Tuesday, March 19, 2019

St Mark's Erie Blog 3: My Recommendations

This is the third, somewhat delayed, blog on my observations and work with St. Mark’s.  I want to share with you what I recommended to them because it is applicable to lots of “transitional size” congregations, and you may find these helpful to your leadership.

Before I share these, let me start by two preliminary comments. First, I want to say again what a joy it was to work with the Bishop, staff, and lay leadership.  When I met with the leaders, they had all prepared by reading my book The Myth of the 200 Barrier and were prepared to ask great questions and to do the work necessary for the next stage in their development.

Second, I found that they have momentum, had made good decisions, were expanding the leadership, and had a joy and openness that I would like to see in many other congregations.  Consequently, I wasn’t intervening so much as coaching and this is a great position for a consultant.  With all this in mind, here are the recommendations that I gave them.  Note that I’ve added some comments for my readers in blue.

  1. I would like to see the leadership become clearer and more focused on the Mission of the Congregation.  A good way to do this is start with the current good, but long, mission statement and find a way to express this in one or two phrases or sentences. (I want congregations to have a mission, not just a mission statement, and I want them to use this short mission statement to help them recruit others to this mission.) I would want Fr. Don and the other staff members to be able to say, “Here at St. Mark’s our mission is to….”  Once you produce this parish slogan or banner statement then use it on all written material, social media, and the website as a branding for the congregation.  The leadership will also be able to use this in future development by asking if a suggested activity or ministry is congruent with this mission.  (Branding helps make a congregation known in the community!)                                                  
  2. I would like to see the leadership and staff develop a greater sense of urgency in accomplishing your mission and engaging more new people in helping you in this work.  I would like to see the leadership carry out a strategy aimed at moving St. Mark’s above an ASA of 225 within two years.  (Many transitional size congregations simple take to long to get to the program size and wear everyone out especially the leadership.)As I said to all groups while there, if you take to long to develop into the program size, you will grow fatigued and the natural forces of attrition and resistance will keep you in the transitional size.  Trust me that once nearer an ASA of 225 parish life will flow more smoothly and you will be able to have the resources needed to carry out your mission. So, develop a strategy for further development. Some of which I will suggest here and have suggested in my book.

  1. I have suggested that the work group and staff look at points where people are connecting most with ministry and activities and explore adding more.  Some may wish to explore what larger congregations in the area are currently offering to newcomers such as divorce recovery, etc.  (St. Mark’s was set to do this, but the leaders were busy and maintaining what they already have was limiting their potential.) 

  1. I would recommend that the leadership consider the creation of such points of connection exploring especially the area of “felt need” ministries and expanding current outreach programs of the church by incorporating more newcomers to these ministries. 

  1. I would like to see the parish plan and execute four Special Sundays.  I have given the Staff information on forming the task forces to carry these out. (The Special Sunday is the one proven method to increase the attendance of both visitors and inactive members at the same time. I describe these in my book 5 Keys for Church Leaders.) 

  1. The Parish has a wonderful way of welcoming newcomers through dinners.  I would add to these dinners a chance for people to answer two valuable questions: 1. How do you find St. Mark’s in the first place?  2. What or who made it possible for you to stay?  I would also recommend that a key ministry area of the parish be highlighted also at such dinners.  By doing this, you gain valuable feedback and provide points of connecting for the new members. 

  1. I would challenge Leaders and Staff to create a clear path to membership and discipleship.  The essential challenge is to have activities and ministries that invite seekers into a deeper relationship with Christ, his Church, and his mission to our world through the intentional life of the congregation. (It is surprising how few churches in TEC have a rational plan to lead folks to discipleship and membership.) 

  1. The parish did an excellent TV ad.  I recommend you touch base with the “Invite, Welcome, Connect” ministry to explore further creative ways to invite seekers to experience the worship, community life, and ministries of St. Mark’s.  And with the increasing number of disillusioned Roman Catholics in your area, highlight your Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and other sacramental and liturgical events that are deeply connected to their past spiritual life in the Church.                                            

I am happy to say that the staff and leadership are still on task toward these goals.  One goal, IMHO, of Diocesan Leadership should be to highlight the congregations in their dioceses that are doing things right and let them teach others. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

St. Mark's Erie - the Staff

In this second blog on St. Mark’s Erie, I want to focus on what the staff brought to this revitalization because, without a doubt, they have been a major dynamic in the renewal of this congregation.

