Monday, February 22, 2021

Parish Leadership 3: Structure for the Future Not the Past


Building on my first two blogs on Discernment and Community, I now want to ask a question about Vestry Structure, namely, how then should we organize to accomplish our work?

We need to start with the current realities. If a church hired and organizational consultant who knows nothing about the church and its purposes, the leadership would learn an interesting fact about a church works.  (I am speaking about the the typical congregation with a full-time ordained clergy person and attendance between 80 and 150.)

The consultant would point out that the church seemed to be organized to do two things.  First, most of the energy of the congregation functions to provide a Sunday morning services.  That is because the consultant would have seen the altar guild, the servers, the acolytes, the ushers, the clergy, and the parish secretary working at this task. 

Then consultant would also add that observing the full-time ordained leader pointed to a second purpose. Despite the old joke that clergy only work on Sundays, the clergy person is involved in a multitude of activities related to their office.  The consultant also notes that between 40 to 50% of the church’s budget is used to support the rector.  The consultant would note that besides Sunday morning, the parish seems organized to support the work of the Rector. 

Of course, the consultant would also note that organizations like the church school, and the men’s group, and the Wednesday bible study for a smaller number of folks also happened.  Many congregations would also have some sort of organization to provide for outreach. but these other organizations and ministries would just seem haphazard.

All of this becomes even more interesting when we compare this typical parish organization to the stated mission of both the wider Church and a local congregation.  We would see the lack of congruency between the organization’s stated mission and its actual operations.  I have worked with congregations and Vestries that have complex organizational makeup but who have never stopped to ask the question “How would we best organize and structure our parish to accomplish the mission we believe god has given us?

The sad truth is that 80 to 90% of Episcopal congregations are organized based on how we have always done things.  And Vestry is made up of a committee 9 to 12 people who spend most of their time reviewing the budget and the operations of the congregation. In other words, maintaining what we have known and expect to know into the future.  This would be fine if our churches operated in the 19th century in a dominantly Christian culture but now our churches are in the 21st century among predominantly non-churched people.

How then should the vestry organize?

I said in the last blog how important it is for the Vestry to build community life and model to the rest of the parish this intrinsic value to accomplish the Church’s bigger mission.  What we need today is to stop what we are doing by precedent and take a more radical step.  This step is by necessity what new planted churches and communities naturally do to get started.  They are forced by low budget, no building, not enough volunteers, and an immediate agenda to organize directly around a mission and 3 to 5 core values. 

That is what we do in revitalization of congregations.  We start with the mission and because it has a history, we allow 5 to 7 core values instead of just 3!

Let me pause and say what this does not produce. It does not produce a Vestry made up of 7 to 10 committees or even a Vestry where all elected members act as liaisons to parish organizations.  These two forms are all over the Church and are largely, in my experience, a waste of time and energy.  The only organization of the Vestry itself that I have found effective is when the sub-committees are organized around the Vestry’s work. You will hear more about this in my next blog on practical matters.

So, I want to see that every vestry member has a notebook. On page one is the mission of the parish and its core values, and on page two are the current one to three year goals.  When I see this, I find a Vestry that is either doing its mission directly or are preparing to do so.

The Vestry’s primary work now becomes oversight of its mission and the work around those core values.  Organize around this principle and you will have what organizational consultants call Organizational Congruency!

In my next blog, I will discuss what this might look like, and in my last blog on leadership, I will discuss stewardship and the budget seen from the point of view of the mission and core values. 

Questions so far?  Do not forget you can email me at deankevinmartin@gmail.com

 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Parish Leadership 2: Building Community

 

In this second blog on parish leadership, I want to talk about building the community. The community of the leadership and of the congregational community.  Remember that one of the two core values of the Jesus movement is the Great Commandment to love one another.  These are meaningful words and almost all Christians would affirm them, but realistically, how do we build community?

