Thursday, August 28, 2014

Giving away Bibles

The American Humanist Organization is demanding that the Missouri National Guard stop the distribution of free Bibles in its recruiting offices (for the details, follow this link). an Ethical Musings' reader sent me the link and suggested that it might provide interesting fodder for a post.

I'm extremely doubtful that distributing free Bibles benefits anyone beyond the person or organization doing the distributing (Bible distributors often feel that they are heeding Christ's call to make disciples of the world by planting seeds, some of which may find fertile soil in the life of a hurting person).

First, recruits often pick up a Bible as a talisman or good luck charm, particularly if the Bible, as in the case of those in the Missouri Guard's recruiting office, have a cover appropriate to the recruit's next chapter in life. Joining the military is often a scary proposition, full of unknown demands and the possibility of failure, injury, or even death. Possessing a Bible is for some recruits and service members akin to carrying a rabbit's foot or other item designed to keep the bearer safe. In fact, the Bible has no value as a talisman or good luck charm.

Stories of a pocket New Testament stopping a bullet and saving a person's life are the result of placing extra padding in a pocket over an especially vulnerable part of the anatomy and totally disconnected from the book's content. Christians have distributed millions of free Bibles to new recruits and service members; it's unsurprising, given the law of averages, that a few of those Bibles have stopped bullets.

Second, in response to my queries, I'm persuaded that few recipients of these free Bibles actually read them once, much less engage with the text in any serious manner. In other words, distributing Bibles is ineffectual evangelism. Furthermore, many of the free Bibles and New Testaments given to military personnel are the King James Version, a difficult English translation to read and yet more difficult version to understand (literally hundreds of the English words in the KJV have changed meaning in 300 plus years since translation). Sadly, I've even met people who are convinced that the KJV is the original, denying history and ignorant of the Bible's long tortured history of transmission and translation.

Third, any recruit or service member who feels pressured – whether from an authority figure, peers, or baggage that s/he brings – to take a copy of the Bible from a display or when offered, can easily and privately toss the offending book in a trash can at some later time. Nobody ever inspects a recruit's or service member's personal effects to see whether the person has a copy of the Bible or New Testament. Thus, any harm that results from the perception of pressure to accept a free copy of a Bible or New Testament appears to be relatively minor if not trivial. Recruits and service members routinely receive voluminous amounts of official material, for which there is official pressure to take and read, that many discard without reading.

In sum, the furor about Bible distribution seems to me a tempest in a teapot. No recruit or service member should ever feel pressure to take religious material of any flavor. However, recruits and service members should have sufficient ego strength to refuse an offer of free materials or to accept the materials graciously (avoiding creating an awkward or uncomfortable moment) and then to discard the item when convenient. Conversely, Christians (and those from any other religious group!) should have the wisdom to recognize both the impropriety of explicitly or implicitly using any form of coercion to distribute their religious materials and the general wastefulness of such efforts. God expects Christians to sow seed wisely, as would a good farmer or a good steward.

Unfortunately, religious discrimination and persecution within the military are sometimes a significant problem. Officers and enlisted personnel have described to me assignments in which a senior openly and consistently pressured subordinates to attend the worship service the senior attended, the Bible study that the senior attended or led, etc. Sometimes, the pressure came from the senior's spouse in an ineffective but blatant attempt to distance the senior from the evangelistic efforts. Most egregiously, the pressure was coercive with the senior linking the subordinate's participation in religious activities to duty rotations, assignments, or personnel evaluations. All of these actions obviously violate the First Amendment protection against the establishment of religion.

In the preponderance of these cases, the offending person was an evangelical Christian trying to save the lost. For example, in my first tour as a Navy chaplain, a Christian petty officer aboard a destroyer was concerned about an atheist shipmate, who lived in the same berthing area. The Christian would occasionally leave Christian literature on the atheist's pillow. The atheist politely asked the Christian to desist; when that failed, the atheist requested me to talk to the Christian and persuade him to desist; when that failed, the atheist started placing satanic literature on the Christian's pillow. At that point, emotions escalated to the point where the chain of command became involved. In consultation with me, the chain of command wisely relocated the Christian petty officer to a less desirable berthing area, ordered both sailors to stop placing literature on the other's pillow, and told the Christian petty officer that any future incident would result in his facing non-judicial punishment at Captain's mast. The Christian was outraged, but did stop trying to evangelize his shipmate. To my great frustration, I failed in every attempt to persuade this well-intentioned but seriously misguided young man that in no way did his actions emulate Jesus' love for others. Would be Christian evangelists do well to consider carefully the question, What would Jesus do?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Church planting - part 2

In the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, The Episcopal Church (TEC) grew both in numbers of members and of congregations. That missionary impetus has dissipated; in 2012, TEC planted only three new congregations. The first part of this essay considered the demographic and theological imperatives for planting new churches and two impediments TEC must overcome. This second and concluding installment outlines practical steps that the TEC can take to recover its missionary momentum.

