Sunday, March 30, 2014

April '14 Monthly Letter

The closing of the Alban Institute ( has shaken me up a bit.  I don't ever remember a time in my church involvement (I was born in '68 and they were born in '74) when they weren't referred to or talked about at some point.  When many of you contacted me to provide a resource for your local church about things related to governance, personnel, evaluations or conflict it wasn't at all unusual that I'd pass an Alban resource your way.  Their work was - at least - always a firm place to begin with good experience, research and a calm voice to back it up.  One of their consultants in particular - Roy Oswald - helped make topics like conflict, clergy burnout, and self-care so gently real that they were almost boringly normative.  I learned just as much from what they wrote as I learned about how they wrote.  It can be cliche to say something like "I don't know what I'll do without them" but, in this case, its true.

That doesn't mean there aren't other good - or even some better - resources for the the local church.  The UCC helped start The Center for Progressive Renewal (CPR) in 2010 and they're one of the best church consulting organizations around.  Their list of consultants and resources are growing every day (if you haven't done so already, its worth taking some time to check out their website:  Although no one knows, for sure, what the next Church will look like CPR is helping lead the conversation and the movement in that direction.  They've pulled together an amazingly smart group of insightful leaders who know how to talk about what they do and think.  The work they do challenges me...

...and I don't always like that.  Part of the reason I had such a warm place in my heart for Alban was that they helped give meaning and value to the mainline church experience in a way that was comforting.  It reassured the mainline church sensibilities than ran deep in me.  The traditional, mainline church bored me when I was growing up but gave me comfort as an adult.  For awhile, I walked away from the church and questioned everything it did.  I, like so many others in my late teens and early twenties, looked for more of a mystical relationship with the Holy that I really didn't find in the churches in which I grew up where it felt as though things were done more by rote than with meaning.  Along the way, I found the Quakers and was sure that was going to be my path.  They sat and listened and left room for the Spirit in a way I had not previously experienced.

However, it was in attending a church service where the pastor gave a controversial sermon that I found myself moved in a way that I thought was impossible.  Some of those who walked out during the sermon came back for communion and shared from the same loaf and the same cup.  Instead of this feeling hypocritical, it felt like a deeply honest expression of brokenness and hope.  I had seen conflict and disagreement in churches and witnessed some of the awful ways people had fought with each other...  but here was the loaf and the cup.  I had felt the unfair expectations that some in the church put on others.... but here was the loaf and the cup.  I had been part of debates advocating for social justice that became personal and toxic... but here was the loaf and the cup.  When, during the postlude, the organist played some of those deep notes that feel like butterflies in your stomach it was as though I heard the organ played for the very first time.  I almost felt like some sort of prodigal son who had found his way home.  I still ended up moving from the denomination I grew up in to another denomination but that switch felt more like moving out of my parents house to another place on the same block.  It was, essentially, moving from one comfortable place to a more comfortable place.

Comfort, however, can cause one to settle and cause one to judge success based on the degree of comfort.  I think that, to some degree, the level of comfort provided has been the mainline church's definition of success.  The problem is that, when I read the Gospels, Jesus' call is to love and, although loving can include giving comfort, love is much bigger than just that.  It is a call and challenge to live in to the fullness of being what God believes we can be.  Its not simply trying to confirm what we would like to always be true and what we hope would never change.

The closure of Alban makes me uncomfortable.  The work of CPR frequently challenges me.  Both of these organizations are expressions of love, faith and integrity.  The learnings of Alban continue and add to the separate momentum of CPR's work.  Together, they teach me lessons about letting go and stepping out.  Together, they teach me lessons about the honesty of endings, the danger in simply continuing, and the necessity of prying ourselves away from the comfort of familiarity.

May our mourning and discomfort be overwhelmed with gratitude and hope for a Church that isn't dying but - maybe, just maybe - remembering what it means to live.