Friday, May 24, 2013

Rectors (Pastors): The Odds are Against You!

by Gary Gilbertson
The Church expects her parish clergy to be successful in leading congregations that grow spiritually, numerically and financially: congregations whose servant ministry reaches near and far.  Clergy that are successful are rewarded with additional opportunities as rector or pastor:  unsuccessful clergy are fired, forced to resign or encouraged to seek a vocational change.  Its the American way, its the Episcopal Church way to track growth or decline in:  (1) active membership, (2) average Sunday attendance, and (3) income.
So each year we turn out tons of new clergy - of all ages - some with seminary degrees or increasingly the home-schooled who are seeking a "call" so they can be successful (employed.)  But!  Mainline Christian congregations are in decline; that's a fact.  There are fewer and fewer full-time clergy positions each year.  In the American Episcopal Church over 40% of our 6,736 congregations are not able to have full-time clergy.  Less than 2,500 of our congregations provide for a single full-time rector; but wait - more than half those congregations are in decline.
The chances of a declining congregations being turned around is dismal.  Most church researchers, like the Barna Group, state that trying to revitalize a declining church is probably a wasted effort; the death of that church is usually unavoidable.  Clergy who don't value being recognized as successful leaders and who are unconcerned about their next position are well suited to these 3500+ congregations in the Episcopal Church or in a similar pastorate in their own communion.
Parish clergy, do you want to improve the odds?  Then discern carefully where God is calling you.  Try to avoid congregations on prolonged plateaus.  It may be helpful to understand some of the many factors that destroy a congregation's momentum:  (1) inadequate prior leadership and management, (2) demographic changes, (3) capital campaigns and building costs, and (4) judicatory interference and incompetence.  These problems are often compounded by a membership that is too self-absorbed and resistant to change.
Again the question, "Parish clergy, do you want to improve the odds?"  First, you must be a strong leader.  Barna's studies found that churches that "call" caretakers, healers, managers, administrators, teachers or consensus builders fail to gain ground.  Good intentions coupled with the title of Pastor or Rector is not enough.  Barna states, "toughness is requisite for leadership in making decisions that disturb the status quo but benefit the body."  The point is that leadership is not about being loved by everybody.  It is doing what is best for the parish even though it may stir up some complaints or disturb tranquil settings.
Another way to improve your leadership odds is to be filled with energy and enthusiasm plus a commitment to work hard.  Being a person of prayer who can share a quality sermon also raises the odds. Enlist a core group that will assist, support, and be honest with you.  Expect to be a workaholic rather than getting comfortable on cruise-control.
Unfortunately, many of us have friends that failed to beat the odds.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The NRA and Episcopal Church

As a boy in Stafford, KS, learning how to shoot a rifle was a part of growing up. I got proficient with a 22 caliber single shot rifle and could down a rabbit at a good distance. In Scout Camp, we got excellent instruction using NRA materials and learned the golden rule of shooting: Never raise your gun unless you intend to shoot. So with more practice, I could raise my rifle and put five bullets into a nickel size bull’s eye at fifty feet. It was the only sport I was ever much good at. However having become a sharpshooter, I got immediately bored with the activity and never pursued shooting again nor did I want to kill rabbits anymore after also wounding a few, hearing them scream and clubbing them to death. Yes, I figured out that putting bullets into live objects was in fact about killing.

About the same time at twelve years old, I fell in love with the Episcopal Church on one visit to a little chapel in Larned, KS where the Shahan’s took me to worship while my brother was in the hospital there to have his tonsils out. The priest actually asked me to help serve, an exotic activity for a Methodist kid but one who had already kind of liked taking Wesley’s communion twice a year.  The priest was a very nice man serving in a pretty chapel with a small congregation of eccentric Episcopalians on the prairie. I fell in love with it. When we moved to Oklahoma City three years later, first my Dad and I attended St. James in Capitol Hill; then Mom and Bruce followed. By that time guns were hardly even a memory as I had found a great new life and the meaning of life. I felt like I was really growing up.

Well fifty years have passed. The NRA has more members by about a third than there are Episcopalians. It has grown like crazy and has lots of money to do public relations and publicity. The NRA can aim and shoot so well as to slay the popular will for background checks and get our whole federal legislative process bent their way. That is impressive, this organization so full of mission energy that they can aim at and kill any opposition. Don’t point at anything you do not intend to shoot: a evangelical mission statement that they make work.

Well five decades have come and gone. In 1963, the Episcopal Church was about the size the NRA is now in membership. We were full of mission zeal and record breaking confirmation classes, fifty one year at St. James in Oklahoma City with our zany Detroit Irish priest, Fr. Wellwood, who had run with Jesse Owens for the Olympics.  At that time there were a lot of wild priests who had chosen the Church over all sorts of other fascinating potential first careers. . . . That was the time of global mission called Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence, liberating colonial Anglicans into new national churches from which Anglicanism has exploded in the southern hemisphere. That lead to the last spurt of growth with Venture in Mission, directly an outgrowth of MRI, the largest single mission funding in North American Church history.

About thirty years ago, the tide went out in the Episcopal Church. The spiritual climate change brought in a new wind on the land, one where guns get more mission power than our take on New Life. . .  Wonder what happened. . . .