Some years ago, I wrote a book, 5 Keys for Church Leaders. It is available from Church Publishing at Amazon and is also in a Kindle edition.  In it I talked about how important it is for church leaders to “Build the Team.”  What I pointed out is that to effectively carry out the mission that you have discerned, then the leadership need to work like a team. The team image is powerful because no team just shows up to play. They spend time together. They practice and they learn how to work cooperatively and not competitively.

Rather than give a series of bullet points on how to do this, I want to share with you the most significant experience that I have had in my years of ministry with a Vestry that did this intentionally. It was the Vestry of St. Luke’s in Seattle when I was the Rector. Here is what we developed.

First, we would meet twice a month.  The first meeting was about the mission and the strategy and ministries to carry out the mission. (More of this latter in my next blog.)  The second meeting was the business one where we reviewed the budget and the oversight of buildings, staff, and operations.  This was second because the first of the month made it hard for the treasurer and the administrator to put together the month information.

We would begin both meetings at 6pm with dinner.  Often members came in late because of their business hours, their commutes, or family obligations.  At 7pm we would move to our meeting room and I would begin the meeting with an opening prayer.  Then we would go around the room and check for any prayer concerns or needs.  Our deacon would keep notes of the concerns and then at the end, the deacon (and others as they felt led) would hold up the concerns in prayer.  Often members of the vestry would move to lay hands on those with needs for healing or strength. 

At the first meeting of the month, we would open the scriptures and I or one of our members would lead a study.  This was not just a bible study.  This was a bible study centered on the issues of leadership.  That was after all why we were there. It is amazing how many passages throughout the Scriptures deal with this topic. (There is an NIV Leadership edition of the Bible organized just on this theme.) We would discuss these passages and explore the applications to our community.  The second hour of the meeting, we would turn to the main thing, our mission.  Twice a year, we would review our goals and set new ones. Often at this meeting, we would bring the leaders of ministries or staff members into the meeting to discuss their work and seeking ways that we could support their areas. 

The second meeting of the month also started with a meal, gathering and prayers. We did not do a Scripture study, but now had a report from the Rector, the Wardens, our Administrator, and the more typical reports you would expect.  The meeting portion was limited to two hours.  At the end of both meetings there was informal time over coffee and dessert. Over the years, and after holding and visiting hundreds of Vestry meetings, I am convinced that everything that happens after two hours is either redundant or ineffective.  Vestry members are, after all, volunteers.

In addition to these regular events, we held a day long retreat in February to welcome new vestry members and bring them up to speed and then to say goodbye and thank you to the off-going members.  Then in June we held a longer retreat to review and focus on our mission and strategies. 

Hard work? Yes!  Worth it? Without question.  People often said that the time on our Vestry was the most meaningful experience of Christian community they had ever had. A common feedback was that the Vestry had become a second family.

Now, I am not saying that you should operate this way, but I am suggesting that you structure your life together to allow time and use strategies that will allow the Vestry to become a community. 

Lastly, let me make this observation. While every parish has some dear saintly person whose spirituality and Christian witness is exemplary, and often some small group ministry that has rich fellowship and support, the corporate spiritual life of the congregation will not be greater than the spiritual life and witness of the leadership.   As Philip Turner said recently to a group of clergy, we must become the incarnation of the community that we are called to be. Modeling this is not a way to make this happen, it is the only way to enable it to happen. 

If you want more practical steps and ideas to move toward such a community, I have some in my 5 Keys book, or your Diocesan Office and Bishop should be able to help you.

In my next blog, I will discuss strategy and structure or how to organize to accomplish the mission.  Remember, a mission without a strategy is, after all, only a dream.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Parish Leadership: Discernment

 

This is the first of a series of Blogs about Parish Leadership. While it is intended for new Vestry Members, feel free to share this with leaders of your congregations. 

In these blogs, I will not be writing about the canonical responsibilities but will leave this up to parish clergy to communicate.  I will be writing about the issue of leadership as we enter the post-COVID period and the role of lay leaders working in partnership with their clergy to develop healthy, vibrant, and growing congregations. I will be covering the big picture issues and the practical steps needed to lead in today’s world.

