What salsa dancing has taught me about church in the 21st Century: Annual Report 2019

Another year of growth, with exciting new developments in our common life and ministry as we were reminded by the lovely slide show prepared by Arianna. Before going further, I would like to thank the staff—Christina, Ari, Pat, the folks in the kitchen, Berkley and Mark, Vikki, and especially Deacon Carol. And the outgoing wardens John and Greg, and vestry members Paula, Kabura, and John, who agreed to fill out the balance of Jarrod Irwin’s term.

It’s great that we are growing, especially because we are going against the trend of decline in the diocese, the Episcopal Church, and Christianity in the US. Growth brings challenges. As new members join us, and as visitors continue to explore connecting with us, we are reaching the limits of what we can do with our current staff and volunteer base. We began talking about the possibility of calling an Associate Rector, the budget that is being presented to the congregation today includes funding for such a position beginning on July 1, but our conversation should be driven not by financial worry but by our desires to deepen our relationships with each other, to reach out more effectively and creatively into our city and to respond faithfully and courageously to God’s call.

Bishop Search.

In the coming year, we will say good bye to Bishop Miller as he retires after 17 years as the Bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee. We will also begin to make plans for our next bishop. Even now, that search process is taking shape. The Standing Committee of the Diocese, the entity with the responsibility for overseeing episcopal transitions, is in the process of selecting a search committee. It’s likely that the members of that body will be made public before the end of the year.

The search consultant, the Rev’d Dr. Anne Hallisey, will be in the Diocese in January, leading the clergy retreat from January 20-22, and then holding a retreat with the Search Committee January 24-25. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an episcopal search, so it’s worth reminding you of the process. There will be intensive study of the current state of the diocese. Members of the search committee will visit parishes, interview clergy and lay people. There will be a survey distributed that will solicit opinions about the state of the diocese, perceived needs, and what we might like to see in the next bishop. Eventually, a diocesan profile will be prepared, and the names of nominees solicited. The search committee will hold a retreat with select candidates, visit them in their contexts, do the necessary vetting process, and eventually publish the list of nominees. But even after that, there will be the possibility of additional nominees being brought forward. An election date will be set; the candidates will tour the diocese giving us the opportunity for us to get to know them. Finally, there will be an electing convention. The candidate who receives a majority of votes from both the clergy and the delegates elected by parishes, will be elected bishop; but their ordination will not take place until they receive a majority of consents from bishops and standing committees of the dioceses of the Episcopal Church. We don’t know the timeline for any of this, but it’s likely that the process of election will take most of the next year, and we won’t have a new bishop until some time in 2021.

Many of you may wonder what any of this has to Grace Church. We see the bishop only rarely; few of us are involved in any diocesan ministries or commissions, beyond the Haiti Project, Deacon Carol’s work with the Commission on Global Reconciliation, and our delegates’ attendance at diocesan convention. Still, we are not a stand-alone congregation. The search for a new bishop provides us an opportunity to intensify our engagement with the diocese, help shape its future, and allow other congregations and clergy learn from our experience in downtown Madison over the last decade.

I am completing my second term as a member of Diocesan Executive Council. In the last year, I was asked by the Bishop to participate in a subcommittee of that body whose task was to look at the relationship of the Diocesan Haiti Project with the diocese as a whole. As we worked, it became clear that the future viability of the Haiti Project would depend on a period of intense diocesan engagement with the Project, helping to develop new leadership, bring transparency and stability to its finances, and raise its visibility in the diocese. I volunteered to co-chair the Haiti Project Steering Committee for at least a year as we sought to build on its strengths and address some of its vulnerabilities. Our work is made more challenging by the difficult situation on the ground in Haiti. I expect to continue involvement in that work for the immediate future but hope that by the end of 2020, new leadership will be in place to work with a new bishop to shape the future relationship between the diocese and this crucial outreach ministry.

New Homeless Shelter.

