Wouldn’t you love to see more former evangelicals in your parish? Folks who believe in equality, inclusion, and social justice? Who are looking for a new church home?
If you are like most church members, the answer is a resounding yes.
But my experience is that a great many persons who come to the Episcopal Church from other faith traditions start out with high hopes, only to run headlong into the dysfunctional dynamics within the church.
And so it is with Heather Hardy, an intelligent, compassionate individual who came from an evangelical church to the Episcopal Church, ultimately joining St. Paul’s in Old Town Alexandria Virginia.
The following letter, reprinted with permission, was written by Heather, and is directed to Senior Associate Rector Elizabeth Rees. Names of parishioners have been edited for privacy. References to Oran are to the rector, Oran Warder.
Heather holds a legal degree, and is highly regarded for her experience in for- and non-profit governance, audit/assurance, and business process improvement. She has managed large financial improvement government contracts.
As we see in her letter, Heather came to St. Paul’s with passion and enthusiasm, but today, more than a year later, is disaffected by her experiences with the church. And it was not the big issues that were problematic for Heather, but rather the sea of small discourtesies, all of which pointed to larger, structural problems, both at St. Paul’s and in the greater Episcopal Church.
So, before we assume that the Episcopal Church is an idyllic oasis in a sea of dysfunctional “Churchianity,” perhaps it’s time to ask tough questions of ourselves. We lament the speck in the eye of others, while ignoring the log in our own eye.
In the interest of transparency, the references to Grace Episcopal Church refer to the experiences of the editor of Anglican Watch at his former church.
The following screen cap provides context for the challenges Heather experienced with St. Paul’s church.
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Although I’m done with St. Paul’s, I’m still getting emails as it will probably be after COVID before I find a new church and transfer my membership.
And I have to tell you…listening to the introduction to your sermon I found in my inbox for this Sunday left me speechless and dazed. I could not even believe some of your comments. One of the reasons I ultimately decided to leave STP’s is because I’m afraid instead of coming to church to worship, I would too often hear things that would send my mind whirling and would make me want to climb the nearest wall. And this week’s sermon was a perfect example. I admittedly didn’t get past the introduction in which you mentioned the podcast “The Liturgist.” “The Liturgist,” by the way, is a popular and well-known podcast among the EXvangelical crowd and comprises many who come from the same background and have had similar experiences to mine (so in case you weren’t aware, you’ve ALREADY HAD at least one of these formerly disaffected Christians in your church, the type whom you say you wish would just come into the TEC fold. And as you may recall, it didn’t go so well).
Though, I would agree there is potential, and probably a lot of it, as I initially found so much good when I first began attending worship services at St. Paul’s in November of 2017. But please understand should you ever have another moment when you “get frustrated” and feel the urge to shout “just join the Episcopal church”… there is a huge difference in THINKING you want people because of how they could serve YOUR purposes and YOUR organization, and actually becoming a spiritual home that is hospitable FOR them. After all, many of these disaffected Christians have ALREADY left churches because they were the very ones who could see through hypocrisy, duplicitousness, and the opportunistic and abusive leaders, and some did so even with the threats of eternal damnation and alienation from friends and family hanging over their head. They’re not likely to be easily fooled by sweet talk, fauxpologies, excuses, or phony diplomacy. And frankly, I doubt you and others would be up to the challenge of welcoming many of them even if they all showed up on your doorstep tomorrow begging to come in.
Do you really think, as you stated in your sermon, your church is mostly free from “structures that are patriarchal and hierarchical”? Really? I mean…REALLY?
When was the last time you, or Oran, or anyone in the church felt comfortable setting up a surprise conference call to make a significant decision, with two others already on the line and without advance notice called up a [edited for privacy] in the middle of HIS workday? Or what about [edited for privacy]? Or [edited for privacy]? Or perhaps some of the members sitting on the Foundation’s board? Or how many of these people would Oran ever cut-off mid-sentence and tell to “move forward” because he wanted to gloss over their problem instead of taking it seriously.
Or who of these people would get named to a committee in front of the vestry without even being shown the courtesy of being asked first, as I was when Oran named me to serve as Preschool Board Treasurer last year, thereby committing me to another set of meetings without my consent? (within 2.5 months, I was named as Treasurer of SPEP without notice, struggled under the weight of a personnel problem that was blowing holes into the middle of my workdays, got almost no support in dealing with it, and then was cut-off mid-sentence and told to “move forward”).
And how many of these people would the senior warden walk up behind, place her hands on their arms, and physically direct them to the door so she could start a meeting because apparently simply saying “excuse me” was not an option? This happened to me in the fall of 2019 as I stepped back into the library after a Wednesday executive committee meeting. I was introducing myself to the new interim preschool director and offering to meet and develop the preschool budget. The senior warden heard me use the word “budget,” and as she hastily directed me out the door stated, “Budget…yes…that’s just what we’re about to discuss.” Ironically, she was about to discuss the very budget I would be developing and yet she couldn’t seem to get me out of the room fast enough. If this wasn’t a deliberate passive-aggressive snub on her part, then I suggest the church pay for basic etiquette classes for all its leaders, as this behavior is damaging. I wasn’t at all surprised, later, when the interim employee became smirky and uncooperative with me, as it was clear, by the senior warden’s actions, where I fell in the hierarchy.
