Pentecost: When Hurry Hung Suspended & Time Stood Still

“God did not invent hurry”
– an old Russian proverb

I’ve always thought it ironic that the origin of the proverb “God did not event hurry” was Russian. Actually, the Finnish claim the proverb, too, so maybe the Russians stole it for the express purpose of pun-ishing the Finns. But whatever the provenance of the proverb, I believe it brings us great wisdom just in time for Pentecost.

Pentecost is the Sunday on which we celebrate birth of the Church: when we remember the day on which the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples who had gathered in Jerusalem, as Jesus had promised she would, when he expressly told him to go there and wait.  Pentecost is also the name of the Jewish holy day on which they had gathered and on which the Holy Spirit made her promised appearance.

Some crazy things happened on that day, the way the disciples describe it: a mighty wind, doves descending, tongues of fire on people’s heads, hearing and understanding people of other tongues like they were speaking your own language. I’ve seen it depicted so many different ways in so many different icons and illustrations. But one icon caught my attention and hasn’t yet let go. Not only did it show the disciples with fire erupting from the top of their heads, but also depicted them suspended in mid-air, with their toes inches above the floor. It was as if God had lifted them up into a timeless eternity, in which time – and with it the busy-ness of the world around them – came to a halt. For a few-second-long eternity…they were in God’s time.

What would I give for that experience? What would you give? If anything, it seems like time today is running in the opposite direction: faster and faster and faster, until it leaves us feeling stretched so thin, that we feel like we are being drawn into a black hole of busy-ness. We, our friends, our spouses, and our families are so over-scheduled that we seem to be playing tag-team with ourselves, with requests for new dates and times coming at us so fast that half of them don’t even make it to our calendars, with tidal waves of emails and Facebook notifications and Tweets coming at us so fast that sometimes we just seem to sink beneath them until we come up gasping for breath and finding out that the vast majority were requests for your time and attention that have been “overtaken by events.”

It used to be that we could schedule a church social or educational event mid-week and people would actually come. Now, with extracurricular demands on our time – and especially our children’s time – we can’t even count on people being free for church on Sunday mornings. We keep getting the message from the culture around us that unless we get our children into the right soccer, swim, drama, or T-Ball club by age three, we can throw away any thought of them attending any decent college someday. We feel like we are being driven before gale force winds that we can never get ahead of.

I’m not sure what the solution is. People don’t even have the time to read all their emails (and yes, I know we in the church often contribute to that flood), and even when they do read them, don’t have the time to respond to them, let alone transfer the church event dates to which they refer (events from which we or our children could benefit and which we would really like to attend) onto their calendars. Maybe it’s a call for us to be more of intentional and discerning in our choosing. Maybe we have to totally re-think the way we schedule church. Maybe we just have to wait a while until God brings us an answer.

Meanwhile, I invite you to claim next Sunday (May 24) as a time of timelessness.


3 False Dichotomies That Limit Faith

The Rev. Ken Howard:

My friend from Zimbabwe has some interesting thoughts on the relationship between science and faith.

Originally posted on Chronicles of a kid next door:

3 False Dichotomies that Limit Faith Pitting faith against science, reason and reality tend to limit our knowledge of God.

I am a scientist, currently a graduate student aspiring to be a professor of chemistry in my home country, Zimbabwe. But, I am a Christian, I believe Christ came from heaven and died for my sins. I am a Christian who is a scientist, and that is a problem.

At church, I often endure sermons where preachers make it their ambition to reveal the folly of science. I blame Charles Darwin, ever since his theory of evolution, Bible teachers found a reason to dismiss science.

It does not get better when I attend seminars or lectures. Learned professors religiously adhere to the precepts of Darwinism and embrace atheism. Adherence to Christianity or any other religion, is viewed as weakness of the mind. I blame TV evangelists and ignorant preachers who talk about astronomy which they…

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“Whitemail” – Using Social Media to Achieve Justice

Do the right thing or well tell the truth

By Ken Howard

As the ordained leader of a relatively new and growing congregation on the outskirts of the nation’s capitol, I have seen Facebook used for many things: evangelism, congregational communication and networking, event publicity, even providing a stealthy, back-door reentry into church life for those who have been away long enough that they want to avoid those awkward “where have you been?” questions that would happen if they came back through the front door. But I had yet to see anyone use Facebook to achieve justice for a parishioner.

That is, until something I tried just a few weeks ago. Something I call, “Whitemail.”

Here’s what happened:

One of my older parishioners was rushed to the hospital (part of a major chain of hospitals) and ended up in the ICU as a result of what at first appeared to be a stroke. After several days, it became clear that it was actually the result of a dramatic worsening of his congestive heart disease, and that he was dying.

After the hospital determined that death was inevitable, the hospital, in what appeared to be an attempt to save money and free up an ICU bed, transferred him to intermediate care, but in a regular hospital room. While this action demonstrated a somewhat disturbing attitude on the part of the hospital, they hadn’t crossed any bright red lines…yet.

Soon, however, it became clear that despite the fact that they had classified his level of care need as intermediate, they were only going to provide him with regular care. When my parishioner began to try to remove his feeding tubes and IV lines, and to get out of the bed, the hospital staff told his wife that she would have to hire a service to take care of her husband. Not wanting to see her dying husband suffer a fall or die prematurely, she indeed engaged such a service. By the time her husband eventually died, she had spent over $3,000, of their limited savings, to provide for her husband a service that should have been provided by the hospital.

After her husband’s death and following his memorial service, she told me that she had resigned herself to writing off the expense. She would just work a little hard to conserve the savings she had left.

But I could not let this injustice go unchallenged. I tried the usual and customary ways to seek redress for the surviving spouse. First, I called the patient advocacy department, and then tried to speak with the hospital president, all to no avail.

Then I had an idea…

I looked up the companies Facebook page. On the page, on the upper left, there was a place to rate (and comment on) company services. I gave the hospital a single star and briefly explained why. Then I sent a direct message. In that message, I simply told them that if they wanted me to avoid a more detailed explanation, they would issue an apology to my surviving parishioner and reimburse her for the money she paid out of pocket for services they should have provided. If they did this, I explained, I would remove the rating and explanation. However, if they would not do the right thing, I would expand upon the explanation, and maybe alert our newspaper, the Washington Post.

Within a week, my surviving parishioner received a check for a little over $3,000…and several apologies.

Who knew that Facebook could be used to achieve social justice?

Whitemail… Maybe you should try it, should the need arise.

Downton Church – Season 2: Eight Lessons the Church Could Learn from Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Church Logo

by Ken Howard and Wendy Dackson

Alrighty then! Our recent blog post “10 Ways the Church is Like Downton Abbey” got quite a lot of views. So, like our friends in Public Television, we decided to renew Downton Church for a second “season.” And the theme for season two is “Eight Lessons the Church Could Learn from Downton Abbey.”

