Sunday, April 29, 2012

Deck Chairs

Here’s a multiple-choice question for you.  As the Titanic encountered some difficulties the night of April 14-15, 1912, the problem was:

A.  Deck chairs were getting disarranged by the way the ship was listing at an odd angle.

B.  It was rather cold outside, and the chill in the air wasn’t helped by the cold water splashing up over the side of the ship.

C.  All those noisy people up on deck were creating quite a traffic pileup as people tried to get into the lifeboats.

D.  The ship had hit an iceberg and was sinking fast.

If you guessed D – bing bing bing!  You’re right!  Those other difficulties were not the problem – they were symptoms of the problem. 

Now, let’s try another one.  As The Episcopal Church faces some challenges in the next triennium, the problem is:

A.  General Convention costs too much.

B.  The budget process is incompetent, untransparent, and error-ridden.

C.  The churchwide structure has gotten too big and too costly.

D.  The church’s membership has declined precipitously over the past 10 years, leading to steep drop-offs in attendance and financial support at all levels of the church organizational structure.

Surprise, surprise – the answer once again is D!  Bing bing bing!  Those other difficulties aren’t the problem – they are symptoms of the problem.  We have declined in attendance, membership and financial support, and the resulting anxiety has led to huge budget difficulties and the need to revamp our church structure.

Now, it is important to address all the difficulties we face.  But let’s don’t fool ourselves that the problem is, say, that General Convention costs too much, or that the Church Center employs too many people.  The problem is much bigger than that.  The problem is that the culture has shifted around us, we have not shifted with it, and therefore we are in decline.  That’s the problem that underlies all the other problems, and that’s the problem we need to address. 

This is a problem that is shared by all other mainline denominations, and it is a problem that the non-denominational mega-churches are beginning to face, too.  We live in a post-Christendom society, where people don’t see any reason to be “cultural” Christians – those religious, but not necessarily spiritual, regular church attenders and pledgers who filled the pews back in the 1960s.  We don’t have those folks any more.  And our way of evangelism (uh, whatever that is) has not reached the growing immigrant and non-Anglo population in our culture.

These are reasons - they are not excuses.  They are not excuses for our failure to do evangelism with emerging generations and new cultures.  We have not shifted with the culture and learned new ways of doing evangelism.  We have just relied on the surrounding culture to bring people to us.  Times have shifted and they're not coming any more.  We need to learn new ways of reaching new people, and we haven't done it yet.  Because of these failures, our church is in decline.

We can react to this fact in two ways: we can wring our hands, rearrange deck chairs, reorganize structures, and settle in for a long and graceful good-bye.  Or, we can refocus on mission, ministry, and evangelism.  We can focus efforts on people under 35 and on immigrant cultures.  We can look for a spiritual reawakening that will allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into a new era of the church.

Yes, we can react to the other problems too – but until we refocus on mission, ministry, and evangelism, we will be just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  

This is the first in a series of posts about The Problem.  Next up: Will the Real Subsidiarity Principle Please Stand Up?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Mission ... Mission ... Mission

“We’re on a mission from God,” proclaimed the famous sages, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, as they proceeded to put on cool shades and fedoras, visit a memorable nun, track down the old band members, put Aretha Franklin in a very bad mood, and lead the Chicago police on a wild, wild ride. 

Fortunately for them, Aykroyd and Belushi seemed to have a much clearer understanding of their mission than we Episcopalians do.  “The heartbeat of the church is mission … mission … mission,” said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in her sermon at General Convention in 2009.  As I listened to her sermon, I was inspired (though I might argue that the heartbeat of the church is actually the living Christ).  But I also found myself puzzled: what does she mean by “mission”?

Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls, who presumably shares the PB’s outlook on mission, clarified their view of mission in his sample “restructuring” resolution for the coming General Convention.  He called for a plan to “facilitate this Church’s faithful engagement in Christ’s mission to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18).”  Reading that mission statement from the gospel of Luke broadly, one could say that the mission of the church is to do social justice work.

