Sunday, May 27, 2012

Turning Outwards

On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were all huddled together in one room, praying, when the Holy Spirit blew through.  We see in Acts what the Holy Spirit does to a group of inward-focused disciples.  The Holy Spirit turns them outward – teaches them new languages, inspires them to accomplish new missions, sends them out to new people they never would have dreamed that God was interested in.  From a circle turned inward, tightly closed against the dangers of outsiders, the Church turned outward and began reaching out to the world.  Because reaching out to a broken and hurting world in need of God’s salvation is the mission of the Church.

Sadly, the Church's constant temptation is to turn back inward and focus on ourselves instead of on our broken and hurting world.  What are the signs of an inward-focused church?
  • Decline in membership
  • Confusion and discomfort about the purpose of evangelism, and resulting failure to do it very well
  • Focus on the people with money and power, rather than, say, powerless children and youth
  • Lack of clarity about what mission is
  • Focus on internal conflicts rather than external mission. 

Oh, those things would never happen in The Episcopal Church, would they?

If Martians came to visit The Episcopal Church, what would they think the church was for?  What is our purpose, our mission, our goal?  I am not sure that they would see widespread evidence of the Spirit turning us outward. 

Our Martian friends would, however, discover lots of inward focus.  Clearly they would detect right away that our mission includes maintaining a headquarters in Manhattan, housing a large staff.  Quite likely they would conclude that our mission includes maintaining a great number of costly and beautiful buildings, which are lightly occupied for one hour a week.  And most of all, I think they would conclude that our mission was to argue with each other. 

After all, since 2003 if not before, our church has been convulsed with one argument after another. 
  • The ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, which brought to a head the disagreement over the place of gays and lesbians in the church.
  • The resulting breakups, spinoffs, and property lawsuits.
  • The Proposed Anglican Covenant, now thankfully put to bed for a nice long nap by our friends in the Church of England. 
  • The whole question of “restructuring” the church, which has highlighted various disagreements over mission, not to mention tussles over leadership between Convention, Executive Council, Church Center staff, and the House of Bishops.  Who’s in charge here?  

Oh goodie, another conflict to sink our teeth into.

In the meantime, membership, attendance, participation, and finances in The Episcopal Church continue to drop.  See Nurya Love Parish’s blog post here for a rundown of the numbers. 

(Parenthetical note:  I have to point out that engaging in frequent conflicts over “issues” is characteristic of the way that Baby Boomers, the current generation of leadership in our church, operate, according to William Strauss and Neil Howe .  Strauss and Howe call the Baby Boomers an “Idealist” generation, who will often engage in conflicts over values they see as absolute.  In the conflict over gays and lesbians, for instance, the “conservatives” see themselves as guardians of Truth, while the “liberals” see themselves as crusaders for Justice.  Well, in a conflict between Truth and Justice, no one is ever going to back down.  Compromise is hopeless.) 

Now that the conflict over gays and lesbians is beginning to fade a bit (so we can hope), “restructuring” threatens to convulse us in another internal controversy.  Who is right here?  Those who argue that the Church Center staff needs to lead, or risk having the future imposed upon them?  Those who argue that representative government is a founding hallmark of our church structure, and should not be tampered with?  Those who truly believe that bishops are ordained and called by God to lead, in preference over the other orders of ministry?

I would have a wonderful time addressing all these questions, if I thought they were the most important thing right now.  But they are not.

Here is what is important.  This church has a mission, and the longer we expend all our energy on internal squabbles, the more that mission will slip out of our grasp.  Let’s forget about arguing with each other.  Let’s see how we can refocus, together, on mission.  Let’s turn our faces away from those oh-so-fascinating internal conflicts, and turn them outwards toward a world that needs to know the reconciling love of Christ. 

After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Stay here and talk about theology and church politics with each other, with an occasional worship service thrown in.”  What Jesus said was “Go.” 

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 do everything that I have commanded you.  And remember that I am with you always, to the end of the age.  Matthew 28: 19-20.

Not stay here and argue.  Go and do mission.  Don’t sit around and spend all your energy on internal conflicts.  Go out there where the people are – the ones who haven’t heard that God loves them, the ones who haven’t had their lives transformed by Jesus Christ, the ones who are hungry and hurting and in despair.  Go. 

We need to change our structures, yes, to get rid of all the things that are causing us to stay put in old, inward-focused, hierarchical structures (like an office building in Manhattan).  We need to streamline our governance, yes, to allow the leaders of our church to operate in ways that are visionary and mission-oriented rather than being consumed with the minutiae of legislative procedures and Robert’s Rules of Order.  We need to re-think our budget, yes, to empower mission at all levels of the church rather than pay for the internally-focused structures that are keeping us stuck. 

And doing all these things will require some internal politics to make them happen.  But let’s make decisions that will allow God’s Holy Spirit to blow through our church.  Let’s create structures that require and empower us to focus on mission. 

Here are three proposals that attempt to do just that.  Please contact me at if you have suggestions, comments, or are interested in co-sponsoring these resolutions. 
  • Proposed Resolution 1 calls for a churchwide visioning process, involving all levels of the church, based heavily on Bible study, prayer, and discernment of God’s Spirit, leading to a restructuring plan.  Let the Holy Spirit blow!  Don’t do this by political maneuvering!  Do it by prayer and letting God show the way!
  • Proposed Resolution 2 requires us to refocus our budget on true mission, rather than on administrative and governance costs.  If a budget is a missionary document, let’s refocus ours on mission.
  • Proposed Resolution 3 looks toward a future when we will no longer have a hierarchical-model corporate headquarters in Manhattan, but will be leaner, more horizontal, and less expensive in our churchwide staff structure. 
Click on the links above to see the full texts of the proposed Resolutions.