Many Episcopalians think that the role of the Vestry is to manage the business affairs of the parish.  More specifically, they believe that while the clergy manage the spiritual affairs, the lay leaders manage the budget.  In other words, the role of the Vestry is to maintain the congregation, balance the budget and see to it that the grass gets mown.  Perhaps back before the last 40 years that was central to their role, but no longer.  In today’s world, we need congregational leadership to lead the local parish into the future.

The Current Realities

The demands of leadership are greater today than ever as the number of church members in our country drops from its historic post World War Two number of 40% to today’s number of 20%.  For the Episcopal Church, the last 20 years have seen significant loss of membership and decline in attendance.  To try to maintain our churches and continue business as usual is no longer possible. We need our current leadership to move to the future in creative and innovative ways. In short, we need our leaders to lead.

Let us start with the primary question, “What is the role or purpose of a Vestry?” What is their first task?  As I said above that, while they are responsible for the operations of the local Church, this is not their primary role as leaders.

Put in Biblical Terms and in the language of the early church, the purpose of our elected and appointed leaders is “discernment.”  They are to discern the will of God for the local church.  One way to start this process is to ask what is the mission of this local body that we are called to by God and which the Holy Spirit is directing our mission.

Not Just a Mission Statement

I am not saying that our churches need to write another “mission statement!”  I often say to vestries that if writing a mission statement helps you to discover your mission, then write it. Sadly, many congregations have a mission statement, often written in calligraphy and posted on a parish hall wall, but have no clear sense of mission, our “must do” as a local outpost of the Jesus Movement.

Nether am I saying that every congregation needs to start this process from scratch. We do not need to put up newsprint or come up with some ideas about what we might be doing.  As an historic and creedal community, we have much direction put before us. 

The Mission not a Mission

What is the mission of the Church the Prayer Book Catechism asks?  The answer is “to reconcile all people to God and one another through Christ.” And we have two core values that direct this ministry of reconciliation.

          The Great Commission to make disciples and,

          The Great Commandment to love one another.

With this mission and these core values to guide us, the question every Vestry should be asking is this:  How is God’s calling this congregation to live out this mission and these core values in our local, diocesan, and world communities? 

Each congregation has a unique community of people, a unique setting, and a unique opportunity to live out this mission.  As disciples of Jesus, we do not think that we are gathered in our local setting by accident.  We are sent by our Lord to be witnesses to Jesus and live out God’s Kingdom, God’s reign on earth as in heaven. And we have been promised that we will be guided by God’s Spirit and given all the gifts we will need to accomplish this work.

The first thing, the main thing, is discernment. What is our Church’s unique calling at this moment and how do the needs of the community around us point to that calling?

Where should the lay and clergy leadership start?  We start with the right questions. How are we currently carrying out God’s mission and what more are we called to do at this moment given to us by God’s grace? 

Of course, we can only discern such an important set of questions by beginning in prayer. Then with the scriptures and our worship to guide us, we move forward in discernment trusting that as Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, once said, “God’s mission shall never lack for God’s provision.”

As we grow in this discernment should we write down our mission?  Yes, we should! We should write it on all everything; our buildings, our bulletins, our website and our hearts.  And something else. The most vibrant congregations are constantly inviting and looking for others who will join us in the singular most important work of our life together.

Remember the first work of leadership is discernment and learn to “Make the main thing, the main thing!” 

In my next blog, I will explore how we build our leadership team and how we become the community the great commandment calls us to be.  

(you may contact me at deankevinmartin@gmail.com with questions or comments on these blogs.)

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Crisis, Challenge, and Hope for the Episcopal Church: Learning from the Best

I waited for the New Year before posting this third in my series on hope for the future of TEC. In this blog, I want to point to the hope that lies within our Church and that could be a tremendous resource if we choose to use it.

Benchmarking

In the mid-1990s, the Diocese of Texas started holding annual gatherings of church leaders based on size.  As a large Diocese, by dividing our churches into Family, Pastoral, Transitional, Program, and Resource size, we were able to adapt material on congregational development in the most relevant ways to our leaders. Early on, we discovered an immensely powerful tool that enabled most of our congregations to grow substantially in membership, attendance, and stewardship. 