After Bishop Rowe had chosen St. Mark’s for revitalization, he came up with a different paradigm for leadership.  Instead of the typical practice of choosing a new Rector and charging that person with the work, the Bishop choose a team.  The problem with the ordained leader model is that it is totally dependent on that person to overcome the predictable resistance.  In addition, with around 40 in attendance, it sets the strategy of growing the congregation back into a pastoral sized congregation.  So even when this works, it largely limits the grow to the 150 number which is the upper size of the Pastoral Church. 

When I worked for the Diocese of Texas in the 90s, we realized that if we wanted to plant a program sized church in an urban area then we needed to start with a team.  This was first the planting pastor who would then hire a critical number of staff.  This usually involved a music minister, a Christian Education person, and one other key staff.  This last person depended on the core values that the new plant had chosen.  For example, if it was based on small groups than they needed a coordinator for this.  We also encouraged the recruiting of an unpaid administrative person.  The plan was simple and direct; staff the new plant with the staff you would have in a Program Sized church.  But we quickly learned that not just any staff people would do.  They had to be selected on their ability to build their area of ministry.  There are plenty of staff people in the church who can run and maintain a present existing ministry, but a new plant demanded developmental people. They are hard to find.

This is exactly what I found in Erie.  The three key staff include Craig Dressler, Associate for Parish Life.  Then there is Carly Rowe, Associate for Program and Development.  Third is the Rev. Don Baxter, Vicar.  Each of these staff brought different and complimentary skills to their work. For example, Don is a bi-vocational Priest who owns his own medical practice and who provides the sacramental and liturgical needs.  The staff today also includes a Deacon and a staff member for children’s education and youth.  The staff has grown as the parish has grown.   

Craig is a talented musician and administrator who brings a variety of gifts to the parish. Carly provides great program support, knowledge of new member ministry, and general congregational development skills.  Fr. Don is a good pastor and preaches well.  The key staff rotate preaching.  It was a joy to watch them work together.  But I especially want you to notice their job titles which describe their area of ministry and responsibility.  This clarity is essential for the team to work well together. 

I was impressed with all they have accomplished in a relatively few years.  I was more impressed when I asked them about future development.  They were clearly leading the congregation with a constant eye toward the next steps. 

What does this staffing represent?  Simple, build it and they will come.  The Bishop provided a creative core team of a growing Program Sized Church and they built it. 

In my next blog, I want to conclude this series on what the lay leadership and members have done to carry out this revitalization, but let me conclude this blog with a critical moment is my visit with the staff.

I asked them “what would you do differently if you had it all to do over again?”  After some thought they pointed out that they had started with the remaining 30 to 40 people from the old St. Mark’s.  They wondered if that was a good idea.  As one said it, I wonder if we could have made faster headway if we had started without these folks.  They explained that the strongest resistance toward change had consistently come from folks in this original group.  Let me underscore this hard truth about congregational revitalization.  Even when the membership has lived through considerable decline and know they desperately need new members and to change what they have been doing, they still form a group of people who resist creative change.  This can range from “will the emerging church be one we can live with” to the ever present “we never did it that way back in the golden years.”  I often say that a new vision has difficulty competing with a nostalgic past!”

St. Mark’s chose to keep these folks, and many have caught the new vision, but not all.  The staff wonder “what if” and I can’t but wonder the same as someone who has worked with lots of congregations intending revitalization. 

I do know this.  It is easier to plant a new parish from scratch than to revitalize a present declining one.  St. Marks still shows that such work is worth it. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

Revitalization in a Declining Community - St. Mark's, Erie

This past fall, I received an unexpected email from Bishop Sean Rowe of Northwest Pennsylvania.  He asked if I would be willing to work with St. Mark’s Church in Erie.  He described the Church as a Transitional Size congregation with an ASA between 140 and 200.  Since I wrote a book on this topic, he hoped I would be willing to help move them to the next level.  He gave me some of the background on St. Mark’s.

Located in what is called the Rust Belt, St. Mark’s is an intentional effort at revitalization by the Bishop and the Diocese.  While many congregations in the industrial mid-west are in decline or even closing, the Bishop decided that St. Mark’s had a very good chance and location for a strategic rebirth. 