Attempting to reverse TEC's numerical decline can easily feel like retrenching. Instead, we should adapt an idea from Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who suggests that persons needing to downsize because of financial, health, or other reasons envision the change as a generative opportunity (How to Think About Downsizing Your Life, Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2014).

On a congregational level, small congregations might envision their demise generatively by:

(1)   Cherishing the opportunities for enrichment intrinsic to uniting with a larger congregation, even a congregation of another denomination

(2)   Swapping the stress of trying to keep the doors open and the priest paid for the joys of engaging in the pro-active missionary endeavors possible in a larger, better funded congregation

(3)   Celebrating their obedience as good stewards, easing the time and financial burdens small congregations impose on dioceses.

On a diocesan level, bishops might envision downsizing generatively by recognizing that diocesan clergy, not diocesan staff, are the bishop's primary resource for her/his ministry as chief pastor. Front-line ministry mostly occurs in the parish, yet most bishops tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time with their staff and rarely interact directly with the majority of their parish clergy. (How many rectors receive multiple calls or visits per from their bishop for which the bishop's only agenda is to encourage and to support the priest's ministry? How many bishops regularly attend deanery meetings to be available to their clergy? In what percentage of bishop-priest relationships do priests prefer, whether from suspicion or good cause, to keep her/his distance from the bishop?)

Like most of us, bishops are busy. Bishops, therefore, need to re-focus by intentionally minimizing the time spent on problem clergy, vacancies, etc., to maximize the time they spend energizing, coaching, and encouraging their stronger parish clergy. Effective bishops are chief pastors who become the wind that provides the lift clergy need to soar like eagles. To some significant degree, a diocesan bishop as chief pastor must shoulder responsibility when a congregation well situated for growth either stagnates or declines.

Concurrently, bishops and dioceses will seek to identify people whom TEC (and the larger church!) serve inadequately or not at all. Where we find those people is where we want – need – to plant new churches or to attempt to revitalize dying congregations. Adapting a regenerative focus, with the accompanying changes in priorities, effort, and spending, will provide the resources these efforts will require. Critically, revitalizing and new starts both require expertise as well as adequate financial support.

On a national level, a generative focus will seek to reduce national staff and budget to free resources for dioceses and congregations. Legacy programs continued primarily out of inertia and programs that are minimally effective, regardless of how vocal their constituency may be, need to give way to developing and sharing expertise on church planting. Unlike numerical decline, ending those programs will not pose an existential threat for TEC.

The TEC Treasurer, in his latest report, noted that 42 dioceses have committed to the full 19% of diocesan income asking level adopted by General Convention in 2012 and 39 dioceses contribute between 10% and 19% of their income. The remaining 30 dioceses give less than 10% of their income to TEC. The list recording the percentage that each diocese contributes to TEC is revealing. Some dioceses (e.g., Honduras and Colombia) are essentially missionary dioceses, underwritten by TEC. Some dioceses pledge little, probably reflecting a lingering history of conflict between the diocese (or its parishes) and TEC (e.g., Dallas and Springfield) or conflict within the diocese (e.g., Pennsylvania). And some dioceses are simply poor: ten domestic dioceses report income of less than $500,000 and another 15 domestic dioceses income between $500,000 and $1 million. In short, the declining few increasingly carry the heavy burden of denominational support.

If we don't get busy with these tasks today, a tomorrow very soon will be too late. TEC will have dwindled into an irrelevancy that no amount of heroic life-support efforts can resuscitate. New branches on the vine that is Christ will have replaced the dead and useless branch that TEC will have then become.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Church planting - part 1

Incredibly, TEC started only three new churches in 2012, the last year for which data is available according to research by the Rev. Susan Snook (she planted, and is now rector of, a thriving parish in the Diocese of Arizona). Jim Naughton, reporting Snook's research at the Episcopal Café (Why doesn't the Episcopal Church plant more churches?) wondered why The Episcopal Church (TEC) plants so few new churches. Two factors, one demographic and the other theological, underscore the poignancy of his question.

First, the US population grew from just under 180 million people in 1960 to 308 million in 2010. That significant growth suggests that a flourishing church would also have been a growing church during those five decades. Yet the increase in US population sharply contrasts with TEC's decline from 3.4 million members in 1960 to fewer than 2 million today. In other words, during the last five decades, the US population increased about 70% and TEC's membership declined by roughly 42%.

