Saturday, May 28, 2011

Colts In A Ditch

Yesterday, as I was driving north into Fallon on 95, I saw a horse pasture to my right. It was a fenced pasture with a deep gulley inside the fence. The gulley had a steep slope, one that could be negotiated by a mature horse but not a colt. Two colts were lying along that steep slope. My guess is they frolicked along the edge, fell in, could not get out, and collapsed in exhaustion and despair.

Most of the mature horses in the pasture had gathered around. Several were at the top of the gulley. At least four horses had come down into it and were standing over the little ones. They were standing as if at attention, majestic in a posture of defense. They were guarding their young and calling out for help.

I called Dean Trudy Erquiaga on my cell phone (it’s alright I have Bluetooth). She called the Churchill County Sheriff’s Department, who in turn called the Highway Patrol. That’s as far as I know of the story but I imagine it came out alright. Fallon is the sort of place where a horse in need can find a friendly human hand.

But I can’t get out of my mind the picture of those horses standing over their colts. It was a thing of beauty, a thing of character. That image leads me inevitably to a sadder, contrasting picture – the state of children in Nevada and the response of our adult population.

Our dropout rate, our domestic violence rate, our divorce rate -- all the facts are consistent and emphatic. Thousands of Nevada’s children are lying in a ditch, exhausted and in despair. If we start with their families, the adults are often broken themselves. One way or another, many children today do not have families watching over them. We preserve our ranking as the state with the lowest number of young adults with post graduate degrees by remaining the state with the lowest percentage of preschoolers who are read to daily by an adult. The schools and social service agencies, already operating on a shoestring, are now being drastically defunded.

It’s always easy to blame the politicians. Partly I do – but I don’t’ think they lied to us. They have been clear on their priorities and we have elected them. I can only say that the adults who run our state, the adults who vote, the adults who advocate for this interest group or that – the adults of our state are leaving the children in the ditch. The current political expression of child neglect mirrors the chronic neglect of children in their homes.

I am not the one to find a mission for the Diocese of Nevada. My place is to listen to what’s on the hearts of people both inside and outside our church walls. What I hear is deep concern for the children. What I hear is a desire to find a way to stand together and watch over our children. I see it happening in different ways in different churches and communities. St. Matthew’s and St. Paul’s, Elko partner with Communities in Schools; St. Peter’s works through Food for Thought and there are other parish/ public school partnerships; several congregations have taken up advocacy about child sex trafficking. We are beginning to restore our partnership with St. Jude’s Ranch for Children. Some of us have engaged in legislative advocacy for the public schools where we deliver food, shoes, and school supplies. We are seeking grants to begin Episcopal Children’s Services in Nye County to transport at risk children to their service providers (transportation the Sheriff can no longer provide because of funding cuts.)

There are no doubt many ways to take action. But the image that remains in my mind is of those horses watching over their young. Already, the Episcopal Church in Nevada is moving into that posture, standing over the fallen in the ditch – guarding and calling out to those with the power to do more than we can do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leadership Is Making Something Happen

Ron Heifetz in his book, Leadership On The Line, tells the story of Lois. She lived on a Native American reservation where nearly everyone over 12 drank alcohol. She started going to the meeting lodge every Tuesday night. She told her friends she was leading AA meetings. But when they peeked through the window, there was Lois sitting all by herself. When people challenged her about this she said, “I am not alone. The spirits and the ancestors are there with me. Someday our people will come.”

Lois sat alone in that room for years. After three years, a few people joined her. After 10 years, the room was full. Leadership is doing what is needed -- not what is demanded.

Two years ago, there were no Sunday Schools for children in Nixon, Bullhead City, Ely, or Elko. There were no Sunday Schools because there were no children. There were no children because there were no Sunday Schools. But determined leaders in each of these communities started Sunday Schools. The adult teachers sat in empty rooms and waited. Today, there are vibrant Sunday Schools in those four churches. The children are present and they have brought their parents.

Who might need the grace of God? Who might need the love of Christ? What form might that grace need to take for someone?

Nevada has the highest divorce rate in the nation. This is not just folks flying in for their divorce then flying back home. Our people get divorced a lot. Might there be Nevadans hurting from their divorces who might need the support of a group. There’s a ready template. There’s a special version of it for the children. A church could extend that ministry to people regardless of where or whether they worship.

Might the offering of periodic Recovery Masses or healing services mediate grace to someone with an addiction? Last year I asked all our churches to observe a Recovery Sunday each year. One initially said it would be too expensive. Another is waiting to figure out if any of their present members need such a thing. But many of our congregations have observed at least one Recovery Mass and they plan to do it again. At our recent priests conference several priests requested the resources to offer a Recovery Mass. We might someday become a church explicitly for people in recovery, a church whose commitment to being “inclusive” would intentionally include the addicted.

Leadership is doing something new. It’s being out in front which necessarily means being alone at first. It’s risk taking because the new thing may fall flat. But it’s where the action is, where life happens.

