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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Friday, June 11, 2010

What are you looking for in a church?

"What are you looking for in a church?"

This question is not so often asked of clergy. As it happens, it was asked of me because I'm in the process of searching for a new call. The reasons for this are myriad. Some are surface reality-- financial issues, and small, isolated communities, and differences in approach to mission. Others are unbloggable, as issues of ministry often are (and I tend to err on the side of caution in this regard-- one reason for the long stretches of silence recently). In this day and age of almost daily salacious news reports about priests and pastors, I will say that it is in no way due to any sort of misconduct, thank you.

But the end result is the same: I have dusted off my Church Deployment Office (CDO) profile and started looking around.

"What are you looking for in a church?"

The ideal will never be there, of course. No such thing as a perfect parish-- and if there were, they certainly wouldn't call me!

That said... what sort of congregation might I aspire to serve?

  • One who attempts to be the church as the Body of Christ, and not simply as a form of respectable civic religion. By this I mean folks who participate in the life and work of the congregation in a way that moves beyond showing up on a Sunday morning because "that's what one does," and who do not resent the suggestion that church membership, let alone outreach or social justice, might be about more than good citizenship.
  • Corollary: one who sees the spiritual life as integral to our work together, and not simply a veneer that I'm hired to apply.
  • One with an eagerness for offering the best we have in worship. I don't necessarily mean fancy vestments or expensive appointments, but more that we bring all that we are and offer it to God. Sing and respond and pray and listen and move like our collective efforts matter. Because they do.
  • One that cares for the church property as more than afterthought or repository for second-hand items that aren't good enough for one's house anymore.
  • One with a certain willingness to risk. I know this is asking a lot of Episcopalians! I'm not talking about flinging aside the Prayer Book, honest. But in a thriving church, as with any living organism, changes inevitably occur, and new things will occasionally be tried-- in worship, in outreach, in study, whatever. This prospect does not need to be met with fear and anger and the constant digging in of heels.
  • One that expects its leadership to spend time in intentional reading and study, the better to preach and teach the Gospel effectively. Of course, this presumes a congregation interested in solid, Christ-centered preaching and teaching. Most say they are, but that's kind of like a church saying it wants to grow-- some mean that differently than others.
  • One that exhibits a charitable approach to relationships. No, there won't always be unanimity; no two people agree all the time, let alone a larger group like a church. But God is honored and the church remains healthy, even in conflict, if we can try to listen and speak with charity toward one another. Even situations of necessary correction or dealing with wrongdoing can be handled with compassion and goodwill.
So... What are you looking for in a church?


Blogger Young fogey emeritus said...

Good points of course. In my terms the kind of place with a High Mass every Sunday enthusiastically sung by the congregation and round-the-corner lines for the confessionals every Saturday along with the charitable work you imply. (The elusive perfect parish, probably as mysterious and mythical a beast in Anglicanism as anywhere else.)

That said I've long put in a good word for the seemingly nominal and marginal apparently only going through the motions... like the people Arturo writes about ('I'm religious not spiritual'), or the people I know who remember around 1962 (when you had everybody from Maritain, Merton and Dorothy Day to Cardinal Spellman the powerhouse to the person putting a dollar under his lucky saint's statue... from the very theological to very much not). As I like to say, my home in the Catholic world is somewhere north of Arturo's folk religion and south of the Lefebvrists, and like both not modern. Culture and oh, yes, doctrine, and a sense of community like family (see culture). (The Anglican influence I bring to the table, which some these days call patrimony: 'Let's do some of it in English!')

So that more or less is what I look for in a church, and among Pennsylvania Slavs and, outside of church but anyway, non-practising transplanted New York Italians (non-churchy folk, cultural Catholics, who teach me a thing or two about life* ... they fall under 'what I look for in a religion' more than a parish), I more or less have it.

It seems as though Fr John may be the only Anglican priest I know left in Big Sky Country.

*Challenge, and by this I don't mean trying to get them to become Anglicans (Them? Sorry but forgetaboutit): how would you try to influence such people to come back to church?

