Moving forward requires letting go of the past

By Tom Ehrich
Posted Aug 15, 2012

[Religion News Service] Comparing today with yesterday is a popular yet pointless pastime.

For one thing, we rarely remember yesterday accurately. More to the point, yesterday was so, well, yesterday — different context, different players, different period in our lives, different numbers, different stages in science, commerce and communications.

Seeking to restore the 1950s — grafting 1950s values, lifestyles, cultural politics, educational and religious institutions — onto 2012 is nonsense. It sounds appealing, but it is delusional.

That world didn’t disappear because someone stole it and now we need to get it back. It disappeared because the nation doubled in size, white people fled racial integration in city schools and women entered the workforce en masse. It disappeared because factory jobs proliferated and then vanished, prosperity came and went, schools soared and then soured, the rich demanded far more than their fair share, overseas competitors arose, and medical advances lengthened life spans.

The comparison worth making isn’t between today and yesterday. It is between today and what could be. That comparison is truly distressing, which might explain why we don’t make it.

Take, for example, our presidential politics. With modern communications at their disposal, major parties could be engaging citizens in a vigorous national debate on issues that affect our lives. Instead, the greedy rich are bankrolling attack ads whose purposes are to belittle and dehumanize the opposition and to prevent any serious grappling with reality.

Advances in technology could be nurturing an economy of ideas, innovation and personal reinvention. Instead, great minds are harnessed to create games and social networking. The most significant innovations are in government spying, bank finagling and commercial data mining — none of which will end well for citizens.

Tools that give knowledge workers the ability to work anywhere could be leading us to repopulate the heartland and breathe new life into Rust Belt cities. Instead, young knowledge workers congregate in already-crowded coastal cities where the bars and restaurants are better.

The aging of baby boomers could be a glorious moment — a fresh cadre of healthy volunteers for churches and not-for-profits, affordable housing entering the market, lower cost of health care, increased stability for families.

Instead, boomers are made to feel like locusts about to strip the land. Banks won’t work with them to sell houses, the health care industry ramps up prices, employers steal their pensions, and churches offer stale vision and control battles. Cynical politicians stand ready to harvest their discontent.

When I work with congregations, I show them how to do a “gap analysis.” Look at best practices, look at actual practices, study the gaps between optimal and actual, and work on narrowing the gaps. One key question is always, Who benefits from keeping the gap wide? Who would obstruct an action plan for moving forward?

The answer usually lies in leadership. Weak, ineffective, self-serving and risk-averse leaders fight against change as if theirs was a holy cause. They cling to control as if only their interests mattered.

As we compare today and could-be on the larger stage, we see the same leadership deficits: politicians whose deceitful and feckless campaigns promise feckless terms in office; business leaders driven entirely by short-term gains in personal wealth; education dominated by bureaucrats and fundraisers; cities and towns run by the divisive and corrupt; government run by lobbyists-in-training.

The way forward doesn’t lie in some halcyon yesteryear. It lies in letting go of yesterday and pursuing what could be, even when the self-serving stand in the way.

— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter (at)tomehrich.

Comments (10)

  1. John McCann says:

    This is one of the most refreshing and honest words I have heard from the Episcopal Church. I am one of those baby boomers, have an amazing global resume, in fundraising, cultural affairs, and thouoght I could transition those skills to the church. I joined Trinity Walll Street with great enthusiasm, the church has been good to me, but they cant seem to find a place for my skills, I am now looking at Jerusalem, other locations. We could become a leader in affordable housing, and other things, but they seem more focused on turf wars between the Vestry and the Clergy, which I might add is outstanding. Right now, I am on the brink of financial ruin, I am one of those invisiblle types because I shine my shoes and wear a tie to church. If only they knew, or cared to know, I AM NOT the only one. I have the time (due to disability) the energy and the faith, yet after a year of offering servuces U have one self- discerned project to work on. We arent in the 50’s but some of the congregation acts like we are in an episode of “Mad Men”.

  2. Frank Harrison says:

    I enjoyed and profited from Ehrich’s article. Yet, I also wonder about letting go of the past. This all depends on what “past” it is which is to be let go. The Catholic tradition, and the Episcopal part of it, has developed out of its past including the great councils of The Church, the development of theological views both Latin and Eastern, the rites in which theology has life and rite have meaning, and the like. To our great harm easily forget this in an attempt to be “contemporary” and “relevant.” To forget THIS past is to gut The Church and attempt to transform it into something which, in essence, it is not. It is this past which sets the boundaries of the possibilities of the future for the Episcopal Church. If not, the wherein is our distinctive “gifts” to the contemporary world?

    Certainly the Fifties and Sixties were not “happy times” for intellectual and spiritual growth within The Church. Fuzzy thinking and practice based on such fuzzy thinking is never a “happy thing.” But even these times ought not to be forgotten lest we do similar things again under the same flag of “relevance” and what is “good” for our times. of course this “good for our times” is a fuzzy notion itself if we have no concrete measure of “good.” And I do not mean a pragmatic measure such as the increasing congregation sizes, money collected for social work purposes, and the like.

    Certainly The Church has reinvented itself throughout history, A casual reading of Church History from the early days of the Apostles until now shows a changing picture. But, the Catholic change is well orchestrated in terms of the past traditions. This we ought not ever to forget for to do so is to abandon The Church as the Episcopal Church.

