History of the 52 Churches in 52 Weeks Project

On Avoiding Ditches

As the tractor slipped down the hill, sideways, and landed softly in the ditch, I thought, “At what point could I have made a different decision that would have landed me anywhere but here?”

Every winter, we have a couple of cycles of snowing and thawing and freezing that results in our rural road (both ours and the county) becoming a large sheet of ice. It’s like that right this moment. Ultimately, we have to wait for it to melt, and, in our temperate winter, this doesn’t often take long. Yesterday, another few inches of snow fell, and the sun peeked out, so the question was this: Should I remove the new snow, exposing the ice underneath, in hopes that the sun would stay long enough to melt? Or should I leave the snow on top of the ice, even though the snow is insulating the ice and preventing its melting, because it’s easier to drive on? I decided on the former, because it was, in part, a moment of laziness and deciding not to snowblow that allowed the accumulation that was now ice to begin with.

I would like to say now that it started out really well. I went down the drive with no problem, plowed the rest of it without incident, and was a full three quarters of the way up the drive, and convinced that I was going to make it when I suddenly found myself, foot on the “forward” throttle, racing, backward, down the hill faster than the tractor goes in reverse. I did not want to give up after just the first try, so I went to the bottom of the hill, turned the tractor around, and started up the hill backward. At this point, I was thinking three things: I had been successful pulling this maneuver just last week after several tries, I did not want to quit trying after having only tried once, and I did not want to be defeated by the hill. Also, somewhere in my slightly adrenaline-addled mind, it struck me that racing down the icy slope might be better facing forward.

As the tractor slipped down the hill, sideways, and landed softly in the ditch, I thought, “At what point could I have made a different decision that would have landed me anywhere but here?”

On Beginning the Project

The 52 Churches in 52 weeks project began as a bit of a joke in the midst of one of those deep ditches of the soul that many of us go through in our lives in the church.

On Spiritual Bulimia

My own relationship with the church might often be described as “tenuous at best,” a description you will find ironic when you start doing the numbers and realize that I’ve served on the leadership of more than half the churches I’ve been involved with as an adult.

I was raised in the very ecumenical setting of base chapels across the globe. My father’s retirement from the military coincided with my graduation from high school, and he ended up looking specifically for college jobs, with the express intent of getting his four teenagers through college. I very clearly remember when his application materials from a little school called Houghton came in, as my mother and I spent the better part of an hour reading them, laughing, and marveling how there might be a whole town in 1988 that had rules that included no drinking, no dancing, no smoking, severely limited movie choices, no swearing, single-sex dorms with few visitation hours (and many visitation hour rules: lights on, feet on the floor, door open), and mandatory chapel throughout the week. During the application and interview process, I was rooting for Dartmouth. We landed in Houghton, which might as well have been another planet. It was an awful lot like the movie “Footloose”–but with no Kevin Bacon.

I sat through mandatory chapel after mandatory chapel, 5 days a week (required, then, of entering freshmen), many just extended advertisements for campus organizations, some guest speakers, some dull, some interesting, all compounding my resentment that I was compelled to be there. Quite unsuccessfully, I attempted to transfer to a different college, but it’s hard to beat “free” as a price tag, and I ended up graduating from Houghton. This is the point where I should marvel that I stayed, and tell you that Michael transferred in my senior year, and that we likely would not have met had I not stayed, and then wax poetic about making lemonade, but I’d be way off track, and I’m not sure either of us has ever managed to feel that warm and fuzzy about the place, despite its role in our meeting.

After I graduated, I went through a period of what is best described as spiritual bulimia. I’d try to attend a church, and just sit there, burning with the anger of four years of forced chapel attendance (I’d long since stopped attending church on Sundays). It didn’t matter how much I enjoyed the music, or the sermon, or the people, I just left each time, wanting to vomit it all back up.

I found myself in Lake Charles, LA, in graduate school and unmoored from family, friends, and church. I lived about a block from a (the, really) Reformed Synagogue, and started going to the services Friday evening. The rabbi read the Torah portion in Hebrew, and translated into English, on the fly. There’s a great startling beauty in hearing familiar passages rendered with that kind of immediacy. The rabbi’s sermons, then were often historical lessons, exploring the context of the text, and relating, for example, the Jewish festival of Succoth with the harvest festivals of the Pagans, and our own Thanksgiving. I never met anyone in that congregation, and I never spoke with anyone, attended coffee hour, or participated beyond coming to the Friday night service.

