The necessity of change

Change as spiritual:

If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage–as if it were God! Although Jesus’ first preached message is clearly “change!” (as in Mark 1:15 and Matthew 4:17), where he told his listeners to ‘repent,’ which literally means to ‘change your mind,’ it did not strongly influence Christian history. This resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we expect from religious peope, who tend to love the past more than the future or the present.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward (H/t Shannon Ferguson Kelly)

Carol Howard Merritt on 5 cultural shifts that will affect the way we do church.

Derek Penwell reflects on how churches are organized, specifically committees, and the effects of cultural change on that traditional organizational model. The title of his post? “Killing Church Committees.”

Structure, Anti-Structure, Communitas: The Future of the Episcopal Church

No, this is not a post on Victor Turner. Rather, it is a brief reflection on the need for change in institutional churches, particularly my own, the Episcopal Church.

Mark Harris has been asking hard questions about re-structuring the Episcopal Church in response to budget shortfalls and other issues. In one post, he asks whether it is time for a special General Convention. Earlier, he offered some imaginative possibilities for the future of the Episcopal Church here and here. Insofar as his questions arise out of budgetary considerations, it seems to me, he is reacting rather than imagining new possibilities. . The question should be, what sort of church do we need to be at this moment in history? Our institutions were designed and built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and do not seem nimble enough to change for the twenty-first.

Scott Gunn has also posted on this issue here and here. The latter post is an attempt to think about the current response to the need for change in terms of grief, which might be helpful on one level, but seems also to obscure things in some ways.

It seems to me that Gregory Jones’ comments about “sustainable institutions” might be helpful here

Less noticed, perhaps, is our longing for God, and for elegance, in the design of our institutions. The question is not whether we will organize ourselves; it is whether we will do so well or badly. We yearn for institutions — including those in the social sector — that will function with what Matthew E. May, in his book “In Pursuit of Elegance,” calls “effortless effectiveness”: an ability to achieve maximum effect with minimal effort.

We marvel at corporations, such as Apple, that offer such effectiveness. Apple combines identity and innovation, efficiency and creativity, functionality and beauty. Such organizations attend to the design of the physical spaces they occupy, to be sure, but elegant design is more than that. It involves attending to the design of people’s time and development, the design of ideas, the design of services, the design of networks and the design of budgets.

In fact, what Jones is describing is precisely the same sort of thing that Harris is imagining in his posts about the future Episcopal Church.

Social Media–Assorted links and comment

The New Media Project, from Union Theological Seminary, has great commentary on the use and implications of social media for religious organizations. Here are some of the recent provocative essays:

“As people ‘of the Book,’ are we instead cultivating a Tweet and sound bite religion as opposed to one of narrative and story?”

Reklis began the conversation by writing:

I want to start thinking about the theology of this future we are living. That is, I want to start thinking about what we can say theologically about the human subjects we are becoming in the face of transformative social media.

I’m inclined not to diatribe about new technology. It’s here to stay, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Even monasteries, designed for retreat from the world, use websites and social media. But the existence of digital technology means we have to work harder to cultivate an interior life that notices. We have to learn again how to converse, to argue, to talk rather than to text.

While the evermore interconnected nature of our world doesn’t change the nature of God, it provides new models that can enrich our understanding. An abstract theological concept such as, “God is everywhere,” is somehow easier to visualize now that it feels as if we can be everywhere at once, if only virtually. The idea that we’re all part of the worldwide body of Christ is easier to grasp in an era in which we are joined in a nexus of communication that brings people together whether they’re across the street or in the mountains of northern India.

Rice points to something important. It’s easy to see the practical implications of social media–the increased power to communicate, the ability to create and maintain relationships across vast distances, but the deeper meaning of relating through facebook and other social media is more elusive. Reslik points in the same direction by asking about what kinds of human beings are we becoming by making use of technology. Rice takes it another step to ask, what is the church, the body of Christ, becoming?

Those of us who are incarnational in our theology may be somewhat suspect of relationships built and maintained through cyberspace rather than through the hard work of being together in community as the body of Christ and sharing the body of Christ.

From Forbes: “Top Ten Social Media Myths.”

A denomination is dying near you

The Episcopal Cafe had this headline a couple of weeks back, but it referred to the Presbyterian Church of the USA, from an article that appeared in Christian Century.

One of the comments on the Episcopal Cafe’s post pointed out that there had been many articles about the “dying church” in recent months on the Cafe.

There’s another one today, written by George Clifford. Clifford gives all of the statistics: the high percentage of over-60s in our pews and on our membership lists; the number of churches in small towns or rural areas where population is declining; the overall decline in Average Sunday Attendance.

