Saturday, April 14, 2012

Is There a Future for Diocesan Structures?

            In 1990 I attended a conference put on by Leadership Network.  There I heard one of my mentors, Lyle Schaller, say something very evocative about denominations and judicatories (dioceses for us Episcopalians.)  What he said that day was that everyone understands the importance of the local congregation for Christians.  Then he added that no one can explain a rationale for the existence of a national organization.  Finally, he went on to say that there is a role for the local diocese, but it must be transformed.  The problem he went on to explain is that most everything done by a judicatory on the national or local level can be done better and more effectively by some other organization. 

Take for example Christian Education.  In the 1950s and 1960s almost every denomination produced Christian Educational materials for local churches – think Seabury Curriculum.  By the 1970s, local congregations could choose among dozens of alternative materials that were better, less expensive and more relevant than that produced by a denomination.  Or think about capital fund-raising, time was each denomination had an agency to help congregations when they needed to raise funds for buildings.  Again, by the 1970s, we had numerous organizations that would customize a program for each congregation.  I could give many such examples. 

Some of us do think we would be a bit better off if our national organization would cease to be so costly given its questionable role, but in this blog I want to focus on what Schaller had to say about a diocese.  He thought that there is a vital role for the diocese to perform, but it needed to re-invent itself to carry out this role.  He described this as moving away from many traditional things and toward new ones.  Over the years, I have become absolutely convinced at his insight.  Let me describe what I see as the primary functions of a Diocese in the old paradigm and the ones needed today.

Primary Functions of a Diocese in the Old Paradigm
1.       A Mission Funding Forwarding Agency.  In the old days, we on the local level would take up offerings to fund mission work somewhere else, usually the so-called third world; remember the “mite boxes”?  Today, local congregations can form companion relationships across wide geographic boundaries because of the internet and better communications.  We can even form relationships with non-governmental agencies in providing clean water or mosquitoes netting for local villages.  The point here is that we do not need our denomination to make these happen.

2.      A Resource Redistribution Center.  This simply means taking money from larger congregations in a diocese and giving it to smaller ones.  Today our largest congregations have plenty of needs on the local level and in their communities.  They do not worry about sustaining small mission churches in small rural communities.

3.      A Congregational Accrediting Agency.  This was the role the diocese had in planting and recognizing new congregations and closing dead ones.  Today we know that dioceses are one of the least effective agencies in forming new congregations.  If you do not think so, look at the abysmal track record within TEC in new church planting.

4.      A Clergy Accrediting Agency.  This continues in the work of Commissions on Ministries and Standing Committees. The problem is not with accrediting but rather with educating such persons for effective ministry leadership in today’s world.

5.      A Regional Program Entity.  Do Dioceses really need youth, adult education, stewardship and other such ministries done on a regional level?  Dioceses think so, but the participation by local congregations says “not really.”

6.      A Denominational Link to Ecumenical Activities, Agencies and other Denominational Bodies.  In the 1950s and 1960s, ecumenical work was negotiated on a judicatory level.  Today, ecumenical work is done cooperatively on the local level with judicatories holding symbolic meetings. 
Primary Functions of a Diocese in the New Paradigm
1.       Resourcing and Networking Congregations.  The Diocese that can serve as a resource to the local church has a place in the future.
2.      Strategic Planning.  Often a diocese can best frame strategic planning on the local level and can contribute significantly on a regional level.

3.      An Inspirational Challenge Agency.  A diocese can provide vision, funding and training to help local leaders carry out their work. 

4.      A Congregational Intervention Agency. A diocese can intervene to help declining, stagnant and conflicted congregations.  Let’s face it; this is more and more of a need of TEC given our recent high level of conflict and the 60% of our congregations in serious decline. 
I am not saying that a diocese can move totally from the old paradigm to the new one a short period of time.  Like Schaller, however, I believe those that start a steady movement from the old to the new assure a healthy future for themselves and their congregations into the 21st Century; those, that do not, make themselves more and more irrelevant to their congregations.  Where is your diocese in the movement from the old way of being the church to the need new way of being the church? 


  1. Kevin,

    You're spot on with your comments. The good news is that there are a number of us (many who learned from you!) who are moving our dioceses in the direction you are talking about. Eastern Michigan may be a small, financially-challenged diocese but we understand that the diocesan role of the future is primarily about network facilitation and resourcing for congregational health or sacred death. Are we perfect? Certainly not! We are asking the right questions and making the right moves. Thanks for all you taught me!

    Todd Ousley, bishop of Eastern Michigan

  2. Great piece -- one tiny thing: mesquite is a tree, mosquitoes are the bugs that require netting! A mere quibble...

  3. Spell checker is a real headache at times.

  4. I will echo Todd's comment. Your four points on the "new paradigm" describe exactly what we're aiming for in Springfield. And we're already doing relatively little of the "old paradigm" stuff.

  5. Very good, Kevin. I believe money will (and is)bring about this change. Some incredible initiatives have come out of local Diocese of Texas churches. Thank you.

  6. When I was a DS(UMeth) we spent a lot of time restructuring the Conference. Honeslty nothing much has changed for the positive. We worked hard to make big changes. We used great language that each level, Congregation, Conference, District had to be additive and distinctive. But when the rubber hit the road, we opted to change names, reduce supervision, and increase cost.

  7. Kevin, I'm curious why you don't mention church planting? I view planting as one of the most missional activities a diocese can spearhead particularly in identifying planters, helping to provide initial funding to the planter, coaching as well as commending the new plant to those other congregations in the diocese. Perhaps in your new paradigm you would envision it under #1?

  8. Brendan, I don't mention it because TEC has an absolutely abysmal track record in church planting. The Diocese of Dallas may be one of the few exceptions to this. In recent years, the large congregation has been the best organization for starting new congregations, but this is in the other denominations. So, I don't see the diocese as good at doing this although I am in a diocese and come from a diocese both of which did a good job.

  9. Kevin, I marked this to read when I got a chance. I think this is exactly correct. While we do have some different structures that appear in EDOT because of foundations etc. I think the notion that we are to be doing different things is essential. We are in Texas for instance spending our time in the field, building networks, working on leadership, and formation. Our strategic plan is a field oriented plan of supporting the local congregation and one that moves away from writing curricula and developing new programs that are run by the diocese, take up weekends, and sap energy for mission at the grass roots level.

  10. Andy, Glad to hear it. The Diocese of Texas is a very unique diocese for sure.

  11. Thanks for this concise analysis, Kevin. In Arizona we too are trying to move in these directions. I would like to hear you say more about point #4. It seems to me to be exactly those declining congregations that resist most strongly any "interference" from the Diocese.