This presentation was given by the Rev. Sara Shisler Goff to the clergy of the Diocese of Maryland at their annual Clergy Conference October 10, 2016.
Good morning. Before we begin, I’d like us to take a few moments of silence so that we can each come into this place with intention and find our center. Go ahead and find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes if you’d like to and find that place inside of you where you are “tuned in;” even allow yourself to find that place where you meet with God. Let’s practice dwelling with God together for just a minute or two. I will close our silence with an “amen.”
I think it is safe to say that most of you probably have no idea what to expect over the next few days. “The Plan” has been a bit vague, shall we say. I am going to suggest that we take what is and open ourselves up to the possibility of not knowing what’s next, and therefore, all that could be over the next 36 hours. Let’s agree that our plan is going to be intentionally “showing up” as our full selves. Whatever we’ve got going on, whatever we are struggling with, whatever is real and present for each of us, let’s bring it. Because I have the floor right now, I am going to ask that we create this kind of a space for each other that allows us to fully show up in this way. Which means, I am going to ask that we agree to a few norms, a few ways of being together, over the next two days, so we can create a sense of accountability to one another. I ask that we each speak from our own experiences (I am going to try and model that for us this morning). That we speak our own truth and we honor and hold space for each other’s truths. This means no judging, no giving advice, no shaming or blaming each other. Just being with one another. Does this sound like something we can all agree to?
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Sara Shisler Goff and I am a priest in this Diocese (Maryland). I was ordained in 2010. I served at the Cathedral of the Incarnation for four years and then spent a year and a half at Trinity Towson. Not that far into my ordained life I began to feel a very intense longing for an experience of ministry that was different from the one that I was having. When I began to “flesh out” this feeling, I realized what I wanted was for the church where I ministered and served to be more like the church I needed and wanted to be a part of. In other words, I wanted my church to be a place where my relationships with others were rooted and grounded in love. I’m not saying this was never the case, but it was too often not the case.
I wanted to feel known and seen. I wanted to be understood and affirmed for who I was. I wanted honesty and transparency. I wanted open and honest communication. I wanted support and authenticity. I wanted genuine, shared leadership. I wanted to be able to be courageous and vulnerable without the fear of retribution or the fear of being knocked down. I wanted all those things we all want in our church and in our workplace. But it was more than just wanting them, I wanted to know why they were not there. It really upset me when they were not there.
When I did find the courage to name and share my longing out loud, I found two other clergy colleagues (who are not Episcopalian, by the way) who were having similar struggles and frustrations and who had similar longings. We began to help each other name what it was we were struggling with and what it was we really wanted. We also began to feel that God was calling us, individually and then eventually together, to something new, something different—a different way of being church. For a long time we didn’t know what that meant. We had no idea what that would look like.
But in the midst of that unknowing, we got together every week for several hours and we prayed, we talked, we read scripture, we lamented, we dreamed, and we shared what was really going on with us. Slowly, we began to invite other people into this “circle experiment” and found that there were others like us who were inside the church, who were leading the church, who wanted something more from the church—more than what they were getting. They were also struggling with the disconnect between the way their church was and the way they wanted it to be. They could not figure out how to bridge this divide.
Now let me be clear, this is not a church bashing session. That is not my intent. I hope it is not my impact. This is an invitation to get real.
The more that I think about and pray and work on this idea of the “future of the church” and the “reimagining of the church,” the more I am convinced and convicted that when we stay focused on structures and methods and models for doing church and strategic plans and all the stuff that we are doing, all the different ways that we are trying to do church better and make church more “successful,” we are missing the deeper disturbance of the Spirit. Those structures and methods and models and strategic plans matter, and there is work to do be done there, on that level. But there is a deeper undoing that needs to happen. I am experiencing this undoing in myself and I am hearing about it and seeing it in others with whom I am in relationship with.
Collectively we are so worried about our church dying and our declining attendance and the unsustainability of the project of being church the way that we have set it up and think it has to be, we are not even aware that this death we are going through could possibly be a good thing. If all these people were not leaving our churches we wouldn’t be aware there was a problem. Although, in my experience, we are often misdiagnosing the problem. I don’t think we need to reimagine our structures, or reimagine how to do church, at least not primarily. I think we need to reimagine and reclaim our identity as a death and resurrection people. I think in our death we are being invited to become who we truly are—a people who are never finished changing, a people who are always being made new, a people whose identity is always found in losing their lives so God might save them, a people who are completely and only oriented toward love.
This touches on a bigger topic than we are going to take on this morning, but I think that we are still infants when it comes to truly knowing what it means to love and to love the way God loves. The work that the church is being called to do in this moment is relational. Each of us, as leaders in the church, is being called, invited, begged by God, to do some serious soul searching.
Remember for a moment, if you can, when you first became a Christian and you finally accepted in your very being, in your bones, in your soul, that your value came from God. That you were a beloved child of God and that all people are beloved children of God made in God’s image. That nothing you or anyone else could do could change that. Remember when you finally realized that your life was a part of God’s life and that God wanted your entire life to exist within the life of God. Each one of us in this room had an experience so transformational that we decided to give our entire lives to serving God and God’s people. Our job is to love God and love God’s people.
Now think about your daily life. Think about what you spend most of your time and energy doing. Think about your experience of church and ministry. If you are anything like me, I would imagine there is some level of disconnect between who you want to be and who you are. Between what you want to do and what you spend a lot of time doing. The point of recognizing this and drawing attention to it, is not to make us feel bad, I promise. But it is to draw attention to the fact that, I believe, we are neglecting a fundamental part of the process that God is trying to lead us through—a process of keeping in tune with God, moving along, spiraling through, as we become the new creation that God is creating us to be.
