Some Gentle Elephants in the Roomby Fr. Daniel+ on January 6, 2022
By now you will have heard that I’ll be leaving St. Elizabeth soon. You can read more about the details of that here. For now, I want to address some of these gentle elephants in the room as St. Liz enters this transitional phase. Today, I’m writing specifically for folks for whom the idea of a clergy transition is a source of anxiety.
First, practicalities. In next week’s newsletter, your Bishop’s Warden, Maddie Spearman, will update the congregation on how your Bishop’s Committee is working with Bishop Reed to begin the transition process. Maddie and Bishop Reed have been in touch multiple times already. The short version is that the diocese helps congregations do this all the time. They have an established process and a dedicated diocesan staff officer for clergy transitions. That officer’s name is the Rev. Mike Besson, and his title is Archdeacon for the Diocese of West Texas. (Mike is a priest; “Archdeacon” is just one of those delightfully fancy church words for his role.)
One of the gifts of being the Episcopal Church is that congregations never walk alone. Our primary unit of organization is not actually the individual congregation, but the diocese. We have bishops; an administrative and pastoral headquarters with both administrative and pastoral resources at our disposal; a network of clergy and other ministers who are able to help out each other and each other’s congregations; and a shared religious practice and vocabulary that transcend any single congregation or priest. Our prayer is always Common Prayer. And all this is over and above the wealth of energy, experience, and faithfulness St. Liz has all on our own.
What you can count on in the weeks ahead is that St. Liz will be well-supported, both by our own members and by our friends and other ministers elsewhere, especially Bishop Reed, the Rev. Mike Besson, and the diocesan office. The gentle elephant standing in the midst of all this is that there won’t be answers to all your questions all at once. This will be a process; the steps will emerge one at a time; and each of us will have to live with unknowns for a while.
Second, emotional realities. The gentle elephant here is this: anxiety is okay, and each of us is going to have some. It is true that a clergy transition is a big change for a congregation; it is true that we’re still navigating a pandemic; and it is true that the pandemic has hurt us. A measure of anxiety about all that is perfectly normal. It’s just a symptom of loving St. Liz.
But anxiety itself can be our friend. Anxiety is a kind of energy—it’s actually cousins with excitement—and it can therefore be a kind of motivation to good works. Clergy transition or no, Church is still Church. We will still need greeters, ushers, LEMs, folks to care for the garden. We’ll all still need community, worship, music, a sense of togetherness. You have heard me say a hundred times that everything we do at St. Liz is a team effort. That was true a year ago; it’s true now; and it’ll be true next month. You are the team.
Another elephant nuzzling us for attention is that we love each other, and (if I may be so bold!) we really like each other, too. This has been a good partnership we’ve had, and we are going to miss it. I’ve heard a few folks say already, “It won’t be the same without you.” That is true to a degree, and that is something we’ll need to mourn. Some things will change, yes, but they will also change forward if we give them time. I hope that you will offer that time, to God and to each other and to yourself.
A final elephant is perhaps my favorite one: y’all are a fantastic church in more ways than you realize. Congregations, including Episcopal ones, are like any other people group: prone to drama, unwarranted seriousness, and raw stubbornness in the face of change (just to name a few).
My overwhelming experience of St. Liz, however, is that this is not actually how you are, even during the worst of the pandemic. You are a community of easy-going people blessed abundantly with good humor, playfulness, and a willingness to greet our Lord as He approaches, in whatever clothes He’s wearing and from whatever horizon He’s traveling. You are friendly, fun, and hospitable. You show up for each other and for new folks. You work hard. Your functional belief—and not just your stated belief—is that St. Liz is a community marked by the Holy Spirit, and is therefore a gift to be cherished and shared, not territory to be claimed and controlled.
In short, the people of St. Liz know that the only places we ever get to call home are the ones where we take out the trash and where we go out of our way to make sure folks who are guests feel welcome (so welcome in fact that eventually they’re helping take out the trash, too)!
All of that is holy and evidence of spiritual power, and it’s as precious as the gold on the altar cross. And like gold, it doesn’t tarnish.
So, to call these gentle elephants by name again: first, we will have to live with the unknowns for a time, though bit by bit we’ll gain clarity on what’s ahead. Second, anxiety is okay, and we are each going to have to feel some. Third, you are just great, and your gifts of playfulness, hospitality, and openness to new things are a surer foundation than you might realize. They are strong evidence of how solidly St. Liz rests on Christ our Rock.