Thursday, June 18, 2009

"We are a SMALL church"

"We are a small church" was a rebuke given me for some of my criticisms of Episcopal Church (TEC) shrinkage.

It really has me thinking about my ministry gifts and how to use them. Is there room in TEC for people who like to help congregations grow, or is that for "those other churches"? Let me share an intriguing case study:

Fr. Jerry Cimijotti used to be Rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Mitchell. He left in 2005. As you can see from TEC's statistics site, St. Mary's has suffered an aggregate decline of membership and attendance over the last reported decade. (A new Rector with some energy came, and the attendance has come back up a bit, but not to the 2002 level).

Looking at the stats, one might infer that Jerry was not much of a leader. He went to a small church and it got smaller. But is that fair?
  • + Notice that the decline which preceded Jerry's departure began in 2003. That is the year in which TEC ignored widespread warnings and consecrated a gay activist as Bishop of New Hampshire. Across the church, conflict and decline accelerated.
  • + And where did Jerry go? To Spokane, WA in one of the least religious parts of the country. And in that less-than-friendly setting, he helped develop a congregation, Christ the King Anglican Church, from three families to a viable parish that is now planting a second congregation.

One of the under (actually, un-) reported stories in the Anglican/Episcopalian upheavals is that TEC has isolated, alienated and in many cases lost its clergy most gifted and passionate for evangelism, church planting, congregational development and growth.

The denomination has favored clergy who represent or symbolize "causes", without regard to leadership gifts or skill. There is much talk of "clergy self-care", pension entitlements for mid-life clergy vocations, mandatory financial assessments to fund diocesan and denominational bureaucracy and superstructure, and other clericalism while congregations stagnate and decline.

A powerful current example of this bad choice is Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco. It has suffered horrific declines in recent years. The interim Rector is retired Bishop Otis Charles, known for "marrying" his male partner and for his past advocacy of narcotics as an aid to "spirituality." Despite its historic presence in a large urban center, and the presence of a gay rector in a gay-friendly city, Trinity is on the verge of closing, as its congregation has become too small to make needed earthquake retrofits.

TEC is enthralled with the idea that making a media splash leads to church development, and with the deadly assumption that the church is property and positions instead of people. On top of this, denominational leaders drop hints that only a few people are even qualified to be Episcopalians: "Episcopalians tend to be better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations...We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the Earth and not use more than their portion."

Meanwhile, Jerry Cimijotti is a significant leader in the development of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), a controversial but emerging group to which over 10% of TEC's active members have gone. ACNA has become a refuge for many of the clergy who were TEC's most effective leaders for evangelism and congregational growth.


The Archer of the Forest said...

I've often wondered upon reflection of my training at Seabury Western (ironically a seminary now basically closed except for largely the D.Min. program and extension classes) how well the Episcopal Church seminaries actually train future clergy to grow churches.

We did have a few upper level classes on Mission and Church growth and dynamics that I thought we all theory and no practice. We never once had an assignment that forced us to actually go out into the streets or somewhere off campus and talk to someone about God/church/theology/recruit/whatever.

I was always disturbed by that, given that Anglican clergy are notoriously nondescript introverts to begin with. I never once saw an actual scheme for implementation that might actually grow a church in practical ways other than weird innovations and gimmicks like U2charists and HipHop masses. (I saw a few when I was at Westcott House.) It was all Meyers Briggs/Family Systems theory psychobabble. Helpful in diagnosing problems, yes, but not in growing congregations.

I think if I was to design a seminary curriculum, a must have on the list would be extrovert training and actual models of church growth other that the 1950's Beaver Cleaver evangelism method of "Golly, Wally, we're such the bestest place ever, why doesn't anyone ever come in our doors?"

The Underground Pewster said...

There is no substitute for on the street or door to door evangelism/apologetics in teaching an individual the "how to" of bringing people to Christ. While I have never been a fan of the young Mormons or the Jehovah's witnesses who come a knocking, I admire their dedication, their smiles despite being turned down, and I know the experiences they get will shape their future ministry and lives. Could you imagine asking today's pewsitters to get up and go out on such a mission?

TLF+ said...

Archer and Pewster (man, that's a law firm waiting to happen) point out some areas worth considering.

Archer talks about clergy education and formation. Congregational development is waived at but never really engaged by TEC seminaries. Consider that most seminary faculty are clergy who never lead organizations. One of the ways that TEC marginalizes the gifts of church developers is to shut them out of teaching other clergy. Applied leadership skills cannot be taught by people without application experience.

And Archer's point about the need for "extrovert training" is painfully accurate (he's an archer, after all). The process selects for introverts who can excel in academics or one-on-one pastoral care (which are certainly needed), but the process weeds out extroverted entrepreneurs who might not appreciate the "best in sacred music" or be up on the newest stylebook for footnotes, but who can bring people together and lead them into fruitful action.

This leads right into Pewster's point, one I neglected to develop in my post: No, I can't imagine many of our lay people getting up and going out to bring others to Christ... or even to church. We have a culture of insularity that is self-perpetuating. Lay people put forward non-evangelistic candidates to become clergy, and said clergy keep teaching congregations to avoid evangelism.

This is actually noted in TEC's State of the Church report, but there are no ideas put forward as to how to correct the deficiency.

Ephesians 4 tells us that Christ places the gift of evangelism in His church. He is faithful - we have evangelists among us but we are not honoring their gifts because they make us uncomfortable.

David Handy+ said...


If anything, you've understated the problem with the non-evangelistic culture of TEC. Unfortunately, it's still the case that many, many Episcopal clergy as well as laity regard evangelism with great discomfort as an embarrassing topic that they avoid like the plague. But Cursillo and Alpha have helped to change that disastrous attitude in many congregations, as well as the milder Faith Alive movement.

Perhaps a place to start might be with prayer along the lines of Matthew 9:35-38. The harvest is plentiful, but it's mostly being reaped by other deonominations. Let us dedicate ourselves to praying the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers who are able and eager to reap that harvest, whether those witnesses and disciple makers are ordained or not.

Personally, one of the many reasons why I'm glad to be leaving TEC at last and joining the ACNA (by the end of the month, after the ACNA is officially launched) is that its leaders encourage, rather than implicitly discourage, zeal in sharing the gospel and planting new churches.

The Underground Pewster said...

Luke 21 is in the lectionary for today and I submit for the group to consider as we go out into the world,

"13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15 for I will give you words* and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls."

TLF+ said...

Just read Evening Prayer, Pewster, and the lesson from Luke 21. Interesting that Jesus says this to get his followers' eyes and thoughts off of the great stones and treasures of the Temple!

Man, that doesn't make my night any more comfortable.