I had the privilege of participating in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sponsored by St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City – May 17 – 27, 2023. I also had the pleasure of sharing this powerful experience with my son David who is the rector of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX. There were 24 of us on this trip led by Bishop Dean Wolfe, Rector of St. Bart’s and our local tour guides, Canon Iyad Qumri and Rami Qumri. Iyad and Rami are Palestinian Christians with an extensive background and knowledge about the history, culture, geography, architecture, and politics of one of the most sacred and volatile places on earth. In addition to their knowledge and experience, Iyad and Rami also shared their personal stories and struggles of what it means to be Palestinian living in the modern state of Israel. We learned that the number of Christians in the Holy Land has declined precipitously over the last several years representing only about 2 percent of the total population. Many Palestinian Christians have left the area because of the political turmoil and the unrelenting restrictions on their personal liberties.
Like most people, I have some bad habits. Some of them are lifestyle related, but many of them are more behavioral in nature – how I react to stress, anger, conflict, hurt, and even disagreement. In these situations, my tendency is to either lash out aggressively or totally withdraw within, even with those I love the most. As I get older, I have been better able to control these impulses, or at least realize when they’re happening, but they are still there under the surface. I have also come to appreciate that these tendencies not only interfere with my interpersonal relationships, but, more importantly, impede my ability to be my true self as God intends me to be. In other words, I often pursue death-like approaches instead of seeking life-giving alternatives.
I’m not a big fan of January. Ever since I was a child, January has been my least favorite month of the year. I’m not quite sure why. I guess it has something to do with the weather and the general let-down that comes after the Christmas holidays. My father always insisted on taking down the Christmas tree on New Year’s Day which I found rather depressing. As an adult married couple, my wife and I much prefer to wait until January 6th or beyond to perform this least favorite task of the year. I am even intrigued by those cultures and traditions that keep the tree up until February 2, Candlemas Day but imagine the pine needles that would have to be cleaned up. Maybe my problem with January is also the frustration about New Year’s resolutions that go unfulfilled, although I have been sticking to my diet so far. It’s not that interesting and even enjoyable things don’t occur in January. Also, in January, the days start to become longer by one or two minutes each day which will be rather noticeable by the end of the month. Nonetheless, I know that when February 1st comes around, I will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
I attended law school in the 70’s and, at least during that period, the entire culture was permeated with a sense of competition and individual success. Other than your moot court partner and maybe your study group, there were few opportunities for collaboration or teamwork. There were winners and losers, students who got the top law firm jobs from recruiters who came to campus and those who had to pound the payment with their hard-copy resumes. Once you became a lawyer, the competition continued even more fiercely for plum assignments, bonuses and, the ultimate goal in a private firm - becoming a partner. While I never made partner, thank God, and decided to work for a nonprofit organization before coming to ECF, it did take me quite a while to embrace a style of leadership that emphasized collaboration, collegiality, and working together for the common good.
And I’m not referring to Christmas but the annual pledge campaign for your congregation. Actually, this can be a wonderful time of the year if you, the church’s leadership, approaches the campaign with faithfulness, focus and follow-through.
Faithfulness needs to emanate from the top and permeate the life of the local congregation all year round not just when you’re asking for money in the fall. Being faithful involves ongoing communication with your members and constituents; offering quality worship, fellowship, and outreach opportunities; helping people discern their gifts, and engaging them in appropriate ministries and activities. Faithfulness includes sharing your personal faith journey, reflecting on the importance of the local faith community in nurturing your own spirituality, inviting others to join you on the way, and helping form disciples for Jesus. Faithfulness leads to commitment, commitment leads to embracing stewardship, and stewardship leads to generosity and giving. Even if you’ve been a little lax in this area over the past several months, this is the ideal time to be more deliberate about faithfulness.
We all love stories. Storytelling is imbedded in our DNA as human beings. Stories were used to explain the unexplainable—those mysteries such as birth, death, nature and the existence of a higher power or force, eventually described as God.
People of faith, or those who follow or practice a particular religious tradition are especially fond of stories. Jewish and Christian heritage and custom have been passed down to us through stories—about creation, sin, floods, slavery, freedom, laws, prophets, angels and, ultimately, redemption and resurrection.
While we love to tell stories, we also love to talk about ourselves, especially those qualities and experiences of which we are most proud. Telling our story is an essential element of the human experience and is the precursor to making connections, establishing relationships, and falling in love.
As I write this blog I am in Abilene, Texas with my wife, Margaret, visiting our son David and his family – part of a month-long road trip during my six-week sabbatical. (David is Rector of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in the Diocese of Northwest Texas.) Our first stop from Connecticut was western Maryland, where Margaret’s brother hosted the annual family reunion followed by a visit with old friends from Hartford in Oklahoma. While there will be stops along the way, the next few weeks will include additional visits with family and friends in South Carolina and Virginia. All these summer gatherings continue to be wonderful opportunities for relaxation, refreshment, and reconnection.
