Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Alleluia. Christ is risen!" (And the church needs life support.)

Here is a great piece by fellow blogger Gary Gilbertson.  I give it to you in its entirety.

Fewer and fewer of us are present on Easter Day to respond, "The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia."  The Episcopal Church continues its five decade decline with an almost 3% loss in the last reporting year.  We celebrate the Resurrection with joy while viewing with sadness that our traditional approaches to ministry, worship, Sunday school, evangelism, and mission are no longer effective.  Skilled gurus tell us how to turn churches around (Barna), enable the emerging church (Kimball/Moyhaug), or tough it out (Nixon).  Perhaps a fresh approach from the top down would be in order:

WHAT IF there was a bishop or two who declared a moratorium on his/her professional travel outside the diocese for one year.  That's right.  No House of Bishops gatherings, no national committees, no workshops, and no commissions -- you get the idea.  Stay home except for personal trips on their own days and dollars.  And just imagine those bishops committing 2/3rds of their work time to actual labor in congregations.  They would lead a Christian "formation" event or teach a course for the Parish.  They would conduct leadership training for the Vestry and evaluate the vocational/professional skills of the ordained with an eye to guiding clergy change if needed.  They might do "hospice" work so that a parish could die with dignity.  And,

WHAT IF a bishop or two revoked their assessment formula that mandates "giving" by congregations to the diocese and instead championed a voluntary tithe as a guideline.  We all know, even if some won't admit it, that the primary work of a judicatory is growing and maintaining healthy local congregations.  More resources at the local level and dioceses streamlining their efforts to be about their principle work could only be a good thing.  And,

WHAT IF a bishop or two committed to a minimum average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 20,000 before a diocese could have an Episcopal election.  According to the data, there are nine national churches within the Anglican Communion which have one million or more adherents and the average size of a diocese in these nine is 121,000.  Nigeria averages 225,000 members per diocese and Australia averages 170,000; we are at the bottom of the list with 19,000 members while the two above us are 48,000 and 83,000.  It is easy to see that we are top heavy with bishops and dioceses and this can only drain resources from local congregations and mission fields.

God compromised with Abraham that if only 10 righteous people could be found, Sodom would be spared.  God WHAT IF a bishop or two could be found who would do these three things; would you spare our Episcopal Church?  Maybe then more of us can respond, "The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia."


  1. It seems to me that the first course of action is to study where and why there are churches in TEC that are growing, thriving, and healthy. What are they doing that is working? Is it something that we can build upon and spread? I would suggest that the reason for decline is complex and so multifaceted that we don't really know what is going on...

  2. Andy, studding what works is, of course, a smart idea; some of the authors I referenced are worth reading. Nevertheless, it is clear that “we are top heavy with bishops and dioceses and this can only drain resources from local congregations and mission fields.” The life of a diocese is in the congregations not in the bishop/staff/program. Time for them to stay home – work in congregations – and merge dioceses.

  3. My first post here was to perhaps temper the "Sound the Alarm" feeling of the original blog post. There are healthy, thriving, creative Episcopal churches. There are also churches that are not thriving. Why is that? What can we do about it? Should we plan on a period of triage in which some are closed, some merged? Is this an option any longer? I think your assertion that we are top heavy is probably true, but this is only a part of the problem. It is time we stop and ask hard questions, certainly, and start doing some real creative thinking. Do we need NYC offices? Do we need to have GC meet as often as it does? How can we do diocesan conventions more effectively?

    Oh, and in case it was missed, here was my G+ response to this, in which I am not entirely joking:

    My theory is that we should buy RV's for a few of our bishops. With cell phones and computers, they could be in "perpetual motion" around their dioceses, actively engaging in the work of the parishes, yet still as connected as if they were in their offices. Park in the parking lots of the churches. Hold classes, set up tents in the summer. Go to where natural disasters happen, to be the spiritual boots on the ground to aid people who need healing.

  4. Andy, I think the essence of your suggestion is really quite attractive. For seven years, I worked "out of" 815 2nd Ave. traveling to serve the church in stewardship education. Did we need a central office there thirty years ago even? NO! Our office had a wonderful time in the field, actually made income from our resource materials and educated hundreds of lay and clergy. Most of the time in NYC was wasted in admin meetings. But I did like the restaurants. . .