June 11, 2010 10:27 AM  

Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

YF: First of all, I would not be primarily interested in trying to "get them to become Anglicans." If someone would like to know more, I am glad to share; the door is always open. But if they would be more inclined to return to the practice of Christian faith in an RC church, then great. Better that they should have an active connection with a church than not.

That said, my first thought would be what you have already done/are doing: build relationships with them in a way that lets you trust one another. Whether Catholic or Protestant, the Gospel comes down to establishing and nurturing connections-- with God and with one another.

Then, a combination of things: see if you can learn what's appealing or appalling to them about religious practice and going to church. What are their reasons for not going to mass, but still maintaining the "cultural Catholic" ethos?

Invite them to events at your church-- not only services, but also dinners, studies, or whatever's going on that may interest them.

And let them see God at work in your life-- how the practice of your faith works for you, and in you.

Of course, they may still not come back to church; that is their choice to make. That pesky free will thing... but these are some ways I'd approach the issue.

June 11, 2010 12:26 PM  

Anonymous Jules said...

In a way I'm glad you and I are in different traditions, because we are looking for the same exact church!

Your second bullet point made me think of a pastor standing at the door putting a coat of shellac on members as they walk out. One that will crack as soon as they hit sunlight. :)

June 11, 2010 12:29 PM  

Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

Jules: The shellac image-- Spot. On.

And wanting the same kind of church? No problem. While we're dreaming, we could certainly imagine-- brace yourself-- MORE than one.

June 11, 2010 1:22 PM  

Blogger Crimson Rambler said...

oh Jane Ellen, I so wish...

June 13, 2010 12:44 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think points one and two (being the Body of Christ, and offering the best we have in worship) are what most congregations want.

Point 3 is more difficult. Personally I would be fine, worshiping in a school cafeteria as long as the priest brought me the Eucharist. However it is not reasonable to expect that somebody whose entire Christian formation lay within some ancient, pile of stones to feel the same. We are creatures. What we do with our bodies changes us. Just as certain gestures, and scents or textures call to mind a beloved face, certain scenes, or traditions bring Jesus to mind for those who have always known him in a certain setting. A generous tolerance for the foibles of the elderly would seem called for.

Point 4. A willingness to risk. Depends on what was at stake. Guitar instead of organ? No problem. Food bank? Super. Prison Ministry? Sure. Hispanic outreach? Great. Hispanic outreach instead of traditional Christian formation for children? No. Because of course everybody has priorities, and many ministries require some trade offs. One cannot have both Respect Life ministry praying outside abortion mills, as well as a Woman’s ministry escorting women to such centers. One cannot have a ministry directed at encouraging chastity among teenagers and young adults and another ministry handing out birth control. Eventually everybody decides what their priorities are. It is important that a priests priorities are the same as the congregation. If they are not, then this will be an unhappy marriage.

Point 5, intentional reading and studying would sort of depend on what precisely was read and studied. Nobody would object to anything by CS Lewis or Chesterton.

Point 6. Charity is essential in a church. But so is honesty. Love does not deceive. Love does not pretend or dissemble. If your priorities differ from the parish, charity demands truthfulness, and this is better made clear at the onset.

On a different note, have you considered applying for a VA chaplain job?


The pay is good, there is a strong need, the hours are regular, and I think you would enjoy it and might be quite good at it. (There is also a huge shortage of jobs for military chaplains of course, but that would be tough with a family).

June 13, 2010 9:46 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"That said I've long put in a good word for the seemingly nominal and marginal apparently only going through the motions..."

Well, heck, I'm sure glad somebody does! Because, again, we are creatures. What we do with our bodies changes us. "Fake it til you make it" is standard practice for alcoholics annonymous, and it is pretty good advice for other types of discipleship as well.

As for the "long lines at the confessional" ask and you will receive. I found the priests who made a point of saying that he expected parishoners to confess usually had longer lines than those who figured we were all hopeless cases who never listened to him anyway.

YF are you a catholic priest? Or an anglocat?

BTW, Jane if you are deleting my posts because I am annonymous, my name is Shari DeSilva. I live in Arkansas

June 13, 2010 10:05 PM  

Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

Hello, Shari! I remember you well.

