Changing the culture of mainline worship

February 27, 2011

Mainline Protestant churches live in a time when the modes of church life that succeeded during the post-World War II years no longer work. As I reflect upon this fact, especially in reference to worship assemblies, it is clear that the basic culture of what we do on Sundays has to be transformed.

But how can this be done. For me, part of the answer comes from a book I read more than a decade ago, Ronald Heiftz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers.

The author’s purpose is to provide “a practical philosophy of leadership—an orienting set of questions and options for confronting the hardest of problems without getting killed, badly wounded, or pushed aside.”

Leadership is an activity, namely mobilizing people to do adaptive work, by which Heifetz means “the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face” (22). Adaptive work “requires a change in values, beliefs, or behavior. The exposure and orchestration of conflict–internal contradictions–within individuals and constituencies provide the leverage for mobilizing people to learn new ways” (p. 22).

Tackling tough problems, Heifetz declares, is the purpose of leadership; getting work done is its essence.

When situations change, churches (and other organizations) lose their equilibrium. Something has to be done, and three responses are possible. 1) The church’s normal processes can generate a course of action that restores equilibrium and solves the problem. 2) This response may temporarily restore equilibrium but fail to solve the problem. 3) The attempted response doesn’t work, and the organization mobilizes “to produce a new adaptation sufficient to meet the challenge” (adapted from p. 36).

For this third response to take place—for the adaptive challenge to be met—the deeper issues have to be brought to the surface and new solutions developed. Most important, the dissonance between traditional values and the new cultural reality has to be resolved. Then a period of new strength and effectiveness can arise.

There are four tasks: 1) Identify the adaptive challenge. 2) Regulate the level of distress by pacing the rate of encounter with the challenge and providing structure for dealing with it. 3) Focus attention upon the relevant issues and keep the organization from avoiding the work that has to be done to solve the problems. 4) Shift responsibility to the major stakeholders of the organization (99, 100; see also 138-144).

An especially interesting aspect of these tasks of leadership is “the ripening of the issues.” Heifetz states that skilled leaders keep their constituents focused upon what really is important until such time as the questions or challenges are ready to be addressed. Then it is possible to solve them in ways that have the chance of being permanent.

Adaptive leadership, Heifetz acknowledges, is lonely because the leaders—whether pastors, musicians, or laity—have to “take responsibility for the holding environment of the enterprise. They themselves are not expected to be held.”  “Shouldering the pains and uncertainties of an institution particularly in times of distress comes with the job of authority. It can only be avoided at the institution’s peril” (250-251). Heifetz offers these suggestions for meeting the challenge.

1) Get on the balcony, which means giving sufficient attention to the reflective side of leadership. Leaders must participate and observe, and by that observation see and interpret the patterns that are developing among the other participants.

2) Distinguish self from role. Heifetz believes that most of the responses that come to leaders come to the role rather than the person; yet many people respond by taking things personally. The resulting actions increase the stress of the leader and lessen the possibilities of solving the problems.

3) Externalize the conflict by keeping the discussion focused on the issues rather than on the self.

4) Find partners. Some will be confidants, people with whom one can cry and complain, who thus “provide a holding environment for someone who is busy holding everybody else” (269).

5) Listen and watch one’s own actions and responses; and gain help from others in monitoring and correcting one’s participation in the enterprise.

6) Find a sanctuary. Leadership demands both “a strategy of mobilizing people” and “of deploying and restoring one’s own spiritual resources” (274).

7) Preserve a sense of purpose, “the capacity to find the values that make risk-taking meaningful” (274). This capacity enables a leader and the people of the organization to develop the specific purposes that their organization needs.

In future columns I plan to describe the adaptive challenge concerning worship that mainline Protestant churches face and to suggest how leaders can assist their congregations to respond creatively and effectively.

