This is the first of a two blogs based on my seven reasons for the decline of the Episcopal Church. I have received a number of comments, mostly positive, and several very insightful on the seven areas. I have also received two posts from friends asking why I don’t say more positive things.
My premise is that in order to do ministry better as a community, we need to understand our present realities. I certainly do not point to the decline as something I want to happen. I want the opposite. I have worked as a priest for 39 years to attempt to build up the body of Christ. I believe that knowing the present realities, and why we are in decline, gives us the opportunity to plan for a more hopeful future. I hope that you will agree.
Loren Mead, who founded the Alban Institute, and who spent years building up local congregations, recently spoke to the Washington Area Clergy Association. His title was “Tidal Changes in the Work of American Clergy over the Past Half Century.” With the maturity of someone who has lived through this, he offers a very helpful imagery that I want to borrow, that of tidal shifts. This will give us a helpful context in trying to understand our call of leadership today.
Loren points out that he entered ordained ministry in a time of rising tides, the 50s. He then shows how he has lived through an immense time of change that has been a time of ebbing tide. He says that he believes the tide is still going out. He then gives eight helpful pointers on what ordained leaders should do at such a time. I do not wish to repeat his points, helpful as they are. (I got a copy from him by writing Loren, I do not know if there is any intention to publish his talk.) I want to build on the imagery which I believe is helpful.
My first point is that I agree with Loren in that the forces that a driving much of our decline are tidal in dimension and this means that much of the cultural and social forces driving this decline are beyond our control. One of his key points then follows, “Don’t take it personally!” He also warns against thinking there is some magic program out there that will fix the tide. One cannot fix the tide. However, leaders do need to adapt to the new realities. This is absolutely true.
Also Loren points us that much of our judicatory life and current leaders act as if the tide is still coming in or at least is still at the high mark, when all of us know it is not. He includes our seminaries in this dynamic too. This too is absolutely true. He suggests that the sources for help for clergy and their churches have to come from other places. My experience is that General Convention and “815” (and the very fact that we have an “815” – the 50s model of a “national headquarters” located in New York) all function in a world that is long past. I will tell you bluntly that the drastic budget cuts of 2009 are just the first steps in what will be a series of forced changes (one can’t fight the tide) until new leadership find more creative ways of living in the ebb.
However, Loren remains optimistic about congregations and the future of congregational life. I do too. And you will see that my “if/then” is based on several congregational strategies.
My conclusion from all this tidal analogy is that ministry at high tide demanded different skills from clergy than ministry at low tide. I like to use the insight from John Kotter in his distinction between management and leadership. When things are stable and going well, Kotter says that management is highly regarded. In the past 20 years, he points out that leadership is most valued, because in transition and change, one cannot “manage” oneself or one’s organization out of trouble. In other words, the status quo won’t work. I like to say it this way; “Running a church well, (doing the Lenten program better this year), and growing and sustaining it are NOT the same thing.” Unfortunately, our seminaries have taught most of us to “manage the parish” not lead it.
(BTW, I am working on a new book with the working title “Ordained AND a Leader: Parish Ministry at the Beginning of the New Millennium” to deal specifically with this issue.)
Loren concludes with the rightful exhortation to all clergy that the ebb tide means that we must work differently, but that we must also measure our vocation by its faithfulness and not its success. I would add that the latter is true in both high and low tide.
In the next blog, I will point more specifically to leadership strategies that address the context of decline that surrounds us.