Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What I said ...

Here's a copy of the letter I sent to the Vestry of the Church on the Pike, edited to protect everyone's privacy. Where I refer to recent parish history, you should know that we suffered periods of tumult resulting in "dissolution of the pastoral relationship" (meaning we fired our Rectors) twice in the last 20 years. So we have a history of conflict, but had been through a long period of healing. Until the recent nonsense!

My original email had some attachments, but I couldn't figure out how to attach those documents here. But you'll get the general idea of their content.

"Dear Vestry Friends,

This afternoon my letter of transfer arrived at St. [ ]'s. Forgive me for not saying goodbye to you all in person, but last Sunday was a difficult day for me. Moving to St. [ ]'s is the decision I reached following a process of discernment that began with the first departures from St. [ ]'s, back in September. After 5 months of prayer, tears, help from a spiritual director, input from my friends in the Order of Julian of Norwich, observation of certain trends here at St. [ ]'s, and a very painful meeting with Fr. [ ] in December, it still seems to me that St. [ ]'s is going down the wrong road -- at least, the wrong road for me and many others.

This is not simply a matter of my "not being able to change," which seems to have become Fr. [ ]'s mantra here in the last few months, nor is it simply that I "don't like" Rick Warren and his programs, though that is certainly the case. I have always been open to change, when I see the point of it and agree with the direction. I have particularly resented Fr. [ ]'s suggestion that those who do not agree with him have character conflicts, as he wrote in an email to one of us, and more recently, his assertion that a good leader must have a "strong character" (cf. Feb. 3, 2008 Annual Report, p. 13), which insinuates that those who have left have a fundamental character flaw. What an easy cop-out that is.

I do have strong objections to Purpose-Driven programming on content grounds. I remarked to Fr. [ ] back in December that I felt it was a simplistic, fundamentalist, "See Spot run" version of Christianity - I have read The Purpose-Driven Life once again since I made that statement, and my opinion has not changed. One priest to whom I spoke felt that he knew less about Christianity after he had read it. For people (including, I imagine, many Episcopalians) who don't have a literal view of Scripture, who don't believe that God designed every minute aspect of their bodies (birth defects included), planned out all the events of their lives in advance, or has an instructional purpose in all the bad things that happen to them, the Purpose-Driven Life is reductive and insulting. It's a myopic, fundamentalist fairy tale. The challenges of real Christian life seem to me to be much more nuanced. The Purpose-Driven Life sells Christians short!

Then there's the matter of the damage done to the congregation, including hurtful emotional damage done to quite a few individuals. Page 5 of the most recent annual report indicates that St.[ ]'s added 16 new members in 2007 (and 6 of those were babies baptized), while 91 (!) were transferred to inactive status, which I believe has to happen before they are removed from the membership roll completely. Has St. [ ]'s not been through enough in the past 20 years? Knowing our history, bringing in a program which is well-known to split congregations (see my first attachment) is an unconscionable lapse in judgment on the part of the Rector. I am also responsible for this, in part, because I was a member of the Vestry senior class that prepared the vision statement, and I accepted what Fr. [ ] wrote (which is the bulk of the document) without realizing what the real source was; I failed to do the research I should have done. On the one hand, many aspects of the vision of purpose and ministry have been implemented without asking St. [ ]'s members to goose-step along with Uncle Rick. One example is the Newcomers' Ministry, which was thriving the last I knew. Prayer Fellowship is also flourishing in its expanded format. But forcing people into one-size-fits-all programming designed for seekers, and attempting to enforce uniformity in belief and opinion seems draconian to me, and is a misuse of the Rector's authority. Uniformity in belief and attitude has never been an Anglican requirement (thanks be to God), and should not be an expectation of all a church's leadership. Vetting people who are to run for Vestry is another example of this uncanonical misuse of authority. The recent absence of Vestry elections (by provision of exactly the requisite number of candidates to fill slots) is also disturbing, and is potentially a violation of state law. This is not a criticism of your good selves; it is an objection to the Rector's iron grip on the process.

I don't know what has happened to Fr. [ ]; he no longer seems to me to be the person who came to us in 2001. I no longer recognize that gentle, patient person in him. I don't feel badly saying this to you all, since I have also said this to him. I am at a loss to understand what has happened to him.