Indeed, there much agreement in the comments we received that Downton Abbey – both the story and the production – was an excellent metaphor for the organized Church. Both are centuries-old institutions, both have a tendency toward aristocratic organization and behavior, both are steeped in tradition and stymied by traditionalism, both have a higher opinion of their own inherent holiness than their histories reveal. In other words, as institutions, both Downton Abbey and the Church are prone to similar mistakes.

Yet as the historical premise of Downton Abbey and the current cultural context of the Church (“in a world where everything is changing, an institution struggles for relevance…”) reveal, both institutions are capable – albeit reluctantly and imperfectly – of learning and change. So taking the metaphor a step further, what are some lessons that the Church can learn (or perhaps remember) from looking in the mirror of Downton Abbey.

Lesson #1 Noblesse oblige (with nobility, obligation). One thing that the various members of the Crawley family learn again and again, each in different ways, is that with positions of social power and influence comes social obligations: an understanding of their responsibility for those whose lives and livelihoods depend upon them. Lord Robert always seems keenly aware of the house’s obligation to provide economic sustenance and social stability (maybe too much of the latter) to both those directly employed by the house, and those on the wider estate and in the village. Lady Cora seems more attentive – though in a somewhat naïve fashion – to the emotional lives of those who depend on them. Lady Mary, on the other hand, makes a transition from self-centered debutante to more of a socialite with a conscience, who understands that part of their responsibility to those around them is to remain relevant to their needs in a time when those needs are changing in big ways.

What might the Church learn? Despite the claim that churches are somehow under siege from the prevailing culture (at least in North America and western Europe), they still hold a privileged position. Whether as employers of lay professionals (educators, administrators, musicians, and a variety of others), or as shapers of public opinion and policy (as evidenced in the new-but-contested RIFRA laws in Indiana), they influence people well beyond who shows up in any given congregation on Sundays. That influence shapes public perception of the Church –for good or ill. Churches might be better attuned to how their actions affect those with whom they have little if any contact.

Lesson #2 – Willingness to change. Speaking of change, another thing the members of the Crawley household all seem to learn – albeit reluctantly – is that change (sometimes profound change) is often a necessity. And they display willingness (if under duress) to listen to and act on (if sometimes fumblingly) voices other than their own about better ways forward. Indeed, one by one each of the family members seem to learn the painful lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around their comfortable traditions, and that awareness of the changing needs of the world around them often requires them to adapt – not just by adding electricity, telephones, radios, and other new-fangled technology, or sporting new fashions at social occasions, but by making deeper changes and finding new reasons for being.

What might the Church learn? That “modernizing” is more than trying to be “trendy” or “relevant” to a particular generation – right now, the millennials. Concentrating on new music that sounds more like what young people hear on the radio, or being more “cool” in the language used in preaching, or using “contemporary” forms of worship isn’t enough – worse than not enough, in some cases it may actually be harmful: like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, when we really need to be getting people into lifeboats. This is not a new problem. Every generation in From the very beginning, every generation in Church has faced the challenge of translating the Gospel for a new generation. The problem arises when, instead of offering the new generation a true translation in words they understand, we instead sugarcoat it with passing cultural affections in order to make it easier to swallow. True modernizing means discovering what are the public perceptions and beliefs about the faith are and addressing them honestly and directly, without compromising the core of Christian faith or cheapening the tough demands that being a follower of Jesus entails. It isn’t easy or quick, the way changing up the music or adding projection screens might be.

Lesson #3 – A Sense of Family. At Downton, the servants are more than simply support staff to the family and the house. By and large, there is a palpable sense of family between the upstairs Crawleys and the downstairs servants: a feeling of connection and interrelatedness. And while the relationship is not always pleasant – or healthy, for that matter – it is deep and strong… How else could a character like Thomas survive for all these seasons? And how else could the Dowager and Isobell become such a mutually (and lovingly) irritating odd couple.

What might the Church learn? William Temple is frequently misquoted as saying that “the church is the only institution that exists primarily for those outside it” (click here to read what he actually said), how Christians behave toward other Christians is important. When the Church treats its loyal members badly – especially when longtime, committed lay people are treated badly – it does more than encourage those individuals to leave. It undermines the public perception of the Church as a benevolent institution. Because when church is important to people, they share all the reasons why. But when church loses its luster, people share those reasons, too.

Lesson #4 –Willingness to “bend the rules” in order to “do the right thing.” There is a ongoing tension at Downton Abbey between the need to respect the rules (or follow tradition, which is harder) societally and the need to do what is right in individual cases. And example of this was the case of Mrs. Patmore’s dead nephew, Archie, and his exclusion from the war memorial, which Lord Grantham resolved by erecting a special memorial to honor Archie’s sacrifice. This goes to the heart of the tension in the church between tradition (honoring things that have been tested by time) and traditionalism (worshipping tradition for its own sake), which the Church has had to learn century after century.

What might the Church learn? First, we might learn that some rules just shouldn’t exist in at all. Second, we might learn that service doesn’t have to be perfect to be sincere and devoted, and that the people who render service also don’t have to be perfect, either. Finally, we might learn that we will garner more loyalty by finding ways to show appreciation than we will by finding ways to withhold it.

Lesson #5 – Willingness to find humane ways to outplace members of the downstairs household when continued relationship becomes untenable. Time and again, the Crawley family finds ways to part ways with servants who have become too difficult or embarrassing to endure. On the plus side, they realize that in an “incestuous” institution like the aristocracy one has to take great care in the way that people are let go, since termination without reference is tantamount to a sentence of lifelong poverty or worse (in the case of pregnant Ivy), and even laying off a person due to the elimination of a specialized position (in the case of Mosley) may render an otherwise loyal and competent former employee without honorable work. They have learned from painful experience not to throw anybody “under the bus.”

What might the Church learn? Don’t throw people under the bus. See Lessons #1 and #3. ‘Nuff said.

Lesson #6 – Willingness to find ways to support and applaud the personal and professional goals and ambitions members of the downstairs household. An ongoing trope throughout the seasons of Downton is the ambitions of the downstairs household. We have seen housemaids become secretaries, footmen become chefs, kitchen maids become assistant cooks and aspiring farm owners, butlers and housekeepers become real estate entrepreneurs, and chauffeurs become family members and estate stewards. Lady Sybil helped Gwen get a job as a secretary; the entire household has been supportive of Daisy’s attempt to further her education (even if the family didn’t much care for Miss Bunting, her teacher). Alfred’s acceptance to culinary school was a triumph and a point of pride for upstairs and downstairs, and he went to London with everyone’s best wishes. Tragically, William Mason’s aspirations to serve his country did not turn out well, but the household honored his service.

