Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reasons for Decline, 4 and 5

     Continuing my 7 Reasons for the Decline of the Episcopal Church, I would like to list my next two reasons; 

#4  Failure to reach out to new and ethnically divergent people.

#5 Failure to plan new congregations, especially among new and ethnically divergent people. 

This is a very hard thing to point out to Episcopalians>  We see ourselves as a church that is inclusive of all people.  I do think it is true that most churches want to be open places, and many individual congregations have become more diverse in the past two decades.  However, what I mean here brings us into that uncomfortable place between what we want to believe about ourselves and what we actually are. 

I often say at clergy conferences that “I have been a priest so long at 39 years that I can remember when we had a significant number of African-Americans, even African-American congregations, and I can remember when we had a large number of blue-collar congregations.  This usually makes clergy nervous because, of course, our self perception is that the Episcopal Church has become more diverse and more open to other people over the last generation.  Simply said, we have not.  As I said, I do think we have more congregations that have conscientiously added some ethnic and cultural diversity, but this is not what I mean.  What I mean is that we have failed to form new congregations among the newer arrivals to America.

At the 2009 General Convention, the Joint Committee on Evangelism backed a proposed initiative from our Hispanic Leadership put together by our Hispanic Officer, Antony Guillan at 815.  This was a visionary initiative aimed especially at the most receptive people in North America to the Episcopal Church, namely Latinos.  If this initiative had been both embraced and funded by TEC, we could have seen considerable new ministry, new congregations, and new Latino members.  Tragically, in the across-the-board slash of our tri-annual budget, most of the needed funding for this initiative was lost.  This reflects a continued failure on our part to reach out to the significant number of immigrants now present among us.

Our strategy seems to be that if we have a sign that says “the Episcopal Church Welcomes You” or “We Are Here for You,” they will come.  Another way to say this is that once people speak our language, dress like us, and are comfortable sitting in a church where the majority of those present are white, upper middle-class, Americans, they will certainly be welcome.  This is poor mission strategy.

The denominations making considerable strides in reaching diverse people have learned to plant whole congregations made up of precisely the people they intend to reach.  These are led by lay and ordained leaders who are from these groups. 

We seem inhibited in trying this proven strategy because we are (a) insensitive to the needs of newly arrived people, and (b) so caught up in our own sense of being an open and inclusive people that we think it would be bad to plan such a strategy. 

Ironically, what has happened to TEC in the last 30 years is that we are becoming less diverse, not more so.  I commend all Episcopal leaders to read Harold Lewis’ “Yet with a Steady Beat” to see documentation of our abandonment of ministry among African-Americans. 

It certainly is true that we are becoming more gender inclusive.  I would just point out that there are significant numbers of “other” people for whom we should develop an intentional missionary strategy. 

If you have been reading my blogs, you will notice that if you consider younger generation folks as “new and divergent” than my items 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all inter-related, and I believe they are.  They all represent our inability to develop an intentional missionary strategy to reach people different from our present membership. 

If you are looking for good news in my blogs on this topic, here is some.  There are a few dioceses that are learning to do exactly this kind of intentional missionary strategy.  Let’s hope and pray that this becomes contagious.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Second and Third Reasons for our Continuing Decline

The second and third reasons for the decline of TEC on my list of seven key reasons have to do with young people.

#2.  The failure to keep and to recruit younger generations of people, especially younger than boomers!

#3.  The failure to recruit younger lay and ordained leaders

Of course we have wonderful younger people in the Episcopal Church.  Our own parish has some extraordinary younger members. The diocese has an outstanding ministry to younger people, as does my former Diocese, Texas. 

However, nothing points to our continued decline more than this simple fact; for almost my entire life, I have been near the median age of Episcopalians.  I joined the Church when I was 12 and I am now 64!  This means that during this time span, our community has continued to age.   Today, the typical Episcopalian is a 61 year old, college educated, white female. 

Among some of the reasons for this failure to keep and recruit younger people, I would list the following:
1.       The abandonment in the early 70’s of a National Curriculum for Church Schools. 
2.      The failure to have a unified teaching and age for confirmation, and the lack of emphasis by our bishops of the place on confirmation. 
3.      The moment toward ordination to an older and older age, along with making ordination almost exclusively a “second career” track for people.

     These two reasons are closely related because it is younger leaders who have the best chance of reaching their own generation for Christ.  So for a person ordained at 27, number 3 is critical.  I was ordained in the year in which the Commission on Ministry System was instituted in the Episcopal Church.  While I understand the reasons and certainly the rationale for such a system, I think it has not served the Church well.  For example, we have greatly underestimated the dynamic of a committee selecting candidates for ministry.  Simply said, a committee tends to recruit toward the median of the committee in age, education and experience. 

A second dynamic is that this system was to be “advisory” to Bishops.  Today, almost all bishops defer the decision making to the Commission on Ministry.  Few would ever attempt to ordain a person against a majority vote of the Commission.  So COMs are now “selection committees” in most dioceses.

Since 1971, I have listened to countless justifications for our current way of doing things, but the most common one is “Well, our system has flaws, but it is so much better than what we had before.”  When I compare the extraordinary clergy who came into the ordained ministry between 1945 and 1970 versus today, I think such a justification is nonsense. 

What I think is needed is a concerted effort of Bishops, Commissions on Ministry, and Standing Committees to recruit young leaders to ordained ministry.  Let me be clear, I have no objection to ordaining people past 40, but these should represent a minority of our ordained folks, not the vast majority.