Yes, I have often deleted anonymous posts in the past; I've just enough experience with this blog to have developed an unapologetic hard line for which postings I will pass, and those which are unclaimed start with a strike against them. Nor do I always get to moderating comments right away; life outside cyberspace often interferes, and clearly has priority.

Thank you for your comments. Yes, as it happens I have looked into chaplaincy-- I did so in seminary, as a matter of fact. However, I was very slightly (9 months) too old to be considered for the military, and the VA requires additional schooling (CPE units) that I do not have.

June 14, 2010 7:18 AM  

Blogger Young fogey emeritus said...

Jane: That's the good common-sense answer I expected including that you'd be more interested in getting people back to church generally than getting more Episcopalians; I wrote that part because some would consider such non-practising people 'unchurched' and thus fair game. Thanks!

Shari: Of course you're right in a way that the sacraments and community matter more than the building yet Catholicism has consecrated church buildings for a reason.

I'm not a priest (note the grey hat and the tie, not a black one or a Roman collar) and come from an Anglo-Catholic background; not born into it but a walk-on to that scene when I was about 13 from an old-school middle-of-the-road Anglicanism.

When reading this entry I thought that priests being deployed in different places every few years is like the military and probably hard on a family the same way; not like the good old days? ...when an incumbent got to stay in his parish for the rest of his life, bishop-like. That could also come from the difference you still see in the Episcopal Church between rectors and vicars. The rector is like an 'irremovable pastor' (parochus inamovibilis: there for life; not part of canon law but a longstanding custom); vicars like RC assistant priests (and Methodist ministers) can be moved around like soldiers, with the difference that (back to the original topic, and I know it's more complicated than that but anyway) an Episcopal priest is more of a free agent; he or she can look for another job.

June 14, 2010 7:57 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that the military has dropped its age requirements for physicians (now up to 62 even for army and older for navy), and the clergy shortage for the military is even greater than for physicians.

The va is also experiencing a shortage and is hiring right now. If you need to interview near NW arkansas/Missouri you are welcome to stay at my home.


June 14, 2010 9:33 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Army's new chaplain age is 50 if that helps. (The Navy is younger). The VA does require CPE however the Federal prison system will accept "2 years of pastoral/spiritual leadership in a congregational or specialized ministry setting within the endorsing body after formal ministerial preparation" in lieu of CPE.

Before anybody gets upset, I have actually been working with an inmate myself, and while it does not have the ambience of the Episcopal church, it definately meets all the requirements of what "you are looking for in a church". Anybody who attends seriously want their life transformed. They value their pastors/visitors. Their visiors are few. NOBODY will value their building more than their pastor! :)

You can make a huge difference in a life. A young life. Your flock will value relationships, and charity in relationships will go a long way to bringing a soul to Christ.

Don't laugh. And don't get mad. (Please). The pay is good, the work is stable. The fields are ripe for the harvest, and the workers are almost nonexistent.

The inmates can be difficult, but to be truthful, I find some of the geezers at my parish much MUCH more difficult than the inmates (and I know they drive our priest nuts), and I can definately see why Jesus preferred to hang out with low lifes of Jerusalem rather than some of the ornaments of the Temple.

Think about it. And then after you say no, think about it a week later. I have always thought that the generosity of the Episcopal church made it a good stepping stone for sinners. (I know I found it so).

Think about it. And come visit me in the Ozarks.

June 14, 2010 7:11 PM  

Blogger Padre Mickey said...

I'm looking for a church made up of people who take this Christian stuff seriously. When I first came to my present parish I had to deal with a lot of stuff, especially left over racism from the days of the Canal Zone, but we worked through it all and now they are serious about Jesus and his commandments. I'm looking for people who take the commandments of Jesus seriously and are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives. But I'm also looking for people who likes "smells and bells" which is almost impossible in los Estados Unidos.

June 30, 2010 5:50 PM  

Blogger Sally said...

an excellent post :-)

July 02, 2010 12:08 PM  

Blogger Mavis said...

I hope you find a good fit. i enjoyed your list

July 02, 2010 6:58 PM  

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