My wife and I had the pleasure of spending Holy Week and Easter in Abilene, Texas, where our son, David, is rector of Church of the Heavenly Rest. In addition to spending delightful time with our three granddaughters, we attended multiple church services with moving liturgy, inspiring preaching, great music, and lots of people. Everyone seemed so happy to be together and, after two years, have “normal” celebrations. Due to the ruling of a federal judge, the mask mandate was lifted on our flight back to New York – yet another indication of normalcy.
Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems as though Heavenly Rest was not unique and that most Episcopal parishes enjoyed robust holiday services which has generated some excitement, enthusiasm and even optimism. Was this just an Easter “flash in the pan” or an indication of new vitality? Might this mean that the pandemic slump in church attendance is finally behind us, and people will be coming back to church as before? Might we even be turning a corner when it comes to numerical decline?
I am fascinated by the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians know who they are, know what they believe, and know what they need to do to be faithful members of their local church. Orthodox theology, liturgy and practice are rooted in the Creeds and the historic ecumenical councils of the church. Unlike other Christian expressions, these basic elements of the faith are considered universal and timeless and are not subject to modification through the chances and changes of denominational governing bodies.
I also admire Orthodox Lenten disciplines and practices, especially those associated with fasting. Actually, Orthodox Christians are called upon to fast at various times during the year, including every Wednesday and Friday. And this is a strict fast requiring abstinence from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, olive oil, and wine and other alcoholic beverages. Recognizing the challenges of such a diet, Orthodox clergy encourage their faithful to adopt these practices gradually and to even consider such a fast only during the first and last weeks of Lent. The stated reason for fasting is not just to follow the rules but, more importantly, to empty ourselves from the cares and concerns of the world – a means of preparation and conditioning which will enable us to serve God and grow closer to God. And, according to Orthodox teaching, fasting involves abstinence from everything that distances us from God and must be accompanied by good works and other spiritual practices.
I’m not a big fan of January. Ever since I was a child, January has been my least favorite month of the year. I’m not quite sure why. I guess it has something to do with the weather and the general let-down that comes after the Christmas holidays. My father always insisted on taking down the Christmas tree on New Year’s Day which I always found rather depressing. As an adult married couple, my wife and I much prefer to wait until January 6th or beyond to perform this least favorite task of the year.
Maybe my problem with January is also the frustration about New Year’s resolutions that go unfulfilled, although I have been sticking to my diet so far. It’s not that interesting and even enjoyable things don’t occur in January. Also, in January, the days start to become longer by one or two minutes each day which will be rather noticeable by the end of the month. Nonetheless, I know that when February 1st comes around, I will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Christmas is always a special time in New York City. With the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the department store window displays, and the throngs of tourists and shoppers, the city sparkles, bustles, and hums during the holiday season. After settling for virtual events and subdued celebrations in 2020, there is plenty of pent-up demand and even expectations for a “normal” New York Christmas this year.
And I know that this sentiment is shared by people throughout the country and even the world – we need a normal Christmas, and we need it now.
Earlier this year, our Board of Directors adopted the “ECF Compass” – a rearticulation of our Purpose, Mission and Vision. This document also highlights who we are, what we do and how we do it. In addition to describing ourselves as Episcopal, Independent and Lay-led, we also state that ECF is inclusive, i.e, “we are anti-racist and committed to social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”
While the process does involve an important missional and strategic conversation, it is fairly easy for an organization to make bold statements about who it is or hopes to be. The challenge becomes whether these articulations are more aspirational than actual. When it comes to being Episcopal, Independent and Lay-led, ECF has a long track record of demonstrating and living out these core qualities of our identity. When it comes to being Inclusive, or more specifically Anti-Racist, we have a much longer way to go. Clearly, our commitment in this area is aspirational but, at the same time, very sincere.
For over a year, we as a church, a nation, and a world have been challenged like never before. But as people of faith, we are confident that God is in our midst and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. I have been amazed and encouraged by the creativity, resiliency and flexibility demonstrated and witnessed by Episcopal faith communities like yours. Our congregations have embraced new ways to worship, gather and engage with our local communities. And throughout this entire period, the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) has been there with you - striving to live into our mission of leading Episcopal faith communities into the future as a partner for transforming ministries. We did this by nurturing, supporting and inspiring lay and clergy leaders throughout the church.
Recently, the Rt. Reverend Shannon MacVean-Brown, Bishop of Vermont, reported that the diocese was heading toward a “financial cliff” and that budget cuts alone would not prevent the fall. In her July 21 message, MacVean-Brown also announced a new task force that will consider long-term strategies for sustaining congregations and ministries, including the possibility of greater collaboration and resource sharing with the dioceses of New Hampshire and Maine.
