Thursday, December 13, 2012

Should TEC Restructure?

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. 




Friday, June 22, 2012

TEC - A Reflection on 41 Years of Ordained Ministry

             On my last official Sunday at the Cathedral, the Acting Dean, Neal Michell, did an interview with me during the adult education hour.  Most of the questions were fun, but one question deserved a more serious answer.  Here is the question and my response.
Q.  You’ve seen many changes in 41 years of ministry – Bishop Hines and the Special Convention Program, a New Prayer Book, Women in leadership including ordination, a change in the church’s teachings on divorce and human sexuality, can you share with us your perspective on all this change? 

 First, I want to talk about how our leadership and culture have changed.
 I became a member of the Church in 1958 which was the year of the greatest number of new members joining the Church.  By 1965, we had 3.8 million members and then began to decline.  When I joined the Episcopal Church, I would say that the majority of members were what I would call traditionalists.  By this I mean that most Episcopalians were people who valued high English Culture, including and especially, the English language, the arts and music.  While the Episcopal Church was never a State Church as in England, still we had an embracing attitude toward education and the arts.  I like to say that we were the State Church of the educated including scientists and artists.   

The leaders of the Church in those days were remarkable people who survived the Great Depression and the Second World War, often bringing out of their experience a strong determination to give back to society.  They were in every way the greatest generation.  Take Bishop Hines who you mentioned for example.  While Bishop of Texas, he started several high quality Episcopal Schools, he launched a seminary, he oversaw the planting of over 40 new congregations, and he gave good and progressive leadership to the wider community.  Like many of his fellow leaders, he believed in an active Christian engagement with society.  As presiding Bishop in 1968 when many of the inner cities of America were literally on fire, he determined that the Church could not sit back in its cultural place of privilege, but rather must engage the issues confronting our society. 

I believe his impulse was both necessary and courageous.  He was a dynamic preacher and outspoken leader especially regarding racial equality.  Unfortunately, he made several mistakes. For example, in dealing with urban issues and civil rights, he largely bypassed the already existing African-American clergy leadership in the Church.  He even ended up funding radical groups and organizations in dioceses directly against the wishes of local bishops.  When he realized that he had lost the confidence of his fellow Bishops, he resigned.  

He was followed by Bishop John Allen, another remarkable leader.  Within five years, Bishop Allen had won back the 44 dioceses of TEC that had stopped funding the national budget.  While conservative on the issues of a new prayer book and women’s ordination, he oversaw the Church’s affirmative actions and implementations in both these controversial areas.  He urged the Church to hold together and it largely did.

In the early 1970s, I could point to a number of outstanding leaders in TEC, not just leaders of the Church, but leaders of society.  These included Bishops Hines, Allen, Bayne, Professor Massey Shepherd, and Dean Urban Homes just to name a few.  I want to underscore the ability of these leaders to value intellectual conversation and engagement with culture.  

Things have changed and I think not for the better.  For example, as a seminarian I attended the General Convention held in Houston.  I remember the hearing held on the proposed new Baptismal Rite.  It started with a 20 minute presentation by a leading theologian and seminary professor on the need for changes.  This was followed by a 10 minute “response” by another theologian from a different perspective.  This theologian began by affirming a number of points made in the initial address, and only then did he respectfully present a differing opinion.  This was followed by a panel discussion among a group of outstanding leaders and thinkers.  Only then was the discussion open to deputies in the audience who could ask questions. 

Compare all this to a discussion at the General Convention in 2000 over the issue of ordination of gay and lesbian persons in same-sex relationships.  The initial resolution that would be taken to the floor of convention was read by the Chair of the Committee and then members of the audience were invited to give testimony limited to two minutes.  Participants went to a set of microphones labeled either pro or con.  I saw a seminary dean given only two minutes to speak to the Church’s theology of marriage.  This was followed by a two minute personal sharing by a woman who was married to a transvestite on how accepting their local parish had been.  I sat watching as a once thoughtful and intelligent community that valued substantive engagement with issues reduced itself to a community of passionate partisanship who reduced discussion to a superficial series of slogans and clich├ęs.

Second, I want to discuss our present political climate.
In the 1970s, Forward Movement produced a short booklet on the different groups, movements and worldviews that were represented in TEC.  I remember that they identified at least seven of these.  The main point of the booklet was not the differences, but rather the community that could embrace such a number of differing perspectives.  I would say that we were an “Embracing Community” that recognized that Christianity allowed for numerous and different worldviews and all of these contained some truth that needed to be embraced in the fullness of the Church.  While I had begun as a part of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church, been active in the social action wing, and had become an active part of the Charismatic Renewal Movement, I still felt fully included in the Church’s life and listened to with respect. 

