Does talk about structure just paper over larger issues?

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Every so often, in and amongst the general chatter, something catches your attention. Crusty Old Dean (Bexley Hall’s Rev. Dr. Tom Ferguson) made this blogger sit up straight this morning in an entry on blips and germs in an entry he calls a manifesto.


If I’m reading him right, part of Ferguson’s argument is that truly to restructure things means something much more fundamental and wide-reaching than ecclesial decision making bodies are equipped to handle. It means accepting that history has been kind to The Episcopal Church, but that history is history. (One commenter’s remark that our denomination has already feasted on its seed corn is still haunting my coffee-addled imagination.)

What is that “something much more fundamental and wide-reaching”?

COD finds himself thinking that restructuring is so 2011. The past few months have convinced him that on the one hand the scope of change we are looking at in the next 50 years is so profound, and, on the other hand, how utterly incapable governing structures currently are at shaping a discussion about what is needed (a quick run-through of the Blue Book Report shows that nothing of substance will likely emerge from this General Convention this summer, brought to us by the same people who can’t use Excel properly).

Collapse, my friends. That’s what’s coming.

1) Realize the blip is not normative, and that the much of the structures we have cannot be tweaked because the structures are part of the blip.

2) Dismantle national church structures to be solely canonical governance. Looks like we will spend 2012, just like we did in 2009, letting the General Convention and the Politburo that makes decisions slowly decide what we cannot do (in 2009, things like Liturgy & Music, Theological Education, and others; in 2012, Youth & Young Adult; in 2015, what next?) so they can struggle to do what they think they can still do or prefer to do. A slow, slow death march to irrelevance. Begin to end it now; shut it down but do so in order to

3) Begin a process to fully empower dioceses, provinces, networks to do the mission of the church. We have some assets: $250 million in endowment funds held by the DFMS; property in New York; a series of networks which, at times some more successfully than others, coordinated by denominational staff; a network of over 7,000 parishes and 100 dioceses and many, many affiliation based groups and networks. Empower the networks fully instead of having them have stuff periodically dumped on them every three years. We will still do many of the things we used to do, but in different ways, with broader buy-in and support — maybe Forma (formerly NAECED) or provinces would hire Young Adult & Youth Ministry network coordinators to work with congregations and dioceses instead of what 815 used to do.

Or, maybe like those germs which devastated the Aztecs, maybe a whole new and unexpected way of doing church is going to emerge. Or maybe it’s already here and we can’t fully empower it blowing millions on a building in New York and on holding a once-every-three-years meeting.

4) End parishes as clubs for members with a chaplain to minister to them, set up as Ponzi schemes for committees, which sees recruitment as getting people to serve on committees. Would many of the towns where our Episcopal churches are located even notice, or care, if they were to close? How many of our parishes function solely as clubs for the gathered? How many dioceses have 10%, 15%, 20%, of their parishes on diocesan support? How many dioceses are struggling to function? We have to change not only the diocesan structure, but fundamentally reshape what it means to be a parish and a diocese. Some of many options which are available, should we be willing to pursue them:

–We could recruit and train non-stipendiary priests to gracefully end parishes which are unwilling or unable to engage in any actual mission, evangelism, or discipleship; even develop a system of training and education for non-stipendiary priests which wouldn’t make them have to drop everything to go to seminary.

–In turn, for what full time clergy we have, train them not to be chaplains to a gathered community but missionaries and community organizers. This will also require a fundamental rethinking of seminary education in how we train such folks. You know, COD is a Dean, and is ready to partner with whomever is willing to work on the two points above.

This blogger would love to find a crack in the armor of the COD’s thoughts on the matter strictly for reasons of personal convenience, but can’t. Heck, I bet the COD would love to have a crack pointed out to him for the same reasons.

Anyway, read the whole darned thing and let’s have a conversation.

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E B
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E B

Ironically, I am not so sure that the demise of the national structure would make a big difference. My experience is that in vibrant parishes, there's little interest in what happens on the diocesan or national level. (My Facebook post on my parish's page about the proposed budget, which I had hoped would engender vibrant discussion, was instead met with a big yawn, LOL.)

FYI, there's an interesting post about the fate of the former Cathedral of Christ the King in western Michigan, which was sold in 2007 to a church that had started in 1992 and had grown to more than 2,500 members by the time it acquired the cathedral. Sadly enough, the Episcopal parish at the cathedral, which moved to a smaller facility down the road, disbanded altogether a few months ago. Details at http://www.livingchurch.org/sidelined-cathedral

Closer to home here in VA, I am concerned about our approach to the continuing congregations, many of which will soon be moving back into their church homes. Although we have the diocesan Dayspring program, which appears to be a worthwhile project, there seems to me a pressing need for those of us happily esconced in more stable parishes to reach out and help our neighboring parishes. Yet I don't sense that the matter is much on the average person's radar. We will have made a major blunder if we spent millions to maintain control of TEC assets, only to ignore the assets -- and the people served by those assets -- into oblivion. Insularity = death.

Eric Bonetti

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Mary Ann Hill
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Mary Ann Hill

There are still plenty of entreprenuerially and mission-minded clergy in this church. I know of one network that has dozens of them (Gathering of Leaders) The only thing holding us back is a reluctance on the part of some to let change happen, mostly because their egos are too strongly invested in the status quo. We are surrounded more and more by people who are unchurched or who have been hurt by religion, and we have so much to offer them. If we are

courageous and faithful, there is no end to what God could do through us.