Each year as we gathered each size, we selected one or two congregations with a best and proven area of ministry.  For examples, one year we focused on stewardship. One congregation in each size shared how they had the best stewardship of that size congregation in the Diocese.  Another year we focused on outreach. One year we focused on newcomer ministry and welcoming.  We did this for seven years. It was one of our primary strategies that helped us become the fastest growing Diocese in the Church.

The congregation in our program size that presented the first year had Mary Parmer, their newcomer coordinator, present.  Later she developed the “Invite Welcome Connect” ministry that has benefitted congregations all over TEC and beyond. This process is called “Benchmarking” and is now a common practice in many organizations and businesses. Its tremendous advantage is having the best present and teach the rest of the organization.

Growing Churches Reaching Newer and Younger People

In 2019, the year before COVID changed everything, TEC was still in steady decline.  Statistically, we had 60% of our congregations in decline, some in very steep decline. However, another 20% were managing to stay stable. Amazingly, 20% were growing and many growing steadily.  For me, these are the churches that should be teaching us how to meet the challenge of this decline and to reach the growing number of unchurched in our society. 

It is important to pause for a moment and realize that these 20% are now outliers in TEC.  They are operating in many ways counter cultural to what our community and its leaders are accepting as normal.  Normal for us is aging and declining churches with denominational leaders who move from one crisis after another caused by this decline and who spend their time problem solving each situation. Remember, “if you always do what you have always done, you always get what you have always gotten.”  This describes much of our current culture.

Who Are These Leader Congregations and What Can we Learn from Them?

To bring this more fully to our attention as we move forward in this new year, I set out to find some of them and turned to social media to help me.  My goal is to find 100 congregations that meet the following criteria. My hope is that others will study them and share what they know that our declining culture does not know. What criteria did I use?

First, for at least 3 years prior to 2020, these churches showed growth in membership and attendance above 5%

Second, their growth came from people new to TEC and many younger than 40 years of age. BTW, if you are concerned about our diversity, the best strategy is to reach Millennials and younger generations because they bring diversity as a part of their identity.

I did not list growing congregations like mine in Georgetown Texas that have had great growth but because of our county’s demographics, most of the growth comes from transfer Episcopalians and retiring Boomers.

I also did not include new plants or missional communities because, great as these are, they are not doing the work of congregational transformation. They are an important part of our future, but not the subject of this blog. Obviously, they are doing the work of evangelism.  But we will save these for another list. 

Here is my list and I want you to nominate other congregations that meet the above criteria. I know several of these Churches firsthand and the others by reputation. The list is in alphabetical order by church name.

Christ the King, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Church of the Epiphany, Richardson, Texas

Church of the Epiphany, Seattle, Washington

Grace Church, Yukon, Oklahoma

Good Samaritan, Brownsburg, Indiana

Good Samaritan, Paoli, Pennsylvania

San Matteo, Houston, Texas

St. Dunstan’s, Madison, Wisconsin

St. James, Austin, Texas

St. John’s, Memphis, Tennessee

St. Peter’s, Del Mar, California

Zion Church, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

This is the beginning of what I hope will be a longer list of leading welcoming congregations.  If you know of any that meet the above criteria, email me at deankevinmartin@gmail.com and I will add them.

Join me in creating hope for our future by finding these congregations and by holding them up to our leadership as congregations that can show us how to build the future Church.

Remember, even a declining denomination has growing churches. Let us learn from them and focus on our strengths and not or weakness, on our future and not our past. 

 

 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Crisis, Challenge, and Hope for the Episcopal Church

 

Blog 2 The Virus!

This is the second in my Blog series on Hope for the Episcopal Church. If you like these please pass them along to other Church leaders.  It is interesting that after being an on-going commentator on the decline of the Church for now almost 30 years that I received the recent Episcopal News Service article that finally acknowledged the dire circumstances that are resulting from our decline.