  1. Well said Susan. First things first.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts, BUT - Where are the sacraments in all this stuff? Or am I missing something?

  3. David, the sacraments are a powerful unifying force. As far back as Queen Elizabeth I, people recognized that praying together could bring unity even when it didn't bring uniformity - a hallmark of Anglicanism.

  4. how about a Thank You to those who bore the conflict for your freedoms that we never knew.

  5. Ann, that's the subject of a separate post of mine on Facebook this morning. I am deeply grateful to my father and all others who have borne that burden.

  6. I am talking about the women and men who bore the heat of the day in the church - had "conflicts" so you could be a priest.

  7. Oh, thanks for the clarification. I agree that we should be grateful to them, and I am. Thank God we are moving to an era of sanity, where God is allowed to call leaders who are not limited by our prejudices. I just hope that we are emerging from the era of conflict with each other, and can move to looking outwards to the world, which desperately needs to hear the good news of Christ. I think that conflict, while sometimes productive (as you mention), can also sap our energies for mission.

  8. Gee, and here I thought 30 years of activism for LGBT people was, in fact, part of the church's mission. Not just for LGBT people who are Episcopalians, but for the Episcopal Church to be a beacon of hope and a leader in the fight. I suppose you would dismiss all those who fought against racism and sexism as being too "internally focused". Or, maybe not since you have personally benefited from one of those struggles.

    I agree with you that we need to gain clarity now, after the major struggles are over, but that is not to say that racism, sexism and heterosexism does not still plague our church.

    It feels to me the way some families I have known who have battled cancer or ALS for a number of years feel after their loved one has died. Where to put all that energy that went into the battle? I think that's the phase we're in right now.

    Please be a little kinder and a tad more respectful of those who have - and continue to - struggle against prejudice inside and outside our walls lest, 20 years from now, someone writes a blog and you find yourself having been part of a generation someone calls "reactionary".

  9. Elizabeth, thanks for the comment. As I read your comment, I honestly think we are saying the same thing. I am not trying to argue that the conflicts of the past/present were/are not worth having. I am saying that the conflicts that are absorbing a lot of our energy now - such as restructuring - are not worth treating in the same way, as Truth vs. Justice type of issues. I think we are all on the same team, and should assume good intentions and faithful service on all parts as we work to solve these challenges. When you say: "Where to put all that energy that went into the battle?" - that is exactly what I am talking about. We shouldn't think of this new set of issues as a battle. It would be very easy for a system, having lost its focus of conflict, to turn on itself in an autoimmune reaction, with former allies turning into adversaries and that sort of thing. I would not want to see that happen.

    As far as generations go - I think that each type of generation brings its own good gifts. We are at a transition point between generations, as Boomers begin to retire and Gen X moves into prime leadership years (ages 45-65). I think in the next 10 years, we will begin to see the characteristic gifts of Boomers (such as conflicts over Truth and Justice) begin to fade from prominence, while the characteristic gifts of Xers (such as pragmatic realism that is willing to engage with the world in non-traditional, non-institutional ways) come to the fore. At least, that would be the natural generational life cycle. And yes, there will come a day when my Gen X fades from the scene too. I hope so, because I look forward to a peaceful and happy retirement when that day comes! I imagine cold glasses of sauvignon blanc, world travel, time to read all those books stacked up on my desk ... but I digress.

    Again, thanks for the comment. I appreciate you engaging the thoughts, and I offer you my respect. :)

  10. Thank you, Susan, for this clarification.

    I have never found the whole generational thing to be helpful. Indeed, I find it fundamentally alienating. If you had framed the conversation in terms of "battle fatigue" or even "caregiver fatigue" (with which I think many priests and bishops are afflicted), I don't think your post would have stung as much. It sounded really disrespectful and dismissive to me. You did not say, "Each generation brings its own good gifts". Indeed, I heard you say that part of the reason we're in this mess is because Boomers are all about "Truth and Justice". Like that's a bad thing. Like, that speaks for every Boomer. Like, "let's wait till these Boomers all die off and then we Xers will show you how it's done."

    I know you didn't intend to say that but that was the impact.

    Yes, we both are saying the similar things but in very different ways. I'm not ascribing blame to anyone. It was what it was. We did our best with what was left to us. It is what it is. Your generation will do the same. If Xers are as pragmatic as you say they are, that would be very clear and there would be no need to 'shame and blame' anyone.

    Words matter, Susan. Thanks for listening. Now, let's roll up our sleeves and see if we can remedy for both "battle fatigue" and "caregiver fatigue" which now plagues the church. Let's get some clarity about who we are now and what God is calling us to do and be and live into the future. I think you'll find some strong allies among GenX, Boomers and Xers alike.

  11. I will say thank you, Susan, for the article. I agree with you on the Truth vs Justice fights, although I don't feel qualified to say whether it's a generational thing (and I'm a little scared of what Elizabeth Kaeton might say if I did!). Compromise really isn't possible when each side is convinced of their righteousness, and every fight for truth or justice is a fight none-the-less, and there are casualties on all sides.

    If GLBT issues are part and parcel of the church's mission, then so too are matters of church discipline and practice. All of it equally proclaims our understanding of God's kingdom. For some, it's marriage equality. For others (me), it's communion regardless of baptism. We're each convinced that our pet projects are essential to the mission of the church. We're right, of course, but we get wrong when we start pulling each other down.

    And we only have limited resources. I loved your blog piece that showed the budget broken down by percentages spent on the 5 Marks and admin. That was a wake-up!