Friday, May 24, 2013


We have more social problems than we can count here in the Las Vegas Valley. But there is one core problem that causes or contributes to all of them. That same problem keeps us powerless to do anything effective about the other problems.

This is our core problem: We are disconnected. So many people come to Las Vegas intending to be here only a couple of years that they don’t make connections. They don’t join anything. They don’t know anyone very well and no one knows them very well. 20 years later, they are still here, but they still plan to move on in a year or two. So they still don’t connect.

When people do connect, it’s in relatively small groups, like our congregations. But the congregations don’t cooperate with each other. They don’t cooperate across interfaith lines. They don’t cooperate across ecumenical lines. They don’t even cooperate with congregations of their own denomination. I won’t name any denomination other than my own. But even around Nevada, even around this state where fragmentation and alienation abound, they talk about Las Vegas. They say, “Those Episcopal Churches in Las Vegas don’t work together. They don’t even know each other.” Now I won’t name any other denominations that have this problem. But I do talk to your leaders and I can say this: We Episcopalians are not the only ones who are disconnected, living in our own little congregational silos.

What comes of this? People here are disconnected from each there. Because they are disconnected, they are disempowered. Acting alone, they cannot change their environment. They cannot influence the government, the schools, the businesses. They have no influence over the forces around them that shape the quality of their lives. Because they are disconnected, they are disempowered. Because they are disempowered, they are in despair. Because they are in despair, they drink, drug, gamble, commit domestic violence, get divorced, drop out of school, run away, etc. etc. etc. Disconnection may not cause all of our social problems but it contributes to them. It exacerbates them. And it paralyzes us to do anything about them.

Nevadans for the Common Good is engaging some of the social problems. And that’s good. The issues are important and we are doing good, effective work. We are making a difference. But that’s not the main thing. The main thing is the relationships we are forming in the process of addressing particular problems.

Our core project is to build a network of relationships. We call them” public friendships,” which means we may or may not be personal friends, but we know each other and are able to work together for shared goals. We are building a network of relationships that will reconnect and re-empower people, lifting us out of our collective despair, our “what can I do about it?” sense of helplessness.

The human network of relationships we are building is like an energy grid to deliver power where it’s needed to make positive change for people living in this Valley. 20 years from now, when new social problems arise, problems we cannot now foresee, this network of relationships will be in place. It will be in place to share stories and identify the problems as the affect our members. And the network will be already up and running, ready to act constructively and creatively to improve the situation.

But there’s more to be gained even than the building of a network among our congregations. There is strengthening the network inside our congregations. There are skills and methods we use to build the network, to construct this power grid we call Nevadans For The Common Good. The people we train can take those skills and methods back into their congregations to build relationships there. Congregations who engage in this work grow stronger within themselves. And that in itself will make a better community.

Monday, May 20, 2013


I have just finished a biography of Socrates read on the heels of a biography of Julius Caesar for an intentional contrast. These two ancient leaders had diametrically opposed approaches to leadership and life. Caesar was guided by an implicit assumption about the essence of human happiness – implicit and assumed because he was a man of action, not reflection. Socrates, on the other hand, was guided by a crystal clear explicit belief about happiness. He said the unexamined life was not worth living, so he examined his guiding principles quite clearly.

Caesar was all about Caesar. He did things for people, but with the idea of earning their loyalty and so strengthening his own hand. Caesar lived to maximize his own power and glory. In the end, they killed him.

Socrates lived humbly. A poor man, he owned almost nothing, earned little, went barefoot. He claimed to know nothing either. His goal was to become virtuous through learning the ways of virtue. He believed he had been called by God to help others find their own ways to virtue by asking them provocative questions. In the end, they killed him too.

I suppose one moral of the two stories is that you can’t win. But I wonder if the quality of one’s death may sometimes say something about the quality of one’s life. When the Senators assassinated Caesar, his last act after having been stabbed multiple times, was to draw his cloak over his head so that people would not see his suffering and death. He died still trying to cover a shame – in this case the shame of being a vulnerable, mortal creature. He failed to amass enough power and glory to hide his shame. Socrates’ dying words were to the effect that he owed a cock to Asclepius, so he wanted his followers to pay the debt. Given that Socrates was a monotheist, executed in part for not believing in the gods, and that the fact that he was dying suggested Asclepius, the god of health and healing, was not serving him well, it was – in a word – a joke.
It strikes me that Socrates made a better death.