I was impressed with all that he told me and made a promise that I would work along side them, even making a late November on site visit to assist them.  I also was impressed that the staff and key leaders of the Parish had read my book, The Myth of the 200 Barrier, and were eager to apply the information to their setting. 

I found a vibrant, growing, and diverse congregation and part of my agreement to visit was that I would write about what I discovered.  How was this congregation able to go counter to the trend of so many Episcopal and mainline congregations in the setting of declining populations and stagnant economic environment? 

With this blog, I start a series on what the Bishop, the staff, the leadership, and the congregation are doing right and how this can be applied to many other similar settings. 

Let me start with the Bishop.  What did Bishop Rowe get right!

Bishop Rowe did what few of our Bishops have either the insight or courage to do.  He took the initiative, intervened in the congregation, and made several strategic decisions that began the turn around for St. Mark’s.  My observation is that many of our Bishops, particularly in such settings, are resolved to let their congregations merely continue with little direction and support from their Diocese.  The Bishops seem content to accept the fate of decline and death as inevitable.  Many times, over the years, I have heard Bishops and other Episcopal leaders say that “of course you can plant and grow a church in a growing suburb, but there are many places where churches will inevitable decline.” 

This is because mainline leaders tend to blame growth and decline mostly on demographics.  Remember our past Presiding Bishop who explained decline for TEC because we have older members who aren’t having enough children?  Yet, studies of growth and decline in American churches consistently show that we have declining churches in growing communities, and growing churches in declining communities.  The truth is that growth and decline have much more to do with the attitudes and decisions of current members than with mere demographics.  I am not saying that turning around a church in a declining community is easy, but it can be done.  St. Mark’s is a wonderful example.

Strategically, what did Bishop Rowe do? 

First, he selected which of his declining congregations in Erie had the best setting and was at the right moment for intervention.

Second, he and Diocesan leaders intervened directly both telling the truth to current members and offering them hope.

Third, he selected the leadership.  For St. Mark’s, this consisted of an able lay administrator, a knowledgeable newcomer/ congregational development lay staff, and a part-time clergy who handles the sacramental and pastoral aspects of the church’s life.  Note how important it is that he placed a staff team and not just sent “another” priest with the hope of turning it around. 

Fourth, he mobilized Diocesan leaders and volunteers to help with the project.  One single handedly provided a refurbished professional kitchen for outreach use by the congregation.

Fifth, he added new people from another Erie congregation that was near closure.

Lastly, he has taken an active interest in the congregation’s development providing encouragement and assistance to the staff and lay leaders. 

I would sum all this up with this observation. The Bishop acted like a leader rather than an administrator!

In my next blog, I will explore what the staff team brought to this revitalization.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Incarnational Revival in the Town Parish: a Neighborhood Apporach