On Returning

This respite allowed me to step back and think critically about my own faith, to take little sips that I could digest, to move past the spiritual bulimia, and, when Michael and I married the following year (by his Foursquare Minister)–a move that landed me back in Houghton, but in grad school at SBU–to cautiously agree to “try out” the Episcopal churches he was attending in the county and at which he very much wanted me to join him.

On the TCM of ACEM

The Allegany County Episcopal Ministry was comprised, at the time, of six churches in western NY who shared a married couple who were both clergy. Ralph and Liz had retired from Wall Street, gone to seminary, and moved to Allegany County to serve together as the priests. Each did a 9am and an 11 am service each Sunday, driving madly across the county to make it to the next one. The two churches they weren’t at that particular week either had a supply priest, or did morning prayer. Using Canon-9, and following a model similar to that used in Michigan, they proposed that ACEM embrace a Total Common Ministry model for the future. Michael and I worked out a proposal for the seminary portion of the program as part of our work on the team, as we were both familiar with the resources available in the area, having just graduated from our respective programs (his, theology; mine, English). Our names were put forward as the discernment process began, but we withdrew because we were moving out of the area. In December, 2002, we returned to wNY to attend the licensing and ordinations of the first TCM team, which was bittersweet, and, like many things in life, so worth the bitter for the sweet.

On Attending Church in the South

The move to Raleigh was a difficult one, as Farmertoddler (then 2) and I followed Michael, and, with his new travel schedule, it looked like I was going to end up in Raleigh, in the middle of summer, with a full rented truck, a toddler, and no one to help me unload. I cold-called several Episcopal churches in Raleigh, explained the issue, and asked if I could, in exchange for pizza and all the soda they could drink, borrow their youth group, or men’s group, or if they’d ask on Sunday for volunteers to help a fellow Episcopalian moving to town. Every one of the churches turned me down flat. Every. One.

One secretary, thinking herself helpful, offered me the number of “Two Men and a Truck” from the telephone book. I explained I understood that such services existed, but I didn’t think I could afford them, which is why I was turning to the church for assistance. She told me that people had lives and jobs and were busy.

In tears, I called the office of the then Bishop of Rochester, with whom, because the ACEM churches each had about 25 members, I was on a first name basis, because he had lots of time with us when he came to visit. He was on holiday, but the secretary must have heard something in my voice, because she asked me what was wrong, and out came my blubbering story about the series of telephone calls I’d just made to NC, which I wrapped up with, “And the really sad thing is that I know if I called the Mormons, they’d send me lots of big guys. In slacks and ties.”

Without skipping a beat, she said, “Well, that’s no good. You know, I have the Bishop’s pen. I think there ought to be a letter.” And she took some information, talked calmly with me, and . . . and I don’t know what if anything she did, but it made me feel immensely better.

That did mean, though, that there was a list of churches in Raleigh whose doors I refused to even darken, and that, in the last dozen years, Michael and I have never said “no” to anyone who asked for our help in moving. Of the remainder, we started with the geographically closest, and worked our way “out” from the house. At the second church we went to, the priest signed the entire mass, songs, and sermon in ASL, and they kept making an announcement about “Super Silent Sunday” about which I kept thinking, “Cool! They’re going to do the entire service in ASL-only!” until I realized I was mis-hearing the words “Super Sign-up Sunday” wherein one might join the altar guild or volunteer to teach Sunday school or sing in the choir, and such.

The third week we went to that church, Michael was again out of town, and when I showed up to the nursery to drop her off, there was no attendant. The way I saw it, I had the choice to be the “nursery lady” or to go home to an empty house, and since we were already showered and dressed and had driven over, I went with the former. At the point the 8th or 9th baby/toddler showed up, his mother asked me if I was “the new nursery employee” and I grinned and explained how I came to be in the nursery. She stayed with me through the service, and we became good friends, as her eldest and mine got along as well as we did.

We ended up in the leadership of that church, on a committee planning for families and young children. Our leaving was in part due to moving to the far end of town, but beyond that, the church decided to grow and expand, wanted to be up and coming, wanted to attract new young people, but withdrew funding from the nursery and toddler program, just as we were attracting more families with wee ones.

