Saturday, November 17, 2012

CCABs: Let the Holy Spirit Blow!

I've just returned from a gathering in St. Louis of the Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards of The Episcopal Church, where some 200-250 people gathered to advance the work of the church.  I serve as the Executive Council liaison to the Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism (SCME), and I found myself in the room with some very bright and passionate people.  Here's a nice picture of them! This group was ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work empowering Episcopal evangelism and mission.  When you gather so many talented people together, it is always an opportunity for synergy, for the Holy Spirit to begin to blow.

Yet we immediately ran into a roadblock, and that was the very nature of our mandate. Pay attention here, Restructure Task Force Players-to-be-Named-Later, because I heard a similar frustration coming from members of at least four other CCABs. That frustration is this: CCABs are not actually supposed to DO anything.  All we are supposed to do is think up ideas and draft legislation for the next General Convention to approve or reject.  Here is the stated mandate of the SCME:

CANON I.1.2(n) (4) A Standing Commission on the Mission and Evangelism of The Episcopal Church. It shall be the duty of the Commission to identify, study and consider policies, priorities and concerns as to the effectiveness of The Episcopal Church in advancing, within this Church’s jurisdictions, God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, including patterns and directions for evangelism, Church planting, leadership development, and ministries that engage the diversity of the Church’s membership and the communities it serves, and to make recommendations to General Convention(emphasis mine)

Get it? You gather a group of bright, talented leaders in the church, experts in their various fields, representing the diversity of the church in age, ethnicity, ordination status, etc., get them excited about a particular area of mission, and then tell them they can't actually DO anything. You pay $1,100 per person for an in-person meeting of hundreds of people, to be repeated at least once and maybe more during the triennium, and the end product of all this work is ... The Blue Book?

Look, I am a General Convention nerd, and I like the Blue Book (whatever color it happens to be) as much as anyone. But is legislation really the appropriate work product for such an amazing and talented group of leaders spending that much time and that much money?  

If so, let's follow a chain of events through to their natural conclusion. Last triennium, at the end of its three years together, the SCME proposed several resolutions, including A072, (to see the resolution, click here and scroll down to A072, then click “English current” on the right-hand side).  A072 adds a canonical requirement that new ordained and lay pastoral leaders be trained as missional leaders in evangelism, cross-cultural competency, non-profit leadership, empowering lay leadership, etc. Terrific, right? Such training could provide great hope for a new generation of leaders now emerging.

But how are dioceses and seminaries supposed to provide such training? Should each one reinvent the wheel in its own way? Under our polity, they certainly have the right to do so (and some will choose simply to ignore the new rules). But maybe it would be helpful to overworked leaders to have some common resources to draw from should they choose to do so.  And in fact, there are a number of groups working on missional leadership development across the church. Wouldn't it be a great idea to get them together and encourage them to share or even create a set of common resources, even possibly a curriculum, in missional leadership training, that dioceses and seminaries could draw from?

When this idea was proposed, it got a lot of energy. Yet then someone reminded us of our mandate: we're not supposed to DO stuff (like gather people together to follow up on A072 and share resources), we're just supposed to write a Blue Book report.  The only time a CCAB is allowed to DO something is if past GC legislation specifically directed them to do it (and there were no specific directions in A072). 

So if the SCME thinks a leadership development gathering should happen and a curriculum should be developed, we should, I guess, write a resolution, hope it passes in 2015, hope it gets funded sometime, hope it gets put at the top of some 815 staff person's priority list (should there still be an 815 staff person at that time), and hope the gathering happens by 2018 so we can start training the post-Millennial generation to be missional leaders by about 2022.

It was at this point in our group's discussion that I made the following point, which I subsequently tweeted:  We are not over-burdened in The Episcopal Church with too many people doing evangelism. Let's go ahead and do it now.

(For the benefit of those who are concerned about the "rules," we found a way to make our gathering fit within our mandate. It could be possible if we get grant funding from outside the TEC budget, which we will apply for.  And the end product of the gathering can certainly be "advice" to General Convention. I'm sure we will write a resolution of some sort. But how silly, really, that a proposed resolution is the only acceptable outcome of our work.)

Here's the point: if we are appointing members of CCABs to talk about a subject, and they have some helpful ideas and the energy to accomplish them, why not use this set of talented and passionate leaders to take action right now?

I'll tell you why not. Because we have somehow gotten ourselves to the point where we think that legislation is an effective form of ministry.  That if something is important, it should be decided by a cumbersome and expensive legislative process, complete with officially sanctioned committees, proposals, amendments, rules of order, and majority votes. That the proper function of General Convention is to micro-manage every aspect of our common life, and that nothing can be done until General Convention agrees to do it. 

