Benchmarking the parish

September 11, 2012



Phyllis Strupp

[Episcopal News Service] My deceased father, a D-day veteran, was a lifelong Roman Catholic who went to church every Sunday. He was not in the habit of discussing spiritual matters, but that changed during the church’s sexual abuse scandal. Religion became one of his favorite discussion topics. During one conversation, I asked him how he had reconciled his military service during World War II with the gospel’s teachings to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love your enemy.” His answer: “I was a young man, and I never gave it any thought. Nor did anyone mention it from the pulpit.”

My experience at our local parish in the aftermath of 9/11 was similar, in that nothing was said about the inconsistency between waging war and the gospel. Prayers for American soldiers were said, and names of loved ones serving in the armed forces showed up on the prayer list, but there were no prayers for the enemy. Even in personal conversations and education for ministry theological reflections, it was difficult to broach this subject without an eruption of fear and anger.

This raises the question of what type of spiritual engagement one should expect from a Christian community. Regardless of the denomination, we are all striving to follow the teachings of Jesus. Should the parish family be a place where the flock hears challenging views that generate conflict, or a place where the flock can find secure shelter from the storm of what’s going on in the world around us? Should we be discussing issues related to the upcoming presidential election, or avoiding the subject because Democrats and Republicans disagree?

Too much conflict generates instability, and too little conflict breeds complacency; both of these situations can have equally devastating effects on a parish’s sense of common mission. Unfortunately, this imbalance is often understood in hindsight, after destructive habits have suffocated the congregation’s spiritual vitality.

Parish life should be helping us develop spiritual maturity as followers of Christ. A persistent inability to speak about politics or other contentious topics is a symptom of weak spiritual formation around the teachings of Jesus. But political discussions are not the appropriate benchmark for a parish’s spiritual maturity.

If hope is the appropriate benchmark for the Episcopal Church (see Benchmarking the church), what is the secret ingredient that has to be cooking at the individual parishes to create the smell of hope in the denomination?

The answer to this question from psychology, neuroscience, or leadership gurus would be “wisdom.” Wisdom is the opposite of one-sided thinking and one-sided brain activity, the source of unmanageable conflicts. The ancient Greeks considered wisdom the root virtue of all other virtues. Positive psychology researchers have defined wisdom as the coordination of knowledge and experience to enhance social wellbeing. Wisdom enables balance between the affective and analytical realms, so that emotions are held in check and knowledge is made useful for the common good.

The Bible teaches us that there are two kinds of wisdom, worldly wisdom and divine wisdom, and they are very different, as Paul indicates in I Corinthians 1:25: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

Jesus had an abundance of both types of wisdom, making him as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove (Matthew 10:16). He understood that we don’t get wisdom of either type on our own. We must think for ourselves as well as listen to God speaking through others to have the fullness of wisdom that Jesus assures us we will have in a Christian community: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

Yet ultimately, wisdom is not evident from what goes on in our heads, according to Jesus in Matthew 11:19: “But wisdom is proved right by her actions.”

If theologies, creeds and beliefs cannot be converted into wise actions, they might be doing more harm than good in the parish. Do clergy and lay leaders act in wise ways? Can they speak the truth and hear it? Is there a feeling of trust in the parish and confidence during challenging times? Is the parish known for its faithful actions in the community?

A parish with wisdom should be like an oyster, turning grains of irritation into beautiful pearls of wisdom that are seen in actions of service to others.

— Phyllis Strupp is the author of Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum and the author of The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert.


Statements and opinions expressed in the articles and communications herein, are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of Episcopal News Service or the Episcopal Church.

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