What might the Church learn? Keeping people “in their place” might be beneficial to the institution – but only in the short term. Downton Abbey benefited from Tom Branson’s transition from chauffeur to estate steward (and beloved family member). Arguably, difficult as it was for the family to adjust, without Branson’s acumen and skill, the family might have fallen into financial ruin. The Church might find it difficult to believe that lay people could have skills the Church either doesn’t recognize or didn’t confer, or that some might have more theological learning than the majority of priests and bishops. Nonetheless, without the laity, the Church will fall into ruin. A little permeability between the ranks might be a good thing for all concerned.

Lesson #7 – Keeping secrets is a tricky business. Of course, there are secrets and “secrets.” Any relationship – whether family, friends, or business – has a certain degree of confidentiality that must be respected. Trust depends on that. Most of the Downton characters, but especially servants especially, have a degree of knowledge about other characters which could be devastating if it were more widely known. Anna (nee Smith, now Bates) kept housemaid Gwen’s aspirations to a secretarial career to herself once she knew them – and skillfully made the distinction between “private” and “secret” when questioned by Mr. Carson. Anna also has kept the much more sinister secret of the Turkish Ambassador’s (Mr. Pamuk) death in the supposedly-virgin Lady Mary’s bed, and not used it as a bargaining chit for her own advantage. Former-footman, now under-butler Thomas has threatened to do so, however, although his previously-secret (and then illegal) homosexuality would have come to light to his disadvantage. (That was handled interesting by Lord Robert when questioned about Thomas’s behavior.) Thomas kept the secret of how Lady Cora lost her unborn child…until it was advantageous to share it with his erstwhile enemy Mr. Bates.

What might the Church learn? In any community setting, people are going to know things about each other. Not everybody will know everything about everyone else, and that is fine. But we need to learn discretion and kindness in how we deal with confidences. That goes not only for laity, but clergy as well – there may be a bit of a stereotype of “church gossips” like that of Dana Carvey’s SNL “Church Lady” character, but ordained people equally can be the soul of indiscretion.

Don’t remember the Church Lady? Click here to refresh your memory.

Lesson #8 – Awareness of the world outside our walls. Downton Abbey (whether we are talking about the characters, story line, or production) seems to understand that there is a world beyond their walls, that to some is equally if not more compelling and attractive – and may be compelling and attractive to those within the walls (Alfred the footman who wanted to be a chef, assistant cook Daisy wanting to learn to run a farm, Lady Sybil training for nursing and marrying Tom Branson). And there is an acceptance (sometimes grudging, but pragmatic) and even encouragement (when there is manifestly no choice) to go explore that world.

What might the Church learn? The Church needs to understand that very few people – and probably a vanishingly small number of people under age 60 – believe any more that there is “no salvation outside the Church.” The Church may be a formative community, and a locus of spiritual and moral learning, but not the site of many peoples’ highest aspirations, as it might have been hundreds of years ago. The Church may need to think of itself as a starting place for peoples’ spiritual and moral journeys, but not necessarily the entire road they will travel.

That’s all we have to say for now, though we are certain we have not wrung the Downton Abbey metaphor completely dry. Will there be “Season 3” of Downton Church? That all depends on how much feedback we get from you…

In the meantime, if you’d like a more musical and satirical take on Downton Abbey, click here.

Ten Ways the Church is Like Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Church Logo

By Ken Howard & Wendy Dackson

[Simulblogged on Paradoxical Thoughts and Past Christian]

It all started a few days ago, when Ken came across an Episcopal Church Meme on Facebook and reposted on his own Facebook page with a comment about how it reminded him of Downton Abbey (and not exactly in a good way). The meme in question, displayed below, showed the Presiding Bishop, along with several other resplendently attired clergy and lay people lined in the National Cathedral nave, with the slogan “Ancient Tradition. Modern Outlook. That’s the Episcopal Church.”


Much to Ken’s surprise, his snarky yet somber comment – that the Church should more than simply the “thoughtful theatre” of Downton Abbey – touched of hours of free association – between Ken, Wendy, and friends – about the many and varied ways in which Downton Abbey could serve as a metaphor for the Church generally, and the Episcopal Church specifically. [scroll to the bottom for Ken’s original comment]

By the time all was said and done, there was enough material for a blog post on the subject. What follows are the several of the ways the Church is like Downton Abbey, the fictional castle, and Downton Abbey, the show.

