On Wednesday evenings this past month, members of my church (that “my” is intended loosely!), St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, have been gathering to talk about “beloved community.” These discussions have been led by members of the Beloved in the Desert intentional community of young adults at our church that I first mentioned a couple months ago. Now that their series has concluded, I’m feeling nudged by the Spirit to share some elements of the conversations and my reflections upon them.
St. Philip’s is the largest Episcopal church in Tucson, and one of the oldest. In fact, it has helped found a number of the other churches in Tucson over the decades. It has a large, charming, Spanish mission-esque church campus with desert plants, picturesque courtyards, and lots of nooks and corners for prayer and reflection (you can check out the many gorgeous photos of the campus posted by community members here).
I will freely admit that I’m not generally a big-church person. I have preferred belonging to smaller communities. My best conversations happen 1-with-1; that’s my most comfortable style. I’m not a big fan of some of the seemingly inevitable big-church priorities, like brass plaques commemorating who donated what. St. Philip’s is known for its music program, to which dozens have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years—and I’ve sometimes groused to Henry that I don’t love the “worship of music” which means, for example, that I don’t get to join in singing the psalm.
And yet—I have been captivated by the community. This church has a vibrant core community of vastly varied people (at least in terms of age, social status, and orientation) who gather to wrestle with important issues—like priorities in Christian community, which is one of the topics that came up at our table last Wednesday.
St. Philip’s has hosted a copy of the Gospels from the Saint John’s Bible over the past year (for anyone in the Tucson area, there’s an upcoming closing presentation and lunch where all seven books of this illuminated Bible will be present). As its time here draws to a close, some folks are talking wistfully about the (remote!) possibility of someone giving enough money to purchase a copy of this “Heritage Edition” for the church—exactly the sort of thing that a large church might expect to happen.
And yet…someone at our table mentioned that the six-figure funds for that Bible might be much better spent in helping bring down the six-figure school debts being carried by each of our church’s ordained leaders. It costs a lot of money to attend seminary (I know, since both Henry and I have done so!), on top of an undergraduate education. As a Christian community, shouldn’t our priorities be oriented toward supporting present and future leaders, rather than purchasing more expensive objects to care for and insure? (Of course, there’s also the issue of how people’s giving follows their passions, and it’s a lot easier to become passionate about a gorgeously illuminated Bible than it is about someone else’s debt!)
I did a bit of searching online and discovered that the Lily Endowment Fund is paying attention to this issue, but I couldn’t easily find anything on what the Episcopal Church is doing. Unfortunately, US tax laws prevent the designation of donated funds to pay for specific personal expenses of church employees, so I can’t give to the church and expect those funds to end up doing what I want. (I will be writing more next week about how American society actually makes Christian community life more difficult.)
So, I will have to ask around and discover what creative solutions might be possible, because I believe we need to be radically revisiting our spiritual and faith-community priorities. After all, our best legacy lies not in a church building, beautiful though it may be, but in the people who are Christ for each other, in that building and reaching beyond it, into our broader society and around the world.
This week, I invite you to ponder the community-priority issues you have encountered. What creative solutions might God have for you to undertake or discover—large or small—to support your spiritual community?
Thank you for this enlightening piece…. I have never thought about clergy debt…. nor the implications/ limitations of donations of church members. I appreciate the insights and look forward to next week! I have thought a lot about what I consider “wasteful” spending in churches and other institutions and have not come up with any wonder working solutions. Just this weekend we had a fun adventure and attended a fall festival for a “home for youth” that seems to operate on a pretty tight budget. They are often soliciting help from the community, especially at holiday time and we usually stop by to take a name or two off the “giving tree”. There were several vendors selling their wares; I’m sure they each payed an entrance fee and that’s a great way to make money for the home. There were lots of give away items (hot dogs/ cider and cookies ) from local stores among the music, zumba demos, hay rides and pumpkin decorating contests. What struck (and annoyed) me most was the “goody bag” each visitor received… filled with plastic “stuff” with local advertisements (cups/ visors/ fans) most of which I am guessing ended up in the recycle bins or garbage cans. I know these are often corporate write offs and a way to advertise but I get so frustrated with these throw away items that cost somebody along the food chain or end up as pollutants to our planet. I am not sure how this is related to your observations and questions other than the loose thread of how we all spend our money…. but it provided me an opportunity just to vent 🙂 and hopefully be more mindful and say no thank you when a goody bag is offered. Sometimes these fun adventures make me grumpy! Thanks for listening… hope we can have coffee and some 1:1 conversation soon 🙂
Hi, Joyce. I’m glad you found my post enlightening…and that it sparked such an interesting train of thought! All our actions have consequences, and the more we recognize them (individually and communally), the more we can intentionally work to change them. So thank you for sharing, and bringing me a new level of awareness on the goody bag!
Yes, let’s talk soon!
Shirin, this thought-piece elegantly brings together some experiences you’ve had at “your” church and some big, important questions about worship and stewardship. How blessed St. Philip’s is to include such a reflective writer as you among its members. This post comes to me at a time when I am reflecting on my own faith community’s priorities, which, given our fairly small size, must remain relatively modest (although they’re major to us). I appreciate the perspective you bring. I also appreciate the reminder of the St. John’s Bible, which I’ve seen at St. John’s, itself, on a few occasions. It’s breathtaking–a great work of art that offers a kind of visual, scriptural soul medicine to a digitally over-saturated, biblically under-literate society. I want the church to be able somehow to choose both/and: both the illuminated Bible and the reduction of faith leaders’ educational debts, because the people of God need both artistic beauty and economic practicality (and more) in order to be whole.
Thanks for the opportunity to read and comment!
Thank you, Rachel, for this thoughtful response to my post, and for your support of my writing. I’m glad that it touched on some good memories for you, made some good connections–and I’m holding you and your church community in prayer as you discern your faith community’s priorities. You’re welcome, and thank you!