As most of you know, for a number of years a group from Grace Church have been exploring a bundle of issues around the possible redevelopment of the West Wing and the future of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter that Grace has hosted since 1984. In addition, there have been questions about the impact of the proposed new historical museum on our property. Over the last year, we have taken a number of significant steps. As we continue to research future possibilities for the West Wing, we worked with a developer on the economic feasibility of a limited project that would add a floor and create a roofline that would match the nave. Unfortunately, that possibility while aesthetically pleasing is not feasible economically. We have not had significant conversations with the Museum project developers in the last year.

Much of our work has focused on exploring whether there is interest and energy in the wider community for a new, purpose-built shelter adequate to the needs of our unhoused neighbors. We contracted with Ms. Susan Schmitz, retired president of Downtown Madison, Inc, to help us discern whether a new shelter project might be welcomed by both the private and public sectors. Her initial contract is concluding and with her help we have decided to move forward with the formation of a steering committee that will continue our work and build coalitions with the ultimate goal of a purpose-built shelter. Along with her, we have met with city and county elected officials and staff, service providers, and other stakeholders. There seems to be significant interest and momentum building that over time could result in a new facility for people experiencing homelessness.

As that work proceeds, Grace Church will continue to be involved with representation on the steering committee and shepherding the process. It will undoubtedly take several years to reach completion and as we have watched the progress of the proposed Salvation Army redevelopment, we know that it will take a great deal of effort, political will, and careful listening.

With the new museum project and the potential shelter move, we will have to engage in simultaneous conversations about the future of our physical plant, especially the west wing, and how our ministry and mission might adapt to the changing needs of our neighborhood, and the changing built environment. As I have said many times over the years, the questions driving our conversations should begin with our careful attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and our faithfulness to Jesus’ call to us to share the good news. How can we be a blessing to our neighborhood, and how can our buildings be an agent of the church’s mission to reconcile humans with God?

I want to close with a story; it’s one I told the vestry a couple of months ago but I hope it will get you thinking as well. Corrie and I are ballroom dancers, and the demographics of ballroom dancing are pretty much like the demographics of the Episcopal Church; the vast majority of people at ballroom dances are over 50; except that is, for the young couples learning their wedding dance (sound familiar?). This summer, we decided to try something new—salsa and we went to a venue downtown that has an hour-long bachata or salsa lesson followed by live music. The demographics there were quite different—of the 100 or so who usually attend, no more than a handful were over 50, and in the group classes the same teacher offers at a studio, the difference is even more stark. We were usually more than 20 years older than anyone else in the room. But it’s not just about learning moves; the teacher has created community, making use of social media. They have regular social gatherings, they become friends and hang out together. My point is not that we need to start salsa classes or a jazz mass; my point is that community is being created in completely new ways now and often outside of traditional institutions like the church.

We have to take risks; we have to experiment; we have to continue to ask new questions and explore new approaches as we seek to deepen our relationships with each other and make connections with our neighbors who work and live in downtown Madison. In the last ten years, we have done that time and again, and while sometimes our efforts have faltered, we have also seen new life. My prayer for us as a congregation is that as we continue to discern God’s call, we have the courage to experiment, to take risks and to follow Jesus into the heart of the city, and into the heart of his love.

 

 

Abandoned Treasures and Marvelous Things: A Sermon for Proper29C, 2019

I follow an Italian social media account called Tesori Abbandonati(Abandoned Treasures). It posts photos of abandoned buildings, mostly churches, palaces, and the like from across Italy. There are similar projects in the US—for example a few years ago, photos of abandoned churches and theatres in Detroit were making the rounds.