    Just some thoughts along the way form an interested layman —

  3. Lisa Fox says:

    John, I envy the fact that you have such time and talents to offer! And I’m amazed they’re not being tapped in your parish. Did you hear about Resolution D066 that we adopted at General Convention? It’s at It directs TEC — through the office of Bishop Sauls — to establish an “Episcopal Network of Volunteer Executives and Professionals … to provide management and administrative counsel, support and training to clergy, vestry members, administrators and other persons in congregations, dioceses and provinces ….” I wonder if this might be a marvelous outlet for your gifts.

  4. Pamela Sten+ says:

    I am an Episcopal parish priest, now between calls, because I got exhausted from some of the very things about which you write in your excellent article. I’m coming to believe that people are so scared today with the state of the economy, “politics as usual” in Washington, the possibility of losing pensions and homes due to corporate greed and underwater mortgages, that all they have left to hold onto is the past: those days when “we used to have 100 kids in Sunday School and the pews were always filled!” What parish priest today hasn’t heard that? I hope I’m speaking for many in saying, “We’re tired of hearing it!” And here’s another one from a clergy colleague, quoting a parishioner, “What’s wrong with the Church today is that parents just aren’t raising their kids like we did.” Good golly!
    I came back from General Convention so fired up from my experiences of love and friendship and compassion and exciting liturgies and examples of thriving mission, and I am so proud to be an Episcopalian!
    Let’s get this Episcopal Church fired up with the Five Marks of Mission and the new budget based on those priorities, and preach and teach the priorities of Jesus vs. the world’s priorities,
    even if it has to be to half-filled (or empty, depending on optimism vs. pessimism) churches.
    And for churches that just want to spend their limited resources on fixing up their aging buildings: maybe they could glob together and form “The Church of the 20th Century, Past.” It could even be non-denominational, since these past-minded churches/people seem not at all interested in the Mission of the Episcopal Church in the 21st Century.
    For a sign of hope and inspiration for the future of the Church of the teachings of Jesus, listen to Jim Wallace’s address to the recent graduating class of VTS, titled “Unexpected Hope in Hopeless Times.” It certainly has given me hope in my recent seemingly hopeless time.

  5. Dennis Latta says:

    Moving forward does not necessarilly mean letting go of the past. For example we are not going throw out the Constitution of the United States or the Declaration of Independence nor are we going to let go of The Book of Common Prayer, The Holy Bible or the Creeds. Also the leaders of our church are not weak,ineffective ,or self serving. The whole church like the world at large is facing change at a breath taking pace . Facing this change and the resulting effect tests the courage of many dedicated and sincere people. Given this reality our goal must be to breath new life into the overwhelming theme and mission of the church which is salvation. The message of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and his grace is the same for us as it was that first Pentecost. What is our mission it is to bring prople to Christ. But the question remains how do we do this ? I think the there is not one answer there are many. I also know that is it much easier to downgrade any organization than it is to build it up. Also I believe that the rejection by many people of the church is not the church’s fault. The decision to accept the vision of Christ in ones life is a decision
    that all believers must make. Our work is to provide new and creative opportunities to do this.

  6. John Schaffer says:

    To Tom, I think it is unhelpful to blame white people and the “greedy rich” for the problems of TEC and our country. We should, instead, be searching for positive ways to improve the human condition.

    Where would we be if endowments had not been established years ago, by the same group you seem to demonize, to further God’s work. Also, generations of Americans have always worked to make life better, more comfortable and easier, with less work and more play, for their children and grand children. Why, then, are we surprised when some in the current generation, instead of working for the betterment of our society, are focused on developing and playing computer games? We actually got what we worked so long and hard to achieve. Another example of the “rule of unintended consequences”. And finally, there are plenty of fine bars and restaurants in the Mid-West and Southern states. Some, I would dare to say, are even as hoity-toity as those on the East and West coasts.

  7. Alecia Moroz says:

    There’s a big difference between letting go of the past and forgetting the past. One can let go of the past without forgetting or abandoning the rich lessons and traditions it provides. To forget the past is to lose all the wisdom and richness of tradition that comes from the past. To let go of the past is to use that wisdom and tradition to inform how we respond in the present and plan for the future WITHOUT TRYING TO MAKE THAT PRESENT OR FUTURE EXACTLY THE SAME AS THE PAST. Holding on to the past is a normal human response to anxiety about the present and fear of the future. We think that by holding onto the past (or some inaccurate memory of what we think the past was like, as Tom so eloquently pointed out), we can somehow stop the anxiety and fear. Change is scary, but change is also how the Holy Spirit works in our lives. We will never see “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” if we can’t let go of the past enough to let the Holy Spirit change who and how we are today and tomorrow.

  8. Christine Tetrault says:

    While I understand the author’s premise and even agree with his conclusions, I find it sad that he, too, is doing some demonizing on his own part. The “greedy rich” certainly stereotypes an entire class based solely on their income and attaches failures of character to individuals who are financially successful. This makes it all the more difficult to establish any sort of meaningful dialogue from which a positive result may issue. The “Weak, ineffective, self-serving and risk-averse leaders ” may be principled, intelligent people who still hold the values they were raised with. Is it appropriate to malign them because they do not think the same thoughts and base their decisions on the same premises that you do.

    My point is simple. To accomplish any real change in a church will require the participation of everyone, the forward thinking, modernized saints whom you seem to think are the only acceptable members of the current Episcopalian Church AND the greedy, weak, self-serving others who provide most of the money that allows the aforesaid saints to maintain their churches and the base from which they can do Christ’s work.

    As my previous paragraph shows, demonization of ANY group is easy, working with them is the challenge. We need to be very careful of language as it is a tool that can promote or discourage that cooperation.

    1. John Schaffer says:

      Thanks, Christine. That’s exactly what I was trying to say.

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