  1. Both are institutions caught between the future and the past, uncertain of their relevance in the present. Downton Abbey is a beautiful mansion, balancing ancient splendor with modern conveniences, but its occupants are not entirely certain what they stand for amidst the changes and chance of the world – something old, something new, something borrowed, something…missing – with some of its inhabitants trying to find relevance by fitting into a much-fantasized future and other trying desperately to hang on to an over-idealized past. Sort of like the Church, right?
  2. Both are overly focused on caste, class, and rank. At both Downton Abbey and in the Church there is a definite caste system at work, and within each caste, a fiercely protected hierarchy. In Downton, there is the division between the aristocracy and the servants/villagers, and it is especially in the “common” class, the majority, where rank is most obviously important – it’s very important to be an assistant cook rather than a kitchen maid, or to be acknowledged as first In the Church, the caste system is most obviously seen in, but is not limited to, the clergy-lay divide). On the clergy side of the divide, the three ordained orders have morphed from three equally valued vocations into a hierarchical ladder in which too many are reaching for the next rung. And on the lay side, rank is too often reflected in who gets asked to be senior warden, who is “admitted” to the Altar Guild, who gets elected to General Convention, etc.
  3. Both are unreflectively obsessed with the preservation of the status quo. At Downton Abbey, when the Crawley family fortunes are on the decline, the question is not “how do we deal with changing circumstances?” but “how do we keep things going as they have been?” Meanwhile, the Church is still hanging on to the need to make things look like they did immediately after the Second World War: married with children, and the centerpiece of people’s social lives. This leads on to….
  4. Both are pretending to be in a time and place other than those in which they actually exist. Highclere Castle, the house that is the real star of Downton Abbey, is in post-modern Hampshire, far south and a century later than the Crawley estate in post-Edwardian Yorkshire, yet serves as a setting for acting out social conventions and attitudes from a bygone era. The Church – including and often particularly our own Episcopal Church, has a tendency to behave as though it is much more deeply anchored in the past than it currently is, preferring to imagine that is rooted in Victorian or medieval England, or better yet the early Christian era, while most of its current controversies are rooted firmly in the Modernism of the so-called Enlightenment and much of its current attitudes are grounded in the 1950s.
  5. Both are closed systems, suspicious of “outsiders.” Downton Abbey is, to a large extent, a closed system. Not only is it exceptionally difficult to cross from one caste to another within the house (Tom Branson being the prime example, having been a chauffeur and marrying one of the Crawley daughters), but it is even more difficult to come in as an outsider. Sometimes, this suspicion and hostility has worked to the benefit of the household: one can name Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary’s wealthy-but-nasty beau prior to her marriage to Matthew Crawley. Matthew, the distant heir to the title and estate, along with his mother Isobel, did not exactly receive an enthusiastic welcome to the family, either. But at least Carlisle and Matthew had some claim (either wealth and social rank or blood) to entering the system. More recently, Miss Sarah Bunting, a teacher who again crosses lines of rank (by tutoring assistant cook Daisy, and having a bit of romantic possibility with Tom Branson), finds it impossible to be an acceptable dinner guest at the Abbey. Likewise, churches often promote themselves as “welcoming”, but function as closed systems where newcomers have a difficult time finding an acceptable role. Which leads to…
  6. Both regularly rely on a system of assimilation rather than welcome. In Downton, the Crawley family ultimately learns to love and accept Tom Branson, and even to rely on his considerable gifts and talents but only after they seduce him into assimilating into their customs, manners, dress, and other affectations. Ultimately, he begins to wonder who he really is and what he has become: almost an aristocrat but still suffering from a kind of imposter’s syndrome, uncertain about the “price” of his acceptance. Churches often make the same error in their newcomer incorporation efforts, mistaking assimilation for welcome. And in almost every denomination, the Church’s systems for discerning and training clergy tend to act as an over-active immune system, weeding out any leadership that would challenge the status quo.
  7. Both have a tendency, if not careful, to reduce people to their roles. In Downton, Sir Robert often reduces Cora to her role as his wife, being unable to remember that she is (a) an attractive woman (evidenced in the suspicion of her adultery with the art expert), and (b) having interests (such as her knowledge of art and music) apart from the Abbey and the family. In Church, this is often seen in our overreliance on clergy for pastoral care and an under-reliance on lay people. Wendy recently experienced this with a Facebook friend – an Episcopal priest – who on learning she had sustained a broken wrist, asked (on Facebook) if she wanted a visit “from my parish priest,” when what she would really rather have was a visit from a friend. (She didn’t get the visit.)
  8. Both often engage in secret keeping and triangulation in defense of honor. This is almost a weekly trope on Downton, with almost every character hiding a secret from at least one other character, often from the world at large, often as an “open secret,” enough to provide “plausible deniability” of the ”elephant in the room,” and generally with the aim of defending the family’s honour. The issue is never about preventing wrongdoing (or doing the right thing to begin with) but rather to prevent scandal. Better to send the person who “caused” the embarrassment away than to confront the underlying issues. In the Church, one need not look farther than most denomination’s disciplinary procedures to find evidence of this dynamic. From pedophile priests to drunk-driving bishops, the system is concerned less with supporting healthy behavior than it is with punishing bad behavior, and less with catching and rectifying bad behavior early than with ridding itself of those who manage to get themselves caught. Which is kind of related to…
  9. Both often resort to scapegoating. In Downton, the plot lines tend to either kill off or run off anyone who might make a positive bridge between old and new, or give a critical view of the status quo. Think hard about Lady Sybil, Matthew Crawley, Tom Branson… and then think of what church does when someone wants to bridge divides. As Ken once said, “If you want to be a bridge, be prepared to be stepped from both sides. And finally…
  10. Both are metaphors of poor stewardship of real estate. The one thing that becomes immediately clear about Downton Abbey is that most of its living space is unlived in most of the time. One of the reasons they need so many maids is to keep the dust from settling on all the furniture in the unused rooms. If those rooms were being used more frequently, they would not need to be dusted so frequently, because in a well-used home, the activity of the occupants make dusting almost unnecessary. And what’s more, judging by their obvious relief when the injured soldiers are relocated at the end of the “Great” War, it’s clear the Crawley’s would like to keep it that way. Most churches are similarly poor stewards of their “living space.” A few services on Sunday, maybe another on Saturday evening, a few meetings during the week… That adds up to a lot of empty space. And even those who rent out their space do so more out of financial need than out of an earnest desire to put their buildings to their highest use.

Got some examples you’d like to add? We’d love to hear from you…

Coming soon: “What the Church Could Learn from Dowton Abbey” (Spoiler alert: The list is shorter)

Ken’s original snarky Facebook comment:

This recently posted Episcopal Church Meme just doesn’t do it for me. It seems to be proclaiming that the Episcopal Church is sorta like Downton Abbey: a beautiful mansion, balancing ancient splendor with modern conveniences, but with occupants not not 100% certain what they stand for amidst the changes and chance of the world. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something…missing… A two-legged stool: Tradition and Reason, minus Scripture.

I mean, I loves me some Downton Abbey but the Episcopal Church I joined is more than thoughtful theatre. We have a core of theology solidly ground in Scripture. Obscuring our engagement with Scripture doesn’t make us more attractive. Rather it makes us seem…empty.


Ten Things Churches Could Learn from Starbucks (Hint: It’s not about making coffee)

Starbucks Logo

Editor’s Note:
This article was written at the Kingsview Village Starbucks.

By Ken Howard

Churches could learn a few things from Starbucks…

Starbucks is one of those places that, even if you don’t go there, you know it’s the place to go.

It’s the number one coffee shop in the United States, maybe even in the world. It’s almost like Starbucks was selling something addictive…

They are, of course. Starbucks sells coffee, which contains the drug caffeine. But as far as we know, Starbucks coffee contains no more of the drug than the coffee sold at it’s two biggest coffee competitors, McDonalds or Dunkin’ Donuts. Starbucks doesn’t even sell better coffee, regularly coming in #3 behind McD and DD in blind taste tests.

It’s not about advertising, either. Starbucks hardly does any, compared to its competitors. You won’t find the Starbucks mermaid popping up on your TV next to the words “I’m lovin’ it.” Nor will you find a single billboard proclaiming, “America runs on Starbucks.”

So if it’s not about better coffee, stronger caffeine, or better advertising, what is it? Why are so many people addicted to Starbucks? If you ask the Starbucks CEO, he’ll tell you. It’s not about making better coffee but about the Starbuck’s experience. Starbucks knows how to create an experience and provide a sense of community that fill a deep-down need.

So let’s ask the real question, “Why are so many people addicted to the Starbuck’s experience?”

Here are ten reasons:1

Reason #1: Starbucks’ mission (the “why”) is greater than their product (the “what”). Starbucks’ mission is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Inspiring and nurturing human spirit is so much greater of a mission than selling people coffee in neighborhood stores. It is transcendent and transformational. It aspires to make a difference in the world. People want to be part of something greater than themselves.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. For a church to be vital and effective, its vision and mission also must be greater than its product. What is your church’s product (what it does every Sunday)? How is that different from your church’s vision (what it aspires to be) and mission (why it exists)? In what ways are the latter greater from the former?