Seeing such photos bring up all sorts of emotions. In the case of Italy, when many of the buildings are centuries old, I’m inclined to marvel at the passing of time, the fact that a church or palace from the seventeenth century lacks the architectural or historical significance that would warrant its preservation. In the case of cities like Detroit, different emotions come to the fore—sadness about the decline of a once-great American city, the loss of manufacturing, the racial inequalities that contributed and continue to contribute to the economic despair in many urban centers. Continue reading

The Future of the Diocese of Milwaukee: Looking back on strategic planning

I have been thinking a great deal about the future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin and specifically in the Diocese of Milwaukee. As we begin the search for a new bishop, I am concerned that we ask the right questions and honestly assess our current situation. I hope that we can imagine a future that remains faithful to our past, recognizes our failures, and celebrates our successes, and allows us to move freely forward under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Having been here since 2009 and serving on the Diocesan Executive Council for the last six years, I know something of the challenges facing our diocese. But there is also a great deal I don’t know. I’ve never visited all of our congregations; I’ve not had substantive conversations with many of my fellow clergy, and the number of lay people beyond Grace Church who I recognize, is quite small. I have little idea what it’s like to be Episcopalian in Racine, Kenosha, Milwaukee, let alone Beaver Dam or Dousman. In fact, I wonder whether we really have a sense of ourselves as a single body of Christ in this area, the Diocese of Milwaukee. We come together once a year for Diocesan Convention. The last several years it’s been a single day, with Eucharist, business meeting, and lunch. There’s no time to get to know each other. Much of this assessment be unique to my situation but I wonder how a successful search can be accomplished if a diocese doesn’t know itself well. Perhaps gaining such knowledge is the important initial phase of a search process.

For some reason, I was looking back over some past pieces I’d written about the future of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Milwaukee. In the course of that, I came across a post I had written back in 2013 in conjunction with the Strategic Planning document I had helped work on for the previous year and a half. Like so many similar projects, it’s often the case that such work is filed away and largely ignored. I don’t know whether that happened in this case. Still it’s worth reading to get a sense of the challenges we were facing in 2013, and to reflect on what has changed since then.

The document talks about decline. Between 2001 and 2011, membership in the diocese fell from 14000 to 10000; average Sunday attendance from 6000 to 4000. That decline has continued. Most recent figures show membership around 8000 and average Sunday attendance closer to 3000. Reference is made in the document to the need to think strategically about parishes and congregations–whether the congregations we have are well-positioned for future growth and sustainability, whether we might need to close a number that are unlikely to survive, and whether we have too many congregations in some places.

All is not negative. The documents reminds us of our history:

Our tendency is to interpret these trends as a narrative of decline from a glorious past. But the history of our diocese teaches a different lesson. The Episcopal Church in Wisconsin began with the heroic efforts of Bishop Kemper to plant churches on the frontier. Lay people shared his vision and sacrificed time, energy, and financial resources that built many of the churches and institutions that now make up the Diocese of Milwaukee. Along the way, many other churches and institutions (schools, mission efforts, and the like) were founded. Some thrived for a time and died; others were transformed to meet the needs of new situations and communities. Our history is a story of innovation, creativity, and mission. It is a story of success and failure.

Is it a case of a lost opportunity? I’m not sure. As we begin our search for a new bishop, I’m struck that some of those recommendations continue to be relevant, and some of the hopes we expressed in 2013, specifically for deeper relationships among the congregations, the clergy and lay people, seem not to have been realized.

You can read the whole document here: taskforcereport_revised

The Future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin

Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best. There have also been enormous changes in society and the church since 2003. The debate over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, a debate that was intensified by the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. From time to time, Bishop Miller reminds us that consents to his election were voted on at the same General Convention that voted on Bishop Robinson. Since then, we have seen the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US and the approval by General Convention of rites for the celebration and blessing of same-sex marriage.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American achievement mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. The Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American … mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. I’m told that the Diocese of Eau Claire currently has 3 self-sustaining parishes with full-time clergy. An effort some years ago to merge with the Diocese of Fond du Lac failed when it was voted down by a single vote in the Diocese of Eau Claire. Its current bishop, retired from a previous diocese, and serving part-time, is facing mandatory retirement in 2021. At its convention last weekend, the diocese was unable to commit itself to a plan moving forward; instead it will continue to study its options.