A one-legged bike ride from Edinburgh to London

February 24, 2011

As he bicycled across Great Britain, twenty-four year old Winfred E. Garrison had to make a decision. He had four and a half days to make it to London when a crank arm broke. The replacement sent in response to his urgent request wouldn’t fit. The next day, when he got one that would work, one of his pedals broke. Of course, he could have taken a train the rest of the trip, but to do so went against his principles.

So what did he do? He bicycled one-leggedly most of the way. On two of the days thus impaired he still was able to do full century rides–100 miles per day. Furthermore, he still had time to do some sightseeing in some of the most interesting ancient buildings anywhere on his 3,000 mile excursion. Who among us could come close to matching his achievement?

Garrison lived to be 94 years of age. Because of health challenges when he was thirty-one years of age, he moved to New Mexico and took up horseback riding. I don’t know if he abandoned bicycles during the southwestern period of his life. The portrait shown above comes from the later years of his life as religious historian.

The one-legged narrative is part of the last chapter in Garrison’s account of his 3,000 mile trip through England, Scotland, and Wales. Here’s how the chapter begins:

“It had long ago been decided that London should be the terminus of this bicycle trip, and Friday noon had been fixed upon as the last possible moment for reaching that goal. Leaving Edinburgh with four hundred and forty miles to go and four days and a half in which to do it, this final section of the tour necessarily degenerated into something of a race against time. But if one must hurry, this is the best place in England to do it, for the roads are level and, although it is an interesting ride, there are comparatively few points of picturesque or historic interest which absolutely demand that the traveler shall linger long in contemplation.

“Perhaps the most attractive spot on the route is that bit of Scottish borderland which contains, within a few miles, the galaxy of Abbottsford, Melrose and Dryburgh Abbey. The present proprietors of Walter Scott’s home, Abbottsford, have devised a most ingenious system for exhibiting to the visitor just those few rooms which they care to exhibit and shooting him out again into the road, admiring but dissatisfied. But at Melrose one may pause and muse and meditate to his heart’s content upon the most beautiful ruin in Scotland.”

Read more: The East Side of England

Shakespeare’s England

February 17, 2011

Early in his  bicycle tour of England, Scotland, and Wales, twenty-four year old Winfred E. Garrison exhibited some of the qualities that make his 1898 travelogue so interesting even now, more than a century later. He knew how to select just the right amount of detail to convey the spirit of places that he visited. With deft phrasing, he gave hints about the routines of travel and the peculiarities of touring Great Britain by bicycle.

Garrison was interested in the history of the places he visited, especially the great figures of literature, art, and religion. Some of his description must have come from his travel guide–“my faithful friend, Baedeker”–but even more must have come from a mind already well stocked with the great tradition of the Western World. In today’s chapter from his book Wheeling Through Europe (published in 1900) dramatist William Shakespeare and pre-Reformation theologian John Wycliffe (Garrison spelled the name Wiclif) are the heroes. The first few lines of his chapter “Shakespeare’s England” follow below.

“For the Shakespeare-loving pilgrim, who has made Stratford-on-Avon the center of his daily thoughts and nightly dreams from the day when he first stepped upon British soil, there may possibly be disappointment in store when he finds himself in the midst of the actual Stratford. Here one instinctively demands a more distinct flavor of antiquity than elsewhere,—more of the England of three centuries ago, more of Elizabethan gaiety and splendor and riotousness. In fact, you expect to find the supreme embodiment of Shakespeare’s England,—and you do not find it.”

To read more, click …  Shakespeare’s England

Even when you don’t know what to say, something has to be said

February 14, 2011

During a recent clergy conference, one of the participants told of attending worship on a Sunday immediately after a shattering natural catastrophe had taken place. During the service, nothing had been said about the event even though it had dominated every news outlet for several days.

Afterwards the visitor asked the pastor, “Why didn’t you say something about it?” The answer was, “I didn’t know what to say.”

During the ensuing conversation, most of the clergy in the conference agreed that this response wouldn’t do. What one person said seemed to sum up the point of view:“Even when you don’t know what to say, something has to be said.”