Ironically, this came out just as I have decided to lift up the signs that I see for hope.  Do I think our situation is one of “demise” as the article states? No, not at all, as I will continue to say, the upheaval and crisis have created a situation where the status quo is no longer acceptable.  There is hope!

Crisis Number Two: The Coronavirus and its overwhelming effect on our corporate and daily lives.

The Challenge.

When the coronavirus hit the world and North American, our lives changed.  The challenges that came with this crisis are obvious to all of us.  Many of us have lost loved ones especially folks with chronic diseases and in nursing homes.  The inconsistencies of governmental bodies and the resultant confusion and resentment have only made matter worse.  Normal social society has been shut down by social distancing and contagion.  Millions have become unemployed and many lost their health care along with this. Many businesses have shut down and are not coming back.

For the Church, we have not faced a crisis like this since the Flu Epidemic following the First World War.  Churches and worship together have been shut down.  Normal Christian fellowship and support are on hold. Clergy have had to curtail normal pastoral care. The essential truth in our 79 Prayer Book that Communion is the normative worship of the Church on Sundays, is now something of a memory.

As all know, our leadership has been forced to experiment and offer worship, fellowship and education via Zoom, Facebook, and other on-line platforms.  Many older clergy just learning how to update a website have been challenged to enter this now area of public life called virtual.  In short, a community symbolized by receiving a sacred meal together and offering one another in the most intimate of ways the Lord’s Peace has had all that is familiar taken from us.  Many of our members are bereft of what has comforted them and grieving for the Church they have known their whole lives.

Another part of the challenge is that as a community of faith that accepts reason and science as part of who we are, our leadership has clearly wanted to demonstrate that we are not like those "other" Christians who magically believe that their faith will protect them from this disease.  But the challenge before us is communicating the place of faith while so many aspects of that faith are restricted.

The Hope

It is amazing to see how many of our leaders have taken on the challenge of finding ways to relate on-line and to provide worship and teaching using media. What had been a minor option for churches except for a few of our younger leaders, is now the norm.  I have visited many churches via Facebook and Zoom, attended seminars, and maintained classes using these resources. I am astonished at the creativity of so many of our clergy.  Most heartening is the experience of new people connecting with local congregations solely through on-line offerings.

What is most hopeful in all this underlies these steps.  Once the Church entered on-line life, we entered the world of younger and non-churched people.  Remember from my last Blog that Millennials are now the largest generation in America and are less than 10% churched.  Their view of much of Christianity has been formed by mostly conservative, fundamentalist, and Pentecostals via cable.  Now the wider Church is active among them.  And we are hearing them and beginning to answer their questions.  Although I am still waiting for an on-line apologetics series that answers the questions millennials are really asking and not the ones we older folks think they should be asking!

Many congregational leaders are now discussing how they plan to continue to use this connection with younger and newer people post the coronavirus.  Put bluntly, we have entered a new world with new resources to reach people who would never have stepped into a church before this crisis.  Of course, we should have done this. Of course, there were voices of some who pointed in this direction, but contentment with the way things were combined with the status quo of believing that welcoming people when they visited was enough for our future, has now completely changed.

Lastly, let me point out that many of our clergy are learning that simply reading morning or evening prayer on-line is not the best use of a largely visual media.  Decades ago, prophetic leaders like George Hunter were pointing out that the “new barbarians” (meaning the unchurched) were like the old ones (think Celts) more visual then auditory, sensate than cerebral, and more narrative that objective. We are now, thanks to this crisis and these challenges more prepared for the task of reaching these new people.

In my next Blog, I will talk about the virus of poverty and racism that the coronavirus has brought before all of us.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Crisis, Challenge, and Hope for the Church

 Blog 1 Generational Change

Welcome to my Blog Series on the serious challenges before the Episcopal Church and the hope I see for our future.  Each Blog will start with one of the Crisis we face, then the Challenge before us, and finally my reason for hope. While a Crisis can bring challenges, it can also bring opportunities, and this is what I will be discussing over the next two months. 

