Saturday, January 9, 2010

No urgency or too many "urgencies"?

BabyBlueOnline provided a link to this significant analysis by Neal Michell, one of the Episcopal Church's few leaders with any real insight and experience in church growth. He documents the denomination's very real and rapid loss of people, but more than this looks at the leadership dynamics that refuse to address it.

Michell draws on Harvard's John Kotter to cite "a sense of urgency" as the first step in organizational transformation. Michell gives detailed evidence from the church's leadership bodies and budget decisions to show that there is no urgency to transform. He calls this "denial" and says that too many have bought into the illusion that things can "stay as they are" as long as there are endowments to draw down and buildings to sell off for institutional survival.

It is a good piece, well worth your attention if you care about the church or if you are simply interested in organizational development, business or any other kind of communal endeavor.

My first thought after reading it was, "Is the Episcopalian problem really a lack of urgency, or is it a couple of interest group 'urgencies' that do not see to the good of the whole church?"

First, there's the urgency of comfort driven by members who are old and aging, the Episcopal Church's vast majority. Local churches spend a good deal of time and energy on this particular urgency. Emotionally, older members are looking to the church for comfort and familiarity. "Transformation" is a bad word - life is already working a sweeping and unwelcome transformation on them. So they are prone to resist change. They want the people, the music, the color schemes, the furnishings and pretty much anything else they "like." This means that leaders are rewarded for responding to complaints and rejected for transformative changes. In some ways we don't talk about, many local Episcopal churches ape the local senior living center, trying to keep the paying customers happy.

Their physical comfort drives many leadership decisions. Small, declining congregations will make substantial and expensive facility upgrades that serve an existing membership's comfort while not transforming its mission and witness. Bible studies and other programs are limited to daytime hours, excluding younger adults and families.

This urgency of comfort was best expressed to me by a very progressive Presbyterian pastor, who wondered, "Are our mainline churches just a hospice for the existing members?" The likely answer was expressed in one Episcopal parish, where an older Vestry member stopped a discussion of church growth with, "I don't care if the church dies, as long as I die first!"

The second and more obvious urgency comes from what David Virtue calls "the pansexual movement" (formerly just "committed, monogamous gays and lesbians," but ever expanding to include bisexual, transgendered, "exploring," poly-amorous and others, many of whom are not committed or monogamous).

As Michell cites transformational qualities from Kotter, I can't help but notice that the pansexual movement to which Episcopal leaders cater is urgent. It forces its issues and entitlements despite all evidence of harm to the wider church. It holds leaders highly accountable - bishops and clergy are rewarded for pushing the agenda and disowned for even a whiff of moderation. It expects the church to speak to its issues in the public square - including the political endorsement of "gay marriage." It gets Episcopalians to endorse and work for its agenda with an urgency that none would ever invest in proclaiming Christ.

These two urgencies - of comfort and of the pansexual movement - have become symbiotic:
  • - For the old members, most urgent about comfort but still wanting the church to somehow grow "just as it is," pansexualists provide clergy who "give a nice service," who preach about how lovely it all is, and who are urgent enough about their cause to make the members feel close to some kind of growth energy.
  • - For the pansexualists, the older members are part of a generation that saved and is capable of the last great intergenerational transfer of wealth that will be available for quite some time. Thus, a financial life support provider for a small, eccentric niche movement - organized pansexual religion - that cannot grow but still has salaries, health care and pensions to worry about for its current aficionados.

Think that's polemic? It plays out in reality. Last year, the Episcopal Church responded to local church complaints about rising health care premiums by offering a denominational (nation wide) health plan. On paper, this sounded good to me - increasing the shared risk pool to help hold down premiums.

But when I attended a presentation on the plan (which is very good in what it offers, btw), I was stunned to see that the premiums were built to favor older, single clergy - or those with just a "partner." Their premiums would be several hundred dollars per month. For a family with kids? The premium started at $2,100 per month. That would break the budget of most congregations. It was completely out of reach for mine, and much worse than the old, local plan about which we had complained.

The Episcopal Church does not lack urgent energy - it just doesn't have any that unites. It accommodates the several lesser "urgencies" of a couple of groups, who may or may not be in denial about the harm they are doing to the rest of the body. As I've written elsewhere, it is a "one generation strategy," kind of like rent controlled apartments: Nobody cares what happens next, as long as they get theirs now.


The Archer of the Forest said...

Yeah, my wife and I were in no man's land when we moved up here in February, as we were expecting a baby. As a "pre-existing condition, we basically had to continue my CPG plan from my previous parish.

As soon as the baby came, we switched over to a local plan as an individual family. Even with a baby, we got a better plan with more benefits for less than half the rate of the Church Pension Group. It was ridiculous.

TLF+ said...

It's that same "perfect storm," isn't it? The older folks say they want "young clergy with families" to somehow magically magnetize more young people with families, yet the support system is set up for older retired or "single" clergy.

The Archer of the Forest said...

I don't know if you get the Louis Crew House of Bishops/Deputies (HOB/D) listserv, but they have been discussing this article by Canon Michell the last day or two. I usually skim it for amusement if I'm in a good mood.