One person repeated a line he had heard somewhere: “Every siren is a call to prayer.” Someone else said that when people come to church with minds and hearts full of the momentous event—whether tragic or magnificent—they can’t deal with anything else until this preoccupation is acknowledged and somehow brought into the scope of the Word from God and their words (in prayer) to God.

“What people need on these occasions,” another speaker proposed, “are anchors and rituals, anchors to hold them steady and rituals to provide ways to respond to how they feel and what they think.”

“These occasions can be teaching opportunities,” another pastor suggested, and she then told us what she had done on the Sunday following the beginning of the demonstrations in Cairo. It was the season of Epiphany and she vaguely recalled having read some place that the celebration of Epiphany had started in Egypt. She quickly followed up on this recollection, prepared a brief summary of that history, and added some sentences about the history, strength, and character of the Christian community in Egypt.” Later in the service, the prayers included specific references to this event that was dominating world attention.

One aspect of this conversation that should be noted is that no one advocated that the pastor take a stand for or against the events whatever they might be. Although we did not discuss this topic, some reasons can be given for holding back from giving evaluative comments.

When events are rapidly developing, with many details unknown, and the further trajectory completely unpredictable, what seems right and true at one moment may be demonstrated to be false at the next. Furthermore, serious Christians with good knowledge of the events and solid theological understandings, may differ in their evaluation.

There are church settings—such as forums at other times—when all points of view can be brought forward and discussed. During worship, however, this give and take is hard to do. Therefore, acknowledgements, interpretations, and prayers need to be couched in ways that can be understood and affirmed by most congregants. Let expressions of opinion be encouraged in settings where debate can occur.

One generalization from this conversation also applies to worship on all Sundays, even when nothing special has happened in previous days. One of the pastors declared that  “faith always is lived in specific contexts, and therefore sermons, prayers, and everything else in the liturgy is affected by what’s happening in the world outside of the sanctuary.”

One way for worship to be alive, sermons helpful, and prayers heart-felt and spirit-filled is for this interaction of faith and context to be at work in every service of Christian worship.

Into the Heart of England: an 1898 travel story

February 11, 2011

When Winfred E. Garrison bicycled across Great Britain and central Europe more than a hundred years ago, what were the roads like? How much did his bicycle weigh? How far could he travel in a typical day? What did he wear? Was it safe to bicycle through those parts of the world? Was he the man who disappeared during a round-the-world trip and was never heard from again? These are some of the questions that people have raised after reading my first post from Garrison’s 1900 book, Wheeling Through Europe.

The last question is easy to answer. No, he was not the man who disappeared. Garrison lived a long and fruitful life as church historian, with most of his career at the University of Chicago. He died in 1969 at age 94. The lost cyclist was Frank Lenz of Pittsburgh, who started his trip in 1892, six years before Garrison’s summer in Great Britain. Lenz’s story has recently been recounted, in full detail and with many pictures, by David V. Herlihy in The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance.

The other questions are more difficult to answer, largely because Garrison gives little information about these matters. He offers hints about his “wheel” (its color, for instance–green–and the fact that he had pneumatic tires), the roads traveled, his clothes, and how far he would go in a day, but the information is sketchy. He is more interested in the character and mood of the journey than in the external details of the journey.

Information about these matters can be gleaned from other sources, such as Archibald Sharp’s 1896 book Bicycles & Tricycles: An Elementary Treatise on Their Design and Construction reprinted in 1977 by MIT Press). In later posts I may add notes derived from this compendium of technical information about the development and functional characteristics of bicycles during the decade that Garrison made his trips.

Garrison and his friend arrived in Liverpool during a prolonged rain storm, but they started out that very day, following their rule that everything was to be enjoyed. Here are the first few lines of  his first chapter, “Into the Heart of England.”

