Homily for A Celebration of New Ministry St. James’ Episcopal Church, Potomac and the Rev. Meredith Heffner

by | May 20, 2017

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.’
John 15:9-16

Let me begin with a word of thanks to God for the people of St. James’, for your leaders who have faithfully guided the congregation through a season of transition. I also give thanks to the Holy Spirit for bringing Meredith Heffner into discernment with St. James’ and all in that process that resulted in her call here. I give thanks for family and friends, and those who surround her with love on every side.

It’s my happy task to call you to faithful and fruitful ministry as you draw closer to the One who invites you to abide in his love, embrace his presence in your life as you would the closest of friends, and has appointed you to bear fruit that will last.

The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation. On the one hand there is so much to learn and to do, so many tasks and responsibilities that are part of St. James’ everyday life. There are assumptions and expectations on both sides of this new relationship, challenges and opportunities, some that you had anticipated and others that will surprise you. Honestly, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Yet on the other hand, this is a time that follows a lengthy period of prayer and assessment on both sides. There’s been a time of meeting, sharing, testing the feel of a life together, and ultimately, a call extended and a call accepted.   

Now you are here. God willing, there are many years of ministry ahead of you. Not everything that needs to be addressed can be addressed at once. What is most important in the first two two years of life together? What comes first?

1. Relationships 
The first task is relational and organic. It takes time for one who has been selected as a spiritual leader to become the leader. There is no shortcut for the kind of relationship building that is the foundation of every healthy church. St. Paul, using an image from the natural world, writes of being grafted into the life of a community, as a seedling is grafted into a larger plant. You need time to get to know each other–as a congregation, you need to become accustomed to Meredith’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. She needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.

2. Gentle, Courageous Ministry Evaluation 
If only we could do nothing else in the first two years but get to know each other. But that’s only one of several first tasks. For it’s not as if you are a community on hiatus. Ministry is on-going: there are decisions to be made, priorities to set, budgets to manage. You need to be about that necessary work and yet also use the gift of this time for the second important set of tasks in this season: gentle, courageous ministry evaluation. 

In these first months and years, it’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision, where you’re paying attention as best you can to what’s happening and a larger sense of purpose and calling at the same time. One author on leadership defines this kind of vision as distinguishing what you see when you’re dancing on a dance floor from what you see from the balcony looking down at all the dancers, one of whom is you. The dance floor is his image for jumping right in together for the work at hand; the balcony for the kind of vision you see only from a distance, when you step back, even in part of your mind, as you’re still out there dancing. We need both perspectives, he says. In the first year or two of a new ministry, it’s especially important to both actively engage and save a little bit of time and energy for reflection and evaluation. (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002).)

A Methodist minister in Herndon, VA, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision, and that is to invoke what he calls the two most powerful words for leadership: So that. Those who learn to use these two words, he says, will discover a way to clarify the intended, fruitful outcome of every ministry endeavor. (Tom Berlin and Lovitt H. Weems, Jr, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2001))

There is a lot of biblical inspiration for this kind of thinking. Once you start looking for them, you see the words so that throughout the Bible:

“Let your light shine before others others” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

Let me give you a practical  example from one pastor’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School. He asked all those gathered to organize the upcoming summer’s VBS to complete the following sentence: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that….

At first very few people wrote anything at all, struggling to come up with the purpose of the Vacation Bible School. At last one person shared what she wrote: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that the children of our church will experience a vacation bible school.” “Are there other possibilities?” the pastor asked. Another chimed in: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will experience church as fun.” The pastor’s thought was, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.” After some time and deeper reflection the group came up with this: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.” (Story told in Bearing Fruit.)

That was a purpose they could get inspired to work to accomplish and invite others to join them. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated on the basis of fruitfulness: did the children of our church have an experience of love?  Were we able to reach children in the neighborhood? If not ,why not? What might we do better next time? For the purpose was no longer to have a vacation bible school. That was a means to end. If the means no longer served that end, they were free to consider something else. So that helps shift our focus from the activities of our church toward their intended outcome, one that can be measured in terms of fruitfulness.

3. Weathering a Storm 
The third task in the early season ministry is perhaps the hardest: weathering a storm together. I don’t know what the storm will be, and unless you’ve already experienced one, neither do you. But I know that one is coming, because they always do. There may well be more than one.  

Remember this: how we handle ourselves in a storm has a greater lasting impact than the storm itself. There’s no choice, when the storm comes, but to go through it, but if you can all keep in mind that how you handle yourself through it matters more than the storm itself, you will cultivate enough emotional space for needed prayer and reflection–and when the storm passes, because it will–for evaluation. What did we learn about each other? About ourselves? What mistakes did we make? How did Christ reveal himself to us in the storm? How might we plan for the future so as to avoid the conditions for that kind of storm to resurface?

4. Deepening Our Relationship with Christ 
There is one last task I’d like to mention, saving as it were, the best or most important for last:

In these early years, I urge you, as your bishop and friend, to devote yourselves to deepen your relationship with Christ and create at least one new avenue exclusively devoted to that endeavor in your common life. Please think as creatively and broadly as you can, so that as many people at St. James’ grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ as described so beautifully in the gospel text in your bulletins. I’m not talking about another evening class for your 10 most devoted attendees, but rather a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach that will reach as many of your community as possible.

I am persuaded that the future of St. James’, and all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and commitment to a deep, transformative encounter with God’s love as revealed to us through Christ. For without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. We create a church in our image, for our purposes, according to our preferences, rather than seeking to be his faithful witnesses and doing what he asks of us in this time and place.

I have all sorts of ideas about how to go about this, and there are others who can be of help. And surely the Holy Spirit is hard at work among you, placing this yearning in your hearts, and that all manner of ideas and possibilities are bubbling up within and among you. Pay attention to them. Give time and energy to them, so that you might draw closer to Christ, hear his unique call for each one of you and as a community, and have something of spiritual value to invite others to share.  And don’t imagine that you are doing this alone. We are all in this holy work together. Now is our time, so that the Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.

Let’s pray together: 
Loving God we are so grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of St. James’, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We also give thanks for Meredith–her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Meredith and the people of St. James’ to a place of deep trust and affection; help them to live into these first months and years with open and discerning hearts; be with them through whatever storms they might face, and through it all, in worship, study, retreat, service, times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.