We slid into a bit of a ditch at that point, as we hadn’t developed a plan of where to go next, but Raleigh was a big enough fast-growing area that we were able to change churches without the kinds of questions that accompany changing churches without leaving town.

We tried a couple of different churches, but nothing seemed to “stick.” My sister moved in with her girls while her husband was shipped off to the sandbox, and eventually Michael ended up going to church with three little girls in tow, but he never quite plugged into that church, in part because the “coffee hour” took place out on the sidewalk in front of the church they were renting from another denomination, because that church was meeting inside. After my sister and nieces moved, Michael asked if I might be interested to try another church, a little Episcopal church plant we’d heard of at the other churches, which was then meeting in a dinner cinema. We ended up there, and quickly plugged in. There was a great children’s program run by a Pentecostal and his Baptist sidekick who Farmertot (then 4) immediately fell in love with, and a sense of mission toward seekers and the unchurched in growing Suburban Raleigh, NC. In pretty short order, Michael and I were serving on the vestry (called the “Advance Team”) utilizing the paradigm of understanding church health and growth called “Natural Church Development.”

On Running With Scissors <this section still in drafting stage>

We’d moved to Spokane, WA in the sumer of 2004, and attended the closest Episcopal Church, ECOR for two years when a change in the music program (moving from separate “folk” and “traditional” services to “blend” the music) brought the conflict of warring personalities to a head that slowly built into a spiritually toxic environment. I’d probably be more cheery and witty about this, since the different personalities are interesting and amusing, but the bottom line is that my husband, one of the guitarists, was in the middle of it all, with the pianist who “doesn’t play well with others,” and made consistent, rude, biting comments sniping him a church services, and his best friend, who probably is more pig-headed than the pianist, but is ultimately more loving–are the main characters.

On Playing Well With Others <this section still in drafting stage>

Around the same time, a series of events unravelled that led us to the evening service at a local inner city church that was restarting—we came in on the ground floor of the re-start in the poorest community in downtown Spokane, Michael started playing with a fellow named Tighe, who has fun when he plays, plays well with others, and just really enjoys music. Soon—and by “soon” I mean “immediately”– our “occasional” attendance became consistent every-week attendance, and for several months, we attended two churches each Sunday. I was invited to join the Bishop’s Committee of the new church, and accepted the call. This lasted until Advent, when they pulled out the thurible, and we had to sit the season out because both Farmergirl and I have asthma.

Much as I’d like to tell you that the priest and the worship committee didn’t choose pomp over people, or incense over individuals, or tradition over relationships, I haven’t found a good way to say that’s what happened, and here’s a good justification for that. At any rate, although I was willing to sit it out, my family wasn’t, and I left the Bishop’s Committee, and we left the church, with a lot of grief, because we believed–we still believe–that this was a great church, and a great church for us.

I mean–look: Holy Trinity

That’s some really good stuff.

Untitled <this section still in drafting stage–doesn’t even have a proper title>

This is the part where I tell you that Michael was raised by Presbyterians, and I was raised in base chapels across the world by 5 point Calvinists, and that, as young adults, we both explored a number of different traditions, from Four Square to a Primitive Baptist to Community churches and a Reformed Synagogue, and came together as adults to the Episcopal Church, and have been raising (12 years) a “cradle Episcopalian.” And this is the part where I tell you that we got to this point in church angst, and decided that we weren’t even sure that we WANTED to raise a cradle Episcopalian, since, as I pointed out to Michael last week, I wasn’t sure I LIKED cradle Episcopalians, and I don’t want Farmergirl to hit adulthood not thinking critically about her tradition, and unthinkingly accepting it because that’s what it’s always been. We’d like her to have some of the breadth of exposure to the whole body of Christ, and this seemed as good a time as any to do that.

On Pulling Out of the Ditch

As for the tractor? I put the winch and the front attachment down, set the brake, and walked up the hill to get Michael and ask for help. We hooked the winch cable to the furthest tree, and used it to first pull, and then keep tension on, the tractor as we got it back up to the top of the drive. Before we went in, and before the sun went down, we also put the snow chains on the truck, because Michael’s got to go in to work in the morning, in the dark. Given how many times we’ve worked together successfully to pull a vehicle (often our own) out of some ditch, some where, there’s no one I’d rather be in the ditch with.

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