“A rainy Sunday at sea, a rainy Monday off the north coast of Ireland, and then we land at Liverpool on a rainy Tuesday morning. The immediate outlook for cycling is not brilliant, but one of the rules already laid down is that everything is to be enjoyed. Remembering this, we comment upon the beauty of all rain, and the special beauty of this particular shower. Then we go out and get wet in it. It seems rather an ominous indication of a moist climate that nearly every other shop on the first street we ascend displays waterproof goods in the windows.

“It seems as if half the population earned its living by keeping the other half dry. I have since learned that this is a slight overestimate of the importance of the mackintosh industry in England, but my conviction of its magnitude remains. In the course of a nine weeks’ tour in any civilized land one is sure to have a variety of weather, and some of it wet. If we start with the worst, the next change must be for the better. On the basis of such sage considerations as these we determined to make the start at once. Mounting our wheels early in the afternoon we rode out of Liverpool in a torrent of rain, and down the road toward Manchester.”

To read the full story, click here:  Into the Heart of England

When events trump sermon and liturgy. . . .

February 7, 2011

When world-shaking events occur, what should be the response of pastors and other worship leaders? Should these occurrences affect what is said and done in worship? Or is the purpose of preaching and liturgical action shaped by the long vision of the holy commonwealth of God that lies somewhere beyond history, beyond the swirl of events that so often dominate our attention?

Although I have often thought about this question, it came to mind again with special vigor on the Sunday immediately following the shooting in Tucson. By the time this event hit the news, most church bulletins had already been printed, and most prayers and sermons were close to being completed. There was little time to change the plan for worship the very next day after the terrible events.

This tragic occurrence had riveted the attention of the American people. It can easily be assumed that most people who came to worship the next day had spent time watching reports and that they were still thinking about Tucson more than they were thinking about an idyllic world promised to come beyond the current sweep of historical time.

What should happen in Sunday worship when events are so powerful that they seem to trump lectionary, sermon, calendar, and prayers? Here are some possibilities, some of which I like better than others:

Ignore the events and continue with what had already been planned. After all, we have no evidence that Jesus used his prayers and sermons as occasions for dealing with the crises of his time. Many people look upon church as a place of respite from the pressures of life in the world. For their sakes, this position goes, it is doing them a positive service to maintain a clear separation between the world and worship. This is the one position which I find unsatisfactory, with little to be said in its favor.

Acknowledge the events and then continue according to what had already been set up. This can be done with a brief acknowledgement and prayer during the early moments of worship, prior to the sermon, or as part of the prayers of the people. While the rest of the service may continue unchanged, preacher and worship leaders express their empathy with all who come with troubled minds and hearts. This most approach allows them to consider a fuller approach some other Sunday.

Editorialize, either on that Sunday or on another one soon afterwards. Following the Tucson event, the media (both public and private) were dominated by commentary representing a wide political spectrum. One could anticipate what the politically slanted talking heads and print pundits would say. It is easy for church leaders to do the same—speak in politically charged manner—especially when preachers are convinced that the pulpit is theirs to use in any way they choose and when they are convinced that “prophetic preaching” is a mark of maturity and Christian responsibility. This is another course of action that I question.

Offer the event and its many facets to God in the principle prayers of a service. The biblical Psalms are the most prayer-like portions of the entire Bible. Many of them refer to trials, tribulations, and terrors that distress the persons whose prayers are the basis of these classic prayer texts. The names of rulers and the details of the events have disappeared, but the broader sense of these events continues and they are offered to God, with laments, words of thanksgiving, and petitions for redress and justice. So, too, it can be in worship today.

Transcend the event by placing it in a larger framework of Christian faith and theological principle. Preachers have the opportunity to help their congregants understand the immediate moment in the larger framework of time and destiny. Long ago, when I was a young preacher recently out of seminary, an essay in the Christian Century made the point that churches could be a center of stability and hope because their perspective was longer and grander than the immediate swirl of events. Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus could speak so courageously, drawing large numbers of people around him. He helped them anticipate a world in which people would live beyond the turmoil and tears that they were experiencing. His words gave them hope and helped them cope with distressing conditions.

