Change coming to the structures of the Episcopal Church?

Bishop Stacy Sauls made a presentation to the recent meeting of the House of Bishops meeting proposing a radical restructuring of the Episcopal Church, beginning with the calling of a Special Convention. The ENS article is here.

Mark Harris has comments here and here. Much of Sauls’ proposal has to do with General Convention, but there are large points, as well. For example, he observes that the Episcopal Church spends about 47% of its budget on administration and governance; 53% on mission. The Better Business Bureau suggests a non-profit should spend no more than 35% on overhead expenses.

Elizabeth Kaeton welcomes the conversation but worries that it is beginning in the wrong place. We should start with clarity about mission, and then talk about funding priorities.

Conversations like these are of crucial importance, but they can’t be driven solely by concerns about cost-cutting. The structures of the Episcopal Church that were built up in the twentieth century were an attempt to live out a vision of the church and that they did. They also reflected the cultural values of the time. On this, Derek Penwell is correct. But what should the church look like in the twenty-first century? What should it be? These are questions that need careful, thoughtful discussion, and not just by those who are invested in the church as it is (Bishops, national church and diocesan staff, and General Convention deputies). That is a self-selected (occasionally appointed or elected) group. Centering the conversations among this group leaves important voices out, especially those whose experience of church is primarily, perhaps only, in the parish or a local ministry.

Most of us working in the trenches have little time or energy to waste on conversations at the national level, or even the diocesan, for that matter. We are too busy doing ministry and often too busy even to think about how we need to change and adapt in the twenty-first century. We know the old models and structures don’t work, but can’t think our way into a future.

But it’s not just us. It’s also all those who come to us for spiritual renewal, for hope and strength, for ways to reach out to those in need, and could care less about the larger church. They ought to be in the conversation as well, for it is they who will shape the twenty-first century church. If they are not part of the conversation, perhaps guiding it, we will just be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.



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.

Religious belief on the wane? Implications for the Episcopal Church

Yes, says Mark Chaves:

In “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” author Mark Chaves argues that over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a “softening” that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don’t belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline.

Bradley Wright says, “Don’t jump to conclusions.”

a decline might be overstating the case, and says polarization is a better description. He recently plotted survey data over the last 25 years recording what Americans say about the importance of religion in their lives. Those who say it’s extremely important have grown slightly, along with those who say it’s not at all important. But the number of people who said it was “somewhat” important dropped from 36 percent to 22 percent in about 20 years.

Mark Harris, who is a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, has written two posts imagining our Church’s future. They are available here and here. He is writing in response to the financial shortfall anticipated in the coming triennial budget, but I think there are deeper issues at stake. In both of his posts, he imagines something other than the existing diocesan structure. In the first, he wonders how dioceses might band together on certain matters, administrative, programmatic, and even disciplinary (we’re attempting the latter here in Wisconsin). In the second, he advocates for more horizontal networking.

The deeper question is how does our Church re-imagine itself in a post-Christian context. We’ve inherited most of our structures from past generations–the institution building from the nineteenth and twentieth century, the diocesan structure from the early Church (well, actually from the Emperor Diocletian’s administrative restructuring of the Roman Empire in the 4th century), and the question is whether these structures can be adapted to fit a context where commitment to institutions, especially religious ones, is low.

It’s not just about the money, though it is about that. It is about reaching out and meeting people where they are at, being open and welcoming to people whose journeys bring them to us, for a few days, weeks, or years, and offering Christ’s love to people in places, and in ways, unconceived by past generations. The new media revolution allows us to imagine and create new ways of encountering and connecting people, new ways of being Christ’s body in the world, and old structures. old ways of doing things, old ways of thinking may  prevent us from seizing the opportunity.