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Rector (Pastor): You're Fired!!

I get really angry when I hear once again about a priest that has been forced out of his parish involuntarily. I heard recently that 30% of Episcopal congregations have done this.  True, a few clergy are justifiably terminated because of immorality, but the vast majority of them are the result of a small or large group of lay antagonists who strike out at the priest in a very mean and terribly nasty manner.  Conflict Resolution experts call this a level five or six conflict where the only goal is to "kill" the priest.  Often these mean folks are found on the vestry and key leadership positions.  When they go after the priest, they go for the jugular and there is nothing the priest can do about it.

When this kind of conflict is brewing, it is tempting for some clergy to strive for appeasement.  I know one priest who met with his enemies, listened to them and then implemented some of their demands.  Of course this did not work.  When the mean people go for the jugular vein, there is nothing you can do to satisfy them.  This priest resigned into retirement, but he held on to his destructive feelings and they affected his next ministry as a priest-in-charge.  So if you are ever in this position, it is best to deal with your left over emotions either before or during the early months of a new assignment.

Most capable priests carry into their ministry a solid set of leadership skills.  Sometimes a particular set of leadership skills is exactly what a parish needs.  However, some unjustly terminated clergy report that they were fired because they demonstrated exactly the right leadership skills.  It is bitterly ironic when congregations ask for or need a particular set of skills, but when they are used within the context of ordained ministry, the antagonists not only reject them, but wail loudly that Father or Mother so and so was "never a good fit."

The upshot is that the priest and his family are devastated.  They become depressed and angry. They have left over feelings of resentment and they feel like failures.  They may develop serious physical and mental health issues.  Families suffer.  Sometimes serious marital problems surface.  Most suffer severe financial losses and many do not get a decent severance package.  Where do they go?  What do they do?  In my view every priest should identify their transferable skills early on and be ready to bail out into a non-church job if necessary.

You'd think that bishops would help.  But this is usually not the case.  Many will sit on the fence while the priest is under attack.  I've known some that sided with the lay antagonists.  In this case the Bishop thinks that if he or she sides with the nasty folks, he or she is taking the winner's side.  The bishop is thus afraid of conflict and afraid of losing money. Another thing is that bishops cannot be true pastors to their clergy.  They have an administrative and canonical itch to manage the diocese, and that means getting all the money they can through the apportionment.  If this means putting a priest on the chopping block, so be it.

Toxic congregations don't change much over the years.  They have systemic issues that affect generations of clergy and thus rightly deserve the name "priest killers."  If you google "toxic congregations," you will find various denominational and academic studies about them, but not much about how they should be handled.  I believe that most congregational intervention programs, including parish consultants and interim ministries don't often work and thereby fail to dent the inherent toxic systems.  Therefore the best work of the church is to foster an intervention program that assists the clergy person and their families who have been terminated.

In Congregational Seasons, William Doubleday suggests that the Church Pension Fund and CREDO "should be encouraged to begin a serious initiative to assist the growing number of clergy in this category."  I would add to this partnership the Executive Council, The Episcopal Church Foundation and all dioceses.  Together they could produce a ministry to unjustly terminated clergy and their families that will assist them spiritually, mentally, physically and financially.  We need a well planned and executed aftercare program that provides a safety net for our brothers and sisters who are devastated by a forced termination.

Last, please take the poll we set up on clergy firings and let us know what you think.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Bishop Speaks of The Church Reborn

Decade after decade we go on trying to perfect the church or perhaps trying to protect the church. Decade after decade, we find various people caught up in all kinds of movements which will ensure the church you find in the Yellow Pages is the Real Church, the True Church.

If right thinking were all it took to get the Gospel proclaimed to the world, that would have been discovered years ago. It is about right action, not right thinking.

The task of the church and its clergy in not to tell you what to think. It is rather to teach you how to think theologically – how to think with the heart of Christ.

The responsibility of the church is to help you develop an informed conscience so you may go about the task of right action in your life. This informed conscience is not a single thing. It is a product of the Anglican sources of authority – Scripture, Tradition and Reason. It is frighteningly personal and individual, and it has great consequences.

The church is not about being mad, all of the empirical evidence to the contrary not withstanding. It is not about getting your needs met or making you happy – or mad for that matter. It is about one thing. It is about what we call The Great Commission.

Matthew 28:19-20. (From The Message for clear understanding) "God authorized and commanded me to commission you:  Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.  I will be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age."

Jesus said: Teach them to do as I have commanded you. This carries with it the implication that you are already obedient and that you can teach what you already do.

This is not that hard to understand. His command to the disciples, to you and to me is direct, clear and immediate. His command is that we love one another.

The Scripture contains many ways of applying the principle of love to life. The Gospels are filled with them. We need to be filled with that command so that it is indisputable in the way we live our lives.

Hear This! It is God's church. It is not your church or my church. It is God's church and it is in disrepair. It is always in disrepair. It has always been in disrepair. You and I are are the church. We are in disrepair. We have always been in disrepair.

This is about asking us to be reborn. It will be untidy. We will not all agree on the process or the outcomes, but we are all called to a life of progressive conversion. It is not something to accomplish and put away. It is a call to your whole life for all of your life.

There is Hope. You know what to do. Let us begin – again. Amen.