The Diocese of Vermont is one of the smallest in the Episcopal Church with 5,700 baptized members in 2019, 10 full-time clergy, and 45 congregations with all but three reporting an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of less than 100. Like the rest of the Church, Vermont has experienced membership and ASA declines from 2014 to 2019, but unlike the other New England dioceses, also had a pledge and plate income drop of 3 to 7% in those five years. And Vermont is not alone. I would wager that there are dozens of other Episcopal dioceses facing the same fate but are unable or unwilling to admit it.
ECF President Donald Romanik is currently in Abilene, TX celebrating Holy week and Easter with his family. In this video, he shares Easter greetings in conversation with his son Rev. David Romanik, Rector at Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas. Blessings for Holy week and a hopeful Easter to all of you, from everyone at ECF.
Donald V. Romanik, President, Episcopal Church Foundation: Hello. My name is Donald Romanik and I am President of the Episcopal Church Foundation. It's been about a year since we've been living with this pandemic of COVID-19. When we locked down about a year ago this time, little did we know that 12 months later we'd still be struggling. Clearly, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. We have three new vaccines that people are starting to get, and eventually we will go back to some sense of normality.
As I look back, clearly it was challenging and frightening, but there also some good things that we have to remember. Personally, I got in touch with a lot of people I haven't spoken to in years, started appreciating the simple pleasures of life, like a meal with my spouse across the table. And in our local faith communities, we learned to pivot and do things in new and different ways, from online services to phone calls, to contacts with people; we really need to celebrate the successes over this past year.
We all are shocked, saddened, and disgusted by the events of January 6. A band of rioters, emboldened by the reckless and incendiary rhetoric of the President, interrupted the constitutional business of the people, violated the safety of our elected representatives, and desecrated our nation’s Capitol, the seat of our federal government and a sacred symbol of our republic. How could this possibly happen in the United States of America?
It has become clear that not only our buildings, but our very system of government which we hold so dear and take for granted, is vulnerable, fragile and capable of being fractured before our very eyes. While our American democracy will survive, it will take a lot of hard work by everyone, elected officials and all of us alike, to make it thrive once again.
The beginning of a new year is usually filled with energy, excitement and enthusiasm. While we are all relieved that 2020 is over and encouraged by the promise of the vaccine, we enter 2021 with uncertainty, anxiety and a sense of loss. For many of us the holidays were an incredibly lonely time, away from family and friends and unable to celebrate together in community. Each of us has been negatively impacted in some way by the turbulence of the past several months.
As we confront the reality of a long, hard winter, how can we look to the future with hope and even joy? I find comfort in the words from Psalm 121:
“The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe. The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”
While the current pandemic has impacted all of us, the negative effects of COVID-19 are significantly more pronounced in communities of color in all aspects of life - health, employment, schooling and food security. Current data reveals that black and Latino populations are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Millions of our fellow Americans do not have the luxury of working from home or sheltering in place and are trying to navigate this crisis without the basics we often take for granted. Sadly, these are communities for whom life in this country has been consistently hard and unjust. The current situation has simply laid bare the systemic inequities that already existed.
Last week, we woke to a deeply disturbing video of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. About a month ago, we witnessed the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man in Brunswick, Georgia, out on his daily jog, being fatally shot by two white men. These incidents inform us yet again, of the injustices that our black and brown siblings live through every single day - injustices that put their very lives in peril.
While the COVID-19 lockdown over the past several weeks has been difficult for all of us, it has created incredible opportunities to connect with one another in new and innovative ways, even while physically apart. I have truly enjoyed my telephone and video conversations with many of you during which we have shared our struggles, fears and doubts as well as our hopes, dreams and yes, moments of joy. I cherish the many clients, colleagues and friends of ECF struggling to be faithful disciples during an unprecedented period of isolation and stress. This strange and difficult time is bringing out the very best in so many of us and it’s helpful to know that we are not alone.
We are also using this time to think, pray, discern and dig deep. We are trying to put aside those things that seem rather insignificant and rediscover values that lie at our very core – faith, family, friends and partners. Organizations like ECF are also engaged in this process, and we are reconnecting with our core values including partnership. I firmly believe that the only way the Church will move forward during and beyond this crisis is by identifying, developing and nurturing strategic, missional and transformational partnerships. I often say that partnerships are fun because they provide opportunities to meet and connect with other people who share our passion and commitment. But partnerships are also critical to our ability to survive, and even thrive, as the Episcopal Church. As we slowly emerge from this first phase of the pandemic and begin discerning what the Church and the world may look like, partnerships will provide us with the strength and courage to work together and carry us into a hopeful future.