Reflections on Renewal – restructuring the church

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by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

What follows is a short section from my State of the Religious Life, itself a collection of articles and reflections published in various places in the late 1980s, eventually woven into a monograph published in 1991, and recently made available in a 20th anniversary edition online. It seems to me that many of the issues that face us in restructuring, and much of the talk in the restructuring conversations, reflect this phase in the life cycle of a community — or a church. This section is based in part on the work of Lawrence Cada, et al, in Shaping the Coming Age of Religious Life. (NY: Crossroad, 1979).

The four phases of doubt

There are four stages to the breakdown of a community, each characterized by a form of doubt: Mechanical, Conceptual, Moral, and Total.

Mechanical doubt: Are we doing things the right way?

Mechanical doubt is often the first response to problems in an organization, which has come to be seen not as a spirit-filled (or vision-inspired) community of people, but as a mechanism that needs adjustment. Changes at this point are usually superficial: changing the habit, trying out new liturgies. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with either of these things, if they grow out of a living spirit — and if they are responses to the real problems. But if they are last minute efforts to pump life into a comatose body, it is too late for such medications to be effective. In an organization which does not constantly seek renewal, these superficial changes are usually too late to do any good.

Conceptual doubt: Are we doing the right things?

At this stage it isn’t the manner of working that comes under doubt, but the work itself. Should we stop teaching, close down the school? These questions are more fundamental than the mechanical concerns described in the previous stage. If approached with a lack of insight, actions at this stage can lead to disaster. A rebound effect can occur at this point, and a siege mentality develop on the part of some of the members, or the community as a whole. Any change becomes a fundamental threat not just to the ethos of the community, but to some even larger principle: the Faith, the Nation, the Cause. Such polarization can render productive renewal nearly impossible.

Moral doubt: Am I doing the right thing?

At this level of doubt the misgivings and apprehensions that have troubled the organization begin to be internalized by the individual members. Accommodations begin to be made by individuals who no longer accept the driving myth of the organization, or who have reached a point of cynicism. They begin to wonder whether they need to observe the rule with quite the rigor that it is suggested they should; in celibate communities this is a stage at which sexual immaturities can emerge. In the minds of more conservative members, change and renewal can come to be seen as personal threats to their well-being and identity, with a concomitant decline in self-worth.

Total doubt: Why am I / are we doing this at all?

At this stage personal and communal despondency and despair emerge full force, and the doubt shifts almost to an existential level. Organizations which have descended this far into doubt are unlikely to survive; though even here it is possible to rediscover the core ideal which drove the community.

The Rev. Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG blogs at In a Godward directions and Reasonable and Holy. He is the Rector at St James Fordham, a member of the Brotherhood of St Gregory and Clergy Deputy to General Convention 2012 from the Diocese of New York, Chair of the House of Deputies Study Committee on Church Governance and Polity.

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tobias haller
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tobias haller

Dear Br Richard, I was thinking in particular in terms of the GC / 815 restructuring issues, which, sadly, seem to be divorced from the larger church... And indeed many who are entrenched in those discussions are also serving ably elsewhere -- and seemingly unable to apply that experience to the other matters at hand. This is not an unusual phenomenon in church leaders. (Witness Rowan Williams' disconnects between understanding global economic issues but not, to my mind, global ecclesiastical ones...)

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

Dear Br. Tobias,

I've been wrestling a bit in my own mind about how well this model applies to a denomination as large as The Episcopal Church versus a smaller community such as a parish or conventual/monastic group.

It strikes me that The Episcopal Church includes institutions all over this map in terms of stages of doubt. It further strikes me that many who harbor serious doubts about the current state of our governance structures could simultaneously be serving in otherwise healthy communities of the same Church.

As usual, I may be falling into the pattern of being "more descriptive than helpful," but I wondered if you had any thoughts about these distinctions?

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