Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thoughts on The State of the Church

Each year the President delivers a “State of the Union” message.  This usually is a combination of celebrating who we are, what has been accomplished in the last year, and the President’s agenda for the next year.  Last night had all these elements.

Over the years the Presiding Bishops of TEC have given the same kind of talk at the beginning of General Convention with about the same content.  In addition, at each convention we get a report from the Committee on the State of the Church.  While our Presiding Bishop’s message is usually filled with reassurances that all is well, the committees of late have been fairly direct about the problems and issues before TEC.  Of course, few people, especially Deputies and Bishops pay much attention to these reports but a re-reading of them for the past ten General Conventions will pretty much describe how depressing things are. 

Obviously, I have no position of authority to give such a “State of the Church” speech, but I do have 42 years of experience as a priest and many years of ministry to congregations and clergy.  Here is my general sense of “the way things are.”

When I think of TEC, I have very divided feelings and thoughts.  When I think of TEC on a national level especially concerning “815”, the House of Bishops, and our many Committees and Commissions, I get discouraged.  We are in serious decline and I do not see the present leaders who got us into this situation as able to get us out of it.  I am hopeful about two dynamics. 

First is the Committee on Restructuring the Church.  We have needed such work for a long time and I am mildly optimistic about their work. I find it predictable that the greatest resistance to their work is coming from some of the Church’s most long-term progressive leaders.  My observation is that, having fought so long to take charge of the Church and occupy its structures, this group is strongly reactionary when any change is proposed.  What they most want is for our leadership to continue the focus on justice issues and marriage equality and to reassure them that all is well. 

The second dynamic for me is the number of new and younger leaders in the House of Bishops.  I think these leaders are much more in touch with “our current realities.”  I am not so sure they know what to do about them, but I hear good reports from a number of dioceses. 

In summary, I am generally pessimistic about the future of TEC.  As I have often said, “Until a new generation of leaders emerge with a new vision for our common life, what you see now is what you get.”  What you see is declining numbers, an aging constituency, smaller and fewer congregations, and current leadership committed to the status quo while repeating clichés about multi-culturalism and inclusiveness. 

When I think about congregations, I feel much differently.  Everywhere I have traveled in TEC, I have seen vibrant and exemplary congregations of all sizes full of committed, dedicated people, carrying out extraordinary ministry to their communities. 
While I see these congregations, I think it is also true that they comprise only about 20% of our communities. Whether this 20% can sustain the rest especially the near 60% in serious decline seems doubtful.  Yet, we do have healthy and vibrant places and they can be and should be models to us of what the future could be.

What is clear to me is that we need to radically rethink the preparation of people for ordained leadership of local congregations.  Now, let me be clear.  I am not arguing against our current seminary education, nor do I think seminaries can add more to their present demanding work.  What I believe we need is the creation of a “Mission Training Center” pre/post seminary that would educate ay leaders and clergy in the best practices of building congregations and recruiting unchurched people. 

All over the Church we have town parishes that once maintained a “pastor size” congregation with a full time ordained priest.  Now these congregations have 30 to 50 folks on a Sunday and are supplied with part-time, bi-vocational, and retired clergy.  The problem is that seldom does this mode of leadership build up churches.  It is mostly intended to sustain and maintain them. 

I have floated the idea of such a Mission Center to several church leaders.  Most admit we need something like this, but there remains little energy or resources to do it.

In summary, while we have many vibrant congregations, TEC as a whole looks like the aging downtown church that is living off its endowments, losing members, and will soon have to dedicate all its resources to maintenance.



Canon Neal said...

Insightful, as always. I have liked the initial comments of the restructuring goup and find the "chatter" toi be as Dean Kevin describes, namely, many of the more progressive folks do not want the Committees and Commissions to be much tampered with. their rationale is that the more committees and commissions we have, the more people have access to have their voice heard. Yet, I have to ask the question: how has all this input helped the Episcopal Church? It's much like term limits for elected office holders. I want the representative next to me to be term-limited out of office but not mine.

At the rate we're going, eventually the Episcopal Church will be small enough so that every member of the denomination will be able to serve on a committee or commission.

I, too, am very positivie and hopeful about individual parishes but not the denomination overall. The opposition to the restructuring process, the accumulation of power by the Presiding Bishop's Office, the paltry money given to church planting along with ill-conceived so-called missional programs, and the abuse of the canons makes me pessimistic about the overall direction of the institution of the denomination and thankful for the haven of the local church.

Nate Bostian said...

Kevin: I think I agree with your macro/micro analysis of Church health. I think we also must expand our scope and have a "meta" analysis of the TEC in Western Culture as well. And the metadata seems to show that our culture is in the midst of a turn toward the secular. A good recent summary of dozens of studies can be found here:

The only types of religion that seem to be thriving in our culture are the ones that either tend to deliver a specific spiritual "product" (i.e. prosperity, ecstatic experience, hope of healing, etc.) or create fear of "the other" and promote themselves as a path to be on the right side, against "them", in our common culture war. Both types of religion- product delivery and fear based- seem to grow in the midst of consumer culture, because they operate on the logic of consumerism. But their growth does not offset the loss of membership and vitality of older Churches (i.e. the growth in consumerist Megachurches does not equal the decline in Mainline Religion).

