I’m spending the afternoon and evening today with folks from the Episcopal Church Foundation, the Bishop, and executive council, and the diocesan strategic planning task force. I’m excited about what we’ll be doing–rethinking what it means to be a diocese in the twenty-first century.
I’m also excited because I’ve been thinking about a couple of blog posts I’ve read in the past couple of days. First of all, from my dear old friend, Crusty Old Dean,, who produced another of his impassioned posts on restructuring. His point 4 is what we will be talking about:
4) End parishes as clubs for members with a chaplain to minister to them, set up as Ponzi schemes for committees, which sees recruitment as getting people to serve on committees. Would many of the towns where our Episcopal churches are located even notice, or care, if they were to close? How many of our parishes function solely as clubs for the gathered? How many dioceses have 10%, 15%, 20%, of their parishes on diocesan support? How many dioceses are struggling to function? We have to change not only the diocesan structure, but fundamentally reshape what it means to be a parish and a diocese.
But read the whole thing. He argues that the problem is bigger than we’re imagining. He predicts “total collapse.” As a historian, he provides necessary context, reminding us that the growth and success the Episcopal Church saw in the 20th century was a blip. It was an anomaly, far different from the experience of the church in the nineteenth century.
A post on another blog asks similar questions from a slightly different perspective: “Where have all the rectors gone?”
We’ve seen such enormous social change before in the history of Christianity. and Christianity has been able to respond creatively and in quite unforeseen ways. Take the Evangelical and Methodist revival during the Industrial Revolution in England, when the CoE was still structured like the Medieval Church. Or the twelfth century, when rapid population change and the growth of cities saw the birth of movements like the Franciscans. What will emerge in this rapidly changing cultural context?
I’m somewhat bemused today to realize that my life is coming back full circle. I grew up in the Mennonite Church. In college and graduate school, I attended congregations that grew out of the house church movement, which was an attempt to return both to the Anabaptist roots of the Mennonite Church, and to the experience of the early church, before Christians started building churches and creating elaborate structures. The house churches eventually grew and developed. One I attended rents space from another church and is able to have paid clergy, after decades of volunteers. The same is true of the Mennonite congregation here in Madison. They don’t have the enormous physical plant overhead of most Episcopal parishes.
What might an Episcopal equivalent look like? The problem is that we tend to measure success in terms of structure, program, and buildings, not in changed lives, ministry, and making the good news incarnate in our communities and in the world. That may look very different in different places.
We need to ask the kinds of hard questions Crusty Old Dean is asking. We need to ask them, not only of the structures above us (the Presiding Bishop, 815, General Convention). We also need to ask them at the diocesan level and in our local communities. It’s difficult to grow a congregation in an area that is in the midst of long-term economic and demographic decline, as many small towns are. What is sustainable in such places? What might the metrics for a “thriving” congregation in such a context be? And what might be possible if that congregation no longer needed to focus on paying utility bills and fixing the roof?