Monday, August 12, 2013

One guy's view on The Episcopal Church's Transformational Work.

I haven't written on my blog in awhile. Let's just say that I've been busy. One of the things that I've been working on is the Diocese of Southern Ohio's  Special Task Force on Restructuring. Bishop Breidenthal called for the formation of the task force at last year's convention and we've been working very hard for about a half a year now.  This work is not easy and readily defined. Transforming a person's individual life is difficult enough. Just pray with Jesus about that type of change. Changing a church or a diocese full of churches that are laden with numerous expectations, decades of liturgical, administrative, and pastoral practices - outdated or otherwise - is extraordinarily challenging. Such "change" requires wonderfully creative  people who commit to collaborating on a common purpose that is grounded in the truths and responsibilities of The Christian Gospel. The challenges and opportunities associated with with such resurrection are remarkably profound and borderline miraculous.

Needless to say, I get somewhat more than riled up when I read an article like the one that The Acts 8 Moment people posted on their Facebook page earlier today. Now, before I go further, I fully endorse Acts 8 in their mission to change "the conversation in The Episcopal Church from death to resurrection; while equipping The Episcopal Church to proclaim resurrection to the world." However, let's not presume that such resurrection happens through a continued process of harping about high administrative and human resource costs in an era of decreasing investments and revenue generation. Acts 8 uses Thom Schultz's work to suggest that we Episcopalians (and other organized Christian entities) are spending way, way too much money on administrative costs and not nearly enough on mission or direct ministries.

Let's agree that Pastor Schultz's data and hypothesis are legitimate. Let's also concurrently wonder about the implications for our churches as well as for other
denominational and non-denominational Christian faith communities. For example, raising up, caring for, and gathering in a building has been & still remains a paradigm most Christians are accustomed to for their worship and programs. Just ask the folks at Christ Episcopal Church Poughkeepsie about the costs associated with preserving their place of worship even as they transform their Christian mission for the 21st Century. What would they and the people around them have lost if their tower came crashing down one summer morning? Would everyone in that context had been better off if they closed their doors?  I'd further add that many Episcopal Church plants aim toward the construction of, and movement into a magnificent and expensive sacred ecclesiastical space. Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale, AZ is a fine example of such a healthy, inspiring, and mission focused parish.

Like it or not, and I happen to like it on certain occasions, most Episcopalians are not familiar with, or attached to their altar and musical resources coming into and out of the church in wooden containers. Moreover, there are a host of other vastly more relevant matters that I, my colleagues on the diocese's task force as well as the Episcopal Church's Re-imagining Task Force,  the folks dwelling in The Acts 8 Moment, and those interested in living into Christianity in the present millennium must consider and vigorously and transform. First, could we please take serious time and thought to look at current realities in their entire contexts, especially from a holistic Episcopal Church point of view. The issues here are systemic not arbitrary, and our systems are presently performing as people want them to; otherwise they would be working in ways that would be more efficient, more radically creative, and more open to God's Spirit. We'd nimbly re-imagine and institutionally realign our organized Christian lives if the associated costs weren't so dire. We love creativity except when the gap between what's in place and what we desires seems too great. Indeed, we need to face up to the harsh realities of the cruciform death and loss happening in our own churches that will indeed invite us to accept new life.

For today's purposes, let's merely consider some of the basic yet monetarily grounded challenges that are in place. Let's admit for example that dioceses, the Pension Fund, The Church's Insurance Company, and other Episcopal Church structures presently impose many  "administrative costs" on parishes and churches. I get paid a particular salary and compensation at St. James Westwood because of salary and compensation guidelines that the Diocese of Southern Ohio has established. These guidelines exist in part because we have clergy coming out of seminary graduating with enormous debt. This is also the "job" that I trained for over a matter of many years. Maybe I should have remained in the private sector as a consultant. Maybe not. Regardless some, if not many dioceses do little to cover such expenses yet parishioners' expectations remain precisely the same across the denomination. They seek seminary-trained clergy. Maybe that needs to change. Maybe we can and should become a denomination where pastors serve without an extensive theological education. Ok, but, the denomination's current pension system punishes priests who do not work full-time or accept lower salary positions. Even if those processes were to change we would still have a denominational structure dictating, and righteously so, that churches pay for their staff's insurance and pension costs. 

Conversely, we do little if anything to educate and facilitate the manner in which clergy, congregations, and dioceses evangelize, perform their Gospel missions, and grow in increasingly secularized and suspicious societal settings. We haven't consciously or structurally transformed the church over the past two decades because we have focused on other priorities and avoided the real work of mergers, closures, and structural reforms that needed to happen during that time. Finally, we are presently not a denomination that is accustomed to having professionals with other responsibilities exercise leadership in parochial settings. These are the sorts of sacrifices we need to consciously and spiritually acknowledge that are in place as we either say yes to change or continue toward demise, institutionally and evangelically.

It's rather striking but not surprising we are where we are as Episcopalians. There's an increasing clamor for bi-vocational and part-time clergy. Duh! It's expensive to higher a person(s) who principally accomplishes the parish's administrative, pastoral, missional, and theological tasks. Scott Gunn has written some meaningful blog posts on this topic over at Seven Whole Days. It takes a whole church to accomplish The Church's Work.  However, the fact remains that many parishes are seeking clergy to fill billets who can't afford full-time clergy but inherently hope that the priest who comes and serves will accomplish full-time work.  We therefore need to, as Scott suggests, become more outward serving rather than inwardly concerned. We need to believe in Jesus the Christ's proclamation of the Good News, resiliently and boldly. These are concepts that we affirm but aren't particularly well accepted in many established parishes, especially declining parishes with aging congregations.

Tony Lorenzen offers some great advice for us as we consider and resolve cost and systematic issues in The Episcopal Church. Tony writes:   Our structures, our polity, our best practices, and our religious culture itself are based on the norms, communication technology, and social organization of a world that no longer exists.  ... Unless we become more flexible and more able to bounce back, we will not thrive. Indeed, let's not blindly presume such resiliency will happen just because we desire it to or that there will not be any sort of push back from established social or instituional systems comfortably in place. The creation of an Episcopal Church based upon contemporary norms, technology, and social organizational realities will be birthed through a lengthy process of engaging stakeholders, defining and accepting winners and losers. It may happen in communities that are smaller and consequently more adaptive. It may be that some larger institutional entities will actually have to collapse because of bankruptcy or financial insolvency. I don't know.  I do believe that persons exercising leadership must continually re-focus themselves and the people they endeavor to serve toward the acceptance of a shared purpose that brings us all into alignment with God's will for us. Then and only then might we be able to incarnate Jesus the Christ's compassion and Grace institutionally and meaningfully by proclaiming Anglicanism's mission in the world. Such transformation isn't only about reducing administrative costs. Such resurrection is much much more inspiring and earnest than technically changing budget priorities.

Blessings Along The Way.  Jim+