Second, God calls Christians to be a missionary people. In previous generations, the missionary impulse may have derived much momentum from people believing that the only way to experience the fullness of God's love was through Christ. Thankfully, many Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the exclusive path to God.

Yet that shift in beliefs does not leave us bereft of a missionary impetus. We value both TEC and our local congregations, an assessment obvious from hundreds of posts on the internet (including the Episcopal Café!) and comments from people in thousands of pews across the country. We Episcopalians find our liturgy and communal life personally helps us to connect with God and enriches our lives. If words really indicate how Episcopalians feel, why don't we extend a warmer and more persuasive invitation to family, friends, and even acquaintances to explore – if not to join – the religious tradition and community that we allegedly value so highly?

The claim that TEC has a shortage of clergy is a bogus explanation of why TEC is failing to plant new churches. In 2009, TEC had 17,868 clergy compared to 9079 in 1960, or about twice as many as when we had one-third more members. In spite of a sizable number of clergy retirees, we still have ample numbers of active clergy. However, TEC does have a clergy distribution problem. Rural and small town TEC congregations often struggle, both to raise the funds needed to pay a full-time priest and to find clergy willing to serve in those locales (a majority of our clergy, based on their choices about where to reside, apparently prefers to live in more urban areas).

Although we have plenty of congregations, they, like our clergy, are maldistributed. Our approximately 6,700 congregations – if they had an average of 750 members – would comprise a Church of five million. Unfortunately, the US is experiencing significant internal demographic shifts. These changes have left many Episcopal congregations in locations with a static or even diminishing population. Meanwhile, numerous areas with growing populations lack a conveniently located TEC congregation.

So, why doesn't TEC plant more new congregations to proclaim the good news to the growing US population? Scripture plainly depicts Jesus enjoining his disciples to make disciples. At least two impediments exist.

First, TEC utilizes its resources inefficiently and ineffectively. We waste much effort and money keeping small congregations in geographic places with diminishing populations on life support long after any realistic hope of revitalization has faded away. Well-intentioned efforts to develop alternative approaches to theological education to staff these dying congregations will only prolong the misery and drain additional resources. Closing these outposts can cost a great deal of political capital, but not closing them will only expedite TEC's demise.

I've served a congregation with an average Sunday attendance under 20. I know how much those people valued their congregation, its worship, and its other ministries. However, two vibrant parishes were located within a one-mile radius of my small congregation. None of my parishioners wanted to ask, let alone answer, the question of whether we would be most faithful by closing our congregation and joining one of the other parishes. In the meantime, keeping the congregation alive cost a great deal of money and contributed less to the body of Christ than we would have contributed by shuttering the doors and joining one of the neighboring congregations. My parishioners prioritized loyalty to a location, preserving a congregational identity, and perpetuating a dwindling community over doing the most for God's kingdom. As their priest, I failed to realign their priorities more closely with the gospel imperatives. Loyalty to God's purposes rather than loyalty to place, building, or tradition best defines Christian fidelity.

Second, TEC, in common with a great many organizations, finds dealing with small issues easier than dealing with large issues. Numerical decline represents an existential threat for TEC. A growing number of congregations devote a disproportionate (often almost 100%) of their resources to paying a priest and keeping the building open. We find the latter two issues – how to reduce what we pay a priest (e.g., by reducing educational debt) and funding the building – easier to address than the overarching issue of numerical decline.

Blaming the numerical decline on either the ordination of women or the 1976 Book of Common Prayer constitutes a red herring. TEC's serious numerical decline did not begin until the 1980s, well after both of those changes.

The real issue is that the interpretation and praxis of Christianity passed to people in the US in the second half of the twentieth century no longer speaks to people. Theoretically, every generation must claim the faith for itself, putting ideas and practices into wineskins appropriate to that generation. In fact, we tend to change the wineskins only when forced. The wineskins that I received in seminary are an increasingly poor fit in a globalized, electronically connected, scientifically oriented world. Creating new wineskins is no easy task.

Many Episcopalians, clergy and laity alike, thus choose an easier option. We find a cause to support: we fought poverty, we fed the hungry, we campaigned for civil rights, we supported the full inclusion of women in church and society, and now we work for justice for gays, lesbians, the transgendered, and bisexuals. In short, we walk some of the Jesus path. We do good things and we should keep doing them; none of those worthy tasks is yet finished. Meantime, we avoid giving too much thought to disturbing questions about who God is, how we connect with God, and how we can discern God's presence and activity in our midst. We love our neighbor, but we do so incompletely because we ignore our post-modern world's pervasive spiritual hunger. We are most faithful and best incarnate the body of Christ (i.e., be the Church) when we integrate loving God explicitly and consistently into our efforts to love our neighbors.

