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 clich├ęs 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.