Reason #2: Starbucks is focused on a definable market. Knowing that one size does not fit all, Starbucks focuses their attention on a particular segment of the market. They don’t exclude other portions of the market from coming. Rather, they realize that while a vision and mission can be transcendent and transformative, a product and its market must be finite and focused.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. God’s love may be infinite but churches’ human and financial resources are not. Effectiveness requires focus. Churches must make choices about which segments require their primary focus. Has your church leadership define its primary target group(s)? How would you describe them?

Reason 3: Starbucks studies its market(s). Starbucks does a lot of market research. They try to determine not only what the people in their chosen market wants (what they are consciously looking to buy), but also on what they are likely to need to feel comfortable and at ease (needs of which they may not even be consciously aware).

Lessons & Questions for Churches. Churches must understand their target markets at a similar depth, not only determining the wants they will have when they visit the first time, but also discerning their deepest needs, which when met will plant in them a desire to stay. Do you know the wants and needs of the people in your surrounding community? How would you describe their wants? How would you describe their needs?

Reason 4: Starbucks designs its entire business around its customers’ wants and needs. Starbucks’ CEO says of their marketing strategy, “Sell them what they want, but give them what they need.” Starbucks customers may visit because they want coffee, but they stay because Starbucks has met their deeper needs through the things they simply give away. The next six reasons will describe some of the deeper needs Starbucks addresses and how they meet them.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. People may come to a church for great worship, but unless the church provides them with great community – a deep sense of connectedness with God and each other – they may not stay, and they will never become truly committed. How does your church strike this balance? How do you provide for people’s wants? How do you address people’s needs?

Reason 5: Starbucks stores provide an intentional experience. Think of all the senses engaged when you visit a Starbucks. There is, of course, the aroma of dark roasted coffee beans in the air. Some suggest that Starbucks roasts its beans longer than most places not to improve the taste of the coffee, which is an individual sensation, but to intensify the how it smells when you open the door, which is a shared experience. Then there’s the Smooth Jazz playing in the back ground, the barista and other workers moving about assembling your coffee, the visual atmosphere that says “You’re in a Starbucks,” and all those other folks either bopping in and out or hanging out and chatting or working on their laptops. Even when it’s a brief experience, it’s an all-encompassing one. And all that doesn’t just happen… It’s part of the Starbucks business plan.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. Churches need to put more attention and intentionality into the experience people have when they visit, yet most churches leave much of that experience to chance. It’s not a question of whether people will have an experience in your church, but whether the experience they receive at your hands is the kind of experience you want them to have. Strongly liturgical faith traditions, like my own Episcopal Church, have the capability to provide an intentional, all-encompassing experience, but we don’t provide it as often as we could, because sometimes we just lack sufficient intentionality. How much of the experience that your church provides attendees is intentional? How much “just happens?” What aspects the experience work well? What needs to be added or improved?

Reason 6: Starbucks stores provide a gathering space. Starbucks aims to be not just a coffee shop, but also a “neighborhood gathering place” and “a part of the daily routine.” Some have observed function as socially necessary “third space” – a neutral, common ground where people of many different persuasions can meet, connect, make friends, make plans, and get things done. Some say they are “the Church of the 21st century.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. Churches used to provide that “third space,” where diverse people from neighborhoods gathered in community as part of their daily routines. But now, more often than not, they stand apart from the communities they are called to serve. What is your church’s relationship to its neighborhood? Does it serve the community? When it serves the community, does it do ministry to the community, or does it do ministry with the community? How could the relationship change for the better?

Reason 7: Starbucks stores provide a welcoming sense of community. Have you noticed how when you show up at a Starbucks, several employees greet you and ask you how you are doing? They actually seem to be happy to see you. And amazingly, the smile on their faces when they greet you almost always seems to be real. They seem to be happy at their jobs, perhaps in large part, because whatever job they are performing at the moment, they seem to believe that their real job – their calling, if you will – is to engage you as part of their little community. They treat you as a friend. And because they do, you can’t help but like them…maybe even come to trust them. And most people would rather by a decent cup of coffee from people they like and trust than the Best. Cup. Of. Coffee. Ever. from someone they don’t.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. For places that are supposed to be all about welcoming community, churches don’t always do the best or most intentional job of creating it. Does your church intentionally work at creating a welcoming sense of community from the start? Do your greeters/ushers like their jobs? Are they selected because they demonstrated the gift of hospitality? Or because there was a job to be done and a warm body to fill the position? Do your greeters open the door or wait for the visitor? Do they introduce themselves and ask visitors’ names? Do they offer to make each visitor a nametag? Do your members actually wear their nametags? Do all members know that they are in the business of welcome? Do church leaders and members make time to talk with newcomers about their needs and gifts?

Reason 8: Starbucks stores provide familiarity and consistency. While each Starbucks store is a little different in its layout, the atmosphere is remarkably consistent from store to store. People know what expect, and that makes them feel comfortable and “at home.” And while some of the products change seasonally, there is a core that never changes: you can always get your “Pike’s Place.”

Lessons & Questions for Churches. In creating an experience for their attendees, churches have to find a similar balance between parts of the experience that can vary for the sake of variety, and a core experience that remains relatively unchanging. What are parts your church’s experience are allowed to change? What parts are so core to the experience that they seldom if ever allow to change?

Reason 9: Starbucks knows that rite and ritual are important, and Starbucks stores provide it. Rite and ritual? Yup. Starbucks has liturgy: You are welcomed, you line up at the register, one person takes your order and writes it on your cup, another other makes it a certain way, and you pick it up at the end from a special counter. Starbuck’s has special liturgical language: you don’t order a medium coffee; you order a “Pikes Place grande.”

Lessons & Questions for Churches. We Churches got this one. If anything, however, our names for things – Eucharist, Host, and Intinction – are perhaps even more obscure than Grande, Venti, and Trenta. But considering the fact that Starbucks can turn even buying a cup of coffee into a meaningful rite, maybe we in the Church ought to find ways build liturgy into more of everyday life’s activities, not less. What new rites and rituals has your church developed in response to the needs of its people?

Reason 10: Starbucks stores provide a place to achieve. Have you ever noticed how many people are actually do their work at Starbuck, tapping a way on their laptops doing homework, writing reports, or catching up on correspondence? People go to Starbucks not just to drink coffee, but to actually get things done.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. When I occasionally started to feel trapped or distracted in my office at the church, I would often go to Starbucks to do some work. Somehow being surrounded by seemingly creative people busy at be creative made me feel more creative, too. But because I generally was wearing my clerical collar, I was also pleasantly surprised by the not infrequent opportunities I had to talk with people about deep and important things about life. Recently, I gave up my office at church to make another classroom for our growing Sunday school, and now I work almost exclusively out of a local Starbucks (unless it involves a meeting over a meal). I do wonder, though, how could we make church more of a place that people could go to achieve? Thoughts anyone?

Am I saying the Church should emulate Starbucks?

No, not really. Obviously, Church and Starbucks exist in two different realms.

