From Board of Directors to Spiritual Elders

A common word heard a generation or two ago was, “The pew cannot rise higher than the pulpit.” The idea that the herald of the gospel must be soaked in a regular regimen of study and prayer in order to present the congregation mature in the sight of God is easily lost in the weekly pressures of parish ministry. Just as preparing a balanced, nutritious sermon takes forethought and space for the word to work first on the preacher’s heart and then be able to be conveyed with authenticity, so the spiritual life of leaders is not like the turning on or off of a light switch, but is something to be cultivated.

Author Ruth Haley Barton is a practitioner of wisdom and spiritual discernment. Several years ago her book Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups caught my attention. I was feeling a sense that our parish leadership wasn’t going into the depths. I lamented that I couldn’t address this very well out of my own reservoir. But, just as Jesus summoned the early disciples to put out into the deep, it felt that we were much too content with fishing the shallows. And I was with them although I knew that deeper water summoned.

The question was: were we content with our vestry being a board of directors or, in some fashion, were we being called to a place of spiritual eldership?

In our case, we had already committed to becoming a learning community. That is to say, we would take the first forty-five minutes to discuss an article or a chapter from a book that we were reading together and apply it to Saint Gabriel. These discussions were often fruitful, and I would take the ideas back to the staff or work on them in my mind over the coming month. And yet, it also seemed as if this, too, was artificial and that we could either take it or leave it. In other words, there wasn’t yet a collective conviction that we were operating as a Spirit-led community with certain non-negotiable assumptions about being spiritual elders.

Barton asks whether our approach to decision making is different in the church from secular models. Is there more to becoming a church with a biblical eldership than “the perfunctory prayers that bookend the meeting”? Does our community life mean something, does it have its own integrity, independent of the financial statements, ministry reports, and arguing over the cost of sharpening the lawnmower blades, as one my clergy colleagues memorably put it?

If so, how do we become that kind of community?

One thing we know is that becoming a community of spiritual discernment differs dramatically from throwing on a light switch. Further, we also know that corporate leadership discernment around of God’s will presumes that each person who is called to be a spiritual elder carries the potential – and responsibility – in his or her individual life to cultivate a receptivity to the Spirit of the Lord.

In other words, if corporate leadership is “the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God as a leadership group relative to the issues we are facing“ (italics, Barton original), it is what happens in the in-between time, the ordinary time, in individual hearts that make up the corporate body, that allows discernment to be, truly, corporate. The practices, the rules of life, the habits of the heart – the prayer, daily office, times of meditation or centering prayer – these till the soil of the individual in such a way that when we come together, we can practice corporate leadership discernment and fulfill our calling as spiritual elders for our congregation.

We are novice step-takers, to be sure. We do not always hold up well, necessarily, as a model. But now we have the conviction that unless we do this as a body of leaders, the pew cannot rise higher than the board room. If we rest content with the shallows, the potential of Christ’s calling in us will remain just that, potential.

“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” -Psalm 27:5

-The Reverend Chris Ditzenberger, Rector of Saint Gabriel the Archangel


Staying Awhile with the Litany of Penitence

Every Ash Wednesday for the past 16 years, I’ve helped lead congregations in the Litany of Penitence, appointed as it is for use in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (p. 267). And yet it impacts me mostly on the day itself, not to be thought again until the next year’s observance. That’s a problem. In what follows, I hope to share why.

More often than not, I find it hard to enter into the devotional feeling of Lent until near the end of its forty long days. I sign on to lead the Stations of the Cross at least once or twice during Lent. I recite the Ten Commandments as part of our congregation’s Penitential Order (p. 319), and am dutiful (though not always successful) at omitting the Alleluias!

And yet, the heart-work that Lent calls us to can be set aside until I gin up added concentration and attention during Holy Week in order to experience a bit of the passion narrative, and thus prepare myself for the Great Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, the Great Vigil of Easter.

What if, however, I was to stay awhile with the Litany of Penitence? What would I find in these searching words that would cause me to say, “No, you can’t go any further until you get at the roots of why this confession is so necessary right now in your life”?

Rather than rush on to the next things, or even rush on to the Absolution and Remission, I commit to addressing these nagging questions.

So might you for your own soul’s sake.

We may ask, where does the shoe pinch the most for you in the Litany?

Here’s a sampling:

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves.

Stop, you say! We can’t go on as the weight of our sin is too heavy for us to bear.

It’s like when we’re teenagers and we may not like to look in the mirror. The mirror is often unkind and not our friend. So it is with the self-examination and repentance – it uncovers the blemishes of indifference and the puffiness of self-indulgence. It’s not a pretty sight.

Yes, we do go on, thankfully, to the words, “Almighty God … who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live … He pardons and absolves …”

In this season of Lent, however, may we look unflinchingly into the mirror of our souls, and then be honest before God as we place ourselves before the Mercy.

We may find that we enter into the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ with a greater gratitude than we have ever before experienced.

-The Reverend Chris Ditzenberger, Rector of Saint Gabriel the Archangel

2016 Children, Youth, and Family Lenten Challenge

Let’s make 2016 a year spiritual growth for Saint Gabriel’s Children, Youth, and Family Ministry! As many of you have heard, the recent results of the RenewalWorks survey show that one area where we can grow as a church is to embed prayer and Scripture into our daily lives.

