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Take my advice, please! - by Kevin Martin

Take my advice, please!

by the Rev. Kevin Martin

As Director of Vital Church Ministries, I do a variety of things. I teach, run conferences, write and consult, but essential what I do is give advice. People actually pay me for my advice and you might think that because they do, they are eager to take it and do the things I suggest. This is not exactly what happens. Over the years, I have learned that people pay me to consider my advice. They probably have every right to be a bit suspect about a consultant's advice. If I am so smart, why am I not running things myself?

Of course, I try to give good advice based on the needs of the community and what I know to be best practices in other churches. Put all this together and you realize something that I often say to people. I am always pleasantly surprised when leaders actually take my advice. I am even more pleased when I hear that my advice has worked!

Recently, I taught a seminar in a diocese for a group of small churches. I have gotten to know their Bishop over the last few years and I personally like him a lot. At a break in the activities, he told me that something that I wrote in one of my newsletters had affected him in a very interesting and good way. He had decided to take my advice. He got my attention.

The article was one I wrote last year with the title "Do We Really Need Bishops." It is still posted here on the website if you want to read it, but in summary what I concluded was this. We don't need Bishops if we mean by this prelates who are remnants of the Christendom model of Bishops as rulers or princes of the Church. We do need bishops if we mean by this leaders who exercise apostolic ministry. The good Bishop liked what I had to say. Since reading my article, he has been working at exercising more apostolic ministry. Naturally, I asked him what this meant.

He told me that he went to the scriptures and turned to the book of Acts. He said that he looked at what the apostles did and concluded that essentially they went from church to church sharing their own faith and encouraging others to share theirs. Seeing this, he decided to change his visitations in his diocese. Now, in addition to Sunday morning visits to do confirmation, he arranges to meet with the church in the week before. Here is what he does.

The Bishop meets with the members of the church over a shared meal. Then he shares his faith in the context of a biblical teaching. He shares what Christ means to him. How he came to believe this. He shares his spiritual struggles and trials as well as how he has grown in his faith. Then he allows folks to ask any questions they may have for him. Lastly, he encourages his people to make efforts to share their faith, "the hope that is in them," with others both inside and outside the church.

Now, you may notice that I have not given his name or the name of his diocese. This is because this is his story and I will leave it to him to tell it as he wishes. What I want to share is what happened after he told me what he was doing. I asked him how people were responding to what he was doing. He said that he felt that he was making a meaningful connection with folks, but then he smiled and said, "Why don't you ask them? The Church you are scheduled to preach in Sunday is one where I just made such a visit. You can ask the people there what they think." At the coffee hour after the service I did just exactly that. I asked them what they thought of their Bishop's new way of visiting their congregation.

They immediately responded in an enthusiastic way. They liked what he did a lot. They told me that he connected to them. Many stated how his struggles were things they could understand. One person said that he moved from being an authority figure that seemed distant to being a real person. Good enough so far, but then I asked them what they had learned from this. Here is a summary of their responses:

* We learned he really cares for us.
* We learned that he really believes what he preaches to us.
* We felt encouraged to share our faith with others.

I was impressed with their enthusiasm, but one comment particularly stood out to me. "We learned that the job of Bishop is hard and that he often feels distant and lonely because people don't really approach him during his visits for confirmation. We learned that this wasn't what he wanted and the next time he comes, we plan to love on him a lot."

This last part explained something about my conversation with the Bishop that had particularly stood out to me. During other visits with him, I had heard all that he was trying to do in his diocese. It sounded good, but I could see how worn and frayed he sounded. This time, however, what I noticed was how he brightened up as he described these changes to me. I realized that what he had communicated to me beyond the words was that, not only was he connecting to the people and they to him, now he was connecting to something that excited and energized him. In case we have forgotten, this is called vocation. I think he has begun to tap into what apostolic vocation is all about.

I can't help but mention that most of the Bishops that I know and have seen in the last few years all look worn out and frayed. I can't but think that this is the other side of institutional prelacy, namely the effects on the person who bears the office. Think of it this way, most of our Bishops were once successful parish priests who were very well connected to their people and their vocation. Could it be that the Episcopal Church has created a model of ministry that in the long run stifles and smothers the very gifts that led us to select the person in the first place? I believe so.

Every once in a while, people take my advice. I am always pleasantly pleased when this happens. Every once in a while, it works. I commend the good Bishop for having the courage to try something new. To other Bishops, I would say this. Insanity could best be described as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Perhaps more Bishops should abandon the Christendom model because essentially it isn't what they are called to do anyway. Oh, by the way good Bishop, what do you plan to do on your next visit to this congregation?

--Kevin Martin is the President of Vital Church Ministries in Plano, Texas.

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