Saturday, October 27, 2012

Necessary Endings

"The tomorrow that you desire and envision may never come to pass if you do
not end some things you are doing today." Dr. Henry Cloud

Look at what is happening today that spells doom for tomorrow.  Statistics
released by the National Episcopal Church for the year 2011 show us shutting
down 58 congregations last year with more then 300 congregations closed in
the past five years.  We lost 28,861 active baptized members last year and
17% of our active baptized members over the last ten years. Our overall loss
of membership in the last fifty years is nearly 50%. The average Sunday
attendance per congregation is just 65 persons per weekend. 

It is noted that twenty-four domestic dioceses reported slight membership
growth last year even though nationally we lost thousands of members and the
average Sunday attendance is up less then one person per diocese per year.
Most of those increases are statistically meaningless with half showing less
then a one hundred new members and several less then 10 new members.  In all
cases of reported growth the numbers are well within the margin of error;
the reality is that our Episcopal Church continues in sharp membership

We all know that endings are a part of life; this is especially true in the
Church.  Therefore, it is difficult to understand that after all the decline
noted above, our leadership still clings to yesterday's ideas, structure,
and strategies.  One of the most grievous failures is the current
multiplicity of dioceses which most bishops conceive to operate as though
the diocese is comparable to large parish. They hire staff and expand
programs all the while knowing what happens at diocesan level does not grow
local congregations. We have been tolerant of this arrogance long enough.
Until we do some drastic endings, we cannot be in a position for a new and
fruitful beginning!

It is time for the American Episcopal Church to do some serious pruning -
any gardener knows that a rosebush (or a Church) cannot reach its full
potential without systematic and purposeful pruning.  The gardener knows
that removing unproductive and inappropriate appendages puts an end to
diverting precious resources. Most of our dioceses, bishops, diocesan staffs
and diocesan programs are unproductive appendages when measured by the
standard of parish growth.

To be sure, some of the factors that adversely affect the Church are
external.  Nevertheless, many of our most destructive strategies are
internal; we are promoting our own decline!

The most strategic way to cut our 99 domestic dioceses back to a reasonable
number is to prune the bishop's budget. Let's not delude ourselves; the
diocesan budget in every domestic jurisdiction is the bishop's budget!
Items and activities supported by the bishop become part of a line-item;
requests not approved by the bishop fail to be included. This is not hard to
understand because the budgeting process is controlled by diocesan staff and
often veiled in secrecy. Some bishops actually write the diocesan budget
themselves.  One diocese presented a budget with more then 50% of the
expenditures going for the cost of bishop and staff and yet no detail was
provided; no justification for who got what, just one total.  Yes, it is the
bishop's budget.  (Kudos to those few unique bishops who are/were completely
transparent in budging and worked to reduce diocesan spending.)

The bishop's budget may be presented as a "Mission Statement" so that a vote
against the bishop's budget is a vote against "Mission."  Don't be fooled.
Challenge the bishop's budget for details; don't be put off by excuses such
as we are trying to protect employee privacy or the diocesan council voted
for secrecy.  People of the diocese have a right to know what compensation,
benefits and perks are provided to the bishop and each of the staff.  How do
diocesan position packages compare to the rectors, associate clergy, lay
professional staff and administrative positions in congregations?  You might
be shocked at how well people in the bishop's budget are compensated.

If the bishop's budget is not fully transparent and in complete detail -
move for a written ballot by individual line item so that obscure entries
can be rejected. Do not authorize diocesan council to approve a budget in
lieu of convention action. Regrettably it will most often be the
lay-delegates to diocesan convention that take the lead in challenging the
bishop's budget because many of the current clergy generation have yet to be
weaned from seeking the bishop's favor.  Others are simply acclimated to
staying under the radar of decent. 

Drying up the bishop's budget is a necessary ending that will force
consolidation of dioceses plus curtailment of diocesan staffs and programs;
in turn, this will free resources for local congregations who have always
been the front line in the Anglican Communion. "The tomorrow that you desire
and envision may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are
doing today."

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Manifesto of Hope

I find it amazing that Episcopal Journey of Hope has had over 16,000 visits in about nine months. That in itself is hopeful for us writers who originally did not have any idea about who would check us out or what really we might ourselves state. Nonetheless an evolution of purpose seems to be occurring as we write and discover what we think of each others’ topics and readers’ response.

In particular, personally I tend to focus on that essentially sputtering and struggling structure of the Episcopal Church in which we still live, move and occasionally suffer-- the episcopacy. I keep finding myself  feeling a mix of pain, past pride, contemporary interest and no small amount of disdain for the episcopal office. My passionate interest in the episcopacy is doubtless why I will finally have lived all but the first fifteen years as an Episcopalian (thanks largely to my cousins, the Shahan family). I see all of us  American Anglicans historically as defined by the episcopacy even as many of us find its present practices as bloated, expensive and ineffective. I know if I did not feel so committed in my concern, I would probably otherwise retreat  into our local clergy breakfast meetings for mutual support, pointless bitching and hopeless apathy.