With the mandatory retirement of Bishop Lambert of the Diocese of Eau Claire, and Bishop Miller’s announced retirement in 2020, it seems to me that now is the perfect time for Wisconsin Episcopalians to ask some difficult questions and move courageously and creatively into the future. Unfortunately, it seems no one is interested in addressing these questions.

I have no idea who could facilitate or even compel the conversations that we need to have across the state and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. I am about to step down after six years on our Diocesan Executive Council. I am not sure whether I can offer any leadership on the diocesan level. My energies are focused locally—on building relationships with our neighboring congregations and with their clergy, and ecumenically—on helping our declining mainline denominations strategize about how we might work together toward a new future for our ministries.

Sometimes, I wish there would be someone from the denomination who could come in and compel us to have the difficult conversations. More importantly, someone to help us imagine a new future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin. I feel like we are about to squander an incredible opportunity to do something quite new and something that might give us new energy and new spirit to face the future.

If I were able to shape matters, I would require conversations among the Dioceses of Milwaukee, Eau Claire, and Fond du Lac before allowing the Diocese of Milwaukee to begin its search process for a successor to Bishop Miller. Such conversations might help us all to discern a vision for a future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin.

I pray that in the months to come Episcopalians in Wisconsin have the courage and faith to think boldly and to invite the Holy Spirit to lead us in new directions.

Communion of all the saints: A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2019

The Episcopal Church I first attended regularly was St. Paul’s, Newburyport, Massachusetts. It was constructed in the early 20th century, on the site of an earlier building that had been destroyed by fire. As was the custom in England, and in many colonial towns, St. Paul’s churchyard was also a graveyard. To enter the building, you walked along a sidewalk that cut through a jumble of old headstones, some of which dated back to the late 18th century. It was a reminder of the church’s history, of all those who had worshiped there over the centuries. Continue reading

God, have mercy on me, a sinner: A Sermon for Proper 25C, 2019

 

A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. So begins the little parable that we hear today in the gospel reading. The temple was the center of Palestinian Jewish life in the first century. It was where necessary sacrifices were made; it was where pilgrims came from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the great festivals of the Jewish year. It was also the nexus between Roman imperial power and the institutions of Judaism, especially the priestly caste. Continue reading

From gratitude to faith: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year C, 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently. It is a concept central to the biblical tradition but it’s not something we often connect to the Christian faith. In fact, it may be that we only think about gratitude one time a year, around Thanksgiving. Our worship is full of thanksgiving—indeed at the heart of the Eucharist is thanksgiving as we offer thanks to God for all that God has given us, and especially the gift of God’s son.

Gratitude is subversive. We live in an anxious age, as we worry not only about the future of our world and our nation, but we worry about our own futures as individuals and families; we worry about our safety and security. As our anxiety grows, we tend to turn inward and become self-protective, hoarding what we have and envying those who have more.

We may be parsimonious in our gratitude, viewing the gifts we give and receive only in terms of their value. Like Sheldon in the TV show Big Bang Theory, we may even dread giving gifts for fear that the gift we give may not be as valuable as the gift we receive, so we remain in debt to the giver. Or to use a phrase we’ve heard a good bit recently, we think of giving in terms of quid pro quo.

In our gospel reading, we see a story of healing that becomes a story of gratitude and faith.

On the surface, it’s rather a simple and straightforward story. Jesus cleanses ten lepers; he tells them to go to the priests to be certified as clean, and then to go back home. Only one of them returns to thank him, and it turns out to be a Samaritan who responds to Jesus’ acts with gratitude. On the surface, this story seems to be about etiquette, about giving thanks; a biblical example of the imperative to send thank-you cards. In fact, it’s much more than that. It’s a story that models the Christian life.

There are a number of very interesting things about this story. One is the context in which Luke places it. I’ve been stressing for these last months that we are in the middle of a section of Luke’s gospel that is shaped by Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Way back in Luke 9:51, Luke tells us that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We’re in chapter 17 now, and Luke begins this episode by reminding us that Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. It’s the first time, he mentions that fact since 9:51.

