Jimmy Owen was the only real cowboy in my parish. I came to Texas with thoughts of prairies, rolling sagebrush, and cattle, with a little oil on the side. However most of my parishioners were bankers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses and other white collar sorts. But there was one honest-to-God cowboy, Jimmy Owen.
Jimmy was a cattleman in the best Texas tradition. He was, in fact, the president at one time of the Texas Cattleman’s Association, a sign I’ve seen on ranches across Texas. Jimmy had heard that I was a horseman, and invited me to come to his ranch to ride. He put me on a cutting horse, which is one of the more athletic horses in the stable. They are trained to “cut” quickly from side to side, in order to pen in cattle, and cut them out from the herd for various procedures, mostly medical. I had heard of cutting horses, seen them perform, but never ridden one. As the horse was showing me his skill, he cut so quickly to the right, leaving me mid-air, like one of those cartoon characters that hang for 2-3 seconds before plummeting into the canyon. That would be me. Jimmy laughed pretty hard as I lay crumpled in the Texas dirt of the ring.
Jimmy is the star of my story that I want to share with you today. He was an early favorite of mine, reminding me of my grandfather, both in his physical build, the way he carried himself, and his speech patterns. I loved Jimmy and walked with him through battle with brain cancer and his death. I loved him, in spite of his conspiracy to put me on his quickest cutting horse.
After my third year in Tyler at Christ Church, we noticed a number of changes in the lay of the land. I decided to be explicit about those changes with the Vestry, the board of lay people that are the ruling body of the parish. There are usually 10 to 20 members on a Vestry, depending on the size of the parish and the bylaws. They pass the budget yearly, monitor it, and provide some direction for the programing. In small parishes, Vestry members are assigned to various ministries and provide some direct oversight with those committees. In some parishes, they serve as de facto staff members. In larger parishes with staff members, the Vestry has more of a strategic position and serve as fiduciary overseers of the budget and expenditures. It’s the medium sized parish that sometimes gets this confused, particularly when a small parish is experiencing the “high class problem” of growing, as Vestry member need to relinquish their “hands on” management of the day-to-day work. This confusion of roll can result in conflict.
At Christ Church, Tyler, the Vestry was clearly in the second function. In light of that, I decided to review strategically the direction of the parish and the changes that had occurred since my arrival as the Rector.
I began the meeting by asking the Vestry to list the positive things that have occurred in the past three years. I had two easels with newsprint in order to record their answers. The positives were easy, as they recounted the number of educational opportunities, the increase in excellent staff members, the careful precision of our worship planning, the excellence of our music, along with a number of other specific positive notes. I was feeling good about the quick and enthusiastic responses, and the various positive notes that I recorded in green.
I then moved to the other easel and invited them to share some negative things that they perceived. Being more Southern than Texas, they were reserved in their willingness to be negative. Such a thing is just not done in polite company. You only said negative, catty things in the parking lot, not in the library in a formal meeting. After some chiding, Jimmy decided to blaze the trail into the negative territory. He did it in his distinctive Texas drawl.
“David, I’ve been a member of Christ Church for a long time,” he said, looking around the room for approval of this fact, which nodding heads affirmed, vetting him as having the street cred to comment authoritatively.
“For a long time, I could sit in my pew and look at the doors at the back and the front, watching people as they came in the church house. I knew almost everybody. I knew who they were connected to, their family, their grandparents, hell, even some great grandparents. This is a big family. We knew each other and we cared for each other.” The continuing of nodding heads gave him the encouragement he needed. He was clearly articulating the spirit of Christ Church which was a tight community of connection.
“But….” There’s always a “but”. Sometimes, there’s a BIG “but”. This was one of those “big but” times.
“But….nowadays, I don’t know half the people coming through those doors. I don’t know where they are from, what they do, and who they are.” And to add a little East Texas humor, “And, I sure as hell don’t know their grandmother!”
Laughter, and then he got down to business, as they say.
“I liked it better when I knew everybody. I don’t like seeing all these strangers coming in, people I don’t know, people who don’t look like they belong here. They dress differently, they just don’t seem to fit.” And Jimmy was spot on in his description.
Our efforts to reach out to a broad swath of Tyler with use of media, television, radio, and print had positioned Christ Church as invitatory, open to new people to come and join us. We also had initiated a well-planned and resourced small group ministry that formed intentional communities that reached out to friends of our members who were unchurched in an effort to meet their needs for community and spirituality. As result of this two-fold strategy, the composition of our congregation was clearly changing demographically and rapidly.