As the Progressive Wing of the Church began to grow with its concern for the full inclusion of all people including race and gender, things began to change.  Those who had other views and concerns began to be discounter.  Since then, I have spent many years as an Episcopal clergy person being marginalized by so-called “Inclusive” people.  By the mid-1990s, the Church was being divided between conservative/orthodox and progressive/liberal people.  This fight was largely won by the progressive/liberal folks when Bishop Gene Robinson received consent as Bishop of New Hampshire while living in a same-sex partnered relationship.  By the 2006 General Convention, progressive/liberal clergy and laity made up 70% of the House of Deputies.  Since then the losers in this struggle have either left TEC or have been completely marginalized by the denomination.   

In many ways, this move from an Embracing to Inclusive Community has been a bitter pill to swallow even for a social moderate like myself.  In the last 10 years, we have lost 1/3 of our membership and we are now living with a number of crises created by this decline including a major financial shortfall that is leading to a major restructuring of the Church’s budget with decreasing commitment to Christian education, seminarian training, evangelism, and stewardship while increasing the salaries and support to the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies so that they can continue their “advocacy” ministry. 

Of course from what I have already said, I want us to return to the kind of thoughtful and engaging community that was embracing of true diversity and stop being an agency for essentially a limited agenda of advocacy.  Having said all this, you may be surprised to know that I remain hopeful.  I see new leaders emerging in the House of Bishops that can provide this kind of leadership.  I also think that the decline in membership and decrease in financial support have created a kairos moment that could bring about a new sense of mission and direction for TEC.  My prayer is that the present crises will turn us in a more positive direction and move us toward an intentionally more embracive community. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Independently Speaking

I am a tenacious independent when it comes to politics.  I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. Consequently, I do not try to tell Church members how to vote.  I did not say I believe in the separation of faith and politics because I feel strongly that our Christian faith should inform our attitudes towards how we vote.  Unlike many of my Episcopal Church clergy colleagues, I do not believe that one of our political parties is more “Christian” than the others.  In over 40 years of ordained ministry, I have known godly Democrats and godly Republicans.   However, saying that I am an Independent does not mean that I do not have opinions about politics and the present election. 

The first opinion is that I am jaded when it comes to “spin” and political rhetoric.  I see outrageous partisan posts on Facebook, for example, and I mainly ignore them.   I prefer my politics served up with reasonableness.  I also believe that in the U.S. there is a big difference between running for office and governing.  Candidates and their followers make all sorts of outspoken claims about themselves and outrageous claims about what other candidates are supposed to believe.  I take it all with a grain of salt. 

Second, I have some observations about the Republican primaries.  Like Barbara Bush, I think this year’s primaries have been particularly nasty affairs.  Granted, there is a lot at stake in a nomination, but aren’t these are folks in the same party?  I think our media adds to this by playing at the sensational and the news-bites in a kind of feeding frenzy.

Third, I am watching with interest who the Republicans will nominate to face off with President Obama.  (It is, in the long run, we Independents who will determine how this election will turn out.)  I think that I have sorted this out for myself.
1.       If the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney, the old guard and East coast Republicans will have prevailed and their party believes the President is vulnerable over the economy and can be beaten.  After Super Tuesday, Romney seemed to be the guy. 
2.      Ron Paul is on a Libertarian Crusader, as he has been for years, and he would be stunned to be nominated. 
3.      Rick Santorum represents a different Crusade.  If he is nominated, this means that mainstream Republicans have abandoned the idea that President Obama can be unseated.  So, elements of the Republican Party who are social conservatives have decided to “make a statement” and not win an election. 
4.      A genuine question left open at this point is who Romney will choose as a running mate.  My advice is that he should chose with us Independents in mind and not the Tea Party. 

Once the nomination process is over, the election process will begin. When this happens, the focus will return to the economy and who is best suited to lead the current recovery.  For us Independents, this will be the primary question.  It may not, however, be the most critical one.  If 9/11 taught us anything, it is that events outside of our control can suddenly thrust us into a crisis not of our own making.  The tension between Israel and Iran, or demands for attention by North Korea, or any other number of scenarios would suddenly thrust us from economic concerns to international ones.    

My opinion is this.  If the economy is the concern, then the election will be close.  If it is close, it will come down to the Electoral College.  In other words, the person elected may not get the popular vote.  If war, or the fear of war, is the primary issue, then it will not be close.  President Obama will win hands down.

One last word on this election business; I would like to see the candidates for President sign a mutual agreement that they will debate the issues before us and commit to refraining from personal attacks by either themselves or Super PACs representing them.  I can hear many of my friends cracking, “Where’s the fun in that?!”  But, this allows me to say what concerns me the most in this year’s election and that is the distortion of the democratic process by the power of unlimited financial contributions through Super PACs.  I would hate to admit that the office of President of the United States can be bought.  If that is the case, let’s eliminate democracy and give the Presidency every four years to the highest bidder.  The proceeds of the auction can be used to reduce the deficit.     