(Which is why, for instance, Convention had to vote last year on many supplemental but unnecessary liturgical resources created by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, which some 1,000 deputies and bishops had to read, critique, and vote on.  The SCLM couldn’t just create lovely resources  and submit them to Forward Movement or Church Publishing for people to use if they wished.  Their work could ONLY result in legislation of “official” resources.)

There ARE things that legislation is vital to achieve. Ordination of women, a process for Title IV disciplinary proceedings, ordination requirements, blessing of same-sex unions, revision of the prayer book (but please God, not anytime soon!), funding and budgets - all these are vital issues of church policy that our legislature should decide. Legislation is necessary to decide what the rules are, what the boundaries are, how much money we have, and what we are NOT allowed to do.

But the belief that legislation is necessary before anyone can do any actual ministry is, I believe, a sign of high anxiety in our church.  If we don’t believe the Holy Spirit is calling us to do something, or if we have no idea what God is calling us to do, we fall back on administrative permission-giving, rules and procedures.  Don’t know how to do evangelism?  Let’s write legislation about it!  Until the legislation is passed, though, no one better take an unauthorized step to empower evangelism!  It might be against the rules!  (Which was not a concern of Philip’s in Acts Chapter 8, I might add.)

Of course that is absurd.  Legislation is not necessary to accomplish ministry. What is necessary to accomplish ministry is the Holy Spirit's call and the human being's answer.

Restructure Task Force, pay attention. Let's restructure ourselves to encourage ministry, not limit it and frustrate it and shut it down when it threatens to appear, like in the CCABs that are yearning to take action, not write legislation. Let's limit the legislative work of General Convention to matters that require it, such as finances and boundaries.  (Hey, maybe we could even reduce General Convention's length!) Let's gather leaders in CCABs, yes, but let's empower them to do non-legislative ministry. Especially as we move away from a strong-staff structure (because budget cuts will mean more staff cuts are coming), let's let the volunteers who are passionate about the work of the church DO the work of the church. Let's let the Holy Spirit blow.  Because this time in our church is a time for the Holy Spirit. Not a time for legislation.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Strategic Discernment, Not Strategic Planning

I have participated in four separate strategic planning processes in various churches.  They each followed a different methodology, and each had similar results: 
  • A group of dedicated people got together and worked very hard over several long meetings to create a plan.
  • A facilitator led us through a well-organized set of exercises to encourage everyone to contribute her or his ideas for the future.
  • With the facilitator’s help, we took a world of information and reshaped it into a set of goals and priorities, with timelines and responsibility assignments.
  • A beautifully packaged plan was created, summarized, presented, and affirmed by vestry vote.
  • In each case, we looked at the final product and felt in some unidentifiable way that something vital was missing.
  • The plan went onto the shelf and, after some initial attempts to follow up on identified action steps, was never seen again.

I know that the “shelf” is a common destination point for strategic plans in all kinds of organizations, not just the church.  But after the last time I experienced this life-draining process, I started thinking: maybe the church, of all places, is not the place to be doing strategic planning.  

This is not to say that the church should just drift along and let happen whatever may.  That’s how we fall into bad habits and start believing that the church exists for the benefit of its members, and everyone who should be a member already is a member.  Our natural human tendency is to serve ourselves before we serve others; it takes vision and planning to remember that we have a broader mission to accomplish. 

But the church is uniquely a Spirit-led organization, or should be.  And the Spirit is full of surprises we can’t anticipate or plan for.  It would be difficult to imagine the apostles in Acts 7 sitting down for a strategic planning session and determining that the next logical step would be to go out to the Gaza Road and wait for an Ethiopian eunuch to come along.  Who would ever think to do that?  Who would imagine that that young man holding the coats while Stephen was stoned in Acts 7 would turn into the greatest evangelist in world history in Acts 9?  Who would have suggested that Peter go to sleep and arrange for a dream involving unclean animals on a sheet descending from heaven in Acts 10? 

In my church experience, most of the great steps forward I have seen weren’t planned.  They happened: the right person came along, the right location became available, someone heard a call from God they couldn’t ignore.  Yes, we channeled those outpourings of the Spirit in organized and planned directions, but they came to us as gifts from God. 

This is why, as the church plant I lead is entering into a vitally important new phase (a move to our first permanent building), we are not doing strategic planning.  We are doing strategic discernment.  Where is God leading us? is the question we are asking.  We are not asking for a list of ideas, or a list of problems to solve, or a list of good stories that highlight the strengths we want to build on.  We are praying and discerning. 