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Jonathan Grieser
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In preparation for some long-range planning in my own parish, I reread some of our parish history this morning and I was struck by the ways in which we are returning to patterns that existed in the nineteenth century. Rectors in the second half of the 19th century held services regularly in outlying communities--most of which never became established parishes or even missions. There are other ways of being Christian community than being a parish, having a building and a full-time priest and we need to experiment with those other models just as we did at earlier times in our history.

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Jim Naughton
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Jim Naughton

Chris, I think many of us are afraid. Thanks for being honest about your concerns. (And the first person who uses the phrase "non-anxious presence" in responding gets Cafe detention.) What I like about Tom's piece is that I think it points to various things that we can do. And the notion that we can and should take action is reassuring to me.

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Chris Arnold
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Chris Arnold

Alright, I'm going to be vulnerable and honest here: I read this saying "yup, I think he's right" and "Dear sweet Lord, I'm afraid he's right." As a fairly newly-minted priest, it makes me panic to think that there's yet more chaos in the future. That's just my personal baggage, but there it is.

Ecclesiologically, COD's plan feels like the death of another thing that holds us together. I'm witnessing the falling-away of all sorts of "classic" Christian markers, not only changing attitudes towards sex, homosexuality, and marriage, but radical changes in our views on baptism and communion (the Communion without Baptism thing), the saints, the Creeds... If we spin this out to the dioceses, what on earth will hold us together? Someone will say "Christ!" but we're already speaking such different languages about him now.

I think COD's plan is brave, and it is certainly radical. Alternatives may not be possible, but I fear that this plan will not be sustainable. Basically, yeah, I'm afraid.

[Chris Arnold // name added -.ed]

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Dr. Radner is correct that some of the more entrepreneurially-minded in TEC have been part of the recent exodus prompted by what we might call the O&B controversies (ordinations and blessings). That said, I think it's important to note that, for instance, the 2020 envisioned by the largely evangelical architects of the 20/20 Report (2001) and subsequent Task Force (remember them?) is likely to be very different from the actual 2020 when it arrives. Thus, church planning and planting according to turn-of-the-21st-century models may already be obsolete. Perhaps the Vinegrower (see last Sunday's Gospel) is calling us to learn and then to teach the world how to live gratefully, graciously and generously within our limits--to bear good and nourishing fruit where we are, and not just throw out more branches.

Posted by Jan Nunley+ (sorry, Jim, I thought Facebook would auto-ID me in the above post)

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Michael Russell
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Michael Russell

I appreciate the COD's piece, but echo Jim's caveat.

We make a promise at Baptism to see people through and support them in all the aspects of their spiritual journey. We have an obligation to care for our aging because they did the heavy lifting for the church over the last five or so decades. And if they are set in their ways, it is not because they dislike the Lord, but because the familiar is comfortable.

When I did the Congregational Development specialty at SWTS in the mid-90's there was a strong element of the CD folks who simply suggested abandoning existing congregations because efforts to get them to adapt would be exhausting and non-productive. Perhaps we would have been wise to develop a cadre of church planters and pay them well, but even then that would have failed to deal with cultural changes.

So I think we have to plan to honor our commitment even as we adapt and become nimble. But as the run up to GC 2012 continues I still see neither emerging in the planning.

We still have to shatter our various institutional cultures and see what emerges from the frustrated vigor and passion we all experience. But I do not think the PTB (Powers That Be) are prepared to let that happen.

My sense now is that we ask Diocese's for no more than 10%, make radical cuts in the central church staff and spend the next three years working out our passions for ministry locally and regionally and then perhaps see what we might do better from a centralized office.

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Jim Naughton
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Jim Naughton

What I appreciate about Tom's thinking is that it is truly radical. There is no centralizing agenda hiding behind the allegedly radical rhetoric. I am not sure how we go about creating this church, because it requires action on so many levels, much of it occurring at the same time. But I find it exciting to contemplate. One place where we differ is that I think mission language, and references to parishes as clubs devalues pastoral ministry to people who show up every Sunday. I am not saying this is Tom's intent, and I may be reading something into this writing that I think is more clearly present in the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Sauls' writing. That said, I am concerned about the health of the body that is supposed to do the mission. And I just don't think that most people are drawn to church because they are looking for something else to do. (Something that in many instances they can do under the auspices of other organizations.) If we aren't speaking to the spiritual needs of the people who come through our doors--if we can't help them make meaning from their lives--I think we are sunk.

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Ephraim Radner
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Ephraim Radner

COD cleary and courageously says things that have been obvious for some time and that have been willfully ignored by too many for too long.

One thing, however, that ought to be added: many of the leaders, both lay and ordained, who have had good track records in actually working along the lines COD mentions have left TEC in the last 10 years. And far more already exist in other parts of the globe, and have been alientated from TEC's own track record. As long as TEC insists, not only that it has nothing of substance to learn from these folks, but also that the theology that undergirds their ministries is unsuitable to TEC's own witness, the kinds of things COD recommends will never happen. This isn't just about systems theory. Yes, and "collapse" will be a modest description.

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A decade before Diamond, Joseph Tainter wrote "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (1988). There's much to learn there too; the point is, it's industrial civilization that's coming down, and any faith group that depends on its structures to survive is coming down with it. That includes narrowly defining "bi-vocational" as clergy working another "job" in the "workplace." (In case we haven't noticed, finding those jobs is a struggle for a good chunk of the population. At least clergy have the Pension Fund...for now.) Perhaps it's time for parishes that have them to consider turning their spacious, well-groomed lawns into mini-farms, look into acquiring glebe land as part of clergy salaries. We'll need to grow a lot more than budgets and ASA's in the future.

[Editor's note: Thanks for the comment. Please sign your name next time.]

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