Socrates had something in common with Paul and also had a major difference with Paul. Socrates believed we all want to do good but that we misunderstand the good and so do evil through ignorance. Paul thought our propensity to do evil resided not in a defective intellect but in something deeper and less rational. “The good that I would do, I do not. The evil that I would not do, that is the very thing I do.” Paul is more Freudian; Socrates, more Kantian. That is the difference between them. But Paul and Socrates agreed that human happiness resides in virtue.” Rabbi Jonathan Sachs agrees that happiness consists of holding a set of moral values and living according to them.

I believe Paul is closer to right than Socrates about the way we go off course. But I believe Socrates, Sachs, and Paul together offer a striking contrast to contemporary assumptions – which may I add are implicit assumptions worthy of Caesar – about what will make us happy. We are guided by Madison Avenue, not our theologians or moral philosophers.

Most of us assume happiness lies in getting what we want – usually consisting of material possessions, glory (social or professional status), power or some such thing. Happiness goes along with something we can get, hold, grasp, and cling to.  If we are unhappy, we are apt to seek guidance from psychotherapy, which helps is clarify what it is we really want – like Socrates, therapy helps us “figure it out.” Unlike Socrates, it is figuring out what we want instead of what we believe is right.

What if happiness is not a matter of getting what we want, since the very wanting keeps us unhappy, and because our desire is inherently insatiable, the quest for what we want is what keeps us unhappy? Buddha would see it that way. What if Jonathan Sachs, Socrates, and Paul are right that happiness consists in habitually doing the right thing? Might we be missing a critical moral foundation to psychology?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


We are trying an experiment. It’s a little different and it may not work. But I am convinced it’s worth a try. In fact, we have to try. Our experiment begins in a small way with churches and money.

The 25% assessment on parish income has been in place here for decades. It used to be a requirement for national grants we no longer get. But after the grants stopped, the diocese was all the more cash-strapped, so the assessment level remained in place. Under the weight of the 25% assessment, parishes have been hard pressed to engage in mission, to reach out in service and evangelism, or to try anything innovative and interesting. During all the years in which Nevada was the fastest growing state, our diocesan membership and attendance remained stagnant, and sometimes declined.

But that’s not what worries me. Sometimes as we have talked about money in the past, diocesan staff and governance sounded judgmental and suspicious, reminding me a bit of tax collectors. Meanwhile some parishes have engaged in creative accounting to keep their resources for themselves – often in ways that reflect selfishness and lack of integrity. But if the Diocese is trying to collect more than a parish can pay, is it any surprise that parishes resort to devious practices? If parishes resort to devious practices, is it any surprise that diocesan staff and governance should grow suspicious? The trust it takes to be a community or work for a common mission is missing on both sides. That’s what worries me.

After five years of watching the Episcopal Church in Nevada struggling under this burden of distrust, I suggested an experiment to the Standing Committee and they are going along with it. Call us crazy but we are going to try Christianity. We are going to try faith, trust, compassion, mercy. We are going to try a morality rooted in Deuteronomy and coming to full flower in the Sermon on the Mount. We start with faith – not as much faith in God as faith in each other. We are going to believe in the people in the pews and their local leaders.

We begin with something like unilateral disarmament. We cut diocesan expenses to the bone before I got here. We have now cut them to the marrow and are still just getting by with the 25% assessment. But we are taking the first steps anyway. It’s called stepping out in faith.

Step 1. Last year, we granted assessment reductions to several congregations that needed a break in order to take on new growth initiatives.

Step 2. Despite allowing parishes in need a break in 2012, we managed to spend a little less than we received. That could have been our security cushion this year. But instead of having a security cushion, we gave the money back to the parishes. We even gave money back to parishes that owe arrearages on old assessments.

Step 3: We announced the goal to begin reducing the assessment by 1% per year beginning in 2014.