Today’s guest Blog is by The Rev’d Dr. Robert M. Lewis, Rector of
St. Stephen’s Church, Grand Island, Nebraska
Times have been better for the town parish. Throughout Middle America it is this type of parish that is suffering through decline and in some cases, even death. Town parishes are often shifting from pastoral-sized models with full-time clergy to family-sized models with part-time or yoked clergy supply.  But what is the recipe for changing such an outcome?  Is there a silver bullet approach?  In most cases, the answer is no.  There is however one thing that I hold to be key in turning a declining town parish around, and that is incarnational perspective, in other words, embracing our neighborhoods.
Most town parishes have a history like mine.  It is over 100 years old. It has had a series of pastorates, some far too short to really get anything off the ground. There are stories of the “glory days” when churches were filled with far more people and Sunday Schools were filled with children. Those days, the standard Episcopalian had far more clout than most and our members were perceived as the movers and shakers in that town’s community.  But…those days are long gone.
In the town parishes I have known, this is a common lament with significant blaming:  culture, youth, technology, lack of duty, soccer games on Sunday mornings, and the list goes on. But one thing that town parishes never really had to do was look into their neighborhoods.  Town parishes grew used to evangelism by attraction and forgot that we are called to be witnesses of resurrection, that is, a vehicle that conveys all that is right, good, and gracious in our own neighborhoods.
One such turnaround was in a parish that I served as a consultant. The Priest-in-Charge was in ill health and projected a very “Father knows best” attitude. The Vestry had noticed (quite appropriately) that the congregation really did not look like the neighborhood.  The church was composed of an ethnic group that did not look like the neighborhood and they were significantly older as well.  The only outreach ministries were aimed at addiction, and those who attended those programs, drove for the program from a nearby town.  There seemed to be little interface with the neighborhood.  All that would change.
New life and new faces changed when that church decided to construct an open playground for the children of the neighborhood. Let’s be clear -this church had NO children, it was purely giving something away without hope of a return. A series of get to know meetings (always including free food) celebrated the playground’s debut in the neighborhood.  As people began to visit their neighbors, celebrating this gift to the neighborhood, relationships were formed, stories shared and slowly, new faces appeared at worship in this now “neighborhood” church.
Town parishes often do not sit next to residential neighborhoods. The last story was an unusual one. In fact, the standard model is the downtown church.  But here too, the incarnational approach of knowing your neighborhood can help.  (Spoiler alert, I lead this very town parish). I hear the same aforementioned laments. People tell me, “All the people I know already attend some other church.”  But the one thing that this parish did not look at – out of fear – was its own neighborhood.
I said WAS. We have turned a corner together. The neighborhood had plenty to engage:  addicts, the trafficked, the homeless, the lonely. It was these that I pointed out were our neighbors.  We began with a free lunch on Sundays. It is never fancy, just sandwiches, coffee and bottled water. At times, we get as many as 120 on a given Sunday and manage to always have money to keep the mission work going. At times the church is a little smelly and we have had to make adjustments for security as well.  But this activity has made us actually look our neighbors in the face, know their names and hear their stories.  Usually, folks just come for the meal, but occasionally, for worship as well.  
We also began embracing our neighborhood by going into a local school and providing an after-school Bible study. We chose the most impoverished school and one we knew might have some families that frequented our “Sandwich Sunday”. For many children, this is the only church that they have and a perfect jumping off point to bring new families in.  On Pentecost Sunday, we offered “open baptism” and invited through our neighborhood Bible study welcomed four new souls through baptism. (Just to be clear, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that Bible studies may occur in schools after hours if they allow for any outside after school groups whatsoever)
With any transition, there will be those who dislike it, and others who may actively sabotage a new initiative.  While that is really the subject for another blog, you can expect that you will need to do some campaigning to get the initiative across.  Invariably, when embracing your neighborhood, the detractors will quickly point out that these folks do not pledge or give (or give very little). I would be quick to point out that God always sees that what he wills is paid for. I have never had a hard time getting funds for our neighborhood ministries simply because we all see the effect they make.
I wish I could tell you that this one simple way of incarnationally welcoming your neighborhood would make a dramatic U-turn for any congregation. Instead, I offer it as a congregational development strategy and not a grow-your-church-quick initiative.  Embracing our neighborhood has changed us and poises us to look firmly at our present and not bemoan our lost past.  When we embrace only those initiates that promise rear ends in the seats, we often fail to realize that we have to grow together before we will ever grow numerically. A funny side effect did happen. It galvanized the Generation X folks of our parish to be the missioners in our neighborhood.   Although our numbers are only moderately climbing, the average age is much lower than 5 years ago and our vestry has no one over the age of 60.  It is a significant corner to turn.
We will not be who we once were.  That is part of the life cycle of a parish. If we stay just where we are, we never grow. Embracing our neighborhoods changed forever two parishes in active decline. It is a provocative question to ask ourselves, “Are we known by and involved with those in our neighborhood?”  If not, it’s time to get into your neighborhood.

Monday, June 4, 2018

How to Make the Right Decision

Imagine that your Vestry has been doing some planning and they have come to the decision that for further development, they need to hire a new staff member.  Maybe this is a full-time youth pastor, a paid Christian Education person, or an assistant clergy person.  They set out to communicate this to the parish especially during the stewardship program and set a target for how much additional income they will need.  Of the say $65,000 increase, you receive around $55,000.  The options seem to be (1) postpone the hiring until next year, (2) seek additional funding, or (3) borrow the money need (or borrow off the endowment or some other fund.)  What is the “right” decision?

Or imagine that the Vestry has launched a capital fund to remodel the Parish Hall and Christian Education wing of the Church.  Of the $400,000 needed, you receive pledges for $365,000.  Do you (1) ask for additional funding, (2) hold a fund raising event, (3) borrow the remaining dollars you need,  (4) postpone the remodel until economic conditions are more favorable, or (5) build what $365,000 will give you and leave the frills and finishing for a later time?  What is the “right” decision?