The process that we have designed starts with an extended period of meditative prayer (as opposed to what I have often experienced before – a perfunctory one-paragraph petition for God’s guidance before we get down to the real business of the meeting).  It continues with an extended “African” Bible study of Luke 10:1-12 (one of the classic passages on evangelism).  It then proceeds with some creative exercises to encourage people to use right-brain powers to envision God’s plan for the future.  Only after all those exercises do we start working on goals, priorities, and problems. 

In other words, this process is our attempt to let our own thoughts and plans take a step back, and ask God to open our minds to God’s thoughts and plans.  It is a process of strategic discernment, not strategic planning.   

Here are the details of how we have done this process:

1.  Open the team meeting with prayer.  This is not a prayer where you read words while everyone bows their head, then move on to the real business of the meeting.  This is prayer for discernment.  Tell the group that you are going to take some time for silence.  Ask them to make themselves comfortable, flatten feet on the floor, close eyes, etc.  If they wish to sit or lie on the floor, that’s fine.  Take a few minutes to help them silence themselves.  Ask them to breathe deeply and lead them through a relaxation exercise, head to toes.  Then, after some silence, invite the Holy Spirit to speak into our hearts, saying something like, “Holy Spirit, we are gathered in your presence today to hear your words … Please speak your words into our hearts … Help us to hear what you want to say … Help us to see your vision for each one of us, and for your church.”  Pause for more silence, then invite people when they are ready to open their eyes and join the group.

2.  Continue with team Bible study of Luke 10:1-12.
  • Ask someone to read the passage through once out loud.  Tell the group to pay attention as the passage is read and think about: what word or phrase caught your attention in this passage, or what would you like to ask a Bible scholar more about the meaning of?
  • Ask the full group to divide up into small groups of three.  Take 5-10 minutes and ask the small groups to share their answer to the first question.
  • Bring the full group back together and ask for sample responses to the question (not a formal reporting process, just sample responses from a number of people).  Similar insights and questions will probably begin to emerge.  Record them on a flipchart.
  • Have someone read the passage through a second time.  Tell them to pay attention to the following question: what does this passage mean for my/our ministry at Nativity during the next ten years?
  • Divide them into the small groups of three again and give them 10-15 minutes to share in response.
  • Bring the full group together and ask for sample responses.  Record the responses on a flipchart. 
  • Have someone read the passage through aloud a third time.  Tell them that the question to ask this time is: what is God calling us to do in our group’s ministry at Nativity during the next year?
  • Divide them into small groups and have them share for 10-15 minutes.
  • Bring the full group together and record responses.  Pay attention to patterns that emerge.  
  • Put the flipchart pages on the walls around the room so everyone can see them.  

3.  Hand out paper and crayons, and ask each person to draw a picture or symbol that gives an image of the insights they got from the Bible study, something that would represent what they believe God is calling your group’s ministry at Nativity to become.  Give them 5 minutes to complete this exercise.

4.  Go around the room and ask each person to share their picture and describe what it represents.  On a flipchart, record insights or different components of what people are seeing.

5.  Together, begin to describe what God is calling your group’s ministry to look like ten years from now.  What happens in the ministry?  Who is involved?  What kind of spiritual growth and discipleship is happening in the ministry?  What kind of people are leading it and participating in it?  How is this ministry reaching out to new people who are not yet a part of the church?  How is it building ones who have been around longer into better disciples?  How is it transforming lives?

6.  Together, create a short news story that describes your group’s ministry as it exists ten years from now.  What is it doing, how are people growing, what would a religious news reporter see as exciting in the group?  (You may choose to create small groups of three and have each group appoint a “reporter” who will interview the others and write a short news story.)

7.  Now, looking at your group’s news story/stories, start thinking about what first steps we should take over the next year to get to that ten-year vision.

  • What kind of resources do you need – personnel, money, time?
  • What work needs to be done to make that vision a reality?
  • What contribution will this ministry make to the full Nativity family?
  • How will this ministry transform lives with the love of Jesus Christ?
  • What are your group’s top three priorities for the coming year?

8.  From there, each group reports to the vestry, and the vestry identifies over-arching themes, agrees on its top three or four priorities for the coming year, decides how to allocate resources to those priorities, communicates the priorities to the ministry groups, and asks each ministry group to be in charge of implementation and accountability.  

I am not saying that this process is the best possible way to do visioning in the church.  But we have had good results so far.  The group leaders (who are ministry leaders working with their ministry groups) report terrific, Spirit-filled visioning sessions.  The groups have come up with amazingly coherent plans that, without much effort on the part of the vestry, naturally highlight three or four clear, over-arching priorities.  Every group has, in one way or another, identified evangelism and discipleship growth as a clear strategic priority. 

How have you done strategic discernment in your congregation?