by George Clifford
My diocese (Hawai’i) is preparing for the Presiding Bishop’s canonically required visit in late March of this year. His visit, following his well-established pattern, will primarily consist of several events, most open to the public, intended to renew and revitalize the diocese and its people.
Reflecting on his upcoming visit, which certainly builds on Bishop Curry’s skill as an exhortative preacher who energizes his hearers, I wondered, what next? How does this diocese, or other dioceses post-visit, capitalize on whatever renewal or revitalization that they may experience and move forward? Alternatively, do Bishop Curry’s diocesan visits simply provide a one-time injection of spirit that dissipate without producing any substantive long-term gains?
Critiquing The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) long-term numerical decline and other organizational problems is easy. I’ve penned such critiques, as have others. To date, these critiques appear to have prompted few changes, much less reversed the decline.
Consequently, perhaps Episcopalians collectively should do what Bishop Curry has done as an individual: play to our strengths. Appreciative inquiry argues that flourishing organizations emphasize their strengths rather than weaknesses or problem solving.
Appreciative inquiry’s starting point is a focused version of what Hawaiians call “talking story.” In congregations (both parishes and missions), talking story might consist of attendees (not just members!) discussing what attracted the person to that particular congregation and what keeps the person returning. Also, what has the congregation done in the community of which its attendees are proud? For dioceses, talking story might connote congregations describing what they learn and the benefits they receive from the diocese and other diocesan congregations. Additionally, what does the diocese do to make a difference in its geographic area and/or member congregations? Similarly, on the provincial and national levels, people could talk story by sharing what why they personally find rewarding by participating in the province or national church, what they perceive the province or national church contributes to dioceses and congregations, and ways in which they believe the province or national church changes the world for the better.
Talking story locally, in dioceses, and nationally will create new narratives about Episcopalian congregations, Episcopal dioceses, and TEC. Concentrating on problems, lamenting lack of growth or diminished influence, and so forth attracts few and energizes even fewer people. The path to life abundant lies in using our God given gifts (strengths) to incarnate God’s love manifested in Christ more fully as individuals and as the gathered body of Christ.
When I consider what drew me to the Episcopal Church and what keeps me involved, among the concepts that cluster at the center of my thinking are:
- Acceptance and inclusivity that are the building blocks of community
- Affirmation that I am beloved child of God
- Pastoral sensitivity that emphasizes helping one to live more completely in the light, respecting the individual’s journey without inappropriate judging
- Celebrating beauty in the cosmos, persons, and worship
- Compassion, practicing love for my neighbor locally and globally
- Working together for justice
Individual lists of what drew the person to an Episcopal congregation and what causes the person to continue participating, may be different. And even if the words are the same, the specifics will differ. Talking story and building narratives is not about creating lists. The process is about actually listening to one another, learning the specifics of how, for example, a person experienced acceptance and why that was a memorable element of the person’s spiritual journey. Similar guidance applies to dioceses, provinces, and TEC as they talk story.
God does not ask anyone or any part of the body of Christ to be something they are not or to do something impossible. God gives individuals, congregations, and dioceses particular gifts expecting that those people and organizations will use their gifts to do great things for God. Incidentally, doing great things for God stands in sharp contradistinction to popular prosperity gospels that masquerade as Christianity, pseudo gospels that simplistically equate health and wealth with God’s agenda.
According to 2017 parochial reports, average Sunday attendance for TEC was 556,774 people in 6447 congregations organized in a nationwide network of dioceses. TEC’s more than 1.7 million members annually contribute in excess of $1.3 billion to its congregations and dioceses. A politician would think s/he had died and gone to heaven to have that many volunteers in an organization that reaches into almost every U.S. community and has those financial resources.
In other words, the time has come to stop looking back, wistfully focused on what our congregations, dioceses, and national church used to be. Capitalize on the renewal and revival that Bishop Curry is trying to engender in the Church. Look to the present. Who are we? What draws us together? What keeps us together?
Then, living into those new narratives, dare to dream about how we can build on our present strengths and past successes to achieve new and future successes for God? What is next for your congregation, diocese and The Episcopal Church? Lastly, after designing plans to turn those dreams into reality, work in our parishes, dioceses, provinces and TEC to deliver the projects, programs, and other initiatives we have designed to a broken, hurting world desperately in need of God’s transforming love. Even as we transform the world, we will discover that we ourselves are transformed and have become part of a transformed Church.
George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He mentors clergy, consults with parishes on organizational development, mediates conflict, and blogs at Ethical Musings.