But what about the other gospels?  What about other statements even within Luke’s gospel?  What about the whole witness of scripture?  Here are some other scriptural mission statements (certainly not a complete list): 

  • “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  Matthew 28:19-20
  • “The first [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”  Mark 12:29-31
  • “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”  Mark 16:15
  • “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest…. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road…. Whenever you enter a town…cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”  Luke 10:2-9
  • “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Luke 22:19
  • “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  John 15:12
  • “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Acts 1:8
  • “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  1 Corinthians 11:26

Based on that incomplete list of scriptural mission statements, we could say that the mission of the church includes:  evangelism, worship, formation of disciples, celebration of the sacraments, loving one another, healing, and serving others in need.  Not surprisingly, most churches recognize exactly these actions as integral parts of their mission.  So do the Five Anglican Marks of Mission, more or less:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

Why then does the sample resolution limit the church’s mission to a narrow piece of our full biblical mandate? 

In a conversation with Bishop Sauls, he told me that he believes that as we come face to face with the poor, we are formed as disciples – in other words, service to others IS Christian Formation.  This is lovely and true, and I appreciate what he is saying out of his own deep faith and service.  But it is incomplete.  First of all, some Episcopalians ARE poor – we should question our own social location if we start assuming that Christian formation is a matter of coming face to face with these strangers, the poor. Secondly, not everyone has the leisure or financial resources to help the poor to a very large extent - not the average working family, and certainly not your average 10-year-old who needs to learn about Jesus.  Surely we are not depending on people's charity work to do ALL of their Christian Formation.

And third:  Jesus himself, as he proclaimed that mission statement in Luke’s gospel, was quoting Isaiah: he was speaking out of a lifetime of religious education in the Hebrew scriptures that he had studied, memorized, internalized, and applied to life.  Like Jesus, we have to learn it first before we apply it.  And, if we want our church to survive, and thrive, and grow, and serve, we need to help others learn it too.  We can’t just assume that everyone who will ever be Christian already is, and all we have to do is put them (or their money) to work!

If the church neglects to form disciples through evangelism, worship and education, in 50 years we will have no one left to do the acts of loving service to others that comprise what Sauls and Jefferts Schori think of as mission … mission … mission.  It takes disciples to do discipleship work.  And therefore, evangelism and Christian formation need to be at the foundation of our church’s mission. 

We need to recognize that any restructuring of our church will be impoverished indeed if we limit ourselves to only one bit of what Jesus has commanded us to do.  We all have different gifts, and different portions of the mission that we are especially called to fulfill, but together, as a church, as the Body of Christ, we are commanded to do all these things.  Because, you know, we’re on a mission from God. 


Happily, we have already defined our mission: General Convention 2009 Resolution D027 did exactly this by adopting the Anglican Marks of Mission and requiring our budget priorities to be based on these Marks.  I can’t see any indication that Executive Council’s proposed budget actually considers these Marks as priorities, but that’s no reason for PB&F or Convention 2012 to let them get away with neglecting the priorities we have already adopted! 

My previous blog post recommended that we adopt a quick fix that freezes administrative costs that are universally agreed to be too high, while maintaining mission-oriented ministries like the Office of Christian Formation.  I believe that this is the right approach for this year.  But it’s a quick fix, and won’t take us very far into the future.  Chief Operating Officer Sauls is absolutely right that the church needs to be restructured for mission, and he is to be congratulated for getting the conversation kicked into high gear.  Let’s talk about how to do this restructuring.

First, let’s define the problem.  Why are we restructuring?  We are restructuring quite simply because the church is in decline.  The financial woes are only a symptom of the underlying problem: declining membership, declining attendance, and aging church membership compared to the population as a whole. 

We can run through all the usual excuses: all the mainline denominations are declining, many conservatives left amid a whole bunch of conflict, new generations aren’t interested in institutions, etc.  In other words, it’s not our fault.  To which I say:  Whatever.  There are plenty of people out there who have not had their lives transformed by Jesus Christ.  As Jesus says in Luke 10:2:  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  We are the laborers – the harvest is there.  We need to ask God to send us out. 

That’s why we’re restructuring.  We’re getting back to our roots.  It’s time to start accomplishing the mission Jesus is sending us to do.  

Several proposals have been floated for restructuring.

