Saturday, April 18, 2009

SD Bishop Candidate Peter Stebinger

Good Stuff:

He expresses a conciliatory, patient leadership style. “My personal style is one of consensus and bridge building within the community, be it parish or diocese. I believe that because we are all one in the Body of Christ there is an underlying unity which can be achieved if we take enough time to listen to each other. Within my parish, we have wrestled with some of the most contentious issues facing the church. We never moved forward until a consensus had been achieved.”

He seems realistic about what this means. “This does not mean that everyone agrees or is happy with the outcome, that would truly mean that the Kingdom of god had come, but rather that all voices have been heard and all agree that this is the will of the community to move in a certain way.”

And he is willing to actually exercise leadership to support this model. “If we are unable to achieve a common mind, then I will not allow us to move forward; we continue the dialogue for as long as it takes. As part of that process I continue to be in dialogue with everyone who is involved. It is my job…to ensure that no one feels outcast, even if they hold a minority opinion…”

This is consistent with the perspectives expressed on his parish website and in his writings. I find a certain comfort in his approach. It sounds like the way things worked in the Episcopal Church in less polarized times. Make room for consensus, with the Book of Common Prayer establishing boundaries. Allow room for differences and do not force a direction without broad consensus. His parish site summarizes the real middle way, which involves taking from both Catholic and Protestant sources (not “splitting the difference” between any two opposites).

He calls The Diocese of South Dakota “one of the gems of the Episcopal Church…the only truly bi-cultural diocese…” (although North Dakota, where he ran for Bishop at one point, might also claim this).

He comes from a multicultural upbringing and has a collaborative ministry with Christians in Kenya and the U.S.

I suppose it can go either way depending upon one’s taste, but his are the answers of a thoughtful, reflective man. His style tends toward academic, and his answers seem well thought with little of the usual church jargon.

Question Marks:

The issue of his interest in the Dakotas can cut against him as well as for him. There is some perception that he has been “running for bishop” here before there was an opening, making regular appearances at events and then returning to the East. His daughter coming from Connecticut to be ordained a priest in South Dakota in order to serve in Massachusetts is strange – it conjures images of winks and secret handshakes.

And although he writes with confidence, his book on church growth seems more a product of the parlor than the field. Again, he’s been 25 years in his parish, and it has grown modestly and incrementally to not much larger than Good Shepherd, Sioux Falls. Not to blow my own horn, but I’ve led three churches from double to triple digit Sunday attendance in much less time, including taking one from 150 ASA to over 300. So there’s an experienced part of me that says, “This candidate has some good thoughts but oversells his experience.” The fact that he’s written a book on church growth for General Convention is odd – there are much more accomplished church planters, developers and growers out there with more experience to share (and no, I don’t see myself in that elite company, but I know them when I see them.)

While I like his emphasis on healthy congregations and his admission that churches of several types can grow, his book takes the position that “conservative” churches grow only by aping “megachurch” techniques (Episcopal code for “insincere gimmicks”), while “liberal” churches grow by reasoned inquiry. This seems like editorial rather than research and I could go around the country pointing out all the contradictory examples. And it raises the red flag that in his consensus building efforts, churches like mine will be outside looking in because we don’t fit his theoretical model. As I said, it is a matter of style – some academics are gentle and thoughtful and others can become your worst enemy if you don’t conform to their concepts.

So I wonder if Stebinger can summon the positive passion and deal with the messiness of the work that will be needed to renew a diocese like South Dakota:

"I know not what trials await you. The Church which is now so keenly alive to the wants of this poor people may grow cold. The first fervor of Christian converts may pass away. Old heathen habits may reassert their power. You may even have to say to some of your flock as St. Paul said to Christians in his time, 'Lie not to one another. Let him that stole steal no more.' The bad men of the border may excite savage hearts to deeds of blood. The government may again forget its plighted faith. You may have to stand alone, and breast the anger of the people in defense of the helpless. In the darkest hour look up to Christ your King. Better men than we have labored and died without seeing the harvest. Thus Greenland and Iceland were won to Christ. It is yours to work and pray and die. God giveth the harvest. You go in the name of Christ. You bear the seal of His authority. You have His promise, 'I am with you alway.'"
(Bishop Whipple’s charge to Hare, from Howe’s biography.)

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