But should preachers take stands? Should they speak out on propositions and proposed legislation? Should they make it clear, by veiled comments even if they have to avoid endorsing candidates by name, who they think Christians should vote for? By what authority do they speak? Are there theological, liturgical, or institutional guidelines within which they have to do their work? And if they do, when do congregants, the people who have to keep quiet and take it, have their chance to talk back?

Stay tuned.

Wheeling Through Europe in 1898

February 3, 2011

In the summer of 1898, Winfred Ernest Garrison was twenty-four years old, single, and the possessor of a newly minted PhD degree from the newly minted University of Chicago. In the fall he was to begin his teaching career at Butler University in Indianapolis. Rather than scramble to make a few dollars that summer or prepare for his classes, he and a friend bicycled through England, Scotland, and Wales, 3,018 miles in sixty-eight days. The next summer he took another bicycle vacation (his word), this time in central Europe, 3,132 miles which he describes as “a trip from Rotterdam to Berlin by way of Naples.”

Garrison had an advantage over most twenty-something cyclists. His father was owner-publisher-editor of a weekly magazine that published news and opinion distributed to church-going people across the nation.

He also ran a book-publishing enterprise. Justly proud of his son’s budding literary talents, Dad (J.H.) Garrison published the young wheelman’s smoothly written dispatches in his magazine and in 1900 gathered these accounts—“casual papers,” Winfred called them—into a book entitled Wheeling Through Europe.

Earlier that same year, again thanks to dad’s publishing company, the young historian had published The Theology of Alexander Campbell, a not-so-casual book based on his Chicago dissertation. Still teaching in Indianapolis, he also married Annie Dye. It was a good year for the young historian.

In his book, Garrison does not describe how he became such a committed cyclist. The sport was in its first decade of widespread popularity since the main characteristics of the “safety bicycle,” including the equal-sized wheels, chain drive, and pneumatic tires, had just been developed. Bicycles were expensive, costing the equivalent of several months salary for working people, and social customs related to cycling were still being formed.

It may be that Garrison had taken up cycling as part of his university way of life. In A Social History of the Bicycle Robert A. Smith reports that John D. Rockefeller inspected the campus of the Chicago university he had so richly endowed with its president William Rainey Harper “and a covey of professors, all awheel.” He notes that Amos Alonzo Stagg “beat out the millionaire in a short sprint,” and that the Chicago Tribute “called on President Harper to challenge President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard to a bicycle race to establish the academic supremacy of the two institutions.”

Wherever it was that he learned to be a cyclist, Garrison’s book makes it clear that he was accomplished in the activity, fully capable of cycling a hundred miles a day when the situation demanded and able to deal with various mechanical challenges at a time when bicycles were still new to large numbers of people. His book also shows that even in his early twenties, he was already well versed in literature, art, religion, and history. His book is a delight to read because of its descriptive detail of Great Britain and the continent more than a century ago and because of the way it reveals what cycling was like in its earliest days.

As could be expected of a book published more than a century ago, Wheeling Through Europe is hard to come by. I know of copies in Indianapolis, Nashville, Tennessee, Claremont, California, and Eugene, Oregon. Through the courtesy of the Interlibrary Loan Services of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District, I have been able to access the copy held by the University of Oregon. It is gratifying to know that long before I combined my interests in religious history with a love of bicycling one of America’s most distinguished church historians had already made a similar connection.

Because Garrison’s dispatches are so interesting and his book is so rare, I am projecting a series of postings scanned from this early account of bicycle travel. Although these accounts are more than a century old, there is much about them that can instruct and inspire cyclists of our own time.

Garrison introduced his book with a report written while on board the steamer to London. He entitles the chapter “About Bicycle Touring.” To read his captivating account, click About Bicycle Touring.