Thus, this year we challenge all families of Saint Gabriel the Archangel to commit to coming together at least once a day as a family for prayer and Scripture reading during Lent. We know that it isn’t easy to switch on daily prayer and Scripture reading. This is why Lent is the perfect season for our Saint Gabriel families to slow down and commit to this challenge together. Historically, Lent began as a time of preparation for new Christians awaiting baptism. As the church grew, fewer new Christians were common, but the season transitioned into a time for all Christians to reflect upon their faith and center themselves in Christ.

We need this more than ever, don’t we? The craziness of life never seems to cease. School, dance lessons, math club, band practice, piano lessons, sports practices, and so much more have overtaken the lives of our families. Our time is currency, and we spend it on what we most value. This is why we challenge you to make prayer and Scripture reading a priority for your family during this time of Lent, in order that you may center your lives around the life giving word of God, and reconnect with one another as a family.

Are you unsure where to start? That’s the beauty of our tradition. We have tons of resources right at our fingertips! Below are resources that can help your family structure your prayer time for success. All are affordable, and some might already be on one of your shelves at home.


Tickle, Phyllis. The Divine Hours. Volumes 1-3. New York: Doubleday, 2000-2001.

  • This three-volume work makes praying the daily offices very simple. It offers written liturgies for praying the divine hours as well as offering a nightly liturgy for Compline. If you are going to get this for Lent, be sure to get the Prayers for Springtime, which is volume 3.

Tickle, Phyllis. Eastertide: Prayers for Lent Through Easter from The Divine Hours. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

  • Similar to the above resources, but created specifically for Lent. This may be a good starting place, but it has limitations because you can only use it during Lent.

Claiborne, Shane, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro. Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

  • This resource is similar to Phyllis Tickle’s books, but with a slightly different flavor. In particular, it is laid out by date and offers important events that happened on that particular date throughout history.
  • Be sure to get the hardback copy because the paperback is an abridged, pocket edition.

The Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

  • The church just gave every family a copy of the BPC. (Let us know if you didn’t get one.) The above resources pull heavily from our prayer book, so why not get back to the source?! The prayer book used with the “Loving the Prayer Book” booklet that Father Chris has made available is a great way to get your family into a schedule of daily prayer.
  • We suggest using one of the rubrics from the “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families” beginning on page 136 in conjunction with the daily office reading schedule. (Click here for the daily office reading schedule during Lent, or check it out for yourself beginning on page 951. We’re in year two!)

The Books of the Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

  • This reader’s Bible presents the biblical text without chapters or verse numbers. This aids in reading and gives even the Bible veterans a fresh look to scripture—you’d be surprised how much the chapters, verses, and headings impact how we read the Bible. Other helpful features are that the books are arranged chronologically. This translation is the 2011 NIV which is great for all ages in readability and comprehension.

Come back and share how the challenge is going for your family in the comment section!

Liturgy and the Order of God

I grew up in a church that did not pay close attention to order. Our service had structure, but our culture wasn’t steeped in it. The Episcopal Church is different. Our services are very structured. We like our written prayers and planned liturgy. We follow the church calendar and two lectionaries. We have a prayer service for morning, noon, earlier evening, and before bed. In all, we have the opportunity to let our lives become one with God’s order as we move through the church calendar, the lectionary, and the day.

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to enjoy the deeply rooted liturgical tradition of Anglican worship here at St. Gabriel. During this time, I have spent a lot of time thinking about liturgy and order. Megan and I did not come from this sort of background. However, even before we began attending St. Gabriel we had contemplated looking for a church that had more structure. Deep in the back of my mind I pondered the possibility that the Book of Common Prayer might offer the direction and structure I desired, but I had no real concept of what structured worship looked like.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned that a more ordered worship service does not automatically foster a deeper connection with God. Further, I’ve become more aware that worship is a way of life rather than a type of service structure. In fact, worship encompasses cooperate gatherings as well as daily life and personal devotion (I need to credit Larry Ellis here. I highly recommend his book!). We’ve made strides to reflect the call of worship in the living of our daily lives through vocational prayers during the weekly Prayers of the People, and we understand the power of cooperate worship here at St. Gabriel, but I think there is more for us to learn about personal devotion.

What I mean by this is that I think we can learn to better appreciate and recognize that when we follow the daily office and the church calendar we are actually entering into God’s order. The power that our liturgy carries is that we, as the cooperate body of Christ, can individually enter into the work of God through our liturgy. Our liturgical worship does not need to end with Sunday mornings, but instead Sunday mornings can thrust us into a life of liturgical order. And this order, my friends, is part of God’s order.

An important connection to be made in Genesis 1 and 2 is that when God created the universe he brought order to it. Rather than chaos God brought order, at least subduing the chaos, for the time being. When we enter into God’s kingdom we are entering into his order and goodness. When we choose to do what we believe to be good, we reject his order and choose chaos. Thus, key to the Christian life is choosing to turn away from what we believe to be good and choosing to follow what God has already set for as good.

A daily life lived in God’s order is a life that desires to bring the goodness of God into the world. This goodness is not moral right or wrong, but order rather than chaos. We don’t have to look far to see the chaos around us. However, we can have hope in God’s order, and we can trust that he will one day fully overthrow the chaos. Until that times comes, let us enter into a life of liturgical worship—cooperate, vocational, and personal.