Hold a Special Constitutional Convention devoted to restructuring.  I am extremely skeptical of this idea.  It’s too expensive, for one thing.  And I truly believe that without a carefully designed and mission-oriented grassroots change process preceding a restructuring convention, change will not occur.  That’s the lesson of what Rabbi Edwin Friedman calls “homeostasis”: a system will naturally work to protect the balance it has already achieved, whether that balance is healthy or not.  I believe that a special convention without a great deal of underlying change work would simply result in all the interest groups in the church rising up to protect themselves and maintain their current balance.  No real change would happen.  We need to make a plan for change that is widely agreed upon and includes the voices of a wide variety of people before trying to legislate change. 

Rearrange the way General Convention works.  This includes suggestions like unicameral legislature, revised role of Presiding Bishop, fewer meetings, smaller deputations, ad hoc task forces rather than standing commissions, much more work done electronically, etc.  All interesting proposals to consider, all potentially useful.  But they won't address the core of the problem.  General Convention could operate more efficiently, but that won’t send out laborers into God’s harvest.  It won’t cause our church to grow.  It won’t bring the gospel to new generations.  It won’t increase our acts of loving service to those in need.  Not that we shouldn’t consider doing these things – we should.  New times and new technologies call for new ways of meeting and making decisions, and in this day and age, we need to be much more flexible than an every-three-years meeting allows.  But we should not mistake these changes for re-orienting ourselves toward mission.  We need to plan for how to achieve our mission, then make the structural changes to empower that mission. 

Pass a budget resolution that requires a high percentage of revenues to be devoted to mission.  A feel-good resolution!  Hurray!  And I agree with it!  That is, as long as I agree with how it defines “mission.”  But wait, what are we going to do about the Manhattan office building known as 815 and its related debt service?  What about canonically required work such as Title IV cases, as well as things that the churchwide office clearly should be doing such as ecumenical work, Anglican Communion relations and Federal Ministries?  What about the role of the Church Center in empowering mission at the local level?  We would plunge the church into turmoil without a grown-up, serious plan for how to address these grown-up, serious issues.  

Significantly lower the “asking” from the dioceses to allow more money to be used for local mission.  Good idea.  But – we need to adopt mission priorities at every level of the church, and we need to empower mission in the way that is most efficient for each level.  We should not, say, throw out Christian Formation at the churchwide level without any plan for how the other levels are going to get that part of our mission done.  Christian Formation is an absolutely vital component of our church’s mission, and we need to make sure it happens.  That means that we need to have a plan in place for how to empower this mission, and we need to have a transition time to get the new plan up and running before we just let the old plan go. 

Do you see a common theme running through all these critiques?  I do.  We need a plan.  We need a plan that brings in the voices of laypeople, deacons, priests and bishops.  We need a plan that concentrates on particular ministry areas and particular administrative issues.  We need a plan that points us toward change for the 21st century. 

Here is what I think such a plan should involve:

1.  A steering group of not more than 12 complete outsiders to church structures.  By outsiders, I mean dedicated Episcopalians, entrepreneurial thinkers and doers, who are not involved in Church Center work or high-level churchwide politics or standing commissions.  If you’re standing on the carpet, you can’t make the carpet fly.  These need to be people who love the church, understand the mission, but are not personally invested in current structures. 

2.  This steering group would have the power to appoint several blue-ribbon panels:

     > A panel of real estate experts who would make recommendations about what to do about 815 (the building), including looking at options of selling it, leasing it, and other creative possibilities I don’t know about.  In the hopes that something could be done about this behemoth before the next General Convention, we need to make sure that Executive Council has the power to act on any offers that might come in, and understands that the will of Convention is that we should divest ourselves of this building.  There should be no more argument about this.  We are not going to be a New York corporate hierarchical-model church any more.  We are going to be a mission-focused church.

     > A group of investigators that looks at options for relocating the churchwide structure, including cost, accessibility to airports, closeness to important power structures for our church, and available resources.  How about using vacant space at Washington National Cathedral?  How about using vacant space at Seabury Western Seminary?  And so on.  (I cite those two examples having no idea whether they are practical ideas, but offering them as the kind of options we should be considering.)  Again, Executive Council should be empowered to make a move on this recommendation as soon as 815 is disposed of.   

