July 31, 2019

A Baptism of Cats - Part 1

Even though I have been in the Episcopal Church for seven years and serving in Malcolm Riker's home diocese for three, no one had ever mentioned his name to me in that time. Until a couple month's ago.

While talking with two priests over coffee, Riker's name came up along with his astonishing accomplishments and that a book had been written about him. Immediately, I looked up this book, ordered it. and about a week ago, I finished reading How He Priested: The Story of Malcolm P. Riker by Martha Smith.

Riker was a prolific Episcopal priest who served for 40 years in the diocese I now serve in, the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. During his tenure, he planted 11 churches and led over 4,000 individuals to confirmation in the Episcopal Church. Smith's book is a biography of this incredibly productive leader starting with his family background, early life in Austin and through his retirement. The Rev. Riker was 77 years old when he passed away in 2002.

Riker wasn't surrounded by church planters in his tradition. His parents were academics that while possibly not nominally religious, they certainly were not deeply involved the life of their local faith community. What made Riker uniquely capable of such an achievement?

It may have all started with a baptism of cats.

A Baptism of Cats
Riker was baptized into the Episcopal Church and when he was around 11 or 12, began preparation for confirmation–membership within the Episcopal Church. As was the tradition in his home parish, confirmation also meant preparation to serve as an acolyte–someone that assists the clergy with the liturgy. As Smith retells, Riker was enamored with what he was learning about the Christian faith and the practices of the Church. He knew that as an acolyte he would assist the priest in baptism services. He had a prayer book and read over the service. In youthful earnestness, he wanted to serve faithfully and well. The best way to be prepared, he concluded, was to practice the service himself.

Riker recruited a cat for baptism by full-immersion.

He was able to complete the service even though he was "thoroughly scratched" by the time it was over. Sometime later, the cat died and having been baptized the young Riker decided the only appropriate thing to do was to offer the burial rite for the cat. (He also dug it up later on to see if it had been resurrected.) Even though his "interest in baptizing cats" would wane, this hilarious scene of his early life offers a glimpse into who Riker was and why he was suited for the work he would do later on in life.

Riker was a practitioner. To understand the Christian faith, for him, was to practice the Christian faith. From an early age he demonstrated this instinct.  He was not merely interested in ideas. He was curious about how ideas worked, how ideas were put into practice. He would exhibit this throughout his life; an impatience with corporate meetings and bureaucracy, a frustration with how seminarians were trained and the apathy of his colleagues when it came to conducting the liturgy with care or working tirelessly at evangelistic efforts. He was a reader and studied deeply but he did so to apply it to how he lived.

This humorous picture of Riker's early life demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice. Who tries to baptize a cat and thinks they'll get out of it unscathed?! Riker loved cats his entire life. He had to have known what would happen when dunking a cat three times under water! And yet he still decided to go through with it. He faced sacrifice unflinchingly. Riker calculated the cost of everything. He knew going into every risky endeavor he did what it would cost him, his family and the Diocese. He still did it. The mission of the Church, the good news of the Gospel was worth it every time.

The spirit of a mischievous little boy that baptized cats never left Riker; he enjoyed the work he got to do even when it cost him. His parents were not approving of his choice to aspire to the priesthood but Riker was undeterred. During his service in the military during World War II he wrote to his father that he wanted to do "something I enjoy and live as a LIFE profession. I've only got one ..."

One cannot accomplish the kind of work Riker did if they seek out position over practice, count the benefits without the costs or seek promotion over fulfillment. These characteristics glimpsed through the baptism of cats may be the first at demonstrating why Riker achieved what he did. He learned by doing, he understood what it would cost him and he truly enjoyed the work.

Each of us goes through a season in life when we discern what it is we will spend most of our waking hours doing. Riker's example may be helpful to those in such a season. Discern by trying and determine what will bring you joy, even after it costs you.

When I speak to those discerning a call to Christian leadership, I tell them to discern by practicing–start a new community and see what you learn about your call to leadership. What Riker learned was that the fulfillment he experienced, in spite of the sacrifice it may have required, was worth it–which is a sure sign you are doing what you're called to do.

A Unique Episcopalian
If it wasn't immediately obvious, Riker's accomplishments are not common within the Episcopal Church. Not only are there few Episcopal priests that are church planters, there are even fewer–if any–that have planted as many churches as Riker did. Even more, the number of people he brought into the Episcopal church is staggering within a tradition that has–at least in my experience, frequently shivered at the mere utterance of the word "evangelism" and demonstrated a general disdain for tracking metrics. (I don't say this just to deride Episcopalians, even if it is a frequent point of personal frustration. I am a confirmed Episcopalian and this tribe has lovingly adopted my family and me for which I am eternally grateful.) Riker's accomplishments would be impressive even among his counterparts in other traditions in the western hemisphere known for their church planting "movements" and emphasis on evangelism. In evangelical circles, Riker would have easily been referred to as a "serial" church planter; a Christian leader who plants multiple churches during their career. But there are a couple significant differences between Riker's experience and other prolific church planting leaders in the west.

The first significant difference is that Riker was the lead planter in each new church he started. There are pastor/planters of other traditions who have planted a church, grown that congregation to a significant scale and then cast a vision, devised a system for planting out of this church yet have trained other leaders to be the leader in the "daughter" plant(s). These leaders would not fit the description of "serial" planter as I am familiar with it. Those leaders have developed church planting systems in which other planters could be mentored and then plant out of an established church. While Riker cultivated a passion for planting new churches in those communities he started, he–himself–lead the actual planting of each. This leads me to a second significant difference.

Not only do most "serial" planters fail to plant as many new congregations as Riker did, they do not tend to have as high a success rate as he did. In fact, some plant multiple times due to the failing of each plant before. In my experience, the communities planted by most western "serial" planters do not successfully thrive the way that Riker's did. This is where Riker's Episcopal heritage and methodology may have played a unique role. Riker's successive church planting was in part due to the thriving of each community. Most of them grew to scale–that is to say that given the population of the community they were planted in, these congregations grew to a self-sustaining size. Episcopalians may not be known for church planting or evangelistic prowess (yet) but they do the development of legacy better than most. Riker did this incredibly well and outpaced is evangelical counterparts in starting a high number of congregations that grew to a self-sustaining scale.

You may have noticed that I've used the term "western" more than once already. This is intended to imply the methods that have dominated church planting in North America and Europe. Part of Riker's success may, I believe, be attributed to the fact that he intuitively used methods that would have been more similar to church planting approaches in the southern hemisphere (South America, Africa and Asia) but we'll get to that later.

I didn't know Malcolm Riker–I wasn't even an Episcopalian yet when he passed away–and I know only what I have read about him in Smith's book. Yet, I think there is a lot to be deduced about him through this book. From what I gather, Smith was not a planter herself but I have committed my life to starting new faith communities and so my hope is to apply some reflection on Smith's retelling of Riker's life through my lens of 20 years within the church planting milieu and 7 years within the Episcopal Church. This is not going to be a review of Smith's writing but an analysis, a blog series of reflections on what her book tells us about this generative leader named Malcolm Riker.

I will stop here for now.

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