The Angelus

Volume XII, Number 43


Twice a year since 1997 I have attended a conference for members of the clergy and other organizational leaders called “Leadership in Ministry.”  I’m just back from the fall meeting.  The conference’s theoretical framework is family systems theory.  I’ve been working with that theory for more than two decades.  I want to tell you about the conference.

There are four of these conferences.  I attend one of the two that meet on different weeks at Lost River Retreat Center in Lost River, West Virginia.  The center is owned by Vienna Baptist Church, Vienna, Virginia.  The conference always begins on Monday afternoon at 1:30 PM and concludes at noon on Wednesday.  There are also conferences in Boston and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

I leave New York on Sunday afternoon and spend the night with my aunt and uncle in Vienna.  The trip gives me a chance to visit my mother on Sunday evening and on Wednesday afternoon.  Mom is recovering from hip replacement surgery.  She has Alzheimer’s.  I was so glad to be able to visit.  I happened to be there at the right time to help feed her supper on Sunday night and on Wednesday to help her drink a nutrition supplement – many, many small sips to finish it.  I am very aware when I help in this way that I will never feed her as many times as she has fed me.

Ideally before I arrive, I have written three one-page case studies.  The subjects are (1) my nuclear family, (2) a person or couple in the congregation I am working with in some way, and (3) an issue in congregational life.  Sometimes I dash to FedEx on the way to West Virginia to print them out.  This time I had only printed one when I arrived so I simply read the other two aloud from my computer in my meeting – not ideal.

The conference begins with a welcome and people saying something about what is going on in their lives.  Curiously, almost always people speak about their families, not themselves.  I usually say very little about myself personally – something my small group challenged me on this past week.  I pled guilty, yet I’m not sure the members of my group realized how little they or anyone shares about themselves, though they speak a lot of spouses and children.  I’m also sure that I’m going to have to step up next time and do more than say something like, “I’m Stephen Gerth, rector of an Episcopal parish in New York City.  I’ve been there for eleven years and I’m still having fun.”

The first of three theoretical presentations follows.  The first had a great title: If You Can’t Hide the Skeletons in Your Closet, You Might as Well Make Them Dance.  Before and after dinner we meet in small groups to begin working on the case studies we have brought.  That first night a movie is shown that has some relationship to family systems theory.  The classic is Cold Comfort Farm (1995).  Antwone Fisher (2002) is a favorite of mine.  I often don’t take advantage of the movie with most of the group.  (The film on offer was a Japanese language picture, Departures (2008), and got great reviews.)  I use the evening to talk with my friends there.  It’s a peer group for me that’s very important.

There are two presentations on Tuesday.  This time, both of these had something to do with responses to a health crisis, one of a spouse, one of a brother.  Both were really useful for what they said about the experience and because of the understanding the presenters had of how their family system was operating in a crisis.  The presenters’ learning in family systems theory was of help to them and to their relatives.

The real work of the conference happens in small groups.  Mine is coached by a practicing therapist; she’s an active Baptist layperson.  At the moment there are four in the group, two Baptists, one Presbyterian and me.  One of the Baptists is not ordained; he’s an attorney.  My group has been pretty stable for a number of years.  That has increased our trust level, but I don’t think our therapist or any member of our group would tell you we are easy on each other ever.  We happen all to be men, but overall there were twelve men and nine women participating at this session conference.  For my group, it’s always something like we are twelve or thirteen year-old boys again, supposed to be playing touch football, but it’s really full contact.  The therapist has been known to call us off, something like calling off the dogs when the fox has been found.

Though our case studies are formally about church members, the congregation as a family, and the minister’s own family, my small group is not detained very long by content.  When one of us is presenting, our therapist or someone in the group moves in for the kill, as it were.  We move quickly past content to the heart of it all: the emotional process of a person’s nuclear family.

Emotional process is how people relate to one another.  What happens in a family when a parent is mad or a grandparent is sick?  How do the adults handle anxiety about money?  Are alcohol and sexuality life-giving or an occasion for acting out?  When adversity arrives does the family leader lead?  Or is she or he like the proverbial deer in the headlights?

