Monthly Archives: August 2017

Twenty-two Months

About fifteen years ago, I was in an open parish meeting to discuss long term planning for a particular congregation.  People were sharing visions of the future, as well as complaints and fears.  After a lot of conversation, a gentleman rolled his eyes and said, “Why does it seem like we’re always talking about discerning?  Why can’t we just figure out what we need to do and do it?”

Discernment is a wonderful, positive, necessary thing, but I can understand this fellow’s frustration.  Discernment is supposed to be a practice of listening for God’s voice among the many voices of the world, including our own.  It is supposed to be about bracketing our own will and being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in community and in our lives.  Sometimes, though, discernment can feel like a code word for wheel-spinning and navel-gazing, an excuse for never coming to a decision. 

If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs Personality Types, a useful but much over-used way of talking about our fundamental orientation to the world, an attitude toward discernment is one of the things that defines the J / P scale.  People on the “J” end of this particular continuum tend to like to gather information, weigh it, make a decision, and move on (rather like the gentleman in the congregation above).  At the “P” end of the spectrum, people like to keep options open, always seeking more information, always ready to reconsider.  Neither orientation is better than the other, but the two types of people tend to drive one another crazy.

According to some studies, approximately 70% of Episcopal clergy tend toward “J”.  Yet, if I were to think about the personality of our Church as a whole, I would have to say that many of us are of the keep-all-options-open, hold-opinions-lightly, always-ready-to-do-more-discernment “P” orientation.  Again, neither type is “more spiritual” and the world needs both, although one or the other may be more effective in a given situation.  But it may describe some frustration and misunderstanding that sometimes happens between clergy and congregations.

Some of us may feel like the gentleman in the parish meeting:  it seems that our communities have been in almost perpetual discernment for (at least) the last six years.  What is the way forward for our congregations?  Are we better together?  How do we best work together and steward our particular gifts?  What are we willing to give up in exchange for the promise of abundant life?  It sometimes seems as though we have just made one decision when the situation changes, asking us to enter again into discernment of our part in God’s mission.  Some of us “P’s” may be comfortable with this state of perpetual openness, but some of us “J’s” may find it exhausting.

In August, Bishop Lane announced his retirement and called for the election of his successor.  This announcement set in motion a process that is expected to take twenty-two months and culminate with the consecration of the Tenth Bishop of Maine in June of 2019.  The next twenty-two months will be pregnant with discernment of who we are as the Episcopal Church in Maine and who we are called to be, as well as discernment on the part of those who may be called to present themselves as candidates. 

For some of us, twenty-two months sounds like a long time.  Why do we need to spend so much time having meetings and doing surveys?  We know who we are; why can’t we just put an ad in the paper?  For others, twenty-two months feels like a deadline racing toward us.  How can we do justice to this important process in less than two years?  How can we prayerfully consider every possible option? 

For the next twenty-two months, we will need the gifts of those who can look at the data, make a decision, and move on.  We will also need the gifts of those who can sit patiently with uncertainty.  The Holy Spirit can and does work though both types.  During this process, there will almost certainly be times when we will drive one another crazy. That’s one of the ways we know that we’re doing real discernment.

An open window

If you’ve been around the Episcopal Churches on MDI this summer, you know that we’re trying something different.

A few months ago, informal conversations began among the wardens of all four churches about ways we could continue to deepen our cooperation and shared ministry.  Around that same time, three “openings” presented themselves to the island parishes.  Mother Kathleen Killian’s contract was set to end or be renewed on July 1.  Father John Allison was ordained to the priesthood in February.  And Mother Sue Cole announced that she would be leaving the Church of Our Father this summer.  It seemed that there must be some way for these three opportunities to come together.

Often when a solution looks too simple, it is.  Often there is some good reason why the obvious idea is not a good idea, or at least some rule that says you can’t do it that way.  When the church is presented with a challenge or a chance to try something different, our response is often to convene a committee to study the question for three years, publish a report that no one reads, pass a resolution that does nothing, and congratulate ourselves for facing reality head-on.

In this case, your wardens and treasurers did something different.  They realized that this window would only be open for a short time:  John and Kathleen would pursue other calls, or Church of Our Father would call another priest, and the window to try something different would be closed again.  So your wardens and treasurers started asking, “If we were to try something different, what might it look like?  What would happen if our three parishes were to covenant together?  How would that look different from the covenant our two parishes have shared for the last five years?  How would the finances work?  What might be gained?  What might be lost?  Would it have to be lost?”

As your wardens and treasurers set about pondering these questions, new possibilities arose:  “How might our two parishes be hospitable to Church of Our Father as they step into an arrangement that we have had five years to get used to?  What can our two parishes learn from Our Father’s unique gifts?  How can the gifts of all three parishes combine to support the growth and formation of new clergy?  And what about St. Mary & St. Jude, the fourth parish on our island?  How might all of us together offer a stronger witness to the world than each of us separately?”

Several remarkable things have happened during this process.  First, it seemed that whenever there was an obstacle that made some of us think the whole thing would fall apart, folks involved stayed in conversation, listened to one another, and a way around the obstacle became clear.  Each group and each individual had to accept a certain amount of discomfort, a certain amount of compromise, and when that happened the other groups and individuals were gentle and patient with those who were needed to slow down and catch a breath.  Second, the Diocese of Maine in the person of Canon Michael Ambler was willing to allow this relationship to find its own shape here on the island, with great support and a notable absence of micromanagement.  Third, when the process was opened to members of the congregations, concerns were expressed and heard lovingly, and incorporated into the conversation.

The fourth thing that happened is a little harder to put a finger on.  As sibling parishes who have lived together for more than a century, it seems that all four of us have a tendency to stereotype one another, to project on one another identities that we might not recognize in ourselves.  Somehow, in this process, I found myself constantly being surprised by graceful actions and reactions from others that should not have surprised me at all.

One of the tools of discernment is to hold a process lightly, to allow room for the Holy Spirit to speak and guide in directions we might not have foreseen, to pay attention to opportunities, obstacles, and the state of our own soul as we discern.  From that standpoint, I am awed by the presence of the Spirit in this new thing, and pray that we will all be able to continue to hold it lightly and let it take us where it leads.