Do me a favor, if you find this interesting, forward the Blog address to a friend or colleague.  I would like to open this Blog to others especially ordained and lay leaders. 

Crisis Number One:

The Generational Shift of the last 20 years has led to a major decline in our membership, attendance, and number of congregations. Since 2000, we have lost over half our membership and while some of this is the result of conflict in the early 2000s, most of it is due to the loss of the G.I. Generation and our failure to reach the Millennial Generation and Generation Z. 

Challenge Number One:

We most abandoned methods, strategies, and structures that are only contributing to our decline while finding new ways to reach new and younger people and establishing new communities of faith while also revitalizing older ones.

Insanity can best be described as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!  I learned this truth as a member of Al-Anon.  Nothing illustrates the trap of addiction better than this statement.  It also describes a great deal of failed human behavior both on the personal and community level.

For thirty years, I have taught leadership to clergy and lay leaders mostly in the Episcopal Church.  During the last 20 years, I sadly have watched this decline. Ironically, I see much of the Church and its leaders operating as those nothing much has changed. There seems to be a communal resolution that nothing can be done about our declining numbers. Meanwhile much of our leadership continues to operate our churches, dioceses, and denominational organizations as if nothing has changed.  Nothing reflects this more than the size of General Convention, its cost, and its elaborate organizational structure. We are living, quite frankly, with a great amount of denial.

Put bluntly, much of our Church is stuck. Across the whole spectrum of the Church, I see leaders and members doing the same things over and over and wondering why they keep getting the same results.  The truth is that many of the structures of our community come from the era of the 1960s when the Church was at its largest both in numbers and percentage of the population, and in the mid-1960s, the Church began, like all mainline denominations, to decline. 

The fact that all these denominations started declining at the same time tells us that this is not a uniquely Episcopal problem. It is a consequence of changes in our society and culture.  I like to mark 1965 as the tipping point from the long-standing Protestant Era of American society toward the emergence of secular society.  That process is on-going, and in the last two decades has been accelerated in our time by the loss of the GI Generation and the emergence of the Millennials.  The GI Generation with its Church membership of 60% and its Church denominational loyalty provided a stable church membership in the U.S. of around 40%. Then starting in 2000, those numbers began to drop. In 2019 it fell to 20% as the Millennials, who are less than 10% churched and are now the largest generation began replacing what Tom Brokaw called rightly, “the greatest generation.”

This generational and social change also brought a secular view to society often at odds with traditional Christian values.  All mainline denominations have faced tension and conflict as they either tried to resist these changes or adapt to them.  This two has contributed to church decline.  Simply said, people do not join churches to experience conflict.  As one young church leader said to me as she was leaving her local church in Houston, “Look Canon Kevin, if I wanted conflict in my life, I could just go home and visit my parents!”  People look to the church to provide an alternative to our painful experiences in family and society.

The Hope

Fortunately, I have been privileged to work with leaders who have made a difference during this decline.  All over the church, I have found committed and dedicated women and men, clergy and lay, who love the Lord of the Church and his Community.  What I have found and what gives me hope for the future is that leaders can make a difference even in what we see has become the New Normal of the Church in 2020.  This series of blogs is written out of my experience with working with such leaders and the fact that I know that other leaders, future leaders, can learn to make a difference.

My first hope in all this are the younger clergy leaders of our community. I often say that when I want to despair, I think of my generation of clergy. When I want to be uplifted and hopeful, I think of the younger clergy that I have met and with whom I have worked.  This is especially true of the emerging Millennial Generation clergy.  These new leaders share much of the optimism of their fellow unchurched generation and their belief that they can make a difference.

My hope also rests in everything that I am learning about the Millennials. For example, we boomer leaders of the church have talked a great deal about becoming a diverse community.  Most of this obviously has been just talk. Except for our inclusiveness of women in leadership and the welcoming of many with gender differences, we remain over 85% a white community.  Yet, Millennials live and work in the wider diverse community.  They do not accept the exclusion of others based on gender or race as normative.

