Last week the Episcopal News Service sent out an announcement that 20 people had been selected by the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies to serve on the Structure Committee established by the last General Convention. This committee was established to deal with current challenges related to organization and budgeting for our community. This is considered to be an especially important group gleaned from the over 400 clergy and laity who had expressed interest in the work. In other words, it is considered the critical edge for the future of TEC. I have some comments on this work.
My first observation is that this is important work. Our denomination has declined from a high point of 3.6 million members in 1965 to now less than 2 million today. Reorganization is well past due, and the need for strategic thinking for the future is critical. We can expect that such a group will begin with the fundamental question of the mission of the Church since structure relates to how we organize to do what we believe is critical. Most of our leaders have probably realized by now that talking about The Millennium Goals or pointing to The Five Points of Mission is not the same as Mission itself. The list of members seems to be the kind of group that is willing to wrestle with this.
It remains to be seen how many sacred cows, in particular committees, commissions, and interim bodies, will actually be considered. There is also the critical issue of how many Dioceses should we have given this shrinking community. I remain somewhat skeptical about how far this group will proceed given our radical need for change and the many vested people and groups in the present structure. John Kotter points out that the primary reason efforts at change fail in organizations is “too much satisfaction with the status quo within the organization.” My concern is that the present denomination office and members of a committee or commission are highly invested in the status quo. However, if you are going to make such changes, a blue ribbon panel has at least the potential to do this. Therefore, I remain open to see the fruit of their work.
Let me also say that this is for me a matter of stewardship. Having the right structure is important because having the wrong one is both ineffective and costly. From my experience, I know how important having the appropriate structure is in having effective ministry. I do believe this work is important and it needs to be done. And yet something else needs to be said.
I begin with this question: Is the primary problem TEC faces today a “structural problem?” While we clearly have structural issues, I do not think we have yet come up with the right diagnosis. I would point to two issues that are symptomatic of our situation.
First, we have been involved in serious conflict for the past decade that has held the attention of our leadership, led to an acceleration of our decline and costs us millions of dollars in litigation. Like it or not, this conflict is related directly to our theological and missional identity, namely who are we and what we are called to do. I would caution that just because one side in the conflict seems to have won, this does not mean that we have determined an identity and way forward, especially a way that is significant to our wider cultural context. If the Episcopal Church is to have a future other than shrinking numbers, budgets, and congregations, we must be able to reach people in our society and draw them into this part of the body of Christ.
Second, there continues to be a major disconnect between our corporate structures and the local congregation. We continue to hear from denominational leaders that recent decisions have made us more viable to new generations and new ethnic groups which is making us a more inclusive and multi-cultural church. However, the numbers of declining congregations and the reality in the field is that local congregations are not, nor are most becoming, the kind of church that General Convention and the Executive Council say we are. Of course, we have some congregations that reflect this, but they are far from the norm of our local congregational life. I have spent much time over the last ten years visiting Episcopal Churches and making presentations on congregational development. I observe that many of our congregations are struggling with basic survival issues.
Given these realities, we need to ask ourselves if “restructuring” will deal with these systemic issues. These issues may lie beyond the view of this committee, but they still remain the pressing issues before our community.
So, should we work at restructuring? Yes, we should by all means. And yet, we still need to explore the question of our current identity and mission and how this relates to our mission context particularly in North America. Then we need to manifest this throughout our dioceses and congregations. If we think about it, we would realize that our denominational structures beyond the diocesan level are artificial constructs. They have an important place, but they are not “the Church.” As our Prayer Book points out, the Church is where the baptized gather and do ministry.