The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Reflections on a parish profile seminar

Posted by Ron George on January 20, 2008

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All Saints Episcopal Church, Corpus Christi, where I worship regularly, is in the hunt for a new rector after sixteen years of pastoral leadership that most would agree revived the parish and set it on a provocative, gracious course. More than 100 of us met Saturday in a room that bears indelible marks of the previous rector, from its wood floor of inlaid mesquite forming a Chartres labyrinth to the round stained-glass image of Jesus in the ceiling, an artifact from the original church building and children’s chapel, which bears but faint resemblance to a Jesus Pantocrator one might find in the dome of an Orthodox church. We were there to talk about ourselves among ourselves, what we do well and what we must do better if we are to flourish as the Body of Christ in the 3000 block of South Staples Street, 78404.

All of us were given a booklet of results from a parish survey, but scant mention was made of it in the four hours we were there, except from time to time when a statistic supported whatever point this or that presenter wish to make about the nature of the parish or the direction we should be going. I haven’t had time to digest these figures, and I marveled how quickly some of my sisters and brothers in Christ were able to discern how the numbers showed so clearly which path to take into the future. More about that later.

I was disposed not to like this session very much, especially when I saw the newsprint and markers on the table. Oh, God, another day of that, I thought. I certainly was eating crow before the session was over, because, despite the tedious apparatus — and, honestly, I don’t know how else it might be done — the Spirit of the Body gathered in that large, noisy room blessed everyone, or seemed to. I certainly didn’t hear anyone say otherwise. We truly were animated, our souls filled with joy. The archdeacon commented on the remarkable energy, all of which was authored or mediated through 13 tables of eight saints each. (Frankly, even though it was wonderful to have the archdeacon with us, it made me wonder why he had come, because we seemed to have had all the direction and resource we needed from within the congregation, driven by strong lay leadership and led by a capable interim pastor.)

I doubt that we learned anything as a group we didn’t already know about ourselves — what we’re good at and what we’re not — but the light shone bright at the tables-for-eight, small groups of people not bunched with their best pals but just anyone (numbered off, 1 to 13), all of whom cared as much as any other for the future and destiny of All Saints. It was the best best sort of perspective taking — and here’s where the archdeacon made his mark on the day, by laying down the rules: first-person statements, no debates, find consensus: Five things All Saints does best, and four areas All Saints needs to improve.

I felt a high level of trust at Table No. 1, which I shared with Vicki, Pat, Bob, Don, Marcia, John and Barbara. I felt that we were one in the spirit, which is not always the case in this type of setting (and, especially, in these days of wrath for The Episcopal Church and the Worldwide Anglican Communion). My guess is that trust was at a high level throughout the room; and now that I think about it, I’m astonished that we didn’t make a note of that in our discussion of what we do best, although I guess we did indirectly, at least at Table No. 1. Vicki told us she had found All Saints a safe place within which to unpack some baggage from previous experience in other denominations — and if you can’t trust the people you’re with, it ain’t safe.

Now about those numbers. The point was made several times on Saturday that ours is an aging congregation, with the overwhelming number of respondents to the survey more than 45 years of age. It was said that this indicates a need for a dramatic change in programming in order to attract younger people to All Saints, especially young couples with children. The implication: If we don’t, we die. To quote the Rolling Stones: What a drag it is, getting old. (I don’t agree, by the way!)

I do agree that it would be good for All Saints to have more young adults in the congregation, but I also would like to suggest that it would benefit newcomer young adults just as much to join this aging congregation as it would for the congregation to have them. I would argue that the age of our congregation is an asset, not a liability, and that we must be careful in plotting our next moves toward calling a new rector that we don’t miscast our future for having misjudged our demographics.

First, the statistics don’t necessarily mean that All Saints is aging. They do indicate that this community of faith appeals to older people, because — and this is just a gut feeling on my part — most of the “white-haired” demographic at All Saints does not constitute an “old guard” of longtime members but a significant cadre of mature adults looking for spiritual nurture and refreshment commensurate with their intelligence and desire to know themselves for themselves before a loving God. That may not be everyone’s story, but I’ve heard it often enough at All Saints to suspect that it’s true for many if not most.

Second, if I were one of a young married couple, I would rush to All Saints for the opportunity of having a church full of grandparents to care about and for my children. I would gladly embrace the wisdom and authenticity of older people who have learned from life that there is more to it than what is commonly served up in popular culture, and that it has something to do with the Mystery at the center of life, the God we worship in Christ Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit. I would pray that my children learn from their experience at All Saints the countercultural message that honoring one’s elders is a sacred, joyous duty without which life is simply incomplete and, finally, meaningless. What we learn from our elders, among other things, is that there is an end to life and that our end in life is to be God’s child whether we live or die.

The elders of All Saints have something to learn about reaching out to the young, not as a matter of parish survival but in offering the best we have gleaned from our decades of experience — the pain as well as the joy — that would enhance the lives of young adults and families searching for safe harbor. Those who would advocate a new direction at All Saints for the sake of attracting younger people might do well to tap into what makes our parish appealing to older people as an asset rather than a liability. This is not about resisting the urge to fix what isn’t broken; rather, it’s a suggestion that All Saints is the way it is not because it’s failing to attract younger people but because it’s succeeded in attracting a cadre of intelligent, articulate, loving senior citizens. Our assets may need to be cultivated, but there’s no evidence at all for replacing them.

As we move toward calling a new rector, these issues should be taken up not in dialogue but in conversation toward consensus, such as we had among ourselves on Saturday, taking advantage of our fundamental strength — the trust we have among ourselves that All Saints is a safe place for young and old to unpack the baggage we’ve brought with us through the past 16 years of engagement, enjoyment and love.

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One Response to “Reflections on a parish profile seminar”

  1. Rod Clark said

    Thank you, Ron! I have found you to be an echo of thoughts, ideas and feelings that I have but can’t articulate as eloquently as you are capable.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your view on invigorating our parish. As one of the youngest members of the church I shared the same concerns you have stated. As a matter of fact, my number one concern was “atracting young families without comprimising our Episcopal traditions.” I feel that deviating from our core values and and a restructuring of our program would do more harm than good.

    I fear that my generation and those behind me do not seek real worship and humility. We are living in a culture of gratification and superficiality (if that is a word) and short of putting a rock band in a service led by a trendy hipster that preaches glorification of self, I am at a quandary of how to proceed.

    I guess all we can do is be prayerful and have faith in God’s providence.

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