Recently, the Parish I attend developed a plan to finish off the interior of the Sanctuary.  In the late 90s with steady growth, the leaders hired an architect and came up with a plan to extend the old Sanctuary.  They only received about 85% of what they needed for the project, but they badly needed the additional seating.  The solution they chose was to extend the Sanctuary out but to avoid the costly relocation of the HAC system, they keep the lower ceiling.  The result was a classic A frame church with another half of the building with a lower ceiling and different lighting from that of the front section.  They got the extra pews, but the result looked unfinished at best and odd at worst.  With a new Rector well in place and a renewed growth of the congregation, the present vestry hired an architect.  They came up with a beautiful design that enhanced the whole worship space, extended and improved the A frame to the back doors, put in a whole new lighting and sound system, and more space for the growing choir. 

The Vestry had some capital reserves, some operating reserves, commitments from a few key families of matching gifts, so they proceeded and started a limited capital campaign for the matching gifts.  They told the congregation that the more they raised then the less they would have to borrow from the reserves.

By the time the campaign was over, two things happened.  First they received more than their goal. Second, the bids from the contractors were about $75,000 more than originally expected.  They ended up short by about $45,000.  They had told the congregation that if there was a short fall, they would remove some of the “enhancements” of the design.

This week, the Senior Warden wrote the congregation and gave both the good news and the bad news.  Then he announced the right decision.  The Vestry had voted to continue with the entire project and borrow both from the reserve capital fund and if no further funding comes in to borrow from the operating reserve.  The Warden noted that there was such interest in the beautiful enhancements and excitement about the project that they just believed this needed to go forward now. I will be sending in an extra check and I know others will too!

I wasn’t at the vestry mini retreat where this decision was made so I don’t know how this happened. Perhaps the present excitement in the parish combined with good and future directed leadership made it the right decision.  Or perhaps it is simply that the current leadership knows the price of having to live with a bad decision made a two decades ago. 

What I do know is how I have assisted other congregations in the midst of a major decision such as I asked you to imagine or ones similar to Grace Church in Georgetown where I volunteer to move courageously to the future.

I ask them to imagine that their children have grown up and several now are in the leadership of the Parish joined by people who have come to the church over time.  Then I ask them what are their options?  Then I ask which choice will leave those children thanking God for their decision?  Which one will have them saying “thank God that we had visionary and wise leaders back then?”  Which one will leave them sighing “what were they thinking” or excusing them because “it was the best they could do.” 

I have found that seeing things from the view of their children often pushes people to see the big picture, sacrifice more, and make a courageous decision even in the face of those who say “we can’t afford it, or we can’t afford it now!”  

My suggestion is find a way to help your leaders face the consequences of short sighted and limited decision making from the point of view of those who will inherit and have to live with it.

Once last word, wouldn’t it be great if the current leaders of our Nation faced with growing demands on our budget, increased deficits, and conflicting priorities would make their decisions from the point of view of their children and grandchildren.  Maybe if they did, some current 10 year old who becomes a future President will declare them “the greatest generation!”  My vote right now is that the future President will say “what were they thinking back then and how could they have been so short-sighted about the future?”  

But we can hope. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Lessons Learned: Bishop Payne

In my last blog, I asked and answered the question of whether a Bishop can make a difference. My answer comes from my 9 years working directly with Bishop Claude Payne.  He made a difference and I am convinced Bishops do matter, but I am less optimistic about what they are actually doing now and whether they have a sense of urgency about our present situation.  I will leave that for you to decide.

Here I want to talk about six things that I learned from working with this outstanding leader and person about leadership.

First, People need time to talk themselves into a good decision!

Bishop Payne understood that no matter how good a diocesan solution to a problem or recommendation is, leaders on the local level need time to think it over.  Often at the end of a meeting with a Vestry, they would ask me what the Diocese wanted them to do.  I would pause and then say something like this, “You have heard our recommendations, but you will need time to talk about this among yourselves.  I am going to get in my car and drive home.  When you are ready to talk further, I will come back to support you.  We went from a diocese often in open conflict with local leaders to one trusted.  And people almost always talked themselves into the right decision or an even better one.