Different realms. On the one hand, as a profit-making public corporation, Starbucks exists in the realm of the secular. Ultimately, their success or failure is measured in money. Unless their marketing strategies translate into sufficient profit, they will cease to exist. Churches, on the other hand, exist in the realm of the sacred. We are – or at least we ought to be – more about the “business” of training prophets – those willing to speak the truth to the world – than about making profits from the world.

But are they really? I am questioning whether there isn’t more overlap between those two realms that we think: maybe not 100%, but not mutually exclusive either. Some of Starbucks marketing strategies – like driving up perceived value by creating a sense of exclusiveness and scarcity – are antithetical to the “always enough” and “room for everyone” values of the realm of God values. Still, most marketing strategies are value-neutral, and marketing itself is defined as promoting a fair exchange of value. And if places like Starbucks are in some ways supplanting the “third space” role of the Church in many people’s lives, I think we need to ask if they have figured out ways to connect with people’s lives that we might learn from.

After all, Jesus did call us to be “in the world but not of the world.” And if Jesus was willing to challenge us to be “wise as serpents” yet “innocent as doves,” would it be so bad for us to be as “wise as mermaids.”

An afterthought…

What if Starbucks marketed more like churches?

Watch the video below to find out…

1 Most of these 10 reasons were adapted from information obtained from the Starbucks official website or from online forums about Starbucks.

Reflecting on Lent: Mortality and Martyrdom

Coptic Christian martyrs

by Ken Howard

I still cannot speak of this without a misting of my eyes and a twisting of sorrow in my heart…

I woke up yesterday to the news of 21 Coptic Christians executed for the “crime” of being “people of the cross” – brutally murdered in the name of “God” by men who pretend to be brave and heroic while covering their faces in a way that can only be described as cowardly. And as I looked at the picture of those 21 men, forced to kneel at the feet of their soon-to-be executioners, I realized that if ever I am tempted to think that we as Christians face persecution in this country, my mind’s eye will return to this picture. Indeed, nothing I have ever experienced can hold a candle to this. This is the real deal.

As I looked at the faces of the 21 kneeling men, I also realized that I these were the faces of people who would soon be martyrs. “Martyr” – which literally means “witness” in the original Greek of the Bible – is not a term we use much in church these days. So I had never really wrestled with that meaning…until yesterday. But now it made a deep kind of sense. And oddly enough, that sense was made plain by the “verdict” given by the video’s narrator. They were being beheaded, we were told, because they “carried the vision of the cross in their heads.” Other than that, they were regular people. They were husbands, fathers, sons, simple fisherman, doing a day’s work to provide for their families. Except for the fact that they lived in a part of the world where simply being a follower of Jesus Christ was actually dangerous, they could be us…and we could be them. We share in the crime for which they were martyred: the crime of being a witness – the crime of carrying the vision of the cross – the vision of the cross of Jesus – in our heads.

Which brings me to the subject of Lent. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Christians – little Christ-followers – around the world will participate in the sacrament of the Imposition of Ashes, in which the ashes remaining from the palms of last year’s Palm Sunday will be applied to our foreheads in the shape of a cross. These ashes are not a sign of fasting – as some think – but a sign of our mortality.


These ashes we wear say to all that see us, “I know that I am mortal.” And the crosses that they form on the outside of our heads say, “Guilty as charged…I hold the vision of the cross in my head.” It says to the world, “You may take my life, but you cannot separate my spirit from God.”

Remember you are dust

These ashes remind those of us who wear them that God created us from dust and blew life into us. They remind us that without God’s breath within us, our bodies return to the dust from which we were created, yet the unique spirit that God breathed into each of us – the unique spirit that IS us – returns to be with God. And these ashes also remind us that life is a fragile thing that must be nurtured, a priceless gift from God that must be treasured, and a taste of participation in Christ that must be savored.

It is part of our tradition to choose a Lenten discipline: a thing we will do during the 40 days of Lent to focus our minds on mortality, the fleeting preciousness of life, and the vision of the cross that we carry in our heads.

What will my Lenten discipline be?

For each of the 40 days of Lent I will give thanks for lives of the 21 who lost them because they carried the vision of the cross, and who by their deaths have returned to the One who created them, the One who redeemed them, the One who kept them in life. And because Jesus asks it of me, I will strive not to hate those who took their lives, but rather that they experience the love we know in Jesus Christ in such a way as to turn their hearts away from evil and towards a heart-rending repentance for what they have done, as Christ has done with Saul of Tarsus and so many others who have persecuted and killed his followers.

And I will meditate on these words from Richard Hooker, widely acknowledged as one of the founders of the Anglican Church:

Dangerous it were for the feeble mind of man
to wander too far into the doings of the Almighty.
Our highest knowledge of him is that we know him not,
our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence.
Therefore our words should be wary and few.

Wishing you a holy Lent,
Ken Signature

When a moment’s significance does not compute


By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

I was tremendously unprepared to visit the Holy Land. Logistically, my plans were resolute—the two-week course on “The Palestine of Jesus” was absolutely all-inclusive, and I even had purchased travel insurance for my airfare. The latter ended up being an expensive mistake, but that is beside the point.

I was prepared, and yet I wasn’t. Despite being surrounded by thousands of years of history—all of which is particularly relevant to my vocation—I felt as if I was unable to register the significance of walking on that ground, and it made me angry. I wanted to “get it,” but I knew that I couldn’t.

Perhaps you’ve felt this on some vacation of yours, and maybe it was even to the extent that the anticipation and/or memory of such a thing far exceeds the reality. Think of a trip, a holiday, or your wedding day…it’s kind of disappointing to experience something wonderful and yet be burdened by the thought that you weren’t prepared to fully comprehend the sacredness of the moment.

When Jesus walks up Mount Tabor with Peter, James, and John, his face and all of his body and clothing becomes a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear and have a chat with Jesus, and when they leave a cloud surrounds them all as a voice proclaims that Jesus is “my” Son, the Beloved.

Peter, who always has something to say (and always needs something to do), suggests they build something to commemorate the experience. Instead Jesus leads them down the mountain, instructing them not to tell anyone about it until after the resurrection.

The thing is, they really didn’t quite grasp the whole resurrection thing yet, nor did they understand this whole transfiguration thing yet. Peter, James, and John, were having all of these wonderful experiences with Jesus—the Living God in their midst—and they weren’t prepared to comprehend the sacredness of the moment.

These disciples would spend their lives, after the resurrection, with a deep conviction about the events, which led up to and included the resurrection. They would form communities of varied people based on belief in the transcendent and yet imminent reality of a Living God who values more than wealth and domination.

We live our lives in similar ways—not that we’ve seen Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor—but we have experienced moments of transcendence, thin places, God sightings, and what have you. Yes, we can scientifically explain why music seems to enchant our souls or why good wine changes our lives, but there seems to be something more to it, doesn’t there?

