Assessing Effectively

Mark 10:35-45

1.

Whenever I have a little extra time, I like to study congregational development. Congregational development is the term that’s in vogue today; twenty-five years ago it was church growth.

It’s the area of ecclesiology that wrestles with questions like: How can our congregation grow? What does it take for a congregation to attract more worshipers? What clues can we learn from local demographics? And—a question I was confronted with in Yuma—can a congregation of the Episcopal Church thrive in a geographic region where Trader Joe’s won’t open a franchise?

Trader Joe’s wouldn’t come to Yuma because there was not a high enough percentage of college-graduates there. I’d heard this rumor anyway; so I wrote to the company personally to ask if it was true. It was.

And yet the Episcopal Church’s demographic is high on education levels: How strong were an Episcopal parish’s chances for survival in a town whose education levels weren’t good enough for Trader Joe’s?

So you know, I’m not the only one concerned about congregational development. This area of ecclesiology has become a rather prominent focal point of not just the Episcopal Church but of most Christian denominations in the U. S. And not in just one segment, like Catholic, Protestant, mainstream, liberal, conservative, settled, or adaptable. But all of the above!

Numerous books have been published on the subject. If I wanted to attend workshops or other continuing education opportunities on this topic, well, there are so many available I don’t even know where to begin. It’s even a focus of doctoral study: I could go earn a Doctor of Ministry degree in Congregational Development if I were so inclined; I’m not.

Still, I take this area of ecclesiology seriously. In fact, the Bishop’s Committee and I have been working our way through a book this year on congregational development called Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter. We allot a chunk of time in each of our monthly meetings to discuss the ideas presented within.

2.

And today we’re confronted with this story.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus and ask, “Teacher, will you give us whatever we ask?”

And already things are sounding suspicious! I mean, whenever someone approaches me and says something like, “Tim, will you do me a favor?” my defensive radar goes up.

What is this “favor,” exactly, I wonder? What is it that the asker is trying to get me to do? Why hasn’t this person just come out with it and asked me directly? Am being manipulated?

And so I find a way not to say, “Yeah, sure. What do you need? Name it.”

Maybe Jesus’ defensive radar went up too.

Whatever the case, he doesn’t say, “Sure, what do you need? Name it.” Instead, without answering their preemptive request, he asks for clarification: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Oh,” they say—I imagine a little sheepishly—“well, you know, nothing much; just that one of us gets to sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory. No big deal. Won’t you do this for us?”

James and John’s is a recognizably audacious request. We could even call it rash. And thus there’s a certain tension here.

These two brothers are arguing about who’s the best, about who deserves to be in a place of honor in the kingdom. And—as if they didn’t already know—for the third time in this Gospel Jesus tells them what they must do to inherit the kingdom of God: be servant of all; be like a little child.

Now—though we’ve heard it all before—many times!—aren’t we a lot like James and John? Aren’t we rather audacious and rash in our faith and practice? When we go about our daily routines, isn’t it all too easy to put ourselves first and consider others only as an afterthought, if at all?

And what should we make of congregational development—how St. Thomas might become bigger and better; how St. Thomas might become more known in and around Temecula and Murrieta; how St. Thomas might pay off its mortgage once and for all?

Isn’t this similar to what James and John are doing?

We want a kind of glory for ourselves. We like to be in places of honor. We crave accolades. These are natural parts of our human condition.

Wouldn’t it be great, then, if St. Thomas became known as the best all-round parish in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego?

Heck yes!

Well, then, how are we gonna get there?

And so we think long and hard about congregational development.

But . . . as today’s Gospel shows us, we shouldn’t be self-absorbed, fighting for the top spot.

3.

This brings up two difficult questions. On the individual level, how do we combat self-absorption? On the corporate level, why should we concern ourselves with congregational development; isn’t it simply a self-serving exercise? (Spoiler alert: no, it’s not a self-serving exercise.)

Let’s take a step backwards, get our noses out of the details of the Gospel for a moment, and think about the bigger picture here.

Jesus rebuked James and John for striving to be on top; and yet, in the church history Hall of Fame, these two disciples in fact hold some of the top spots of all the saints. Jesus rebuked them for wanting to be the greatest; they nevertheless became some of the greatest.

As a parish, we shouldn’t be competitive about how well-known we are or might become because of our ministries; though St. Thomas may actually become a model parish in the Diocese of San Diego.

Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

And we nod our heads meaningfully, knowing this will in fact happen, though not as James and John envision it.

The bigger picture here is about effective self-assessment; which is different than self-absorption.

In today’s Gospel, James and John are good at being self-absorbed; but poor at self-assessment.

Like James and John, it’s natural for us to see the faults in other people; but not so easy to see our own. On the other hand, it’s very easy for us to see our own achievements and accomplishments, but much more difficult to see the achievements and accomplishments of others. It’s easy to criticize others and praise ourselves.

So, it’s only after James and John learn to deny themselves and assess themselves effectively that they are able to go out and accomplish Jesus’ mission—which makes them two of the greatest in the Faith Hall of Fame today.

What we should be after is effective self-assessment.

This is a skill that does not come naturally to us. It takes much effort; much practice.

For it to be effective, we look outward, putting others first; not inward, at our needs, wants, superiorities, entitlements, and biases. We don’t come to Jesus asking him to do something for us because, hey, we deserve it. Instead we come asking humbly, “How can I become a servant to all?” “How can I receive the kingdom as a child?”

4.

And this is precisely why I’m leading the Bishop’s Committee through Rebuilt: effective self-assessment! I don’t want St. Thomas to be self-focused; rather, I want the leadership to assess our congregation effectively.

But combatting self-absorption begins not with us as a congregation or even with the leadership but with all of us, you and me, as individuals.

Unless you and I learn to consider the needs of others as on par with our own needs; unless you and I rid ourselves of the senses of superiority and entitlement that tend to accompany our wealth, education, and ethnicity (I deserve to shop at Trader Joe’s); unless you and I see no distinction between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free as Christ sees no distinction—unless you and I, as individuals, see true equality between the faces seated around us and ourselves, we cannot move forward as the community God has called us to be in Christ Jesus.

Like James and John, it is only after we break free of self-absorption that we will be able to assess ourselves effectively—first as individuals and then as a community.

What is the purpose of the church? Is it not to go out into all the world and make disciples, teaching, baptizing, and healing? If I interpret this purpose correctly, then the church exists not for the benefit of its members but for those outside. It’s not about you and me; it’s about everybody else.

*****

How might we, St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School, accomplish this mission?

First, we rid ourselves of perceived entitlements and ways in which we feel superior to others; and thus receive the kingdom of God as a little child.

And, second, we seek to meet the true needs and hurts of those in the world around us; and thus become better servant-leaders.

These two actions are at the core of effective self-assessment. These two actions must be the focal point of every discussion we have about congregational development.

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