And speaking of etiquette, prominent church members who cut into conversations all but ignoring a guest or new member is NOT a welcoming gesture. Nor is it promising when they talk incessantly during services or routinely leave early, as this communicates a lack of commitment and seriousness about the church.
Or when the meeting for preschool parents was held, in the fall of 2019, to discuss the new preschool and vestry/staff were asked to attend solely for the purpose of supporting Oran and the wardens. I watched and cringed as you all sat clumped together on the far side of the church and failed to interact with guests, many of whom were not church members. It was tantamount to staying in a back room and failing to get up and greet guests arriving at your home. You think THIS is welcoming? Really?
And I wasn’t pleased, this past summer, when I ran into [edited for privacy] and her niece in Old Town and she told me about all the work she was doing for your website. She didn’t complain, but didn’t seem enthusiastic, either. If you recall, at [an event] last February, she really seemed to be struggling and it appeared she was going through a lot. Was adding to her workload really the best approach to integrate her into the life of the church and care for her spiritually? Or was this just what was most convenient?
Also, do you really think you will attract people when you make statements such as “I wished I had a sabbatical coming up” after being at the church for less than one year? Or worse, when I would take time off my job to come work at the church and you would make comments, such as “and you’re spending your time off up here” in a tone that conveyed “ughhh”? It almost made me feel silly for wanting to be there and feeling happy to serve. Showing a lack of respect and passion for your work is not good leadership and will not attract many, disaffected or otherwise. If you are unhappy in your job, find a new one. But I’d also keep in mind that most adults use their personal time for creative pursuits and few decent paying jobs provide endless opportunities for exploring one’s “creative side” (that’s why we have “starving artist”).
Also, most disaffected Christians would want authenticity and strong community ties, at the very least, and community bonds at STPs are rather disjointed. Alysse’s Pious Pint was doing it pretty well and there were a few other pockets here and there, but still fragmented. It was strange to me that I could attend 40 meetings in a year and still barely know those with whom I was serving. I’ve been told other groups and committees have been the same. It seems it is something ingrained in the church’s culture. And it doesn’t promote community cohesiveness when the church sponsors a nearly $1K a day “spiritual pilgrimage” for a FEW parishioners on an overpriced cruise with “re-imagined state rooms” ostensibly as an “Exploration of Russian Orthodox Christianity” according to the church’s website (but interestingly Russian Orthodoxy was NOT emphasized on the tour company’s website). Cathedrals, religious art and church history, of course, are a part of almost any secular trip to Europe, but this hardly constitutes a spiritual pilgrimage. So what was it, I’ve wondered, about Russian Orthodoxy – which includes a politically powerful and dark variant of Christianity currently pushing for decriminalization of domestic violence and anti-gay legislation in Russia – that would create such eagerness and inspire an 8-day spiritual pilgrimage? And what spiritual benefit would justify close to $1k a day? I was serving as Assistant Treasurer when this trip was first advertised and I heard comments along the lines of “this trip must be for the A-list donors”; I reassured people there was no such list and I did not believe that was the intent of the trip. But still…some things are just tacky. And no, this would definitely NOT appeal to most disaffected Christians!
As far as abuse, there are multiple stories and allegations swirling of cover-ups and flat-footed responses to sexual harassment and abuse in the TEC at the diocesan, church, and school levels, too. I’m not sure of the full extent of it, but one of the most dangerous attitudes a church can take is “it can’t happen here” or “it doesn’t happen here.” If one is to learn anything at all about church abuse scandals it should be that the only sane approach is to say “it CAN happen here because it can happen anywhere”. And then there’s the non-sexual church abuse about which many of the disaffected have experienced to some degree. I’m not sure what the “inside story” is that you believe regarding the local abuse allegations against Grace Episcopal Church. But I first became aware of them several years ago as they were covered by the Wartburg Watch, a highly regarded church abuse watchdog site independent from TEC and one that primarily focuses on conservative evangelical churches. The publisher, Dee Parsons, has thoroughly reviewed the allegations (I’ve read through some of the legal documents and other documentation, as well) and the handling of this matter by Grace and the Diocese has been awful. Anyone with influence and integrity should demand an independent review and accountability. It is precisely this kind of behavior that CREATES so many disaffected Christians in the first place. And for churches to think they can have a significant impact on a huge issue, such as racial reconciliation, when they can’t even effectively resolve relatively small conflicts and injustices in their own churches is preposterous.
So yes, as I said before, the potential is there in TEC. But you all would really need to step it up, if that is what you really wanted. And I don’t see it in most of you. But I’d love to be proven wrong some day.