Even more interesting is the fact that this episode involves a Samaritan. At the outset of the journey, the first town Jesus and his disciples come to is a Samaritan village, which refuses to welcome them. The disciples want Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy it, but Jesus simply goes in a different direction.

There’s another mention of a Samaritan as Jesus makes his journey to Jerusalem—earlier in the Gospel he tells the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of what it means to love one’s neighbor.

Think about that story. A lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what scripture says and he responds, “Love of God and neighbor.” When the lawyer pushes Jesus, asking him, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan—an example of neighbor love. Perhaps our story serves as a bookend to that one. In this instance, the healed Samaritan is an exemplar of love of God

Jesus heals the ten lepers and then instructs them to go to the priests to be certified clean. This is was in perfect keeping with Jewish law as laid out in Leviticus. Nine obeyed him; one did not. The tenth came back, praising God with a loud voice, and thanking Jesus. Luke adds, as if in a marginal comment, “And he was a Samaritan.”

This story is not primarily about etiquette. It is about religious norms and values. The Samaritan was doubly unclean in the eyes of Jews. As a leper, he would have been excluded from the community, shunned. As a Samaritan, he would have been reviled for the religious traditions he followed. Although he was a Samaritan, reviled and regarded as ritually unclean, as a leper, it seems that he was part of that community of lepers who came together because of their shared plight. Now, as a healed leper among healed lepers, his otherness as a Samaritan would stand out.

What is puzzling is that his being a Samaritan takes on significance only after his leprosy is cleansed. Jesus told all ten to present themselves to the priests, what the law required. But of course, as a Samaritan, he would not have had that option. No certificate from any Jewish priest deeming him free of leprosy would make him a part of the Jewish community. Perhaps that is why he came back to Jesus. He realized he had been cleansed, and that was all that mattered.

The Samaritan turned back, he glorified God, fell on his knees and thanked Jesus. We might think such a response would be natural, but isn’t it the case that most of us would follow the rules laid out? We would do whatever it took to be restored to our families, our livelihoods, and our religious lives? It was only the Samaritan who responded differently. He acted as unexpectedly and extravagantly as Jesus himself did. He came back; and because of his response, he was rewarded extravagantly. The NRSV , “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” In fact, a better translation would read, “your faith has saved you.”

The Samaritan realizes he’s healed, turns back, prostrates himself, and gives thanks to God. Those gestures are also of great significance for Luke’s gospel. It’s the same language Luke uses to describe the actions of the shepherds as they returned to their fields after having seen the birth of Jesus. It’s also the way Luke concludes the gospel. After the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem in great joy and praised God in the temple.

When describing the Samaritan’s actions, Luke chooses a very interesting word. eucharistein. It’s translated as giving thanks, and it’s the word from which Eucharist comes. But it’s more than giving thanks—just as we do each Sunday in the Eucharist, it’s also about glorifying and praising God.

So this story is about us moving from need, to gratitude to faith. Like the lepers, we have all cried out in some way, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” Some of us have had our prayers answered. We have experienced healings. Others have cried out as faithfully and as desperately, but have not received healing.

Many of us right now may be struggling to be thankful in the midst personal or global crisis. We may be wondering whether we will have enough money for the rest of the month, wondering where our next meal is coming from, anxious for loved ones, or ourselves.

 

In the midst of all that, whatever struggles you might be having, we might be crying, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” But at the same time, is it still possible for us to offer thanks to God—thanks for life itself, thanks for the gifts that God has given you? And if you can give thanks, can you feel your heart open just a bit wider, more open to the world, to your fellow humans, to God? Practice gratitude, by offering God a simple, thank you, each day, throughout the day, and in time, you will come to experience so overwhelming a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, that deepens your relationship to Jesus, and as it did for the leper, saves you.