My, and I dare say our, sense of hope resides in our active commitment to have authentic public regard for our ECUSA concerns because we know hope is the compass and directionality for our faith journey and do sense love’s empowerment to keep us moving in a true direction. This true trajectory is about the structural, or incarnational, power of love in our tradition to manifest itself in human life, organization and systems of finance, justice and mission. We do so at the heart of it all with an essential sense of finding value in the historic episcopacy. The question I certainly have begged of myself to answer for nearly twenty years is about  episcopacy, our inheritance in all its varied and mixed history of creative mission, highly varied practice and structure and in its frequent corruption as it has fallen over itself from the power of love into the love of power. My hope is that episcopacy has an essential authenticity which can be reformed and redirected  toward a true direction, once again returning to an evolving, manifested power of love.

While my and our essays in Episcopal Journey of Hope  regarding content, focus and interest varies, I believe we are united in our own episcopal sense of true vision: the quest for authentic oversight, foresight, insight and surround sight that causes us to see as much of a wholesome vision as each moment carries us into. We, like some old spider, are an experienced and imaginative creature of many eyes and legs spinning trails and tales of hope to catch once in awhile the 
smell, taste and touch of the Spirit. And when that manifestation of spirit hits our web, with it we vibrate with joy and excitement.

I need not invite you, as you are in this great web of life discovered, revealed and celebrated. But just so you know, the contributors to Episcopal Journey of Hope are here. We are persistent.  In the end, we should all  challenge our Episcopal Church as we feel so called to renew hope and the power of love.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Existentialism and Christian Zen

This blog is to recommend a short, excellent book by fellow blogger Bill McVey.  Its title is Existentialism and Christian Zen and you can buy it from  Early on McVey establishes the fact that existence precedes essence.  Trained in the tradition of Scholasticism, he renounces it promptly and centers on the reality that we live out our existence every day in anxiety-driven wandering and discover a solution by "reaching into the deepest elements of humanity."  For McVey this is Zen, which "fits will with my heart, mind and most of all my existential wandering soul."

In Zen "we face a similar existential philosophy and therapy, and it is the issue of being and non-being."  In order to experience being at the most profound level, we must first become no-thing, that is, an emptying of our consciousness and returning to our center core of nothingness.  Through the meditative practice of Zen, we rid ourselves of all extraneous thought and descend into the darkness of nothing, or no-thing.  This is not a pathological nothing, that which might be found in neurosis or psychosis, it is a nothingness that one fills up with  key word or phrase, repeated over and over again, that gives the meditating person a sense of complete being, hope, somethingness, an experience of the Divine.

While admitting that Existentialism and Zen are nihilistic in the language of silence, McVey contends that it becomes constructive nihilism based on a constructive mystical nothingness that is filled up with the images of Christ.  Thus, through the practice of Zen, the Christian can fill up his or her own no-thing with a Christian word or phrase, such as the Jesus Prayer.  There is historical precedence found in the teachings of the Spanish mystics of the twelfth century, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

When McVey teaches Christian Zen, he teaches the beliefs of Buddhism, i.e. "I take refuge in the Dharma (the way), I take refuges in the Sangha (my spiritual companions)".  I then explain that we will change these beliefs to:  "I take refuge in the Christ nature; I take refuge in the way of Christ; I take refuge in my spiritual community."

This important contribution to Christian spirituality is a mere 93 pages and well worth the read.  Amazon has very good prices.  Check it out.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Clergy Wellness

If you believe the 2006 CREDO clergy wellness report, Episcopal clergy are in pretty good shape.  The report says,  "Although Episcopal clergy have reported many serious health risk factors, their general sense of well-being, confidence in undertaking new challenges, and commitment to their ministries are strong."

There are 6113 priests employed in the church and 646 of them completed the Mayo Clinic Health Risk Assessment and two other assessments in 2005 when they prepared to attend one of the Clergy Wellness conferences sponsored by the Church Pension Fund.  Perhaps this is an accurate sample to determine general clergy wellness, but then again it may not.

In an excellent summary of the report, ENS reporter Mary Frances Schjonberg reports that "stress poses an emotional health risk for 72.9 percent of Episcopal clergy," which is 16.7 percent higher for males "than that found in the population used for benchmark comparisons, and 13.3 percent higher for females.  In addition, 27 percent of females reported that they deal with depression and 15 percent of males.  Overall, clergy reports of depression exceed the benchmark population by 12.4 percent."  It is remarkable to me that female clergy depression is 12 percent higher than the men.  Perhaps men are more in denial, or is it that they are simply not more depressed.  It would be interesting to me, and hopefully interesting to women clergy, if CREDO would bring in an expert in women's health to dig a bit deeper and address the statistic.  On the male side, it would be interesting to know if there was a way to measure denial in the male clergy, if this is true.