Step 4. We then took a bolder risk and implemented the assessment reduction 6 months early. It kicks in June 2013.

Diocesan governance has taken the first steps. How might a parish reciprocate? Simply by flourishing and dealing with the diocese straightforwardly – as most of our parishes are already doing. We trust parishes to use new resources for God’s mission and we trust God to prosper those who serve the mission faithfully. That will enable us not just to get by on 24% but to keep reducing the assessment further to take the shackles off our people setting them free for God’s mission in Nevada.

Our ability to continue reducing the assessment depends on parishes doing two things: First, they will have to engage in creative, constructive, positive evangelism – not just saying mournfully “I wish we could get more people” – but actually doing what it takes to make that happen. There are specific concrete actions that grow congregations. I met with a congregation about those steps just two weeks ago. Second, parishes will have to engage in spiritually authentic stewardship education and campaigns – not scarcity based “give money or the church closes” manipulations – but authentic teaching of where our resources come from and our obligation to use our resources for God’s mission -- spiritual formation in generosity as the path to happiness. Many of our people have signed up for The Episcopal Network For Stewardship workshop July 11-13 in Salt Lake City. Some are taking it on line. Either way, it’s at diocesan expense. This is a positive concrete step toward the kind of renewal that will enable the diocese to cut the assessment and fund further renewal.

There is more to this than supply side economic stimulus. Reducing the assessment is a step toward treating each other differently in all fields, not just money. But there are two fundamental ways in which we could deal with each other in a more Christian way when it comes to money. First there is the question of debt.

Some of our congregations have had rough patches and fallen behind on their assessment payments in the past. They did not lie about it. They just didn’t pay so they accumulated a debt to the diocese. When this happened, the diocese enforced the canons to compel the payment of every last penny. No forgiveness. No mercy in this dojo. Those folks felt abused.

So today when a parish falls behind, those congregations who were forced to pay 100 cents on the dollar in the past now insist that our current debtors be held to the same strict standard. It is like abused children who grow up to abuse their own children. Wrong once done leads to wrong repeated and so on in perpetuity. We are trapped.

But what about the Christian moral imperative to forgive debts? Take a look at this commentary on Deuteronomy 15 and Matthew 18. Banks may not forgive debts but Christians do. In the Lord’s Prayer, if we strip away the theological interpretations and stick with the literal text, Matthew 6:12 says, “Forgive us out debts as we forgive our debtors.”

What if those who have been held to harsh standards in the past were to forgive the diocese for our harshness and forbear from being so harsh to those who struggle today? What if we repented from our ingrained pattern of judgment and tried a little mercy? What might that do for our capacity to work together for God’s mission?

The second thing struggling parishes might try is approach the Standing Committee with their situations in an honest way expecting fair treatment from someone who wishes them well. I understand why some don’t. The Standing Committee has not always been a safe place to admit challenges. But this Standing Committee has come to the aid of several congregations when they were in a bind. These really are good people. Would it be possible for vestries and the Standing Committee to reason together in good faith for the common good?

The lyrics of Reno songwriter Kate Cotter invite us to remember our past and imagine a future that does not just repeat old habits.

        If we can release,
        If we can let go
        If we can believe
        Even when we don’t know . . . .
        Let’s do it different this time
        All of the pearls of our past
        That are holding us back
        Falling away.

Could we do church different this time? Consider the implications: How we go about being the church forms the characters of our members and shapes how they go about the rest of their lives. Could we form more open minds, more generous hearts? If parishes chose to be generous in supporting the common diocesan mission – as some of them already are, giving over and above their assessment -- might such behavior model a generosity that would inspire church members to be more generous with their own congregations? That was my experience in parish ministry. When we doubled our giving outside the parish, the giving to the parish tripled. Would church members dare to make a bolder pledge if they trusted parish leaders to respond with kindness and understanding if they cannot fulfill the pledge – just as the diocese might treat a parish with kindness and understanding when the parish falls short of its assessment?

If we change the way we treat each other over money, what other changes might that open up? Might we find kinder more helpful ways to discern calls to ministry? Might we cooperate with each other for faith formation, ministry development, and social engagement? Where might it lead?