Thursday, January 27, 2011

If/ Then

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.


  1. Glad to see Loren talking about tide. Speaks to a force or movement beyond what any one person can even claim. He knows this, as you do, that attributing growth in a 1950's or early 1960's parish, mission or church plant, to whomever was the incumbent clergyman, builds legendary status into that clergyman where no actual effort toward growth or personal attraction is rightly attributed. And then some of those legends would be elected bishops, who, when faced with declining situations could only offer in advice and counsel whatever they did back when, which was "default" parish ministry.
    The hardest part for leadership (management or otherwise) is just standing still for a moment and allowing the cognitive moment where it registers that the tide is going in a different direction than it should be.
    Looking forward to your next blog post where you will share (if you will allow me a moment of complete denial) how to keep the tide water flowing back into the ocean and our feet from sinking into destabilized sand.

  2. Loren Mead's paper can be found here:

    Thanks for this work.

    Norris Battin
    Sr. Warden (until next week!)
    Saint Michael & All Angels
    Corina del Mar, Ca

  3. I think that these things might indeed help individual churches, but won't stop the slide of the denomination as a whole. Reasons?

    1. The TEC can't stay on message from one decade to the next. It is all messed up and everyone knows it. The Catholic Church for instance, for all its problems, does not have that problem. The message stays the same. They may be running out of celibate priests, but they aren't running out of Catholics anytime soon. ;)

    2. Compromise with the World is not going to produce or attract the sort of determined dedicated Christians that the Church actually needs. The Church thrives on outsider status, even persecution, and dies when it becomes an insider. Europe is full of nations with established churches, fully sanctioned by society... and empty.

    3. There is both too much centralized authority (in the TEC) and not enough centralized authority (in the Anglican Communion). Again, it is the "stay on message" thing. As versus the "fight with each other" thing that the TEC and the Communion are doing so well these days. ;)

    4. It takes an awful lot of "$1 a Sunday" Christians to keep a church afloat. This relates to items #2 and #3. More dedicated members are better than more numerous members, both in terms of Church income and effectiveness.

    I don't claim that this advice is terribly helpful, just realistic. You are stuck bailing out the rapidly sinking Good Ship TEC. All you can do is keep bailing and throwing stuff overboard. ;) I hope that the Cathedral is able to prosper despite all this, it is a beautiful place.

    Peace Dean

  4. The Cathedral is a Holy and Beautiful place indeed. I would push you a bit on number 3. I would say that there is too much costs to parishes to maintain a structure intended for 1965. I always point to the moment our domestic congregations fall below 7,000 as critical. How can we ever sustain a national church and 100 diocese with less than 7,000 congregations?