As usual, it's a riot, bad mouthing Michell for not keeping up with the news that the PB has been talking about it as she travels around the country, and challenging us to proclaim the Gospel in our day, and that no one is ignoring the numbers in TEC.

As with what I witnessed in seminary, a lot of trash talking, hot air, and dome scratching, but nary a word on how we might even begin to tackle the problem other than continue doing what we are doing because we've always done it that way.

None of that really surprises me. What makes me angry is that none of those people are going to be alive in 30 or 40 years for me to tell them, "I told you so..."

TLF+ said...

I don't go on the HOB/D thingy cuz I don't think I could keep the pledge to keep quotes confidential.

What you describe is sad. I've seen the pics/read the reports of the PB's junkets. Always a room full of older folks, always reassuring words about "the worst is behind us," always glowing comments about how she made everybody feel good "because the worst is behind us."

It is one thing for these national church types to think they are theologically unassailable, but now they are claiming to be beyond question or criticism organizationally - in an organization with manifestly bad performance.

The fact that they got rid of all the folks who worked on the State of the Church report was among the most troubling in Michell's piece. There goes any substantive follow up work or voices for addressing the problems.

Also, the Curmudgeon piece on the TEC financials - get ready for more "snow" than we've already had.

The Palmetto Pastor said...

Because of direct blessings from the Lord our parish ASA has gone from 44 to around 120+/-. The vast majority of these newcomers are young families. And....they don't understand giving as worship. The do understand hard work and volunteerism, but sacrificial giving is only something my older parishioners understand. So I have to teach it. But from where do I gather the knowledge to teach it? From my seminary days.... uh no. From outside of the denomination. Because giving as worship means that there is someone to worship who cares about what we give...who cares if we put (Him) first... who cares if we do more than just be nice to people. Hopefully soon, my older folk will explain this to my younger folk. No coercion...just worship... None of my professors would touch it.

TLF+ said...

Thanks, Palmetto Pastor, for contributing that reality check!

You are blessed to have older folks with spiritual maturity and devotion. It is a great loss every time the church loses one of those saints... a friend who was a prayer partner for years died recently and while we know he is in bliss, we are bereft.

My first "solo" church had average age around 80... but those were the people who had abandoned a comfy, familiar building to take a risk on ministering closer to the growing part of their city. Over the years, most of them died, but not before seeing the fruit of their sacrificial giving to the Lord as the little mission grew and became a viable, intergenerational congregation.

And you are so right about the Lord's direct blessing. None of us are/were trained up for this kind of harvest work and He is so gracious as to make it happen while we learn.

May he continue to bless you all.

K. Töpfer (aka Martial Artist) said...

You write: "Nobody cares what happens next, as long as they get theirs now."

To which I would ask: Is that not characteristic of where the great majority in our entire society have been heading, and quite obviously so, for the past generation or more?

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

TLF+ said...

Keith: Yes. The "metaurgency" of TEC is to ape the culture. By which God has re-exposed the profound flaw in the state church/culture consensus church model. As long as the American culture operated off of some residual Christian influence, the Mainline could get along - but now we're in a post-Christian culture and aping it does not bring people out of it.

K. Töpfer (aka Martial Artist) said...

Fr. Timothy,

As you may suspect (if you have encountered any of my comments on other Anglican blogs), your conclusion, i.e., the result of "aping the culture," will draw no disagreement from me.

God's blessings,

Keith Töpfer

dcarr said...

You are right on target Tim.

From a young, frustrated (44, maybe middle-aged?) Episcopalian who's sick of funding the hospice.

TLF+ said...

God bless you, dcarr. I am really having to pull off to the side these days - as Jesus warned, all the wickedness can "make our love grow cold" (Mt. 24) and I am definitely having to grapple with the spiritual damage this stuff has done/is doing in my soul.

dcarr said...


I find it helpful to not associate too much with those that like to sit around and bitch about the National Church or why we changed the kind of creamer we provide for Sunday coffee hour.

At our last parish, my wife and I had a very good small group that started with a 40 Days of Purpose study. It continued on and we did a lot of mission work and study over three years. We met at someone's home and had dinner, which Rick Warren really encourages. I found it very helpful to be outside the walls of the church and have a group of mission-minded Episcopalians. Our small group was also a great way to include those who are unchurched or who have fallen away - it's largely social and works-focused, so it was not as threatening as inviting someone to church.

The last book we read before we left was "The Externally-Focused Church" by Rusaw & Swanson.

Our small group was doing a large portion of the outwardly-focused mission and ministry work in our parish. It had a large effect for such a small number of people. I'm sure you're familiar with the Pareto principle (80/20 Rule) which I think in a typical Episcopal Church is really 90/10.

So I encourage you to form such a group if you don't have one.

TLF+ said...

dcarr - thanks for those insights. You are right about the uselessness of groups that sit around to gripe and lament... this was the primary reason an Anglican alternative could not get off the ground in SD.

I am presently in a home group reflecting on the Psalms. It is a real blessing - hosted in the home of a firefighter/health care couple, with members including a school principal and nurses from hospice and special needs settings. (About the only inconsequential, unfruitful life in the group is some Episcopal priest who shows up...) The reflection on Scripture and its intersection with lives lived in service to others is fabulous.