I don't know if you have read any criticism of Saddleback and Willow Creek programming or not. I think you might be unlikely to have any handed to you at a Vestry meeting, so I'm attaching some documents that I hope you will read with an open mind. The first (mentioned above) is a Wall Street Journal article describing the breakup of an evangelical (!) congregation after their church became Purpose-Driven. The second attachment is an Amazon.com web page for a book I enjoyed reading: The Reason-Driven Life, which addresses Rick Warren's book chapter by chapter. It is both scathing and witty, and is written by an agnostic Biblical scholar and former born-again Christian. The final attachment is a review of a new book published by Willow Creek, following their experience with the REVEAL survey. It seems they are ready to admit that they've been attracting seekers but not keeping them, and that their methods are completely flawed. Back to the drawing board for them! If only repairing damage were so easy at St. [ ]'s.

My friends, I will miss all of you. I am very saddened by what I see happening in a church where I worshiped God happily for nearly 25 years. St. [ ]'s will always be in my prayers.

Yours in Christ,



clumber said...

Thanks... had not known that stuff about "purpose drivel"... I found the book to be a pretty insipid and colorless tract. If I'd been on the vestry I hope I would have contacted you, had a cup of coffee and talked it over. Sound like a place that needs people who think and question, not just march in line.

Judith said...

Hi Clumber,

We have taken to calling them the Koolade Crowd! Marching in line is what they do best now.

But my new church is a traditional Episcopal church with a wonderful woman rector, a sense of its own history, and a liturgy I recognize. I wish I had changed churches a long time ago!


sharecropper said...

Glad you have found a place to worship. I suspect that vestry members who read your letter will not know how to respond, but it might spark a bit of questioning of the rector at some point in the future. Glad you wrote it. Peace,

LutheranChik said...

I thought it was a wonderful letter.

klady said...

Sorry that I am late here (wandering over from Mad Priest's). I am heartsick at the pain you and others have gone through, but this is indeed a fine letter. While I experienced nothing quite like this, I recall what it was like when I left a Lutheran congregation years ago when the pastor (whom I assented to as a member of the call committee) took the congregation on a sharp turn that did not right itself for another ten years (and something like five pastors, not in including the interims). What he did was not anywhere near as awful as this Warren stuff (he had both a fine intellect and a progressive view of social issues) -- it involved rather a denuding of the Lutheran aspects of liturgy and worship based on what focus group research said about the unchurched (a Willow Creek approach), but it was very painful for me to leave good friends, not just social friends but also those who were critical to my coming back to the Christian faith.

It took a lot of soul-searching to decide that it was right for me to leave and go elsewhere. And yes, there were similar accusations of being against progress, evangelism, etc. But I ended up in good place for me and the Lutheran church finally found a pastor who was not (dare I say) purpose driven but rather only wanted to nurture a community of ministry to others that, at the same time, respected and celebrated, rather than tried to eradicate, the 100+ Scandinavian history and traditions of the church. It sounds like you had much more compelling reasons to leave, but I share with you the memory of the difficulty of reaching that decision.

Wishing you great joy and blessings in your new parish,


David G. said...

Sounds a lot like Central Florida to me.

Judith said...

Dear Kathy,

Thanks for your encouragement! It's good to know others have felt the way I do. I am not angry with anyone in my old parish (except the Rector), and that's what I tried to convey. Guess it didn't work.

But I AM just delighted in my new parish, and I've been assured the same thing is NOT going to happen there.


FranIAm said...

Sorry, I am late to this, just having discovered your link to me on your blogroll(thank you!) and trying to get to know you by reading.

It sounds like you have been on a journey... and a good one at that, albeit painful.

It must have been hard to write that letter, but I can see your point. I guess - forgive me, I am RC, but it is hard for me knowing many Episcopalians, to imagine a TEC church going all "purpose driven," but clearly what do I know.

I myself tried to read the book more than once and never got far. I would agree with your assessment.

In any event, you have chosen and you have reflected and prayed before doing so; God bless you richly on your way.

Please know how grateful I am to have found my way to your blog.

Peace to you.