Millennial leaders of the Church know the hopes of their generation, and they also understand their spiritual needs.  They have a much greater concern for the environment and the care of creation.  They understand the need for individual and community stewardship of our world.  They also want a fairer and more just society. They often seek a spiritual life and community, but they do not want a Church stuck in excluding others either consciously or unconsciously. 

I also see hope in places in the Church that are leading the changes that we need so desperately.  One of these signs occurred when a friend of mine passed along “The New Normal.”  This was a report shared by the Diocese of Connecticut to its clergy and congregational leadership marking a major shift in the way things would be done.  This paper appeared even before the Coronavirus.  The paper pointed out that change had to happen.  While it primarily focused on how clergy would be recruited and called to serve Connecticut congregations, it pointed out the absurdity of continuing to pretend that things have not changed and continuing with the strategies of the past, doing the same thing and expecting different results, was foolish. 

Another sign of hopefulness came when I retired and moved back into the Diocese of Texas where I had served as Canon Mission throughout the 90s for Bishop Claude Payne.  I found that under the creative leadership of Bishop Andrew Doyle, the diocese had made a major new initiative in Church Planting and Congregational Revitalization.  This Diocese created the Iona School to train clergy and lay leaders for the church in places where the traditional model of a seminary trained full-time ordained person cannot work.  Other Dioceses are now making use of the Iona model. The increase in the number of smaller churches while the actual number of churches is declining cries out for this kind of work.  

The Diocese of Texas has also taken the initiative to plant new communities to reach new especially younger people.  These new community plants are aimed more at people than the old model aimed at geographical boundaries.  Some have grown into self-supporting churches while others remain focused on building community, the kind of Beloved Community presented by our current Presiding Bishop. Models for hope and change are emerging and ironically the almost overwhelming challenges of 2020 are also creating the motivation for change that can help overcome our stuck ways of doing things.

Lasty, let me say more about our President Bishop.  Best known outside our Church by “the wedding sermon” he preached for Harry and Megan. Bishop Curry speaks of the Way of Love that is compelling to those outside our community.  Yet, the steps of this Way of Jesus, the Way of Love, as he breaks it down is rooted in the deep well of spirituality that has guided the Church through past generations and past crisis.  Every time that I hear him speak, I find encouragement and hope.  This message needs to be taken up more on the local level especially as we reach out to these younger generations.

In my next blog, I will explore another crisis that is before us; the pandemic and what it has revealed about the great disparities in our so-called land of plenty.  We will look at the coronavirus and the virus of racism and poverty.  Even in this crisis and its challenges, there are signs of hope.                                                          

 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Altering Theological Education for the New Normal


People who hear me teach on leadership and congregational development often comment “Why didn’t I learn this in seminary or Why don’t they teach this in seminary?”  You may be astonished to learn that I do not think either of these two topics should be taught in Seminary.  In this blog, I will offer my take on how Theological Education should be altered for the New Normal. What I mean by “the New Normal” is the Church that has lost half its membership since 2000 through the death of many of the G.I. Generation, conflict, and a failure to reach members of the Millennial Generation. A Church that is, by the way, still in decline.

Let me make two things clear at the beginning of this blog. I will be talking about the 3-year residential programs, and I will set aside the alternate training that is taking place through programs like the Iona School.  I see these latter as especially important for the future of the Church, but not the subject of this blog.

Second, many of our Seminaries have pickup up on the need for better preparation of our ordained people in leading parishes and many are now advertising that they are training future leaders for the Episcopal Church.  This, of course, has more to do with marketing than reality.  I find these claims to be of little value, and I have low expectations that the current curriculum has really been altered to do this.  Even stronger, let me say that it is unrealistic to believe that a faculty of academics could even value or imagine what this would really be.

What I do think Seminaries are about is helping form academically and professionally the character and intellectual foundation of future leaders.  Said simply, we already expect too much from our seminaries.  As Will Spong once said, “Every time General Convention meets, we have a new class mandated to teach.”  In other words, the rush to be relevant has created unrealistic expectations for our seminaries.