I think of emotional process as something like our capacity for language.  Most people, between the ages of six and eleven can develop a near native fluency in several languages at the same time.  The brain simply grows whatever neuronal pathways are needed for the right sounds.  After this, most people can still learn another language, but native fluency is hard to come by.  One has to use the biology that has already been set.  Our emotional processes are pretty well set before the age of five – some would say before the end of the first year of life.

I can’t begin to do justice to the theory.  I do remember my first family systems workshop.  It was held by the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman (1932-1996) in Bethesda, Maryland.  I was aware on the third day of that conference, during a break, the perhaps twenty-five people attending had been unloading all sorts of stuff in small groups, but all I could see was energy and ease.  As hard as it was to talk about things like my grandmother being raped by her stepfather and bearing a child who would die in infancy and how that affected my own mother’s ability to be present for me, the work seemed to free me and others from the bonds of the past and from judgment.  I can’t explain it.  It seemed that truth did set us free.  I keep going back because even though I learn new ways of understanding and responding, the original pathways are there.

Leadership in Ministry is an outgrowth of the work of Murray Bowen (1913-1990), a psychiatrist, who developed what he came to call “Bowen Family Systems Theory.”  Rabbi Edwin Friedman (1932-1996) was a student of Dr. Bowen.  He applied and developed Bowen’s theory to congregational life.  Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guildford Press, 1985) remains a standard work in the field.  I always know where my copy of this book is – and that’s not true for many books.

Bowen’s key theoretical insight was that what is true of our biological systems is true of our emotional systems.  Bowen was interested in marriage and family counseling – and this is where Ed Friedman connected with him.  Friedman was not a successful congregational rabbi.  His gifts as a therapist, theorist and coach, however, were formidable.  If you are interested in his work, a good introduction would be a book of his writings published posthumously.  The title itself is almost a sermon.  The book is great: What Are You Going To Do With The Rest of Your Life? (New York: Church Publishing, 2009).

There’s a lot more I could tell.  I know I’ve mentioned before that this particular workshop happens because of the leadership of my uncle, the Reverend Lawrence E. Matthews, retired senior pastor of Vienna Baptist Church.  He was the only member of the clergy on Ed Friedman’s faculty.  He started these workshops for people who couldn’t afford to attend Ed’s program.  I switched to these workshops after Ed died because Larry provided the particular perspective on the theory Ed had – the role of family process in congregational life.  Larry is finally retiring from this leadership position, too.  He and my aunt Jean Matthews join us at Saint Mary’s from time to time.  I hope more of you may have a chance to meet them now that they will be retired from this ministry.

Let me conclude by adding that I often don’t want to attend the workshop.  It’s not easy.  It is not all fun.  But I have found the work life-giving.  I have grown into more of the truth of who I am through this work.  Saint Paul wrote, “Let us therefore cease judging one another . . . Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life” (Romans 14:13,19, The New English Bible).  There’s a lot of work, of course, still to do.  Stephen Gerth


YOUR PRAYERS ARE ASKED especially for Mary, who is gravely ill, and for Carol, Edward, Lin, Mike, Larry, Ashley, Lindsay, Joe, José, Sharon, George, Mary, Jessica, Bryant, Daisy, Gerardo, Cesar, Chris, Rolf, Nicholas, Elsa, William, Gert, Miguel, Rick, and Emil, religious; for the members of our Armed Forces on active duty, especially John, James, Kayla, Marc, and Benjamin . . . GRANT THEM PEACE . . . September 19: 1914 Mary E. Charles; 1916 Daniel Prentice.


THIS WEEK AT SAINT MARY’S . . . Monday, September 20, 6:30 PM, Meeting of the Board of Trustees in the Arch Room, on the second floor of the Mission House . . . Tuesday, September 21, is the feast of Saint Matthew, Evangelist.  In addition to the 12:10 PM Eucharist, Mass will be celebrated at 6:20 PM . . . Father Gerth will hear confessions on Saturday, September 18.  Father Smith will hear confessions on Saturday, September 25.


