Wednesday, May 04, 2005
¶ 1) St. Anthony of the Desert is an older, urban parish in a middle-class, changing neighborhood. They are a predominantly Caucasian congregation, liturgically traditional, with an average Sunday attendance of around 250 people. They once were larger, and want to be so again; the fluctuations in the surrounding community haveheightened the level of anxiety related to the declining status. The Rev. Timothy Barstow, a man in his late 40’s, has been at St. A’s for almost 5 years. However, this is not Tim’s first congregation; he’s an experienced parish priest, having been active in parish ministry for nearly 20 years. A graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, he is pleasant, albeit rather passive and indirect. He likes to be liked, and is disinclined to initiate something about which he might catch some flack. His rather laid-back leadership style has seemed to fit well in the parish, given its history of strong layleadership.
¶ 2) A survey was distributed throughout the congregation by the Membership Committee to find out what parishioners believe their life in community could use. The results showed a great desire in the congregation for “More Spirituality.” In response, the Vestry hired a group of church consultants to come lead some spiritual exercises andto plan a series of parish retreats. The choice of this group, “Fruits of the Spirit,” had been suggested by a member of the parish. He had heard about their programs from a friend, a priest in Pennsylvania whose church had used them. That church had experimented with various approaches suggested by the consultants and is now experiencing new and rapid growth.
¶ 3) “Fruits of the Spirit” – an ecumenical, non-denominational group, sent along some literature to show some of the sorts of programs they offered. Some of the material they provided was distinctly Christian in nature, drawing directly from the Bible and from orthodox Christian traditions. Other material, however, was not. For example, one of the controversial meditations focused on the Tao Te Ching, chapter 11:
We join spokes together in a wheel/but it is the center hole/that makes the wagon move./We shape clay into a pot,/But it is the emptiness inside/That holds whatever we want./We hammer wood for a house,/But it is the inner space/That makes it livable./We work with being,/But non-being is what we use.
Another retreat schedule was based on Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” while a third controversial exercise made reference to “Mother Goddess” and the “Universal Divine” when referring to God.
¶ 4) Upon hearing about this the congregation went into an uproar, heavily divided over whether the program should be employed. The main person speaking up in support of using the program is Gloria Johnson: a long-time, committed member of the parish, well-liked and respected, presently serving as head of the Altar Guild. She is a woman in her late 50’s, and some of the spirituality approaches suggested by “Fruits of the Spirit” hearken back to her young adult years in the 1960’s. She maintains that “God can’t be confined. Maybe there are more ways to hear the Spirit at work in our lives than intraditional Christian spirituality. We asked for more spirituality and we’ve got the opportunity for it in this program, so why are you complaining? Besides,” she adds, “no one has to participate. Why not let those who want to, give it a try?” Gloria has significant support from the older, long-time members and she’s not afraid to call in somefavors. She is one of the major pledge contributors, and has been dropping little hints to the rector that she may need to leave the parish if things don’t go her way.
¶ 5) Leading the opposition to the program is the Youth Director, a laywoman in her late 20’s named Jessica Garcia. She has a Master’s degree in youth ministry from Wheaton College and several years previous work experience. She was hired by the parish just last year, in the hopes that strengthening the youth program will help revitalizeand grow the parish. In the short time she’s been there, she has come to be seen as integral to the life of the parish. She is well-liked and supported by many in the community, whether or not they have direct connections to the youth ministry in the church. One of her primary concerns is spiritual formation. “Youth group,” she has saidrepeatedly, “needs to be about more than keeping the kids busy and off the streets!”
¶ 6) Jess is incensed by the prospect of pagan practices leading people (especially impressionable teens) astray from the faith. “This stuff isn’t Christian!” she fumes, “and we cannot allow it in our church!” She has attempted to rally parishioners to support her point of view. Last week she escorted some representatives from the youth group to thevestry meeting to voice their opposition, pointing out that the teens were not merely “the future of the church,” but also the present, and need to be heard. Unfortunately, this action only served to make things more contentious. Gloria was especially irritated. “Teens,” she said, “are not equipped to make important decisions like this, discerning what is good for the members of this church and what is not.” Of course, comments like this only served to dig in the teen’s heels, insulted about the inference that they’re not mature enough, and act in support of the Youth leader even though they don’t all necessarily think the Fruits of the Spirit is a good thing.
¶ 7) Privately, Tim supports the idea of introducing new approaches to developing spirituality; but he is unsure how far afield they may appropriately venture. Additionally, he’s reluctant to take a public stand, both because he’s afraid to lose the youth director, whose ministry is seen as vital to the future of the church, and because he does not want to offend the established core of the parish. How would you approach this issue?
Ok, like all conflict, this is a multi faceted issue with layers like an onion.
As rector, I would appoint a task force to determine what of the program we like or do not like with the freedom to choose another program or create one of their own. It would be lead by me, and include Gloria and the youth director as well as the wardens and perhaps a few others.
The rector needs to assert himself and make the point that this is one program of many and it is certainly not worth tearing the church apart over a single curriculum.
Also, the controversial chapters are decidedly not Christian, as Christ does not seem to be mentioned in the overview. I am not saying this is a bad thing, or that the said chapters are unfit for study in church, (indeed Christ can speak to us through other religions) but while it may contain principles which fit with Christianity, it doesn't seem to proclaim Christ.
I would be inclined (speaking as "rector") to do the whole program, but do serious work relating those principles in Chapter 11 to the Christian experience and view point. I think there is always a way to speak clearly and be heard by both "liberal" and "conservative" folks.
The wounds between the older parishioner and the youth director need to be healed with some pastoral counseling.
I would also want to talk with Gloria about her spiritual life, and offer some different ways she might want to feed her soul.
I would also have a serious talk with both ladies, especially the Youth Director. Her role as a staff member is not to incite division in the parish. The same could be said of the vestry member. It needs to be made clear to both that inciting members against another and quesioning their Christianity is not behaviour worthy of a Christian community.
The message needs to be proclaimed that we are one church no matter what. We are one in Christ.