There are a few business management folks in our diocese who want us to announce a strategy. Maybe someday we can do that. But that strategy depends on what is in our people’s hearts. I am still waiting to learn that. For example it does no good for me to say, we ought to offer Divorce Care unless it is in someone’s heart to minister to people in this particular pain. What other needs are out there? Needs of the vulnerable elderly? Needs of abused children? What about the deaf? I I have been told (elsewhere) that “we don’t offer signing in our worship because we have no deaf people.” That’s like not offering Sunday School because we have no children.

I don’t know a fraction of the needs that surround the church. All I know is what the church needs. We need leaders with the imagination, the compassion, the courage, and the initiative to make something happen. If our hearts are open, the Spirit will move us to right action.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Willl The Episcopal Church Survive? God Knows.

Will the Episcopal Church survive? God knows.

The allusion is to Ezekiel: “’Son of Man, can these bones live?’ ‘O Lord, thou knowest.” Ezekiel 37: 1-14. Life and death are God’s business. So is the future.

But some of our folks have been reading that if the Episcopal Church continues to lose members at the same rate we did in the past 7 years, we won’t last past 2060. Numbers and trends can be made to say all sorts of things, especially if you skip the facts of the story.

We have not been losing members randomly or through being boring or spiritually irrelevant. In fact, up until 2003, we were the only mainline denomination that was growing. In the past 7 years or so we have gone through a major controversy over gay inclusion. We did the right thing, in my view. We were true to an honest reading of Scripture and we acted faithfully on our theology. We were true to our beliefs. But it cost us the attempted secession of the Dioceses of San Joaquin, Ft. Worth, Pittsburgh, and Quincy. It led to the loss of congregations in dioceses that remained in the church, and the loss of members from congregations that stayed in their dioceses. Statistically, it was not a tsunami but it did make a notable dent in our membership for the past 7 years.

That controversy may not be completely over. But it has certainly lost a lot of steam. Much of American culture seems to have gone our way, and other mainline denominations are reaching similar conclusions to the ones we have reached. Even internationally, more and more of us are agreeing to disagree and get on with serving Christ.

As for the future and the doomsday predictions based on “current trends,” we would have to come up with a series of new controversies as divisive as the one of the past 7 years to keep up that rate of schism and chaos. I’m not sure we are that creative. Besides, new controversies don’t seem to be what we are doing these days. We are more interested in moving on beyond the old liberal-conservative point and counterpoint. We are settling down to the business of being the Church in the 21st Century. Everyone from Alban Institute to the Evangelism and Congregational Development folks are teaching how to close the door on old fights and live into a newly invigorated mission. See for example “Changing the Conversation” in Alban Weekly for May 16, 20111, The controversies of this decade have been hard, but they have brought us to a deeper understanding of the faith and a deeper appreciation of each other – those of us who are still together in this battle scarred old Church.

So what does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? God knows. I only know what I see here today in Nevada. I see children’s Sunday Schools in Ely, Elko, and Nixon where there were no children just three years ago. I see young adults at numerous congregations where there were no young adults three years ago. I see active campus ministries in Reno and Elko. We had churches packed for Easter this year that had not been full for years. Epiphany, one of our newest and demographically youngest congregations, is looking for a larger building because they are regularly over crowded. The Grace in the Desert juggernaut of growth goes on.

I see more and better parish web sites and Face Book pages. I hear our ministries recognized on NPR. Billboards are going up outside Ely and Fallon. Our Latino ministries happen in existing churches so we don’t count them as new parishes. But if you consider a worshiping community as a congregation, then we have seven brand new congregations all growing rapidly. We are offering small church music workshops and initiating a program of emergent ministries for miners and energy workers to rebuild our rural ministries. A plan for evangelism in Asian ministries is on the drawing board.

It isn’t all rosy. One of our well loved small congregations in Reno closed last year. But I see its former members now actively engaged and strengthening the other 3 congregations in Reno, one of which is a fairly new parish. Another of our small congregations went from about 24 to around 12 this year over a local fight. But some of those dozen folks have found their way to another Episcopal congregation in the area that was on the ropes a few years ago but now is coming back strong.

What does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? “O Lord our times are in your hands.” God knows. I don’t. No, I don’t know our future. But I know our mission and it is not perpetually checking our pulse. Our mission is being faithfully present in a culture where people are lost, alienated, lonely, and despairing. Our mission is shining the Christ light of hope into the dark corners of society – corners darkened by poverty, sometimes economic, more often spiritual. I believe people need the Episcopal Church and I believe God loves it. If God did not love it, it would have surely died long ago from all the things we’ve done to it in our human frailty and ineptitude.

What is God doing in the Episcopal Church? We have a lot of wind out here in the High Desert. Jesus said “God is wind.” John 4:24 “The wind bloweth wherever it listeth and you hear the sound of it; but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goest. So it is with every word that is born of the Spirit.” John 3: 8. The Church is God’s word born of the Spirit on Pentecost, reborn of the same Spirit with each and every baptism. Where is the Church going? Wherever God wills.