But he also has some hopeful things to say, including this:

Yet, we in TEC have some cause for hope. The Episcopal congregations most likely to have experienced numerical growth in the past decade are large and very liberal congregations, according to the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey.

Clifford argues that perhaps the most important key to growth is creating a vision and agenda for change, something we don’t work on very much. Instead, our attention seems focused on organizational and structural issues.

I read his piece shortly after reading the weekly email from the Alban Institute, which has some very similar things to say in an essay entitled Determining Ideal Board Size. The author, Susan Beaumont, begins with the observation that:

Effective boards in every size congregation must tend to three types of work: fiduciary (tending to the stewardship of tangible assets), strategic (working to set the congregation’s priorities and seeing that resources are being deployed in accordance with those priorities) and generative (problem framing and sense making about the shifting environment of the congregation).

The important takeaway from both her article and Clifford’s is the need for strategic and visionary thinking. We, clergy and lay leadership, often get so bogged down in the day-to-day running of the church, that we have no time or energy to think creatively about the future and how we need to change to meet the needs of a changing world.

“What’s a church’s economic worth?”

Thanks to the Call and Response blog, an article discussing a study that has attempted to assess the economic worth of 12 congregations in the Philadelphia area. Total estimated value: more than $50 million. Some of this is conjecture of course, like the $375 “for teaching social values” to a child. But some of it is real, like the economic impact of salaries, outreach efforts, and building repairs. The range in values for different churches is quite wide, from $1.4 million for a Presbyterian congregation (with an annual budget of $265,000) to $22.4 million for a Roman Catholic parish that has 7,000 congregants, a school, and a community center.

One of the study’s directors said:

The study shows the contribution of religious congregations “to be 20 to 30 times bigger than we knew,” said director Jaeger. It “will give congregations dozens of new ways to articulate their value, broaden their constituencies, and survive and grow.”

I wonder where Grace would come out? I wonder, too, whether attempts like this to quantify economic impact of a congregation do help “give congregations ways to articulate their value, broaden their constituencies, and survive and grow.”


Should churches do exit interviews?

Employers use them; businesses use them to find out why customers leave them; William Byron in this week’s America wonders whether churches should use them as well. He’s reflecting on responses to an earlier article he wrote for another Roman Catholic publication:

As a long-time writer of a biweekly column called “Looking Around” for Catholic News Service, I devoted a recent column to the exit interview idea and was inundated with responses from readers. Many indicated that they had been waiting to be asked why they left. The high response rate is all the more unusual because the column appears only in diocesan newspapers around the country. Evidently, respondents who claim to be no longer “in the boat” are still keeping in touch. Many of my respondents identified themselves as older persons.

He includes in this article a number of the responses he received; nothing too unexpected: the church’s teachings on contraception, women in the priesthood, end-of-life, and of course, the clergy sex abuse scandal. All of that is unique to the Roman Catholic Church. But there were other things, too.

They are soliciting feedback on America’s facebook page.

We might think about doing exit interviews ourselves. But what should we ask?

Reflections on visioning in the secular world

The City of Madison recently released a draft of its Downtown Plan, which is supposed to set the framework for the next twenty-five years of development. An overview of the current state of the planning process is available here.

The vision for the process is:

Downtown Madison will be a flourishing and visually exciting center for the arts, commerce, government and education. It will be a magnet for a diverse population working, living, visiting and enjoying an urban environment characterized by a sensitive blending of carefully preserved older structures, high-quality new construction, architectural gems and engaging public spaces– all working together and integrated with surrounding neighborhoods, parks and the transportation system to create a unique environment for the community, County and region. (Downtown Advisory Report, July 2004)

What strikes me in the documents that have been produced so far is in fact, the lack of vision and the lack of attention to larger cultural, economic, and environmental trends that may profoundly shape the next twenty-five years. For example, higher education is undergoing a transformation unlike anything seen before. The crisis of affordability and the rise of technology will undoubtedly affect the University of Wisconsin as it is affecting smaller schools across the country. But the current state of the downtown plan takes none of that into consideration. It seems to presuppose a stable environment in which Madison will grow and develop incrementally.

Having reflected on meetings in which the plan was discussed, and being involved presently in a great deal of thinking about the future of Grace Church, I’m struck by the different tones in the two processes. It may be simply because I’ve not heard the kind of dire warnings in the secular sphere that we know about in the church as a whole, and in particularly at Grace Church.

But to envision a future in twenty-five years means thinking outside the box in all kinds of ways. I’m reminded of the futuristic imagining of the future during the 60s–The Jetsons, for example. We’ve come to realize that much of that was silly, but at the same time, the technological advances and cultural changes that have occurred were unimaginable. To vision the future five years down the road is one thing. It’s going to look a good deal like it looks today. But twenty or twenty-five years in the future? Who can imagine? And how can you plan for it?