A letter on convening holy conversations in our communities
To: Rectors, Priests-in-Charge and Wardens
From: The Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Re: Convening a Holy Conversation in Our Communities
Date: 5 December 2012
Dear Friends in Christ:
At our recent Diocesan Convention, I asked the convention delegates to describe the default future for their congregations: the future for their churches if no changes were made. I asked them where the front line of their churches was, where they confronted the moral and spiritual malaise of our society. I asked them what it would take for them to commit to moving the front line from its current place to a place further out. Then I challenged them - and all of us - to host conversations with members of our larger communities about the essential ministry each congregation might offer its community. The purpose of this letter is to help you begin to prepare for these holy conversations. (Click here to read my convention address.)
Why did I issue this challenge? Why should we engage in such conversations?
The simple response is that we are God's people and that we are empowered by baptism to participate in God's ministry of reconciliation. In order to share in the ministry of reconciliation, we have to know our neighbors and to understand their needs. In many ways, the contemporary church is isolated from and hostile towards the culture in which it lives. We are suspicious of people who are not part of the church. We must overcome the separation between the church and the culture if we are to have meaningful opportunities to help reconcile the world to God.
A more complicated response has to do with the changes we are experiencing in church and society. Many of us grew up in a time when most people understood something about the Christian faith. And we understood sharing the Good News to be the task of inviting people to come to church, our church. It was enough for us to be ourselves and to invite folks to join us. We now live in a time when most people under the age of 30 have little or no knowledge about the church and about what we offer. There is intense competition for the Sunday morning time slot, and many, not only the young, think the life of faith is irrelevant or, even, dangerous to the lives they lead. In order to minister to this culture, we must learn to speak its language. As long we talk only with ourselves, the language we use will speak only to us. Reaching out to others and talking with them may help us see ourselves in a new light and may give us new language to talk about our ministries.
Jesus loved the people he met and embraced them, even as he challenged them to lead holy lives. I'm inviting us to embrace the people around us in the same way.
Preparing for these conversations will be hard work, perhaps the hardest work we’ve ever done in our churches. And the process of preparation will have several parts:
1. We will need to prepare ourselves spiritually. We will want to study our communities and prepare ourselves to enter into these conversations in faith. What study and prayer will we need to strengthen ourselves for the journey?
2. We will need to decide what format and style of conversation(s) will work best for us and our communities. What do we feel comfortable with? What will allow us to connect with members of our communities in meaningful and helpful ways? What vocabulary will we need to learn in order to speak with relevance to the people in our community?
3. We will need to decide whom we should invite to the table. Who are the stakeholders (those who have a stake, a share) in your community? Are they the movers and shakers? Are they politicians and service providers? Are they members of other churches and community organizations? Are they clients and guests of various programs and services? All of the above?
Over the next six to nine months, I invite us to consider carefully each of these matters and to involve the full membership of our congregations in addressing them.
As a first step, I ask you to name, during Advent 2012, a small leadership team that will be responsible for the conversation in your congregation. The team should include the rector or priest-in-charge, the deacon, if there is one, a member or two from the vestry, and at least one person from outside the normal leadership circles of your congregation. This third person might be a younger adult (under 30), or a person associated with a ministry of the church, but not a member, or a person who exercises leadership in another group in the community. This leadership team will oversee the process in your congregation for the next year and a half. Parish leaders will want to consider the membership of this team carefully. Submit your leadership team names and contact information here.
The job of the leadership team will be to prepare the congregation for the conversation and then to oversee the conversation with the community. My office will offer leadership teams training to assist them in this work and the opportunity to participate in peer coaching groups.
The second step is for the leadership teams to prepare for their work by reading Mission-Shaped Spirituality by Susan Hope. I will provide the text, and I ask you to read it by January 30, 2013. I will also provide an electronic space where leadership teams can talk together about what they are learning. As you work your way through the text and think about your congregation, it will become clearer to you what preparation your congregation will need.
The third step will be to begin to prepare congregations and to identify stakeholders, but let's not jump the gun on that. It's important to take time now for reflection and to let the stew simmer. There will be time enough later to think about the who, how and when.
After January 30, 2013, I will be in touch about resource materials and next steps. In the spring, I will host a training conference for leadership teams to learn about preparing congregations for structuring for the conversations that will begin in the fall of 2013. Part of that conference will be to create peer coaching groups made up of several leadership teams in each region of the diocese so that you may offer one another mutual support and share best practices.
I am very excited, and more than a little intimidated, by the work that lies before us. To move out in faith, to connect the Good News we've received with those outside the church is to do the work Christians have always been called to do. But now we no longer have the support of the culture. We have to move out in ways that are entirely new for us, and we have to take the risk of sharing our faith in public places and public ways. I deeply believe that God will bless our efforts as we overcome our fear and step out together into our communities where I know we will find God waiting to welcome us. I invite you to walk with me on this journey.
The Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Bishop of Maine