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Evangelism and Inclusiveness

In recent years, among Episcopalians, in conversations, publications, and on the internet in blogs and networks, the word “Inclusion” and its value of “a Church that is open to all people” has become dominant in our common life. I would contend has it has become one of the main defining terms of our current identity. Take the issue of “open communion,” or giving communion to non-baptized people. Those who practice this justify it as an inclusive action.
At the same time, we hear less among Episcopalians about “Evangelism.” One reason for this is that our community has never been too comfortable with the “E” word. Despite the Decade of Evangelism and the 2020 Resolution, evangelism still does not seem to be much of an Episcopal thing. Add to this, the defection of many Episcopalians who identify themselves as Evangelicals and we can see that the word seems, well, a bit foreign to us. As a result, the word inclusive seems to fit our temperament much better. However, I would like to content that inclusion and evangelism are not the same thing; that both belong as values of the Church, and that apart from one another, they can lead the Church to unhealthy and dysfunctional behavior. In a healthy Christian community, evangelism and inclusiveness should be seen as complimentary values, the kind of values that enhance each other.
There are many in TEC today who have embraced the concept of inclusiveness and use it as a substitute for evangelism. They might even argue that a truly inclusive church expresses what the early church meant by evangelism. An inclusive church reaches out and accepts all people regardless of race, economic status, gender and, even for many, creed. Isn’t the good news of the Gospel that God accepts and loves all people? Yet, is inclusiveness enough to express what the church is called to do in evangelism? Is the Great Commission, “Go therefore and be inclusive of all people?” I would content that inclusiveness makes much more sense when it is related to the Great Commandment “to love one another” than “to make disciples.”
We should also be honest and admit that for many in our church the word inclusiveness does not extend in the broad sense to everyone. It is a code word related to gender inclusiveness. An inclusive parish is one where GLTB folks are accepted openly and allowed to be open about there sexuality. It is a community that champions same sex marriage, and is committed to advocate full rights for all such people in both society and the church. This is certainly the way that Integrity uses the word.
Further, the word inclusive can be used in another code way. In this way, it means that we are an inclusive church that welcomes all inclusive people. In other words, we are open and welcoming of those who see themselves as inclusive in the political, social, and intellectual landscape of America. This seems to me to be the way our Presiding Bishop uses the term. Not included, and certainly not welcomed, in such churches are people who are perceived to be non-inclusive. These two uses of the word are in a basic sense exclusionary. However, I do not think this is what most Episcopalians want it to mean. We genuinely want to be a community that is open to all people. “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” as our signs once said.
But if a church community such as ours is to be truly inclusive in the boarder sense, if we intend to be a diverse church made up of people across ethnic, racial and gender boundaries, than evangelism is central to this goal. This is because the work of evangelism involves strategies to reach just such people. Evangelism is intentional, planned, and often strategic. When the Church in Antioch decided to do the work of evangelism, this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and inclusive community prayed, set apart leaders (Paul and Barnabas who were good at reaching Gentiles) and sent them to advance the gospel among non-Jewish people. As one Bishop has said, “Evangelism is the most anti-racist thing the church does.”
Let me give an example from the Cathedral Church in Dallas. 30 years ago, the Cathedral decided to reach out to the increasing number of Hispanic people who were immigrating into the Dallas area. They set out a strategy that first involved starting a Spanish language service. Then, they hired a Hispanic missioner to give leadership to this fledgling group. Today, over 60% of our worshipping community Sundays attend our Spanish service. We strive hard to remind ourselves that we do not have two congregations, but are one church, yet, I would content our success in becoming a diverse and more inclusive church has been the direct result of evangelistic outreach.
Is it possible that evangelism can be a code word for “people like us?” Of course it can. In many larger evangelical communities in America, this is exactly what it means. The congregations grow in numbers, but they grow by methods aimed at reaching more people from the same socio-economic class who share many of the same values before they ever arrive at their churches. While there are outstanding counter examples of this among Evangelical churches, the stereo-type of the former exists because such churches exist. But, as I hope the Cathedral illustrates, this does not have to be either the strategy in evangelism or its fruit. True evangelism always makes the church more, not less, diverse.
The important thing in all this is to realize that evangelism and inclusiveness are complimentary values. The two, existing together in creative tension, force us to evaluate our intentions and results, our methods and their consequences. I have been an advocate of evangelism within this community for many years. I remain concerned about the decline of our denomination and its inability to do the work of evangelism effectively. Yet, at the same time, I am also concerned about the fruit of our present behavior. I see the word inclusive justified and used more and more in the exclusive sense, so that its meaning is becoming “people like us.” I fear we are becoming an elitist community that looks with contempt or pity on those who are not as enlightened as we are.
When I was a young priest, it was said of the Episcopal Church that we were the Republican Party at prayer. More recently, was said that we were NPR at prayer. Now I fear we are becoming at prayer. Well, we may be at prayer, but we are not yet the kind of community that Christ has called us to be. To become this, we must follow that path that leads to both evangelism and inclusiveness.