However, Episcopal clergy fare much better on the depression scale than some other denominations.  70 percent of United Church of Christ pastors report that they fight depression on a regular basis and 1 in 5 pastors are in the advanced stage of burnout.  50 percent of the pastors surveyed are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if the could, but they have no other way to make a living.  Evangelical sources report that 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or are dealing with depression and the Southern Baptist Convention paid out $64 million in stress-related claims, second in dollar amounts only to maternity benefits.

According to Schjonberg's summary, "86 percent of Episcopal clergy reported that they were moderately to high confident about undertaking challenges and engaging effectively in their ministries.  Nearly a third reported the highest score in the 'meaningfulness in work' measurement.  Well-being measurements were also high (92 percent in religious well-being, 90 percent in existential well-being, and 79 percent in career/vocation satisfaction)."  In addition, Episcopal clergy are not as intent on leaving the ordained ministry as some others.  This is very good news when compared with the other denominations we have cited in this article.

If all this is true, my hunch is that Episcopal clergy are more likely than others to seek professional help when distressed, more likely to have a best friend or spiritual guide to help them through difficult times, and more apt to join a support group.  The report also indicates that our clergy are more intentional about taking pro-active steps to engage in positive wellness activities, while concentrating on positive outcomes rather than pathological diagnoses.

If you haven't read the report, you can find it by clicking on the report on CREDO's homepage.  As I mentioned before, ENS has an excellent summary.  Please take a look.  It doesn't take that long to check it out.

CREDO is supposed to take another wellness survey this year.  A lot has changed in the past six years.  More full time jobs are gone and many clergy are simply hanging on to what they have.  Bishops are filling small parishes with part time clergy and diocesan training academies are gradually replacing seminary education.  I wonder if a wellness survey taken this year will produce the same positive indicators as the 2006 survey did.  To this end I have created a poll on our blog where we can get your opinions.  Does the 2006 clergy wellness report accurately reflect clergy wellness today?  Take the poll.  Let us know what you think.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Prayerful Consideration


There is a phrase which crops up in correspondence from some folks. It is usually associated with an action they have taken or intend to take and it sounds spiritual enough on the surface, but is there more?

People do not actually speak this way in conversation. It is more of a written model of discourse. Is this a possible discontinuity? There is a kind of distance that belies the essential feeling of the phrase. Are we more ourselves when writing or speaking? Who would you rather meet, a speaker or a writer?

I have loved many of the things written by Scott Peck, but I heard him speak once and I was underwhelmed by his ability on that occasion.

Jesus did not talk this way. What would Jesus think about such talk? Can we know? Can we guess? It may be worth a try.

Here it comes. See if this sounds like anyone you know. See if this sounds like anyone you would want to know. See if this sounds like you. See if this sounds like a friend of “you know who”.

After prayerful consideration, I/we have decided to . . . . The words, which follow, are usually in the form of an announcement of something which is not going to happen. Example. “After prayerful consideration, we have decided we are not going to make a pledge this year or any year until that heretic bishop is gone”. Or, “after prayerful consideration, I must submit my resignation from the vestry until such time as we get a rector who knows the Bible”. Or, “after prayerful consideration, we have come to the conclusion that there are too many men in the priesthood and we will not attend another service presided over by a man”.

You know I am just making these up, right? No one actually talks like that. It is just a kind of mystery to me. What kind of prayer would lead a person into a response which feels filled with so much anger, rejection, and hostility? This is not my experience of prayer. I wonder about the many people who pray about decisions with a positive outcome, about things they will do to build up the Body of Christ and never use these words. Come with me to the playground of the mind.

Harold: “God, Marge and I have been thinking about the terrible things which have been going on in the church and we believe something must be done. We are thinking about not pledging this time. What to you think”?

God: Silence

Harold: “God, if you agree, don't say anything”.

God: Silence

Harold: “See, Marge, we were right. Let's get this thing down in writing while it is still fresh in our minds”.


After prayerful consideration, . . . .

I just cannot get away from the notion that God always calls us to states of generosity and hospitality. God always calls us to places of compassion even in the face of difficulties. This more friendly notion of things is a little more prevalent in the New Testament, which is where Christian people like to find their primary identity.

I believe deeply in prayer as describing our connecting relationship with God. My problem is with the use of prayer language to justify an angry opinion. Certainly we can disagree on issues, but make no mistake about it; God calls us into a unity which must suffer our differences of opinion. And, there is a place for all of us at the table as well as a place for a little humor in all of this.

After prayerful consideration, I have decided to leave Harold and Marge to their own devices, because they do not have a question. They only have answers.