The Culture Beat

January 6, 2007

Moving on

Filed under: The Church — Culture Beat @ 10:39 am

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The shelves in Maggie Zeller’s office are almost empty, except for a half dozen hymnals and a few scattered bookends. The walls are bare.

After serving St. John’s Episcopal Church in Johnson City since June 2002 – first as assistant rector and then as interim rector – tomorrow is her last Sunday with the church. The new rector, Hal Hutchison from Louisiana, arrives next week. (Episcopal policy prevents an interim rector from staying in the same ministry.)

Zeller’s tenure was brief, but it came at a crucial time. Not only had the congregation recently moved into a new sanctuary when she took the interim role in November 2004, but the denomination had entered one of the most turbulent periods in its history. By ordaining an openly gay bishop in 2003, the Episcopal Church provoked a crisis in the worldwide Anglican Communion that has taken it to the brink of schism.

Like all mainline denominations, the Episcopal Church has been losing members for years, but controversies over sexuality have fueled a faster exodus. In 2002, the church claimed 2,320,221 members, but according to Christian Century magazine, membership has dropped to 2,205,376, a net loss of 115,000 in three years, including 42,000 just in 2005. By comparison, the church lost about 8,200 members in 2002.

Against that dismal backdrop, it’s worth noting that St. John’s has grown in numbers and, according to Zeller, grown more unified during the same period. In 2002, worship attendance averaged about 160; these days it typically runs over 190, about 20 percent higher. Zeller said she doesn’t know exactly why the parish is bucking the trends.

“I don’t have an answer,” she said. “People tell me it’s the liturgy. In the Episcopal Church, liturgy is the greatest evangelism tool we have.”

She suggested other factors – more people getting involved in the church’s ministry, efforts to befriend and serve people – but it’s clear that the atmosphere is much different than when she arrived. She thinks the most significant change has been with the vestry, the church’s governing board.

“For my first three years here, it worked strictly by majority rule,” she recalled. “People were regularly resigning; we had long, contentious meetings. It was not a comfortable place to be.”

But just before the previous rector departed and she stepped into the interim role, the leaders decided to work by consensus.

“We didn’t really know what that meant,” Zeller said with a laugh. “We all had to be on board, and everyone had a chance to talk. All votes are considered. If we struggle with a decision, the odds are good that it will be put off until we work through the issues.”

Now, she said, people look forward to the meetings.

“The meetings are still long, but there’s conversation,” she said. “Now my role is to get them to go home. There’s a brightness, and I know the Spirit is working through us. It’s fun.”

Maggie_Z

Zeller (pictured here) has also shepherded the church through the recent controversies, and she did that largely by letting people talk in public – in Sunday school classes, in congregational forums and in meetings with their bishop. She also addressed issues from the pulpit.

“My role was to keep people informed,” Zeller recalled. “We didn’t want surprises. I talk about things as they come up.”

While some churches elsewhere are departing the Episcopal Church, notably a few historic parishes in Virginia, that’s not the case at St. John’s, a relatively conservative parish (“but with a good-sized group that swings way to the liberal side,” according to Zeller) in a relatively conservative part of the country.

“No one is talking about leaving the Episcopal Church,” Zeller said firmly. “We’ve been talking about how we’re going to continue being a church.”

She doesn’t know yet where her own ministry will continue; she has a couple of prospects, but nothing she can talk about. But she’s content with her time here.

“I’m pleased with the ministry St. John’s and I had together,” she said. “It’s where I learned how to be a priest. They raised me up right.”

Her final word to the congregation will be drawn from the day’s designated gospel reading, the story of John the Baptist.

“He preached the gospel,” she said, “and that’s what we’re meant to do – preach the gospel, coming or going.”

(First published in the Johnson City, Tenn., Press, 6 January 2007.)

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