There were “new” people, that is, people who were not biologically connected. But, there were also “different” people that did not fit the description given of Christ Church by the former Bishop of Texas as I considered becoming the Rector. When I asked the bishop his “impression” of Christ Church, he mater-of-factly declared, in not a negative tone, “It’s the country club at prayer. The rector is chaplain to the country club” Now, in time, I learned that was NOT true, but it did capture a piece of the truth, enough that was troubling to me.
That image of a “club” based on social connection, not commitment was problematic. That’s why I pushed the notion of “growth” which was new to Christ Church. It was a goal prescribed by Jesus as he called us to spread the Good News of Christ. But, it was also a practical goal that was necessary, given the economics of running a top quality program in the face of declining oil and gas prices, and the aging of the major givers. So, it was actually not hard to sell the Vestry on the idea, the goal of growth. They had bought in on paper, but now, the bill was coming due.
“I no longer know the people who are worshipping with me. I used to know most everybody. Now, I don’t.”
And after a pause, filled with silence, Jimmy added, “And, I don’t much like it.” he said matter of factly.
The room was still. I was wondering what I should say. How should I approach this call of the question. And then, I began to speak, without really any premeditation, other than a few years of prayer about this topic, which was sort of new to me as well. I had been familiar with my individual prayer, devotion and meditation around my personal spiritual growth. But only since coming to Tyler had my prayer expanded, not only to my parish, but now I prayed for my city.
‘”Well, I guess it depends if we want you to be comfortable, or if we want to do what Jesus told us to do.”
What followed was the best example of what is known as a “pregnant pause”. It seemed to last for hours but was, in fact, only a few seconds. I remember being caught by a feeling of “where did that come from?” with a simultaneous thought that I had stepped over the proverbial line. I recall that some people who had been looking at me intently, suddenly were averting their eyes. Not a good sign.
Then, almost like a rumble of thunder that follows lightning, Jimmy said, ” I get it.” and he did.
It was one of those exceedingly rare moments in parish ministry when revelation occurs. It can not be programmed, diagramed, put on a PowerPoint slide. It is tantalizingly out of our attempt at control. It just happens. Like God’s Spirit, that is described in the book of Acts, it comes and goes where it will. This simply drives program-oriented ministers crazy. It bedevils Christian education experts, although I know one who relishes it when it happens in a flash. It is simply beyond our control.
That moment became a moment of paradigm shift within the leadership group of the parish. It would take longer for other people to “get it”, and some never did, languishing for the good ole days, “the way we were”. That however is the work of leadership in the parish. Sowing the seeds, doing the homework, planning the structures, but it comes down finally to the Spirit that resides in community.
At one time in my life, that was not good news. I wanted to design, plan, and execute with predictable results. That’s how I was trained, how I was wired in my family of origin. But living in the parish world knocked that right out of me. While I was able to apply my method to organizing and accomplishing the pastoral care of the 5000 communicants of the Cathedral parish, this East Texas parish taught me just what I couldn’t do on my own, in my cleverness. Parishes, and their resistance to change, to leave comfort for a mission that will entail suffering, can and did bring me to my knees, physically and metaphorically.
I love telling this story to the priests and ministers that I coach. It’s one moment of a win, but there are many more of my sitting, head in my hands, tears streaming, wondering why it did not work out. That’s the challenge. To lead people who want to do right….just not right now (props to Gillian Welsh). It’s the challenging work of leading a group of people who want to serve a mission that is daunting, if you have any sense to recognize the challenge. And it has become my privilege to overhear the struggle of ministers, priests, and bishops who are trying to lean into this art and science of leadership. This story tips the hand to the reality of the situation: you are dependent on a Spirit that is not controlled by you.
As I get older, I seem to notice a transformation of my mind, spirit, and soul, that is more comfortable with that truth. It does not mean that I will lose my passion for analysis and planning, but that I am more able to let go, and let what happens, happen. So, to close on this surgery of an experience, is it the hard work of human intention OR is it the seemingly capricious, uncontrollable movement of the Spirit?
And the answer is YES.
Do your homework AND trust the Spirit for the outcome.
Blessings in this season of Lent.