THE ORDINARY FRIDAYS OF THE YEAR are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial in commemoration of the crucifixion of the Lord.


AROUND THE PARISH . . . James Kennerley is on vacation.  He returns to the parish on Monday, September 20 . . . The Rector will be away from the parish from Friday, September 24, until Wednesday, September 29.  He will return to the office on Thursday, September 30. . . Attendance: Last Sunday 229; Holy Cross Day 77.


FROM THE MUSIC DIRECTOR . . . The organ on Sunday morning will be played by Timothy Brumfield, formerly organist at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York City, since I will be on vacation and away from the parish.  The prelude will be an improvisation on Slane, the tune sung as the post-communion hymn.  The cantor will be Linda Jones, soprano, who will sing Fauré’s lovely Pie Jesu during Communion.  Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was one of the most prolific composers of his time.  His Requiem, from which the Pie Jesu is drawn, is his most famous and widely-performed work.  James Kennerley


CHRISTIAN EDUCATION . . . The first Adult Forum of the academic year will take place on Sunday, October 3, towards the end of Coffee Hour, around 1:00 PM, in Saint Joseph’s Hall.  Parish Archivist, Dick Leitsch, will give a talk on the history of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, focusing on Father Thomas McKee Brown, Saint Mary’s first rector and the organization of the parish during its early years.  The presentation will take place in connection with the current exhibition of images from the archives in Saint Joseph’s Hall . . . The Wednesday Night Bible Study Class will resume on October 6, at 6:30 PM.  Once again this year, the class will be led by Sister Deborah Francis, C.S.J.B., and Sister Laura Katharine, C.S.J.B.  The class will be reading selections from the so-called “apocryphal” or “deutero-canonical” books of the Bible.  Building on their reading of the Wisdom literature last year, the members of the class will have the opportunity to study such important biblical themes as the end of prophecy and the rise of apocalypticism.  If you have questions, please speak to one of the sisters.


CHILDCARE . . . Children are always welcome at Mass at Saint Mary’s.  The Rector encourages families with children to sit at the front of the church – so the children can see easily and clearly.  Childcare is in Saint Benedict’s Nursery & Playroom which is open and available every Sunday from 8:45 AM until 12:45 PM.


CATECHESIS OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD . . . Formation for younger children begins on Sunday, October 3.  The children will be meeting in a new space this year, the former parish office, now the “Atrium of the Good Shepherd.”  Deacon Rebecca Weiner Tompkins is our catechist and seminarian Rem Slone will be assisting during this academic year.  PLEASE NOTE: The Catechesis meets from 9:45 AM to 10:45 AM.


HYMN SING & OKTOBERFEST . . . Join a very friendly group of Saint Marians for the fourth annual Hymn Sing and Oktoberfest in Saint Joseph’s Hall (and the organ loft) on Saturday, October 2, at 6:00 PM, after the Evening Mass.  The food is good and the music is lively.  We are grateful to parish volunteers MaryJane Boland, Grace Bruni, Randy Morgan, Marie Rosseels, and Richard Theilmann for their help in organizing this event.  You may speak to one of our volunteers if you have questions or if you would like to help.  If you would like to nominate a favorite hymn for the Hymn Sing, please contact Father Smith or James Kennerley.  We hope that you can join us!  All are welcome.