What about leadership itself?  I strongly believe that the Church should train its ordained leaders and that this is a post-seminary task best started in the first five years of ministry.  The reason is based on my experience with teaching clergy and having taught at Seminaries.  Clergy learn leadership best in the field as they attempt to give leadership. For most Seminarians, clergy leadership is essentially not on their radar screen.  And congregational development is beyond comprehension.  Put this together with the bias many academics have about what they see as the mundaneness of “Pastoral Theology” and you see the issue.

What is clear to those of us who work with clergy is that the context of having to lead and working with congregational leaders creates a tremendous opportunity for learning and development.  I commend Robert Lewis’ Curacy Express” for the practical application of this in the Church. So, from my perspective of working for 30 years with clergy, what alterations would I most like to see in Seminary.  There are two of them.

First, I would make Seminary more of an oral experience.  I would ask the professors to base grades on material that is half, at least, presented orally.  Instead of paper reports, I would like to see students prepared to give a 20 to 30-minute presentation (PowerPoint would be allowed) on say Pauline Theology or the English Reformation, or the Torah and the Early Church.

Then I would make preaching a three-year part of the curriculum. The first year would focus on the basics of sermon preparation and the second year on the effect communication of the Gospel. The third year would be the practice of preaching in class and chapel.  Let me add that when students do the third year, they will receive evaluations that weigh equally the content of the sermon and the effectiveness of the delivery.

Why would I do this?  Because parish ministry is primarily an oral vocation.  When parishioners ask questions of clergy, it is almost always in the context of communicating orally. Yes, I did articles for the Parish Newsletter occasionally, but most work in a parish is done orally.  When it comes to preaching, I have observed that many newly ordained clergy are making two fundamental mistakes; they are reading their sermons and their content reveals that they are preaching to their seminary professors.  When I say this to clergy, several will push back on how important it is to write out their sermons to make sure they are theologically correct.  Writing out a sermon in preparation is fine but reading them is a big mistake.  The rules for oral communication are different from written communication. Bishop John Coburn never got in a pulpit without a manuscript in front of him and he was an excellent preacher, but he practiced the delivery and memorized the text.  Preaching is an oral experience!

Here is the greatest compliment someone who preaches from a manuscript will ever get. “Thanks, Mthr. Jane, you preached that just like you weren’t reading it.”  Let me add that what we have learned in the live-streaming and YouTube experience during the epidemic is that nothing is more deadly than reading via a visual media!

Second, I would make half of the assignments in seminary classes a group exercise, yes even in the most academic course.  Imagine that Professor Jones is assigning a project or paper on the Baptismal service of the 1979 Prayer Book. Now, the professor announces, the first task group will be Bill, Jane, Maryann, and Elijah.  Both Elijah and Maryann immediately roll their eyes.  They are thinking how being stuck with two of the poorer students in the class will affect their grade.  My answer, “Welcome to Parish Ministry.”  Parish ministry is never a solo clergy operation.  It always involves working with lay leaders and members.  In traditional academic environment, the emphasis is on the individual’s performance and their grade.  In the Church, the effectiveness of one’s leadership and the health and wellbeing of the parish is about us.  It is a drastic difference.  It often takes several years for newly ordained clergy to realize this. The reason it takes so long is that they must first unlearn the method of seminary preparation.

How can leadership then be taught?  Many Dioceses already have examples of this through effective curacy programs, mentorships, and continuing education. This part is being driven by necessity. Seminaries have even contributed to this by the creation of D. Min programs focused more on the practice of ministry for post-seminary. 

I wrote this blog because the adjustment and alteration of basic seminary education has changed little since 1968 when I went to seminary. While more classes have been added, the method remains the same. This is because it is being controlled by those not prepared for parish ministry but for the academic community.  In a society that continues to have only about 1/3 of its people with a college education, these academic assumptions only contribute to a growing distance between the Church and society; clergy and their parishioners.  The New Normal demands something different!