline due to declining pledges not matching operating costs. Other parishes where fewer people come to church cause it to be in decline.
These are all reasons that contribute to churches in decline, but the primary reason is unresolved conflict in congregations. Grudges held against one another that are never addressed in ways that lead to deep reconciliation. Unresolved conflict is the most difficult challenge any congregation faces and often congregations refuse to do the work. The cost is high, as when conflict is not openly addressed, congregations inevitably close.
We also heard in the Gospel, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Jesus said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."
These Gospel words invite us to reflect on our identity as an Episcopal congregation before God. As we reflect on what it means to be the church, the Gospel reminds us to place our focus on the mission of God. Our primary work is to focus on doing the will of God, the ministries of God. Remember the words of Micah – Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. The Good News today is that we the people of God are freed to be church through our lives of Micah-like ministries.
By freed I mean that there are no liens or prerequisites for being or doing church. Last week at Yale Divinity School there was a meeting to share some new congregational findings about parishes throughout The Episcopal Church. The researchers found that the vitality of Episcopal congregations is directly related to the spiritual maturity of its individual members.
Spiritual maturity begins with a prayer life and participation in the liturgy of the church, but there is more.
Spiritual maturity is the way we encounter conflict and passionately pursue reconciliation.
Spiritual maturity is the way we do church and live out our baptismal promises.
This morning around the nation some Episcopalians are doing church in gem churches such as this one and others are in very nontraditional spaces. Where we gather really is far less important than what we do between the Sundays we meet. We are all held together through our faith, baptism, common worship and commitment to be ministers in the world through our day-to-day lives.
In this way today’s readings return all the congregations of The Episcopal Church’s focus to the fundamentals of being church. These readings bring welcomed humility and grace to free up Episcopal congregations for the work of God increasingly unburdened by the temporal responsibilities of keeping the lights on.
The Episcopal Church is alive!
We need only find our way from anxiously doing all to keep the lights on to passionately serve as ministers of Word and sacrament in our communities every day.