OUTREACH AT SAINT MARY’S . . . Bishop Sisk recently attended an Interfaith Summit at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where Christian, Moslem and Jewish leaders had gathered to discuss and condemn the upsurge in Anti-Moslem sentiment and actions, and to discuss ways in which their congregations and communities could take steps to counter it. A link to the full text of the Summit’s final statement, together with a list of those in attendance, may be found in the news section on the home page of the diocesan website, . . . We continue to collect non-perishable food items for our outreach partner, the Saint Clement’s Food Pantry.  The Food Pantry continues to serve several hundred households in the Clinton and Times Square neighborhoods.  Please speak to Sister Deborah Francis, C.S.J.B., or to Father Smith if you have questions or if you would like to volunteer . . . Father Smith continues his Book Sale on Sunday in Saint Joseph’s Hall.  All proceeds are deposited in his discretionary fund and are used to help those in need.  In 2010, such proceeds and other gifts to the fund have allowed us to make donations to Episcopal Relief & Development; to the International Rescue Committee for use in Haiti and in Pakistan; to the Order of the Holy Cross’s Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery, in Grahamstown, S. Africa, in support of their educational programs; to a parish in the Dominican Republic for the purchase of liturgical supplies; to the parish of San Juan Evangelista, our mission partner in Honduras; to the Dwelling Place, a women’s shelter near the Port Authority Building; to the Saint Clement’s Food Pantry; and to several individuals in need.  Thank you to all who continue to support Saint Mary’s outreach efforts . . . We recently received the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s (NYCCAH) updated Guide to Free Food and Assistance: Chelsea/West Side-2010.  Copies in both English and in Spanish may be found on the ushers’ table.  NYCCAH “represents the more than 1,200 non-profit soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City and the more than 1.3 million low-income New Yorkers who are forced to use them.  The Coalition works to meet the immediate food needs of low-income New Yorkers and enact innovative solutions to help them move ‘beyond the soup kitchen’ to self-sufficiency.  For more information about NYCCAH, visit”


HOSPITALITY AT SAINT MARY’S . . . The evening receptions following Solemn Mass on Holy Days are made possible by the donations of generous parishioners and friends of Saint Mary’s.  A donation has already been made for All Saints’ Day on November 1.  If you would like to make such a donation, or if you would like more information, please contact Fr. Jay Smith.


ALTAR FLOWERS are needed for Sunday, October 24, and for three Sundays in November.  If you would like to make a donation, please contact Aaron Koch in the finance office and thank you to all those who support this ministry so generously.


LOOKING AHEAD . . . Wednesday, September 29, Saint Michael and  All Angels, Sung Mass at 12:10 PM and Sung Mass at 6:00 PM . . . Saturday, October 9, 1:00 PM, Saint Mary’s Guild meets . . . Monday, October 11, Columbus Day, Federal Holiday Schedule . . . Monday, October 18, Saint Luke, Mass at 12:10 PM and 6:20 PM . . . Thursday, October 28, Saint Simon & Saint Jude, Mass at 12:10 PM and 6:20 PM . . . Monday, November 1, All Saints’ Day, Solemn Mass 6:00 PM . . . Tuesday, November 2, All Souls’ Day, Solemn Mass 6:00 PM . . . Sunday, November 7, 2:00 AM: Daylight Savings Time ends (clocks are set back one hour) . . . Saturday, November 13, 1:00 PM, Meeting of Saint Mary’s Guild . . . In November the Visual Arts Program will present Nativity Scenes: Works on Paper by Carlos Molina in the gallery in Saint Joseph’s Hall . . . Tuesday, December 7, Solemn Evensong and Legacy Society Reception . . . Wednesday, December 8, Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Solemn Pontifical Mass 6:00 PM, the Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk, XV Bishop of New York, celebrant and preacher . . . Saturday, December 11, 10:00 AM-3:00 PM, Advent Quiet Day, led by Father John Beddingfield.  Father Beddingfield, who served at Saint Mary’s as curate, is the Rector of All Souls Memorial Church, Washington, D.C.



The Parish Clergy
The Reverend Stephen Gerth, rector
The Reverend James Ross Smith, curate
The Reverend Rebecca Weiner Tompkins, deacon
The Reverend Canon Edgar F. Wells, rector emeritus


Saint Mary’s Mission House
Sister Deborah Francis, C.S.J.B.
Sister Laura Katharine, C.S.J.B.
The Community of St. John Baptist


The Parish Musicians
Mr. James Kennerley, organist and music director
Mr. Lawrence Trupiano, organ curator


The Parish Staff
Mr. Aaron Koch, business manager
Mr. Steven Gonley, building superintendent
Mr. Miguel Gonzalez, Mr. Mario Martinez, Mr. H. Antonio Santiago, sextons