I think the truth is that we live in the midst of a Consumerist Babylon in which utilitarian pleasure and anarchic individualism are worshipped in order enslave us to the powers and principalities that run the Consumer system. The system is set up to divide us into disconnected individuals, without significant connection to family, geography, ideology, religion, or any other type of allegiance that might sustain us socially. It does this so that we are reliant completely upon the consumer system to provide everything-- from meals to meaning-- that traditional forms of community used to provide for us (and with us).

The long term decline of religious communities, and the momentary flourishing of religious vendors who function according to consumer logic, are all symptoms of how effective the system has been at dividing and conquering us.

The question for me is whether or not we can offer any viable alternative to being human which cannot be commoditized by Consumerism? Can we have a genuine identity in Christ which can effectively challenge consumerism in the long term? And if this is possible, is there a place for our communal identity as Episcopalians, or will we have to re-orient our identity in a way that goes beyond the denominational tribes we find ourselves in today?

I confess I do not know the answer to this. But I am convinced that our current genitally-obsessed proto-schism is a distraction from us actually dealing with the real powers and principalities with which we actually battle.

Unknown said...

Kevin, thanks for this. I think you are right. I would go a bit further: (1) Unless the current cohort of leaders lets go soon, it will be very difficult for a new generation of leaders to reverse the fortunes of the national church. (2) If selling off our presence in major metropolitan communities continues to be the trend that the denomination and our seminaries pursue, there will be very little to save. (3) I don't think that the 20% can save the rest of the church: (a) The scale of the challenges that the 60% are facing is beyond their resources. (b) The recovery of those parishes is local challenge that can't be addressed at a distance. (c) Their problems are not, as a rule, financial, but largely a matter of mission, vision, and ministry. (d) And, in any event, there is no mechanism for making the wealth of the 20% available to those parishes --- even if that was what they needed. That's the role that the national church should play and that is why we send money to NY, but we are enmeshed in costly legal battles that make that all but impossible. The future? Like you, it's hard to be optimistic. We can pursue union with other denominations, but we are the parakeet in the mainline mine shaft, so that would simply postpone the inevitable. Sadly, in the absence of a radically new departure in the way we think about leadership and the church's ministry, what lies ahead is a Darwinian process that will whittle away at dioceses, parishes and seminaries.

Malcolm+ said...

While not precisely the same, there was a proposal 50+ years ago in the Diocese of Qu'Appelle to create regional hubs as a way of addressing ministry needs in declining rural parishes. Of course the issue at that time wasn't a population turning away from religious observance but an actual decline in the rural population.

But the communities and congregations that were the logical hubs for this approach were not (at that point) so severely affected by depopulation. Thus, those congregations didn't feel any particular need to do things differently ... and they didn't.

IOW, the congregations whose support and participation is the most needed are aslo the congregations with the least incentive to participate.

The model was applied in a few places, but the hub communities were not logical hubs. None of the three regional experiments survived the first team. And, curiously, the Anglican presence has entirely disappeared from two of the three hub communities and is on life support in the third.

The failure of the model isn't entirely attributable to that, but it was a big part of the problem. (The other problem was that it took clergy trained for a traditional pastoral congregation model and stuck them into a new model for which they had not been prepared.

PassofOaks said...

Nice, Kevin. That MTC (might as well put it out there with initials now before someone else does) has been a vision of yours for a long time. And you've put much of what you would want to see as comprising the training into practice in your own history of leadership and clergy training.
I think we've talked briefly about it before, too, in the context of the vision of another influential leader/teacher, C.Peter Wagner, who, talking about spiritual gifts, wanted the Body of Christ to see the difference between the gift of Pastor and the gift of Leader in terms of spiritual and numerical growth in congregations.
In the middle of that discussion he set aside time to talk about the need for "on the job training" for gifted pastors, that is, don't wait until they've separated themselves from the Body in a seminary for three years and then send them out rejoicing in the Spirit. They will only return, dragging their tail feathers and the remainders of their families. Better yet, ordain them up front, get them into ministry positions, and while they are being paid to do that work, NOW they do the rest of the bulk of their studies, for an expected/required time frame. Kind of like Field Education on steroids.
Wagner didn't spend much time talking about the details of that vision, such as what was expected up front, and how to bring the "ordained student" phase to an end. But I can see the MTC concept up front to his vision (like the idea of on-campus intense seminars for DMin programs, but longer)in order to stir up those leadership/pastor gifts and provide a standard set of pastoral priorities, boundaries, family life, parish renewal, etc. AND, another MTC go-around at the conclusion of the MDiv training to gain and share perspective before heading off to the rest of their ministry careers.

Yep, I can see it. What kind of time frame would you give to it? Two or three months?