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Lynn Penney Lynn Penney
Lynn Penney is a lay leader and member of Union Church of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, NY and leads Art & Prayer Workshops throughout the Northeast.

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How can a lay leader respond to the limitations of church?

January 19, 2010

I am a lay leader  - someone who leads workshops and prayer services, who teaches the occasional Sunday School, has been on committees, gives regularly to Episcopal Relief and Development, and brings food to the coffee hour and food bank.   I am currently a member of a Presbyterian Church and grew up Episcopalian.  Perhaps I struggle with church more than others. I have certainly struggled to find a church home.  But I think church is hard for people.  That's OK if it's the right kind of hard but mostly, I feel it is the wrong kind of hard - one that limits engagement and commitment to the needs to the institution above the Spirit. 

Recently a congregation in our community gave up their beautiful old building.  It has been torn down and part of the land was sold. Money from the sale of the land is going to build a smaller manageable building. There was outrage in the neighborhood.  People thought the congregation's community function was to keep the beautiful building there for us all to pass every day.  I thought their decision pointed to courage - born out of need of course - but still.

Along with making our buildings too important, I struggle with rituals that are too staid which often feel more important than the Spirit.  I love what Annie Dillard writes in Holy the Firm:

"The higher Christian churches - where, if anywhere I belong - come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.  I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.  In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.  If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.  But in the low churches you expect it any minute.  This is the beginning of wisdom."  Annie Dillard Holy the Firm

While Annie Dillard points to the wisdom of the low churches in this, I imagine she could lend her pen to the limitations of low churches as well.  There is deep wisdom in our rituals, weekly prayers and services and there is a real and deadly calcification.

I need moments in church when what is expected and regular does not occur... when a leading of the Spirit is allowed to grow and make itself known.  I need fresh words which point to the depth beyond any words - to the mindfulness of taking communion, to the power of being in silence with God.  I need that occasional Sunday morning where we all work the soup kitchen rather than going to church, where we create a mural and hang it outside for the world to see, where we sit in silent prayer.  I am aware that other people need other things - that for clergy, the process of trying to please everyone results in burnout and resentment.  I know I am most fed when the clergy are deeply fed.  And I know that being involved in church, simply for the sake of form or the institution, does not call to me.  

So I go to church about once a month on Sundays and co-lead our monthly Taize service.  Often, I travel on Saturdays leading art & prayer workshops in various churches.  This is my joy.  The workshops let me to bring to others what I've been given in my relationship with God -- and most often the people who attend are deeply fed.  And I am not sure what else, if anything, I am called as a lay leader to do in response to the limitations I experience in our churches. 


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