When we have big, wonderful experiences like tremendous vacations, memorable holidays, or the day we make a commitment to our beloveds, we may not fully realize the potential or sacredness or significance of those moments, but we have opportunities to grow into them as God continues to sustain our blessed existence.

Curtis Farr is an Episcopal Priest in West Hartford, Connecticut. He lives with his husband, Antonio, and rat terrier Sabina. He enjoys Batman, eating, and watching HGTV (in that order).

A Jewish-Christian marriage ceremony, a Washingtonian article, and a Reflection on Modern Culture

The Rev. Ken Howard, a Jewish Christian and an Episcopal priest, blesses Elena Taube (another Jewish Christian) and Paul Bailey under an improvized huppah at the Washington National Cathedral.

The Rev. Ken Howard, a Jewish Christian and an Episcopal priest, blesses Elena Taube (another Jewish Christian) and Paul Bailey under an improvised huppah at the Washington National Cathedral.

By Ken Howard

Late last year, I performed a Jewish-Christian marriage ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral (that’s me in the kippah and tallit on the right – I’m a Jewish Christian myself). Elena Taube and Paul Bailey, the prospective bride and groom, were a delightful couple. And the service was great fun (especially the part where I snuck a huppah into the Cathedral, disguised as my tallit… Yep, we bad).

Editor’s Note:
In response to those who have asked the difference
between the terms “Jewish Christian” and “Messianic Jew,”
the meanings are roughly equivalent:
a Jewish follower of Jesus Christ (Hebrew: Y’shua ha-Mashiach),
who believes that following Jesus as the Messiah (or Christ)
does not negate his Jewishness.
My preference for the term Jewish Christian
has more to do with clarity than meaning.
More on this topic is available in my two books,
Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them

Excommunicating the Faithful:
Jewish Christianity in the Early Church

Earlier this week, Washingtonian Magazine published pictures of the wedding in its “Real Weddings” section. I thought it was great fun seeing the pictures in print. As usual, I posted them on Facebook, where a colleague observed an interesting omission. See if you can pick find it in the list below, copied directly from the original article…

Ceremony: Washington National Cathedral

Cocktail Party Venue: National Cathedral School

Reception Venue: The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel

Photographer: Susie & Becky Photography

Bride’s Gown: Custom designed

Groom’s Tux: Calvin Klein

Hair: Get Gorgeous Hair & Makeup By Zia

Makeup: Pakito Internacional

Event Coordinator: Washington National Cathedral, Schelle Be Done, The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel

Cake: Fluffy Thoughts Cakes

Florist: Washington National Cathedral, Blanca Zelaya, and Bergeron’s Florist

Caterers: Flik International and The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel

Transportation: ABC Limo Service

Videographer: Michael Brazda Films

Music/Entertainment: Washington National Cathedral organist, Violin Dreams, and Night & Day

Did you find it?


Yup! The list included the names of everyone involved in preparing for and carrying out the event, right down to the person who baked the wedding cake (which was beautiful and quite tasty, I must say), with one omission: the officiant who presided over the ceremony…me.

Now, I really don’t crave publicity. What I enjoy is the pre-marital work with the couple, and helping them make choices about which prayers and readings from Scripture best express the their thoughts, prayers, and dreams about their marriage and their future life together as a couple. Seeing the pictures in the Washingtonian was fun, but for me they were the “icing on the cake,” as it were, rather than the main course.

But as I reflected on it, I did think my colleague had a point: not about about the ceremony (which was a profound and joyful event), nor about the couple (Elena and Paul were involved with me in the preparing themselves and the ceremony for the better part of a year), but about the culture. In modern culture, faith is relegated to an afterthought, if thought about at all. Nowhere is this more evident than in modern weddings, where the officiant and the church are often booked last, after the Caribbean island honeymoon reservations and the cruise ship. In that context, it makes a certain upside-down sense, doesn’t it? I mean, who remembers the name of the captain of the cruise ship, right?

It’s also become more and more evident during the marriage ceremony itself. I’ve had wedding coordinators attempt to advise me on which stole I should wear (so as not to clash with the bridal gown). I’ve had photographers kneel in the aisle, stopping the procession, just to get a picture-perfect “here comes the bride photo” and try (unsuccessfully) to step behind me during the vows in an attempt to get an “over-the-shoulder” (my shoulder) shot of the bride and groom exchanging rings [I banished him from working in my church again]. I’ve even had a wedding in which the bride’s mom set up not one, but two video cameras to capture the blessed day “for posterity,” which made the shy bride so anxious that when she walked down the aisle, as she passed her mom, she projectile vomited and fainted (to this day, the couple still watches the video and laughs, having defeated Momzilla’s plans). My point is that, as the culture has shifted, some weddings have developed the “who’s she wearing” feel of the red carpet at the Academy Awards, than a sacramental act.

Oddly, while separation of Church and State is an issue that provokes controversy in almost every other area of public life, weddings seem to be the one public act that gets a pass. Yet over the 20 years I have been ordained I have become more and more theologically uncomfortable with acting as an “agent of the state,” in performing marriages: a role I cannot play in any other area. Another reason my quasi-public official role discomforts me is that is it obscures what for me is the most important role I play in the ceremony: pronouncing God’s blessing upon the marriage. And more importantly, it obscures the real role the couple play in the marriage. Theologically, neither I nor the State perform the sacrament of marriage. Rather, the couple themselves perform the sacrament with their vows.

That’s why more and more, I am suggesting that the couple first go get married at the Justice of the Peace, then come to the church for what we call “the blessing of a civil marriage.” Because then the couple know what real reason they are coming to the Church to receive: the blessing of God and the prayers of their community of faith.

Time for a searching and fearless moral inventory of our church

Maryland Bishop Charged With Manslaughter

Makeshift floral memorial on the spot where bicyclist Tom Palermo was struck and killed.

The Rev. Ken Howard

On Saturday, December 27, the newly installed Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Heather Cook, was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Baltimore, in which she struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo. In the weeks following the incident, various facts – as well as much speculation – emerged about Heather’s earlier DUI arrest, potential weaknesses in the search process which resulted in her election, and whether she had been drinking at the time of latest accident. Last Friday, January 9, she was formally charged with vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence, texting while driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. She turned herself into authorities and was sent to the county jail to await arraignment. Those who are familiar with Maryland law say that, since the facts of the case are not in dispute, a conviction seems likely, as does jail time. Still, we must allow the justice system must run its course, and pray that justice is served…and tempered with mercy.

There have been many calls for prayer for all connected to this tragedy – Tom Palermo, his wife and children, Heather Cook, the Diocese of Maryland – from the Bishop of Maryland, the Presiding Bishop, my own Bishop of Washington, and many others. The response has been enormous and continuing: prayers for justice, prayers for mercy, prayers for forgiveness, prayers for accountability, and most off all prayers of profound solidarity in grief, in sorrow, and in loss. I join in them and I bid you to join in them as well.

