Cell phones don't work well here, but the internet wireless gizmo in the main building keeps us connected to the outside world. But I must say, it is an odd sight to see a room full of clergy checking their Facebook pages on their laptops at a religious retreat center.
On Sunday and Monday I was part of a small group of diocesan lay leaders and clergy engaged in far-ranging conversation about the current state of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church and in the Diocese of Virginia. It was a candid and fascinating conversation and I felt privileged to be invited to be a part. We were very ably led in the discussions by the Rev. Susan Goff, the canon to the ordinary here in Virginia.
I was asked to participate as a member of the diocesan Committee on the Diaconate, which oversees the education and formation of those seeking ordination as vocational deacons. The vocational diaconate is very new to the Diocese of Virginia, and I was able to share my own experience with deacons on the West Coast (which is why I was asked to be in this conversation).
Our diaconate committee met with the diocesan Committee on the Priesthood, the Commission on Ministry, and the Board of Examining Chaplains, all of which have oversight on specific aspects of the ordination process. Everyone in the room had a different perspective on the topic of ordination, and my committee was asked to bring into focus the vocational diaconate as it might look in Virginia.
So far, no permanent deacons have been ordained in this diocese (we hope the first class will be ordained next year). It is a challenge for people in this diocese to picture what this third order of ordained ministry looks like without seeing it. We had a very healthy and fruitful discussion on the topic.
More broadly, we grappled with even bigger issues than a particular order of ministry. We talked extensively about the challenges facing the Church as it attempts to minister in a radically changing world. We talked about how well we are raising up, forming and educating ordained and lay church leaders for institutions that are undergoing tremendous change amidst a culture and society that is undergoing tremendous change.
We had to ask the hard questions: Do 1950s methods of education and formation meet the needs of the Church in 21st century? How can we adjust? How does our Episcopal tradition provide a useful structure for meeting the needs of ministry in this changing world? Where does the structure get in the way? How are the seminaries meeting these needs? How are the seminaries missing the mark?
We came to no firm answers, but many more questions. As it happens, next week I will be returning to my own seminary, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, as a member of the Alumni Board. Our conversations in Virginia will definitely inform the conversation with my seminary friends next week.
After these conversations concluded late Monday, our smaller group then joined the Fall clergy conference of the Diocese of Virginia, also here at Shrine Mont. The topic: Understanding and managing conflict and anxiety in our congregations, a rather pertinent topic for those of us who had been in the earlier discussions. We had to begin by looking at our own personal anxiety and times of conflict.
During the clergy conference, we heard presentations about family emotional systems theory, much of which I've heard before, but it is always helpful to gain a new perspective (and bring home a few new handouts). The emphasis was on how our explicit and implicit expectations combine with personal stories and our unwritten internal rule books to create emotional feelings and reactions. That is true for individuals and it is true for congregations.
Much of the wisdom we heart boiled down to this: Take a deep breath, and hit the pause button before reacting. Feelings are facts, feelings are real, but feelings don't always have to dictate how we react as individuals or as a group. We can't always manage how we feel, but we can manage how we act.
These have been very fruitful, fascinating and deep conversations, and I am grateful that St. Paul's has allowed me to be a part.