We haven’t lost our connection to the good news. Over the course of our history and existence as the church there have been places where we have gone really far off track. Somehow, thanks be to God, we haven’t lost the good news that salvation is all about is right relationship with God.
We know what we need to do. We know who we are. We know how to be the church. We just forget. Or we choose not to do it, because moment by moment is extraordinarily hard. The call to follow Jesus is a radical and risky one and I don’t know about you, but I am not all that inclined to be radical or take risk. At some point, everybody fails. Peter failed, Paul failed, Judas really failed. The problem isn’t so much that the church is full of sinners, that is kind of how it is supposed to be. The problem is the church is full people who can’t even see or admit their sin. I think that this is the real reason that people are leaving the church. It is not because they don’t long for God or community. It is not because they don’t want to do good and change the world and make a difference and follow love. It is because they can see through us. They can see that we are broken. And we can’t see that it is our relationships that are broken.
The greatest commandment wasn’t fill buildings full of people. The greatest commandment wasn’t make Episcopalians. The greatest commandment is Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself. Follow the way Jesus did it. Bring other people along with you. That is what it means to be the church. The rest is details.
It is my opinion it is not our worship styles, or our music choices, or even whether we have a good website or good Facebook presence that determines whether our church will succeed in the twenty-first century. All of those things matter but they are secondary to whether we are a community where people feel loved, where they experience God’s love through us, and where everyone is honestly and openly struggling to follow Jesus together. At the end of the day, it is all about relationships.
When the Slate Project started we didn’t know what to call ourselves. A friend of Jason’s suggest that we call ourselves “the Slate Project” from the idea of “a clean slate.” Our founding question is: “What if we had a clean Slate for being the church?” When someone uses the phrase “clean slate” they are usually referring to a relationship and they are saying that something in that relationship needs to change; something needs to be “cleaned off the slate.” But the relationship, the fundamental underlying relationship is of such importance, that even though there is something that drastically needs to change, the relationship is still very much worth saving. The relationship between God and humanity, the relationships between us humans that are grounded in the knowledge and love of God, the relationships that ground the project of being the church—that is very much worth saving, at least I think so. Those of us who are a part of the Slate Project have decided we are going to stick with the “project” of being church, because we believe in it, because we have experienced Jesus, and because we have been given the Holy Spirit. So no matter how far we walk through the valley of the shadow of the death of the institution as we know it, we will not say, “the hell with this,” and throw up our hands and walk way! Because it is never a lost cause. God has given us the perpetual clean slate. God always gives us another chance. What does Michael Curry say? “God always meets us where we are, but God never intends to leave us there.”
The question, “what if we had a clean slate,” is not a hypothetical one. It is an exercise in claiming our theological inheritance. We have been given a clean slate. Asking this question does two things. First, it allows us to get out of our own way. It gives us the psychological and emotional space and the freedom to imagine what could be. It takes out of the equation all the stuff that says what can’t be and it says just focus on what could be.
What if you had a clean slate? What would that mean for you? What if you had a clean slate for your ministry? What if the community where you serve had a clean slate for being the incarnation of the Body of Christ that God is calling it to be?
In the next few minutes, we are going to have some time to just sit and dwell in these possibilities. We are going to exercise our theological imaginations and we are going to allow ourselves to embody our true identities and envision, or receive the vision, of what could be. Then, sticking with the “slate” metaphor, I am going to invite you to think about what is it that needs to be cleaned off your slate? Or to think about it another way, what is it that is keeping you from walking the talk? My wife Heather says this is not a thing, that “walking the talk” is not actually a phrase, but I say it is. The church is really good at “talking the talk.” Sometimes we even “walk the walk.” But we have work to do on “walking the talk.” We preach a good message. Living that good message is a life-long journey. What is getting in our way?
The “clean slate” is a metaphor. The only One who can give us a clean slate and wipe our slate clean is God. That is what redemption is, that is what forgiveness is, that is what grace is—we are given a clean slate. We are a clean slate. That happens in God’s time. That takes place and is forever taking place in the Eternal Now, in God’s time.
In our time, we would be fools to think that we could just wipe the slate clean. This is just the beginning of our work. This is just the beginning of a process. In my experience, asking these questions is just the beginning of a process of discernment and that discernment process must be communal. I recommend that we take these questions and pray them over with others when we leave this place. Down the road, that process will involve coming to an understanding of what God is inviting us to try on and try out and then, doing it! See how it goes, reflect on how it went, evaluate the process, and then start all over again—back to discernment. Back to asking, “What am I being called to let go? How am I being called to change?”
The greatest gift we can give ourselves, I think, is the willingness to be changed and the courage to let it all go, whatever it is, that is keeping us from becoming who God is calling us to be. Whatever keeping us from the fullness and the wholeness of relationships with God, ourselves, each other and all of creation—let it go. That is what this whole church thing is all about. I believe that is why we are here. I hope that resonates with why you are here.
Now I am going to ask each of you to go off by yourselves, find a place where you can be alone, without distractions for ten minutes. Meditate on the question, “What if I had a clean slate?” You can think about your slate in terms of your ministry, your community, your life, whatever comes to you. Then the second question is, “What is it that needs to be cleaned off my slate?” or “What is keeping me from walking my talk?” You are going to spend 10 minutes alone thinking and praying. Then you are going to find two other people, so you are a group of three, and you are going to spend 20 minutes (five minutes each) sharing whatever you feel comfortable sharing that came up for you when you were alone. Then you should have five minutes left to talk as a group and reflect on what you heard each other say.