Second, no matter what is happening on the local level or how intense or dysfunctional the community is, the one thing we must not do as diocesan leaders is react! 

Calm and measured leadership, especially in a crisis or a conflict, sends a clear message that reason will persist.  In a crisis or polarized situation, the strongest voices get the air time, but the better leaders are often shouted down.  By not reacting, we set a tone for good leaders to be safe and come forward.  Once when I was struggling with a major issue in my parish in Seattle, I met for coffee with a Priest/therapist friend of mine.  After dumping for some time, he interrupted me with, “Can I ask you a question Kevin?  Is this the worse problem you have ever had to deal with as a Priest?”  I sat there stunned and then said, “Hell no!”  Then he went on, “So why are you so obsessed with this?”  I immediately felt my inner engine slow down, then my frustration began to ebb.  At the end of our time together, I thanked him and bought the coffee.  It was the cheapest counseling session that I ever had.

Third, to be an effective a leader, you must be willing to be consistent and this often means quite frankly being redundant.

Here Bishop Payne’s personality helped.  As an ESTJ on the Meyers-Briggs scale, he didn’t mind repeating himself.  Most of us NF and NT types do mind.  For example, we preach a sermon to our congregations on Vision and then just move on assuming everyone got it.  Bishop Payne kept sharing the Diocese of Texas Vision until our leaders started repeating it.  Then he kept repeating it. 

 Another example is that clergy and lay leaders decide on a year of Stewardship or Evangelism and just about the time that our members begin to get it, we move on to the next thing.  For ten years, Bishop Payne started every annual Clergy Conference with a review of our Mission and our core values with examples of how these got lived out.  I’ve learned in addition that many clergy bail on a subject just before it was about to take root.

Fourth, Bishop Payne was adamant that “A vision without a strategic plan is just a dream.”  One of his often repeated phrases was “It is true that the devil is in the details, but so are the Angels!”  We learned to attend to the details.  For example, when we engaged in revitalization of a congregation, we helped them get the right leader and work out their local vision.  Then we helped them put together the resources and steps they would need to move toward that vision;  in other words a strategic plan.

Fifth, Bishop Payne knew how to create buy in by local and diocesan leadership. 

Shortly after he became diocesan, he gathered the members of all the boards, commissions, endowment trustees of the Diocese in one place.  He shared the vision and the core values.  Then he told them, “What I need from you is for you to show me how your group can contribute to this vision and core values in cooperation with our other ministries?  In one meeting, he ended the turf holding, posturing, and competition that prevailed among our different entities.  Later, when I went to the Cathedral in Dallas, I did the same. 

Finally, I would mention that Bishop Payne modeled for me that the commitment to be a leader meant a commitment to be a lifelong learner. 

Imagine what it was like to go to work at 48 years old with a 63 year old leader who constantly went to conferences, explored new ideas, read the latest on leadership and took what he learned and absorbed it into himself, his skills and leadership.  When he ran across helpful but challenging ideas, he would bring it to his staff.  One day he started our staff meeting with this question.  What has become taboo for our team, what can’t we talk about here?  There followed a difficult but creative conversation.  The result was that we all kept growing and learning. 

When we offered the Clear Vision Conferences for five years to share what we and three other dioceses had learned and our best practices, we would end with an evaluation.  One question we asked these diocesan leaders and staff was this.  What have you most learned from this time together?  Often they would answer, “If we had Bishop Payne for our Bishop then our work would be so much more meaningful and productive.”  Bishop Payne’s response when he read these was “they missed the point.  The problem isn’t that they have the wrong person to be their Bishop.  The problem is that they aren’t willing to become the kind of leaders who can caste a vision, have a plan, and pay the price of leading change.”

Some learned.  I was always left asking myself could I?  Can you? 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Lessons Learned: Can a Bishop Make a Difference?

In this blog, I am going to address a provocative question for Episcopalians and other Church bodies that have a Bishop.  The question is this; can a Bishop really make a difference?

In 1992, I was the Director of the Leadership Training Institute located in Evergreen, Colorado.  For 5 years, I had coordinated and lead a series of weeklong leadership development course for over 500 Episcopal clergy and around 800 lay leaders.  Then, the Board of Directors of Episcopal Renewal Ministries, the umbrella organization of the Institute, called a new Director.  Even though the new Director wanted me to continue my work, I knew that my time at the Institute was over.  What was I now to do?