The second part of this post will offer practical ideas for reversing the decline.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What to do when your parish has a gay rector

An Ethical Musings' reader sent me the following query:

I attended a small Episcopal church today – the last Sunday before a married gay Rector is in charge.

My brother in law and I discussed his concern that gay sex is a sin and he cannot take Communion from a sinner. He is not a homophile; his concern is only that a married gay Rector is a sinner. He quotes the Bible, he has prayed for guidance, he has gone on the internet to research this issue, et al. Gay sex is his issue.

I told him that this is an issue of controversy and many leaders of all religions have taken seriously the issue of gays and their roles. The Church, as have other churches, have made the decision that gay priests who are married contribute to the faith and can perform all rites of the Church – a prayerful decision, not one of political correctness.

Here is my response:

If your brother in law cannot receive Holy Communion from a sinner, then he is unable to receive Holy Communion – ever. There is no bishop or priest who is not also a sinner. Attempting to construct a hierarchy of sins is exceedingly difficult, probably impossible. If for the sake of the discussion one accepts that gay sex is sinful, then is that more sinful than a nominally celibate cleric lusting after his/her parishioners of the same (or opposite) gender, frequently and repeatedly committing mental adultery, even as s/he distributes Holy Communion? If for the sake of the discussion one accepts that gay sex is sinful, then is a married gay or lesbian priest more sinful than is a priest in a heterosexual marriage, but who is truly gay or lesbian, who frequently and repeatedly commits mental adultery with parishioners of the same sex, even as s/he distributes Holy Communion? The questions that one must answer in constructing a hierarchy of sins are endless.

Once the taxonomy of sins is complete, one might draw a line separating the acceptable sins (those that a cleric can commit and continue to function) from the unacceptable sins (those that a cleric may not commit and continue to function). Who is to draw the line? What are the criteria for deciding where to draw the line? (This process is similar to the distinction that the Roman Catholic Church has drawn between venial and mortal sins.)

The Church is a human institution, comprised of pilgrims who are also sinners. Sometimes the Church makes great choices, e.g., the full inclusion of people regardless of race. Sometimes the Church makes sinful choices, e.g., its support of slavery for centuries. In either case, the Church, imperfect as it is, remains the body of Christ. Time will reveal, with clarity, whether the Church’s decision to include fully gays and lesbians is right or wrong. In the meantime, the Church, imperfect as it is, remains the Church.

I, for one, am confident that the Church's full inclusion of all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation best incarnates God's love that welcomes and embraces all of God's children.

(Incidentally, questions and suggestions for future Ethical Musings' posts are always welcome.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014


ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has recently attracted a great deal of media attention:

  • ISIS is a Sunni Islamist group dedicated to reestablishing an Islamic caliphate, i.e., a government defined by the Muslim tradition and committed to enforcing sharia, which, in the case of ISIS, is a radical version of sharia that has emerged out of the Wahhabi tradition.
  • ISIS has achieved considerable military gains against Iraq's Shiite dominated government and now, at least nominally, governs a substantial portion of Iraq's Sunni population.
  • ISIS has also flexed its military might in Syria, seeking to overthrow the Assad regime and replace it with the caliphate.
  • The Kurds are ISIS' most effective opposition. The Kurds fund their military operations through selling oil on the black market.
  • The US has provided military assistance to the Kurds and to Iraqi military forces fighting ISIS, primarily through a limited number of advisers and air strikes. The US has also provided humanitarian assistance to the Yazidis, a Kurdish minority whose religion has Zoroastrian roots and whom ISIS regard as apostate Muslims that they should exterminate.

The Iraqi political crisis, meanwhile, is nearing a climax. The current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, won the last election, although with a minority of the seats in Parliament. The Iraqi president, however, has asked another Shiite member of Parliament, from a different party, to form Iraq's next government. Maliki has protested that it is his prerogative as the electoral victor to form the next government. The Iraqi military is apparently still loyal to him. The outcome of this governmental crisis will likely remain in doubt for most of the next month, the constitutional deadline for forming Iraq's post-election government.

If Maliki becomes the next Iraqi dictator, that will sadly validate predictions that I made years ago; if he fails, it will not be for want of trying. Furthermore, Iraq's future as a unified nation seems increasingly doubtful. The Kurds are rapidly nearing the point at which they will declare an independent Kurdistan. Iraqi government discrimination against Sunni Iraqis has generated much of ISIS' traction in Iraq. Regardless of whether Maliki continues as prime minister, Shiite discrimination against Sunnis will probably continue unabated, the consequence of generations of Sunni oppression of and discrimination against Iraqi Shiites.