  5. Clearly, mainline Christianity is in the midst of serious evolution as has not been seen for centuries. Unfortunately, it also seems that the hierarchy, who should know best, are the last to recognize this and get out in front of it. The Church is in the pews, and those up front aren't listening.

  6. Interesting writing. I think many of these ideas are things that have been said in each generational leadership transition in the long history of the church or any other institution. And when reading and listening to the many voices around the church this is very popular. And of course it is easy to scapegoat leadership as the root of all the problems.

    There was a great book a few years ago called "Bowling Alone" about the changing nature of society and the institutions within it that support and connect individuals. This book was one of the first to use the term "flat world" to describe the changing nature of leadership and organization. The challenge within the church is to be willing to move and adapt while maintaining some sense of the deeper values that are a part of the spiritual life. People are still dealing with the same spiritual questions and some new ones, and while there really are no precise answers; the church (in the broad sense) still has capacity to play a large roll in the working through of those spiritual questions.

    My own sense is that the gradual re-working of main-line churches in the midst of tectonic demographic, economic and communication shifts is well underway and may have already happened. Those congregations and churches that are willing to engage the world in deep and meaningful ways, that are willing to move resources and let go of traditions that no longer relate, and the leaders both lay and ordained who are willing to risk dealing with change will find themselves positioned to be effective in the coming years.

    There isn’t one model that will be a panacea for the church. There will be some churches that adhere to the models that worked in the past and will continue to be impactful. Others will adopt new ways of doing things and will do the same. If anything, as Ronald Heifetz talks about in, “The work of leadership” is that multifaceted approaches are necessary and that is what is model in nature through the processes of natural selection and adaptation.

    So that might mean combining existing churches, blending diocese together, reworking structures, trying different models of church planting, and being willing to risk innovation. One thing that doesn’t help is simply describing the failures of the church with no real attempt to change the model. I also think the comparison of the societal contexts of the church in Europe and the US with those in Africa and else where are not helpful. We have the number of Bishops and diocese we do today because of decisions made decades ago and in a different context. The church in Africa is rapidly expanding in a context where population is exploding. Doing church in different places requires very different models. I would say however that being faithful to God through Jesus Christ is essential in any context.

    As a member of GenX, and one the younger priests around this area, I am not too frightened for the future of society and the church. I remember well being told in college through media and the professors that our generation would be the first to deal with the declines in society that may mean we will not do better than our parents in terms of upward mobility. In the current time the structures that seemed secure are all being reworked. Retirement programs, Social Security, Health Care, Government structure, communication all are changing at lightening speed. The world and church we inherited from the Boomers is very broken and muddled with challenges and decline. There is much work to do and as in the past God will surely save the church despite our best efforts to the contrary.

    I hope the writers of this blog enjoy retirement, I need to get back to work.

  7. This is filled with good ideas. What if, at least one bishop thought of staying at home instead of gathering in NYC or at Kanuga for meetings. What if we tried to place a priest in every country seat to develop a congregation of any size. We close down congregations too quickly, sell off property that is too valuable, and retreat to big cities where the money is. We will not have large attendance figures until there are at least two or three gathering in every community of any size.

  8. William, thank you, such creative thinking! May many good ideas flow.

  9. Friends, it is intuitive that leadership is essential to the health of an organization; in the church, how can it be defended that our bishop’s duplicate and deplete resources? The reality is that no one joins the church at the diocesan level; the action is in the parish and congregation. It is sad that our bishops are willing to champion reform for the national organization but not one of them is willing to stand up and declare the need to decrease the number of dioceses and the number of bishops. Their mantra seems to be “I will not be the last bishop of ___________!

  10. Re: RVs for bishops. one congregant in El Camino Real was heard to say in advance of the election of the first bishop there that the bishop should be given a purple van with an Ooogah horn to carry his chair (I think she said stool) with him around the new diocese.

    When will we try this kind of thing out? Or is the idea of a bishop/circuit rider just not Anglican enough?


  11. Stephen,

    Delightful idea - a purple van (why not a motor home) to get the bishop out among the people. North Dakota from 1890 - 1901 had a “Cathedral Car” on the Northern Pacific Railroad Line build by the Pullman Car Company to bring the bishop and a chapel to sidings all over the young State; wonderful stories are told of this adventure in mission. The “Cathedral Car” was scrapped out during the depression. Perhaps this is a metaphor – we need to scrap even wonderful ideas from the past in order to move forward. Ogden Nash said, “Don’t live in the past, there is no future in it.”