Grief? No, Hope! The Executive Council, the Budget, and the future of the Episcopal Church

Executive Council is meeting in Salt Lake City. Here’s the ENS report on today’s session. This meeting is taking place against the backdrop of the outrage over the proposed budget–both as proposed and as we are learning about it. As usual, Crusty Old Dean responds eloquently and passionately to today’s developments in that controversy.

The remarks by the leading pooh-bah’s of the EC are available from ENS as well. Bonnie Anderson reprises much of what she said at the CEEP conference I attended in March. I wasn’t impressed then. Her efforts to distinguish institutions from movements and argue that the latter is the future of the church seems to fly in the face of a long history in which every “movement” eventually institutionalizes itself. Just ask Max Weber.

The Presiding Bishop also offered remarks in which she focused on the grief we feel as a result of our loss of place in the establishment and numerical decline:

We are living in post-establishment times, and as a church, we are beginning to recognize that reality. It has brought an enormous amount of grief. The struggles over inclusion are a symptom, but only part of the response to losing a position and way of being that to many people has seemed intrinsic to being an Episcopalian. The post-establishment reality brings grief in abundance as former ways of living, governing, and privilege disappear. Like all kinds of grief, it can elicit anger, denial, and attempts to go back to some remembered golden age. None of those responses heals the grief. Nor can we fix the grief by tinkering with details. Only by living through the grief and loss, and beginning to embrace the possibilities and opportunities for new life will we ultimately find healing. We are a people who believe in resurrection, and we live in a season when acting out of that belief is absolutely essential.

I’m just not sure who she’s talking about: members of the Executive Council, staff at headquarters, bishops and deputies? Certainly not me. I have no grief for a past when the Episcopal Church was the de facto civil religion of the USA. I have no grief for a national denominational structure heavy on bureaucracy (and probably sinecures) with preference for insiders, WASPs, and those to the manor born.

I suppose because I grew up in another tradition, and drank deeply from the theology and spirituality of Anabaptism, I think a church rid of its associations with establishment and dominant culture is finally free to do what God has called the church to be. We are in a moment of extraordinary freedom, possibility and hope.

I came to the Episcopal Church because I encountered Jesus Christ in the bread and wine, in the proclamation of the word, in the liturgy, and in fellowship. I have no commitment to the Episcopal shield, or flag, the blue book, or the red book. I have no emotional attachment to General Convention, to 815 (wherever or whatever that might be). I am a priest of the church because I was called by God, and in spite of efforts by some to dismiss it, in the end the church, in a particular bishop and Commission on Ministry, heard and affirmed that call. I am a priest of the church because I believe that through my ministry in the church I can share the good news of Jesus Christ and offer new life, hope and faith in the Risen Lord in a broken and hurting world.

To do those things, I do not need a national bureaucracy or General Convention. In fact, both of those detract from my ministry because it means that money raised in my local congregation is used to support administration, bureaucracy, and a process that produces a budget with unimaginable errors.It means that energy that might be extended on thinking about reaching people with the good news in an increasingly secular society is deflected toward blog posts like this one.

To share the good news of Jesus Christ, I do need help and support: from the ministry of the laity in my parish, from my local and diocesan clergy colleagues, from my bishop–my pastor–and above all from those networks everyone is talking about, but few seem to be facilitating–networks of people in similar contexts, struggling with similar issues and imagining creative possibilities for the future.

Of the three presentations, I only found Bishop Sauls helpful in pointing a way forward. I’m ready to join that conversation he is hoping will take place, but don’t invite me to a funeral for the Episcopal Church of the twentieth century.

Bishop Stacy Sauls’ opening remarks to today’s meeting of the Executive Council:

The conversation I long to have with you is about putting everything on the table about our common life and looking at it in light of what Jesus said about survival, about how we live our lives to take up our cross and follow him, not just to Calvary but beyond Calvary to Resurrection. I want us to talk about putting everything on the table and rebuilding the Church for a new time that has no precise historical precedent. I think we should put dioceses on the table and ask how the ministry of a bishop relates to a particular people rather than to a particular geography. I think we should put episcopal ministry on the table and ask how bishops should work with each other collegially and how often they should meet together. I think we should put the exercise of primacy in our unique context on the table. I think we have to put how other clergy and laypeople participate in the councils of the church, and more importantly, are encouraged to live out their baptisms by proclaiming the good news of what God has done in Christ by word and example on the table. I think, and this is my particular concern, we have to put how we use the resource a churchwide staff to serve local mission and ministry on the table. Budgets may help us do that, or at least they may give us the occasion to do these things, but budgets themselves should never be the point of any of them. That is the conversation the staff as a whole longs to have with you.

Churches that turn inward will die. At every level, churches that turn inward will die. Those that turn outward, even at the risk of surviving, will thrive. Mission is how we do that. What serves mission will ultimately thrive. Because this is the Gospel. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” The conversation I long to have with you is about how are we, all of us, using the tasks before us to embrace, and not to avoid, the Gospel.


More on Stacy Sauls’ Proposal

I’m intrigued by the conversation about Bishop Sauls’ proposal to shift money from administration and governance toward ministry and mission. It’s an important conversation and has aroused considerable interest and emotion. Many seem to perceive it as an attack on the laity, particularly on lay governance, in the form of General Convention.

The reality is, things must change. Sauls’ presentation focuses on the financial realities confronting the church. They are real and potentially of enormous impact. But there are other realities, too. The Episcopal Cafe, in the midst of these postings about structural change within the denomination, found time to link to a study  that highlights the structural changes taking place in our society and in the religious life of Americans. The full study is available here: Decade of Change Final_0

The Episcopal Lead quotes:

“There is an overall decline in the numbers of faithful in the pews. Median weekly attendance in American congregations was 130 in 2000 and had dropped to 108 by 2010 . . . More disconcerting is the erosion in spiritual vitality. In 2005 about 43% of congregations reported high spiritual vitality and 5 years later this has dropped to 28%. This is paralleled by a decline in financial health in congregations…”

The conversation within the Episcopal Church may be driven by finances. It ought to be driven by this reality, the increase of those who identify themselves as non-religious and the very different ways in which younger cohorts relate to religious institutions than their elders did.

The burning question ought to be: How do we create vital spiritual communities that proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in this environment? There are thousands of people who are asking this question and experimenting with possibilities both in our denomination throughout American Christianity. It ought to be our top priority as well. If we can’t adapt to this new reality, no amount of restructuring will matter. Nor should it.

Here’s is Bishop Sauls’ slideshow: Sauls’ presentation.

Here’s a link to the text.

The pushback has begun. Jim Naughton’s is publishing a series of posts examining the proposal. The first, examines “the political context.” It is here. It seems there is outcry that the leadership of General Convention were not consulted  and there is perception that this may be a powerplay from the House of Bishops to reduce the involvement of laity in governance. The second asks about mission. The third explores other ways of reducing overhead, including merging dioceses and rethinking national church headquarters in Manhattan.

A follow-up article from Episcopal News Service is here.

Mark Harris’ continuing commentary is here.

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.