Can US involvement make a difference?

I don't think so. The US has little political will to send a substantial number of troops to Iraq. US political leaders and citizens alike have recognized, to their great dismay, that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was an ill-fated military endeavor that cost the US a great number of lives and much treasure, yet produced no visible benefits.

Could the US have made a difference by getting involved earlier or by having maintained a military presence in Iraq?

Maintaining a military presence in Iraq would have further polarized that volatile situation. Iraqi politicians perceived as kowtowing to US wishes or influence lose credibility with their peers and constituencies. What the US could not achieve in ten years (e.g., training a dedicated, professional military), the US seems unlikely to be able to achieve in twenty or thirty years. The existence of a professional, dedicated military depends upon recruits who place national identity (or at least loyalty to the military) above self-interest and loyalty to ethnicity, region, religion, etc. Iraq's military lacks a sufficient supply of such individuals. The present flood of new recruits largely consists of Shiites committed to opposing a renewed Sunni dominance. They are not the patriots that a professional military requires.

Earlier involvement is also unlikely to have dramatically altered the current state of play in Iraq for the same reasons. Iraq has a dysfunctional government that a dysfunctional military nominally supports.

Media reports and photos of ISIS' victims are heart wrenching. Ineffectual actions will only expand the number of people who suffer, not alter the outcome. The US simply lacks the ability to fix every problem.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Power and the Bible

In my experience, Christians infrequently regard power as a spiritual concept. In my sermon on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, I explore ways in which the use of power is central to the plot and theological content of both the Old Testament (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28) and Gospel readings (Matthew 14:22-33). To read more, follow this link.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Character and poverty

A growing body of social science research demonstrates that the path out of poverty requires not only money but also character development. In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks summarizes some of that research ("The Character Factory," July 31, 2014). Important components of character include an individual having a credible hope for a better economic future, perseverance in the face of adversity (or even a tediously repetitive task), and willingness to delay gratification for the promise of a greater reward in the future.

Suggesting that character development is integral to ending poverty is often unpopular. First, most of us rightly reject blaming a victim for her or his status. Sometimes poverty results from factors beyond an individual's control – any individual's control. For example, nobody chooses to have a costly, incurable, debilitating disease. Even the reasonably affluent, when personally afflicted with such a disease, can easily become impoverished, perhaps dragging an entire family into poverty. Second, many citizens, regardless of political persuasion, do not regard character development as a government responsibility.

Brooks identifies four factors important for character development:

  1. Encouraging people to form productive habits such as honoring commitments and showing up for work (or school!) on time and prepared;
  2. Giving people the opportunity to succeed
  3. Finding moral exemplars (role models) who have succeeded and whose example inspires other people to believe that they too can succeed;
  4. Setting and establishing accountability for reasonable standards.

Character development, as any parent knows, is exceptionally difficult. Those four factors are far easier to enumerate than to establish in transformative ways among people who currently feel hopeless and disenfranchised. Social science research, for example, has shown that teenage girls from poor and socially disadvantaged backgrounds have a substantially lower rate of teen pregnancy when they believe that higher education is attainable. In general, teenage mothers are more likely to live in poverty, have a baby with a low birth weight, raise children who will not finish high school, etc., than are non-teenage mothers. In short, teenage pregnancies are usually bad for the teen, the child born, and society as a whole.

Moves to shift responsibility for social welfare programs from the government to religious organizations were both ill conceived and a step in the right direction. The shift was ill conceived in that religious organizations do not have the funds required to shoulder government responsibility for the less advantaged. However, the move was a step in the right direction to the extent that religious organizations perceive their role as character development rather than as replacing government funding.

Character formation is basic to a religious organization's mission. Character development should be a central goal for the religious education of children and youth, explicitly incorporated into every program. Parents, leaders, and clergy should assess current and prospective programming by asking two questions:

  1. What time of person do I want our children/youth to become?
  2. Will this program contribute to that goal?

No government, much less any religious organization, can end poverty through financially underwriting the poor. Instead, religious organizations can make an essential and appropriate contribution to ending poverty by helping children, youth, and adults develop the character traits that make for an abundant life.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Spiritual growth and feeding the 5000

Theologians and biblical scholars argue over three contrasting interpretations of this morning's gospel (Matthew 14:13-21). In preparing this sermon (preached on August 3, 2014), I considered framing those interpretations in different ways—perhaps as simple alternatives to one another, as appealing to people with various spiritual orientations, and so forth—until finally realizing that the interpretations actually represent three stages of spiritual growth or development. To read the entire sermon, follow this link.