     > A panel of human resources and other experts who would look at the churchwide staff structure and recommend options for streamlining, outsourcing, and closing unnecessary offices.  In addition, this panel would carefully delineate those functions – such as, say, ecumenical relations – that absolutely must be carried out by the churchwide office, and would recommend the staffing and other resources needed to carry out those functions.  Executive Council should be empowered to make an immediate move. 

     >  A panel of people who look at our churchwide governing structures and make recommendations for different ways of operating, including possibilities of reducing standing commissions, using more electronic meetings and communications, considering the size of deputations and frequency of meetings, etc.  Constitutional changes would be required if any changes are made, so these recommendations would need to be considered by Convention.  Bishop Sauls tells me that the Diocese of San Diego has put forth an interesting resolution (which I haven't seen) that would make this possible in 3 years rather than 6. 

3.  Now, back to the steering group.  What are they doing?  They are leading a churchwide visioning process that is based in Bible study, prayer, and deep discernment of where the Holy Spirit is leading people in their ministries.  They are holding out the Anglican Marks of Mission as a reasonable summary of mission in our church, and they are training facilitators to lead a visioning process, gathering input from people in the church for how to achieve this mission. Why a churchwide visioning process?  Because we need input from the grassroots levels of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Without broad-based input and buy-in at every level of the church, any proposals for change would not truly cause change.  They would be defeated or sabotaged.  This is the lesson of Rabbi Edwin Friedman's concept of homeostasis.  Remember, it is a key part of this program that the visioning process be led by outsiders.  Insiders to the structure of the church, however faithful and well-meaning we know they are, will be led to protect current structures.  All change must be on the table.

     a.  The visioning process would be open to any group that wants to participate – interest groups around particular ministry areas, dioceses, provinces, local parishes, seminaries, etc. 

     b.  Trained facilitators would lead the interest groups in a spiritually-focused discernment process that begins with significant, in-depth, inductive Bible study and prayer around mission-focused passages (with the caveat that no one Bible passage encompasses the full scope of God’s commission to us, so multiple passages must be considered). 

     c.  The visioning process would continue with a set of questions and exercises.  The purpose would be to discern answers to how God is leading the group, and the wider church, to achieve its mission.  What do we dream of?  What do we hope for?  Where are we now?  What would it take to get where we want to be?  What kind of support does the group need from diocesan, provincial, and churchwide structures?  How much money, personnel, and physical structures will it require? 

     d.  The facilitators would bring reports back to the steering group, which would assimilate the feedback and undergo a similar visioning process of its own.  The steering group would make a report to the wider church.  That report would include recommendations for:

          > The “panel of expert” recommendations, above.
          > The best structure for mission in the defined Marks of Mission areas.
          > Ways to flatten the current hierarchical structure so that the Church Center does not control, but rather empowers, ministry at all levels of the church.
          > Criteria for funding ministry being done by local parishes, by dioceses, by provinces and by networks within the church.  A Mission Fund would be established, using a very high percentage of revenues collected from the dioceses and from the endowment, and empowered to give grants for ministry (carried out by local groups or churchwide independent networks) that meet carefully defined Marks of Mission criteria. 
          > A better budget process that would give the church time and leadership necessary to create a mission-focused budget, and would not demand that PB&F be the de facto determiner of all churchwide mission by its last-minute Convention decisions about what to fund or not to fund.  Asking this of PB&F is not fair to them, or to the church.
          > A strategic fundraising plan, not the “how” of fundraising (which would be the work of a Development Office), but the “what for.”  What are our strategic priorities?  How much will they cost?  How can we express them as a dream that others will want to participate in?  The Development Office will need a menu of dreams to present to potential donors. 
          > Possibly: recommendations for leadership training.  How are we going to recruit, train, and equip the kind of young entrepreneurial leaders who will be needed for the new church we are creating? 

This report would be available by summer 2014, and ready for the entire church to discuss and assimilate for a full year before General Convention 2015.  In 2015, we vote – and may the best plan win.  That is to say – God’s plan.  Because we're on a mission from God.