by The Rev. Dr. Donna L. McNiel
There is no doubt that the Church is changing. It’s not merely decline, but a shift along with the rest of our society in how we do everything. It’s the same shift that our larger society is experiencing. In our churches it’s reflected in lower attendance on Sundays, an older average age of those who are there, and less money to go around. This shift challenges the perception of most churches that they are self-sufficient and independent bodies who can tackle these changes themselves—or occasionally at the denominational level.
Thanks to several generations of visionary leaders, we have the benefit of 100 years of dialogue that has paved the way for real ecumenical partnership at the grassroots level that wasn’t possible in previous eras. I have spent the past four years trying to get churches in New Mexico to work and think together about how we want to move through this period of transition. I have spoken with countless lay and ordained leaders about the possibilities, including combining efforts for things like anti-racism training or Just Faith study groups. The New Mexico Conference of Churches has worked with several partners to try to re-form defunct ecumenical clergy groups in communities across the state.
Two years ago we launched the Congregational Vitality Series to bring prominent national speakers to New Mexico. We knew that people like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Diana Butler Bass, and Robin Meyers would attract people who are thinking about what’s going on in the Church today. The plan included long- and short-term gatherings and online conversations between the big speaking events. We hoped to build a community for cross-fertilization in which lay and ordained leaders would brainstorm together across denominations about new programs and new ways of being. We imagined people sharing ideas, trying them out in their congregations and communities (adapted for local context), and then returning to reflect on the experience. Wash, rinse, repeat.
When I talk to congregational and denominational leaders about the possibilities for ecumenical partnership they get excited. They too can see how such partnerships could make their jobs easier and make our witness in the world more effective. And yet, with very few exceptions, they return to their offices and churches and continue to function and perceive themselves as they always have—that is, alone. Our ecumenical clergy groups have all but fallen apart. People continue to come to hear the big-name speakers, but between events they aren’t engaging with one another around the ideas presented. Perhaps these are the wrong programs and the wrong ideas. I don’t think that’s the root problem, though.
Congregations and denominations continue to function in competition with other churches and denominations. Leaders are loath to share their great ideas with leaders of other congregations for fear that they will be “taken.” Clergy, in particular, feel the pressure to be “successful,” and so they often work in isolation from colleagues who could offer support and encouragement. Lay and ordained leaders alike seem to think that they have to come up with the key to saving the church all on their own—perhaps with a few choice books and an outstanding leadership conference or two.
The Church doesn’t need saving, of course. That’s God’s job. But we are tasked with being its stewards. We are in the unique position of having to figure out what tools the Church most needs to share the Gospel in our time and place. Unfortunately, we are caught in a vision of the Church that is primarily about how many people come to our building on Sundays. However much we try to shift our perspective on that, as long as annual parochial reports are primarily about attendance and income, it’s not going to change. We have to discern how to break out of these old patterns of being. We have to decide what to let go of and what to hang on to. We have to find ways to share the riches of our particular tradition while also celebrating and learning from other traditions.
These are not tasks that any priest, vestry, bishop, or denomination can tackle alone. We are members of one Body and we need each other. We need the whole Body’s input on the challenges of our time—which is easier said than done. We have become so risk averse in the Church that we are reluctant to try unproven ideas. We are afraid that a failed program might lead people to drop out of the life of our congregation. We do not want to stir up the controversy that is inevitable with any change. And we don’t know how to make the time necessary to re-think what we are doing.
We need to prioritize the long-term mission of the Church over the short-term success of any one congregation, diocese, or denomination. Doing so would require support at the top of denominational structures and broad engagement at the grassroots. We would have to share resources—money, time, staff, buildings, and more—to make it through the lean times. Doing that would make it possible to create the time and space to think and pray together. We could begin to build networks of real support that make risk-taking possible.
This is, by definition, an ecumenical vision. The Church is perceived by those “outside” as an institution riddled with divisions. Our separations make little sense even to many Christians. Our structures can help us preserve the great riches of our different traditions. They can also get in the way of proclaiming a Gospel message that brings people together in love. Our practices of isolation and division undermine our proclamation.
What if we offered the world a vision of community that celebrated differences while proclaiming our unity? Not only at the ground level of congregations, but all the way to the top levels of our church structures? What if in everything we did, we were clearly eager to work with others? What if “going it alone” were anathema to the Church? That is a vision that could inspire and move people. That is a vision that others would want to be a part of. That is a vision of the reign of God that could heal the divisions of our world.
The Rev. Dr. Donna L. McNiel is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Conference of Churches. As a priest of the Episcopal church, she has served as vicar, associate, and university chaplain. Dr. McNiel has sought ways to celebrate and learn from the distinct and diverse ways in which we worship, pray, and serve Christ. She was born and raised in New Mexico and after working and studying in places across the country and beyond, is pleased to be back in the Land of Enchantment where green chile is plentiful.