Yet not even our most fervent prayers can change the fact that a man is dead, a wife is left without her beloved husband, and two children will never know their father. There is no way to measure the magnitude of their loss; no way to quantify the senselessness that occasioned it. A trust fund for the children has been established (the Palermo Children’s Fund), and I encourage you to give to it. By doing so we can help assure their education, but nothing we can do can make up for the loss of a father. And my guess Heather will struggle for the rest of her days with feelings of guilt for actions and consequences that cannot be undone. I cannot imagine the anguish I would be feeling if I were in her shoes.

The Bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton, a friend and colleague of many years, has pledged a review of search and selection process that resulted in the election of person with continuing uncontrolled alcohol problems. I trust he will follow through on that pledge and carry out its recommendations. At the denominational level, The Episcopal Church has inhibited Heather from acting as a bishop and has begun an investigatory process which will likely result in her being stripped of her ordination.

All of these things are healthy. All of these things are necessary. But in-and-of themselves they are not sufficient. If all we do as a church is pray and pay and make changes in one diocese’s search procedures – as important as these things are – we will have failed to seek the full redemption to which this tragedy calls us.

Some of the lessons we can learn from this tragedy are simple and straightforward. Don’t drink to excess. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t drug and drive. Don’t text while driving. Don’t leave the scene of an accident. Don’t keep secrets.

But what about the deeper and less obvious lessons?

In the last few weeks I have been involved in several online discussions about this tragedy. Much of it has focused on those involved in this specific case. Many important questions have been raised about Heather Cook and the Diocese of Maryland, which called her to be their Suffragan:

  • Did she or her diocese seek her elevation to bishop too soon after her 2010 DUI, before she was sufficiently established in her sobriety?
  • Assuming she deserved a second chance, was she and/or her diocese sufficiently transparent about her history, so that those who voted for her election could understand and support the risk they were taking?
  • Did she or her diocese put adequate safeguards in place to protect and maintain her sobriety, and to ensure their mutual accountability in that endeavor?

These are all good questions. And they deserve to be addressed. But if we only ask them of her and the diocese that elected her, we will have failed to fully redeem this tragedy.

Indeed, just as AA calls upon those following the 12 steps to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of ourselves,” those of us who follow Jesus Christ must open ourselves to the same level of fearless self-critical introspection and examination at every level. Individual followers and leaders, guilds and committees and the congregations of which they are apart, dioceses and synods, national churches and denominations, and the whole Church (indeed following all 12 steps wouldn’t hurt us). We have to begin to ask ourselves provocative and uncomfortable questions – questions like:

  • Do we strive to maintain a balance between acceptance and forgiveness on one hand, and transparency and accountability on the other? Or do we view them as mutually exclusive and tend to err on one side or the other?
  • Do we view differences or dissent as a sign of disfunction and avoid discussing them (either by avoiding those with whom we disagree or by changing the subject)? Or do we welcome differences as a sign of God-given diversity. and discussion of them as an opportunity to for Holy Spirit to teach and transform all of us.
  • Do we fall into what Jim Fenhagen (former seminarian dean and former rector of a Diocese of Maryland congregation) called the “unholy bargain,” in which the rector assures his congregation that they are “good people,” while they pretend to respect his authority? Or do we contract with each other name these unhealthy dynamics and subtexts whenever and wherever we find them.
  • Do our aspirancy, screening, discernment, education, and training processes for those who sense a call to ordained vocation produce healthy, assertive, servant leaders willing to take risks, learn from failure, ask tough questions about “the way things are done?” Or do they screen them out in favor of passive-aggressive, control-oriented leaders, who are risk averse, hide their mistakes, and “go along to get along?”
  • Do we elevate to the episcopacy, as my mentor Verna Dozier used to say, “too many people who want it too much?” Or do we look for candidate who, as the Bishop Ordination service says, must be “so persuaded” to accept the call? (BCP, p. 517)
  • Do our disciplinary processes allow us to prevent unhealthy behavior before it starts or intervene while there is still a chance for correction and a return to healthy functioning? Or do we tend to use them to dissociate ourselves from those who have publically embarrassed the church by getting caught?

It is not easy to ask such questions of ourselves and of our institutions. They do not lend themselves easy (or even consistent) answers. In fact, they may lead us to deeper and more uncomfortable questions, or to answers that may disrupt “safe” but unhealthy ways of being and doing church that have taken us generations to settle into and may require additional generations to fully break out of.

Yes, the Church is the body of Christ, and as such, God can work through us to transform the world. Yet, we must never forget that the Church is also a human institution, subject to every human weakness, error, and sin – including willful blindness – and as such, is capable doing great harm…even evil.

At its start almost two decades ago my congregation, St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, affirmed a vision credo which states our aspiration to be “A Place to Belong! A Place to Become!” In the days since this senseless tragedy, not a day has gone by that I haven’t given thanks for those two mutual callings, because, taken together, they define the tension that the we in the Church must maintain to keep the body of Christ healthy. “A Place to Belong” requires acceptance, forgiveness, and LOVE. “A Place to Become” requires transparency, accountability and LOVE.

Indeed, one might say, “the greatest of these is LOVE.” Not mushy affectionate love, not make me happy love, but the kind of LOVE that the crucified and resurrected One taught us. And that kind of LOVE might best be defined as forgiveness and accountability in dynamic tension, held within a relationship of mutual commitment.

That kind of LOVE is not easy, but hard. In fact, it’s beyond hard. Without the love of Christ surrounding us and filling us and flowing through us, we are unlikely to have sufficient desire, let alone capacity to LOVE like that.

Yet that’s the kind of LOVE to which our savior has called us.

Which makes it a blessing that God doesn’t require us to be successful, only faithful.

As always, I offer these thoughts and questions, I not with a sense of self-righteousness, but with a deep sense of my own shortcomings and sin. I cannot be certain that I would do better than she did. I came to the realization years ago that given the right set of circumstances, there is no sin that I am immune to committing.

Ken Howard is the Rector (Episcospeak for “senior pastor”) of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland, a parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Wasington. He is the author of “Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them,” “Excommunicating the Faithful: Jewish Christianity in the Early Church,” and to the forthcoming book, “Church-X: Experimental Christianity for a Church Beyond the Event Horizon.”

In a previous career iteration Ken was director of a drug and alcohol crisis intervention hotline and coordinator of a DUI program for the Virginia Beach, Virginia Community Services Board, coordinator of community substance abuse prevention for the Chesapeake Virginia Community Services Board, and training director for the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services. 

Related Articles

Forgiveness and Accountability Not Mutually Exclusive – by Ken Howard

The Right Questions – by Mike Kinman

A thoughtful pastoral letter – by Anjel Scarborough