What had I learned running the Institute?  I learned that we had dynamic and creative Episcopal Congregations throughout North America with outstanding clergy leadership.  I used many of them for our teams that presented at each event.  I had no doubt that TEC had a vibrant future given the quality of such leadership and so many capable leaders.  However, having spent my entire ministry from 26 years of age onward in the Episcopal Church, I had a churning question.  “Did it matter that we had Bishops?”

Let me be clear.  I had and still have a high doctrine of the Church and the three fold ministry of Deacons, Priests, and Bishop, or as we like to say it, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.  Yet I found that many of these creative congregations were notable outliers to their dioceses and often at best were tolerated by their Bishops.  I certainly had experienced this when I was Rector of a congregation in Southern Ohio.  Now, let me re-frame the question then forming in me.  “Could a Bishop really make a difference for the mission of a Diocese, or, were they merely obstacles toward the accomplishment of such a mission, or even worse, ecclesiastical remnants that had worn out their use? I realized that to answer this question, I had two choices.  I could attempt to become a Bishop or I could go to work for one. 

While pondering this and my transition.  A friend nominated me to enter the election in the Diocese of Texas for Bishop Coadjutor to follow Bishop Benitez.  I had no illusions that I could be elected there.  I knew folks in the Diocese and had spoken there on several occasions, but I was an outsider.  What I wanted was the experience of being in an election and telling people what I thought the ministry and work of a Bishop should be.

Ironically, and to make a long story short, Bishop Benitez and Claude Payne, who was elected as Coadjutor, were impressed with answers and ideas and to my surprise and delight, Bishop Benitez invited me to join his staff as the Canon for Mission. 

I spent the next year working directly with Bishop Payne and he extended to me the opportunity to continue in that position with even greater responsibility and authority in the training of our leaders in Texas.  As a personal side note for those interested, Bishop Payne would probably never have hired me had we not had that year together.  As one member of the staff said once to me, “Bishop Benitez had the wisdom to hire you, but had little idea how to use you.  Bishop Payne wasn’t sure he wanted you, but he learned quickly how to use you and your skills.”  Serendipitously and in God’s timing, it worked out and I spent almost 10 years working with an outstanding Bishop, leader and person who along with his great team made an incredible difference in the Diocese of Texas and its future.

When elected, Bishop Payne had been the Rector of St. Martin’s, Houston.  He was 62 years of age and I suspect for many in the Diocese he was seen as a somewhat short term interim.  However, the story he always told was this.  He and his wife Barbara were planning their retirement when he was asked to stand for Bishop.  He decided that he would only stand for election “if I could really make a difference.”  You may wish to pause right now and stop to think about the significance of that statement!  

I think many people seek election to the office of Bishop as a natural progression of their vocation and a fulfilment and affirmation of what they have done.  There is a big difference between these two attitudes.  What did Claude Payne do to create momentum and make a difference?  This, as you can imagine will take more than one blog, but let me begin with this.

In the interim period before becoming Diocesan Bishop, Claude Payne built his staff.  He worked through with us the articulation of the core values of the Church and the Diocese and prepared to hit the ground running.

He recast the image of the Diocese in one sentence that he shared at the council where he took over as Diocesan.  “What would happen if we stopped seeing the Diocese as an organization make up of 156 parishes and missions, a hospital, 40 some schools, and numerous committees and commissions and saw ourselves as ONE CHURCH with one mission lived out in local mission outposts of congregations, schools, outreach ministries, specialized chaplaincies, board and commissions?” 

Then he articulated the Mission of the Church, “To reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ” with its two core values of The Great Commission – to love one another, and the Great Commandment – to make disciples of all nations.  

From that moment onward, he never stopped articulating that vision of One Church with One Mission and Two Core Values and directing that all we did in the Diocese on every level was guided by and measured by that vision. 

For his first seven years, the Diocese of Texas was the fastest growing in TEC in in average Sunday attendance BOTH numbers and percentages.  We started 7 new congregations.  And the Net Disposal Income of all Congregations from stewardship DOUBLED!

In my next blog, I will expand on one of his greatest strength.  As Bishop Payne would say, “it is true that the devil is in the details, but so are the Angels!’  In other words, he knew how to put legs on this vision, to do the hard strategic work that had to follow from such a high vision.