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Capacity and the lack thereof

Capacity and the lack thereof

In the midst of our church’s efforts to reimagine itself, I am wondering if one important, and fairly obvious issue is being overlooked: capacity. I do a fair amount of work with dioceses around the church, and what I find, again and again, is that most parishes simply lack the financial and human resources to take on the jobs that would seem to be essential in rejuvenating themselves.

The average congregation is small, many can barely afford a full time priest, and most rely on volunteers to do jobs that are becoming increasingly complex and specialized and that require a working knowledge of technology. Volunteers with the right kinds of backgrounds for this work are not thick on the ground, and training costs money.

This isn’t an issue that presents itself in larger parishes. It’s not going to be the topic of coffee talk at the next Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parish’s conference, but every bishop I speak to in the church knows it is a significant problem. In my own line of work, my partner and I have moved from giving workshops on “best practices” in parish and diocesan communications to collecting information in advance of our presentations so we can tailor them realistically to the capacity of the group to which we will be speaking. To some groups we talk about a comprehensive communications program, but increasingly we try to get people to focus on the one or two initiatives that they have a realistic shot at doing well.

I’m aware there are a lot of dedicated and talented volunteers out there (They are the folks who tend to show up at the presentations I am talking about), and I’ve worked with a number of organizations that trying to make it easier and more affordable for people to acquire the skills that they need. But in most places these engines are still revving and haven’t yet caught.

I think the church’s lack of capacity raises several questions:

Can the church be comfortable with a large number of parishes that muddle along in slow, but for the near term, manageable decline due to a lack of capacity? These congregations may not be growing, but unless they rely on diocesan funding, they aren’t necessarily hurting anyone, and it may be more wrenching to force change upon them than to do nothing. On the other hand, these sorts of parishes have no long-term future (unless they have an endowment they can spend down) and can’t be counted on to breath new energy into the church.

If the church can’t be comfortable with a large number of such parishes, do declining parishes need to be merged, thereby creating the possibility for a larger staff? I was on a diocesan staff during a couple of mergers and I am here to tell you this needs to be handled with great patience and skill.

Do diocesan and churchwide staff positions need to be rethought to provide more extensive training for volunteers? The Diocese of Vermont gave this some thought in shaping the job description for its next communications manager and included these lines: “Build a supportive network of parish communicators and offer training and support to volunteers and staff.” And “Experience training, supporting, and managing volunteers.”

Can the church come up with other creative ways such as Creating for a Cause, the Episcopal Service Corps affiliate in the Diocese of Milwaukee, whose interns provide creative services to non-profit organizations?

A well-funded, well-coordinated, churchwide effort either to train volunteers, or to pair congregations with willing interns or professionals willing to donate their time, might be fruitful. Of course, you still need to recruit, motivate and reward the volunteers, which is a whole ‘nother field of expertise.


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Seems to me that here at the Cafe when we’ve discussed reorganization of the Church periodically someone has said something like, “I don’t need my money to go to the [Diocese, Episcopal Church Center, National Church] to have the Episcopal Church where I am [or do what I want the Episcopal Church to do].” Those statements have been made in good faith; and we need to consider whether the existing structures will serve us. However, sometimes it begins to sound like good old American individualism writ a bit larger as parochialism. We talk of doing many things in networks rather than through staffed programs – but I’m a leader in a network in the Episcopal Church, and we long for a contact point with the institutional structures. We want it in part precisely because it can bring capacity that a bunch of volunteers, however well prepared otherwise, might not have (including, not least, time); and because that becomes an expression that this ministry is important to the Church as an expression of all of us.

Yes, we do have hard decisions to make, decisions often made worse due to delay (as delayed maintenance ends up costing more than keeping things in repair now). Some congregations will close and most will change (as if they wouldn’t have anyway). That said, if the question is capacity we can approach it one of two ways. We can look and sometimes find the capacity in the individual congregation, and see how we can encourage it there (and mourn when we don’t find it elsewhere); or we can discover how we can together provide the capacity, and then make it available to the individual congregation – and, really, to more than one.

Marshall Scott

Jim Naughton

Maria, all I am trying to say is that the lack of capacity isn’t confined to certain kinds of churches or certain locations. I think the story you tell is in line with what I am saying. Look how hard it was for your congregation to tap into a resource that it needed. And that in a diocese in which your communications person is smart about this stuff.

The only other thing I have to say is that one of the other problems that the church faces in this area is that it lacks resources and capacity and rather than taking those things on directly, it comes up with theological reasons that it doesn’t have to. These appear in the guise of deeper thinking, but they are simply avoidance.

Maria L. Evans

Oooo. I just thought of a commonality that is also a challenge in this re-imagining…insularity.

Now, out where I am, I tend to see our parish as geographically insular. Yet a parish 10 blocks from another can be just as insular, if the members never get out and experience the richness of the variety of worship and ministry TEC has to offer, never break bread together, never sit down at the table and craft a common vocabulary. Tom makes a good point of what happens when this conversation and this vocabulary doesn’t emerge.

Maria L. Evans

Hmmm. Jim, I can’t tell if you think I’m disagreeing with you or not (I’m actually not disagreeing with your basic premise) but I do beg to differ that geography isn’t at least a piece of it. Last week, five of us were on the road for almost 8 hours round trip to go to STL for a “re-imagining” session of Missouri Oasis that lasted 1.5 hours. Certainly, some of this distance can be bridged by technology, but still, nothing beats face-to-face interaction. My friends out west deal with even longer drives. It limits the ability to bring more voices to the conversation. Margaret makes a very good point about “what is the church saying in its signs and symbols?” The reality is geography becomes an intangible outward sign, if the cost of discipleship becomes a one way burden to the geographically marginalized in terms of how we gather at the table. That said, I applaud diocesan communicators like DioMo’s Beth Felice, who works very hard at trying to digitally keep us all connected. I’m not saying geography is the #1 thing–but it is a thing.

Tom Sramek, Jr.

I’m thinking that there may be a deeper “capacity challenge” than money. As helpful as a full-time clergyperson can be in many congregations (and as increasingly rare), one of the biggest challenges is that the “doers” of the heyday of the church who were in their 20s and 30s in the 1950s and 1960s are the 80 and 90 year old tired pew-sitters of the 2010s. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak–and there are few vigorous 20 and 30 year olds enthusiastic about perpetuating an institution just so their grandparents have some place from which to be buried. I have heard many, many older members of the various congregations I’ve served lamenting this lack of youth and energy, but also saying “I just want the church to last long enough to bury me.” That is hardly a compelling mission statement!

The reality is, many churches are simply going to literally die…the last parishioner is going to be carried out in a pine box and the church building will be closed and sold. The other reality is that in many vulnerable churches there is far more energy around preservation than there is around risk-taking for mission. If you ask people whether they would be willing to sell their building and use the money generated to revive and re-form the church for a chance at new life and ministry or to keep the building and resign themselves to a slow death, many would take the second option.

Things like a good web site can be built and maintained (with help from the web site provider) had for $500 a year–or about $25 per year per person for 20 people. But are people willing to invest that little money for such technology? More critically, what are they advertising on that web site? “Come help us keep the doors open for another year!” is hardly a compelling evangelistic message, whether you have web site, a pretty church, or a full-time priest or not.

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