The First Season of Ministry – Celebration and Installation at All Souls

by | May 18, 2024

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Isaiah 61:1-4

Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16

Jesus said to his disciples, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” 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.
John 15:1-8

Good morning, friends of All Souls Church!

I love celebrations of a new season of ministry, for they are among the happiest occasions in the life of a congregation, and by extension, for the entire diocese. The joy is palpable, especially if the journey of transition has been long.

Thus I begin by giving thanks to God for the steady, clear-eyed, and ever-hopeful lay leaders of All Souls. At considerable cost to yourselves, you would not let go of the essential goodness of this congregation and your firm persuasion that God was guiding you to a preferred future. We in your diocesan family are in awe of you, and we overjoyed that Sara Palmer has come to be your spiritual leader.

Sara Palmer—how is it that we are so blessed to have found you? In the first months of your ministry at All Souls and as a priest in this diocese, you have brought joy, energy, confidence in Christ’s love and the possibilities for this community of faith. Thank you for saying yes and for jumping in so whole-heartedly.

As I pondered what I might say today by way of encouragement, my first thought was simply to lift up each of the Scripture passages we’ve just heard. For what more is there to say after Jesus’ invitation to abide in him, to find our home in him, and to trust we are already as close to him as branches are from the vine from which they have grown. And to ponder, as the passage from Ephesians encourages us to do, our innate giftedness and that when we join our gifts together the body grows stronger. And to remember that we follow a Saviour who saw himself in the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah as one sent to proclaim Good News to those who need it most, to set free those in every kind of bondage. In following him we have the potential to be like trees with sturdy roots, called to repair the devastations of ruined cities.

In this season of new ministry, imagine what would happen if you read these three passages aloud every time you gather, listening for how Christ might speak to you through these powerful words. What would change, do you suppose, in your perspective, in your sense of what’s important, in your orientation toward Christ and the Holy Spirit? What word or phrase might take on particular meaning when you are discerning the next faithful step, or are faced with a challenging situation?

You might try it.

In the thirteen years I’ve served as bishop, nearly every congregation in the diocese has gone through a clergy transition—some more than one, including All Souls. While each congregation is distinct and the context in which those transitions occur are very different, I’ve observed that there are a few universal principles. For example, there are essential spiritual, relational, and leadership tasks in the first season, a period of time usually lasting somewhere between one and two years. If these tasks are tended to well, the congregation has a solid foundation from which to move forward. If they are neglected, or passed over too quickly, the lack of foundation has an adverse effect on nearly everything else that follows.

I daresay you already know what these tasks are, but let me say them anyway. No doubt there are other tasks other than the four I’ll mention. As they occur to you, add them to the list.

 

Task Number One: Building Relationships (no surprise there)

It takes time for one who has been selected as a spiritual leader to become the spiritual leader, to earn the role that has been bestowed. There is no shortcut for the kind of relationship tending that is the foundation of every healthy church. The Apostle Paul uses an image in his letter to the Romans of a branch being grafted into a tree, and it’s like. That process takes time, as you become accustomed to Mother Sara’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. She, in time, comes to know and love you for who you are, and determines how best to lead.

As with any new relationship, the phenomenon of projection is at play—the tendency to see another person, or a group of people, through the lens of our assumptions and hopes. We can’t avoid projections, but it’s good to remember that they are only partially accurate. Thus we do well to maintain a posture of curiosity with one another, and as Canon Robert Phillips would say, lots of space for grace. For there’s bound to be a tiny bit of let down as time goes on, and then, by grace, a deepening commitment to one another rooted in the kind of love that is patient and kind; that bears all things, believes all things, endures all things, and hopes all things.

It is also a time when clarifying expectations is important, and over-communicating those expectations with one another, so as to close the gap between what we assume the other person knows, or should know, and what in fact they do. Managing expectations is much easier when you jointly establish priorities, because no church community, or church leader, can tend to all that needs to be done all at once.

Which brings me to…

 

Task Number Two: Taking Stock, with Gentle and Courageous Evaluation

If only you could do nothing else but get to know each other in this first season! But your ministry is not on hiatus. There are decisions to make, plans to put into action, budgets to manage. The days are full, but the second task asks that in the back of your mind, you can keep a bit of energy for asking the why question as you go about doing what you do.

Sara can’t help but do this, because she sees with new eyes what those of you who have been here for years have become accustomed to. That is a gift to harness in this first season; it’s what one author calls “Rookie Smarts”—all that’s fresh in a person’s mind in the first year. There’s also a lot that she doesn’t see, and which makes it a fruitful time for you to talk openly about not only what you do but why you do it.

Tom Berlin is a bishop in the United Methodist Church. Before becoming bishop, he served a congregation in Herndon, Virginia for many years, and he wrote a number of very practical books about church life. In one of them, entitled Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results, he suggests a method for this process of taking stock and gentle evaluation. It couldn’t be more simple—all it takes is to add one simple phrase into our common vocabulary: 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.1

Here’s an example from Tom Berlin’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School. In his first year as pastor he asked all those at the first planning session to complete the following sentence: “Next summer our church will have a vacation church school so that….”

Complete silence. At last, one person spoke up: “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 any other possibilities?” Tom asked. Another said: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that children will experience church as fun.” Tom responded, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.”

With 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.”

That was a purpose they could be inspired by, get excited working toward and inviting others to join. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated by a standard 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?

The purpose wasn’t to have a vacation bible school. Vacation bible school was a means to a greater purpose. If it no longer fulfilled that purpose they were free to consider something else. The focus became less about the activity but the outcome.

 

Task Number Three: Weathering a Storm

This is the hardest task, one that we’d rather avoid, but it’s inevitable. 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. The storm could be a crisis coming to you from outside your community; more likely it will be the result of a misstep or mistake on your part, a classic self-inflicted wound. It could be something that on the surface seems like no big deal, but somehow touches a nerve, a vulnerable part of the community that sets in motion a series of hurtful exchanges that you later come to regret.

Here’s the thing to remember: how we handle ourselves in a storm has a greater lasting impact than the storm itself while you’re going through it. There’s no choice, when the storm comes, but to go through it. But if you can keep in your mind that that’s what you’re doing, even that tiny bit of awareness can help create enough distance for prayer and reflection. It will also encourage, when the storm passes (for it will pass) a post-storm 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 have we grown?

 

Task Number Four: Drawing Closer to Christ

The last and most important task of this first season harkens back to our Gospel text for today: to deepen your with Christ. I cannot urge you strongly enough to create at least one new avenue devoted to helping one another grow spiritually, and think as broadly as you can about that, so that as many people as possible at All Souls have the opportunity to go deeper in faith. Identify something that can engage and signal to the people in your community that growing in faith and love is what being part of a church is all about. Because as one wise spiritual leader, Evelyn Underhill, once reminded the Archbishop of Canterbury, “God is the most interesting thing about us.”

I suspect that the Holy Spirit has already planted ideas and possibilities 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.

I am persuaded that the future of All Souls, and all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and deeper experience of God’s love in Christ. Without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. Without it, we create a church in our image, according to our preferences, rather than open ourselves to the call of Christ to join in his redeeming work. But know that you needn’t do this alone. We are all in this holy work together, so that The Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.

Will you pray with me?

Loving God, we are grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of All Souls, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We thank you for Sara, for her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Sara and the people of All Souls with your grace. Help them to embrace this first season of ministry with open and discerning hearts; be with them through whatever storms they might face, and through all that they do in worship, study, service, and times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.

1Tom Berlin and Lovitt H. Weems, Jr., Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2001