A Lot of Smiles at St. John’s, Petaluma

A Lot of Smiles at St. John’s, Petaluma

by Clif Hill, Chair, Discernment Committee of St. John's, Petaluma

So, what’s going on these days at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Petaluma? Well, there seems to be more than the normal amount of hugging, a lot of smiles- some of which can more accurately be described as big goofy grins- and giggling. Laughter is rampant, and happiness abounds! On Monday evening, November 3, 2014, three signatures were affixed to a piece of paper and, after seven long years, St. John’s finally has called the Very Reverend Daniel Currie Green as our Rector.

Pictured at right are the St. John's Vestry, the Discernment Committee, the Very Rev. Daniel Green and the Very Rev. Jeanne Forte at The Bishop's Ranch for our Discernment Retreat. On the top row, from the left are: Alison Adams, Kristin Ikola, and the Very Rev. Daniel Green (standing), Monty Sullivan (standing) and Joanna Butler (standing). On the bottom row are: Joanne Woodland (standing), the Very Rev. Jeanne Forte, Rebecca Smith, Clif Hill, Marti Shortridge, Connie Prim, Kathryn Hardt, Susan Hadenfeldt and Nancy Bosch.

It wasn’t easy getting to that Monday evening. When we returned to the corner of Fifth and “C” in Petaluma, there were many who thought we were attempting to do something that just wasn’t possible. A woefully small congregation taking on the management of a historic church and its grounds was a recipe for disaster. Throughout America there were already too many places where Episcopalians were in the awful business of shutting down failing parishes, and more were looming on the horizon. Re-establishing an Episcopal Church at St. John’s could simply be a set-up for one more sad failure. But God apparently had another view on the subject.

Under the strong leadership of Bishop Barry Beisner, the diocese decided to give it a try. However, there was a firm condition placed on our remaining a parish. We had to achieve financial independence. It was never a sure thing by any means. There were times when we were really worried. But somehow we continued to meet our financial projections and, by God’s Grace, we did it! Now all we had to do was find a Rector. That would be easy.

We had a Priest-in-Charge appointed by the Bishop whom we loved. According to the rules in The Episcopal Church, when a Priest-in-Charge’s tenure comes to an end you have four choices:

- Renegotiate a new contract with your Priest-in-Charge
- Try and find a different Priest-in-Charge
- Start a Rector search
- Or, call your Priest-in-Charge as your Rector

We, of course, chose the last option. We figured we would have a five minute meeting, we would write a letter to the Bishop, have a nice party and Daniel would be our Rector. However, we quickly learned that the canons of The Episcopal Church have a different process in mind… a process called Christian Discernment.

Christian Discernment

We already knew a bit about Christian Discernment. There is a neat little book called Grounded in God that lays out the process in very practical and manageable terms. We had studied the book in the Vestry, but our understanding of the process was just academic. We hadn’t tried it out yet. On the face of it, the book is really just about the way to have a polite discussion. And, the rules of the discussion are quite simple:

- You listen to one another.
- You try not to interrupt.
- You pause between speakers to absorb what has been said.
- You try not to formulate what you are going to say while someone else is speaking.
- You speak only for yourself.
- You express your own thoughts and feelings.
- You refer to your own experiences.
- You avoid the hypothetical and you steer away from broad generalizations.
- You don’t challenge what others have to say.
- You listen to the whole group … to those who have not spoken, as well as to those who have.
- You leave space for someone to speak a first time before you speak a second time.
- And, hardest of all, you hold your own desires and opinions and even your convictions lightly.

But what about the Christian part? Maybe, we thought, if you just start things out with a prayer then, voila, you’ve turned discernment into “Christian Discernment.” But we learned that there is much, much more to it than that. And there was much, much more that we were being asked to do than just have a polite discussion.

- We were not being asked to come up with a job description for a Rector.
- We were not being asked to gin up a list of what we liked and disliked about St. John’s to see if Daniel agreed with us.
- We were not being asked to describe what needs fixing at St. John’s and to find out if Daniel was up to the task of fixing it.
- We were not being asked for a five-year plan of action with milestones.
- And, you know, we were not even being asked to decide whether or not we wanted Daniel to be our Rector.

The purpose of the exercise was to try to discover what God wanted us to be.

Our Discernment

Christian Discernment is about taking God up on the wonderful promise he made to us when Jesus said "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." Christian Discernment is not a process of deciding what we want to do. It is a way of listening with our hearts for what God is calling us to be. We tried it out as a congregation. And it works! Following an almost year-long conversation, we finally centered around three topics.

The first topic was: In what ways can St. John’s provide support and strength when you desire to achieve lasting, life-giving change or face a serious life challenge?

This was perhaps the scariest topic. We weren’t quite sure how people would react to it. But, you know, it was the one that seemed to resonate the most with everyone.

- We discovered that we like each other.
- We care about each other.
- We trust each other.

The second topic was: Based on what you know of life in Petaluma, what are the most pressing needs in our community and is there one of those needs that you feel a heart’s desire and sacrificial commitment to do something about?

We found that we are passionate about our community and its well-being. Our story of loving kindness, inclusion and redemption brings a lot to the table. We have much to offer our community.

The final topic was: In the future when people tell the story of St. John’s Parish from 2014 to 2030, what do you want them to be able to say?

The responses to this one were rich and diverse, but in the aggregate, a common theme emerged. We want our history to be defined by what we loved, not by what we didn’t. We long to be remembered for who we embraced, not for who we rejected.

We have discerned. And, we continue to discern. The energy in the process was amazing. And, it continues to amaze. We were on fire. And, we’re still smokin’. Are we done yet? No, we are just getting started. But what we have had is a glimpse of who we are and how we come to know God:

- We cherish St. John’s and each other.
- We love the intimacy with God that we find when we interact with each other in the setting of small groups.
- We yearn to care for each other and our community.
- We want to be involved with the growth of our young people and their discovery of God’s Kingdom.
- We revel in both our tradition and our relevance in today’s world.
- We know God has a plan for St. John’s and we are eager to learn about it through each other.
- We are poised to begin a marvelous journey.

So, that is what’s going on these days at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Petaluma. Yes, that and a lot of smiling!

2 comments (Add your own)

1. Gretchen Trominski wrote:
What a fabulous example of God's presence and work in action

Sun, November 16, 2014 @ 8:22 AM

2. Marcia Tyriver wrote:
How exciting! Blessings to you, neighbors & brothers and sisters in Christ.
(I'm from St. Patrick's, Kenwood)

Wed, November 26, 2014 @ 7:40 AM

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