Monday, September 19, 2016

Readiness for Revitalization

In my last blog, I began a series on revitalization.  I started with an emphasis on leadership and I will return to that topic in a further blog.  In it I will explore the characteristics and behaviors that I have seen over the years with clergy who are able to help a congregation revitalize their life?

In this blog, I want to change focus for a moment to move toward what I think is one of the most important issues in congregational revitalization, namely the congregation’s readiness to undertake this process.  Far more Episcopal congregations need revitalization than are willing to take on the process in a healthy manner. 

Often new clergy are recruited or sent to congregations to lead this process without the congregation and especially its leadership buying in to the need for change.  The congregational leaders are assuming that if we just had a new and younger ordained leader who will help us recruit some new families with children, we will be alright.  Once the price of revitalization becomes apparent (it is always CHANGE) then the congregation reacts, then frequently resists, and even can sabotages the process.

My first experience as a Rector was exactly this kind of situation.  I naively thought that given the desperateness of the situation, members would understand the need for change.  At my first Annual Meeting, I plaintively said, “Many of you don’t seem to understand that this congregation must change or it will die.”  A long time member stood up and responded, “No, you don’t understand.  We would rather have the congregation die than change.”  He was right.

So, what are the signs that a Church is ready to seriously undertake revitalization? 

I would list these:

  1. An honest and frank assessment of their true situation that is shared broadly with the membership. 
  2. A willingness to engage with new ordained leadership in a 5 year process of Change.  This means no terminations.  When a congregation engages a new clergy person for the purpose of revitalization, I would establish a 5 year contract between Priest and Congregation.  (It is one of the only times that I agree with having a contract.)  If you fire the clergy person, you will pay that person for the full 5 years.  This gives the new ordained leader leverage. 
  3. A willingness to engage with the Diocese by establishing key points of accountability.
  4. A willingness to establish a consulting/coaching relationship with an outside person who helps the local leaders persevere through the process and predictable obstacles they will face.
  5. A willingness to reduce the Vestry to 5 to 7 Key leaders who will not rotate for at least the first three years of this process including establishing or keeping the current Senior Warden for the 3 year period.  The congregation needing revitalization needs continuity.  Bishop Payne used to say, “Put the A team on the field.  This is a critical time for the congregation and we need its best leaders to step up to the work.” 
  6. If the diocese provides financial support, it continues only as long as the congregation keeps to the agreed upon steps of accountability.  I am astonished at the money some dioceses give to subsidize declining and dying congregations even when local leaders are sabotaging revitalization efforts.

Now while all this seems daunting, the good news for Bishops and Staff is that not very many of our declining congregations are ready for this intensive work. Many just need someone to maintain them and help them get to the point of readiness.  This also means that a diocese doesn’t need a whole bunch of ordained Leaders capable of leading revitalization.  These are hard to come by these days.  They just need the right one for the next ready congregation. 

So Revitalization demands a congregation’s readiness to enter a process of change with accountability and intentionality.  If this is present, the Diocese and Congregation can enter a partnership for the revitalization of the congregation that has a reasonable chance of succeeding.  Without this readiness and a cooperative partnership, revitalization has a much smaller chance of ever happening. 

In my next blog, I want to revisit the three types of strategic action that are necessary for congregations that have begun to decline.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Christianity: Movement, Organization, Community, or Institution?

Because the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church uses the phrase “The Jesus Movement,” the phrase is catching on around the Church.  I am glad because “The Millennial Goals” and “The Five Marks of Mission” are phrases that have not communicated such energy.  However, the phrase raises a number of questions.  I think the most important one is whether Christianity is fundamentally a Movement, an Organization, a Community, or an Institution?  Of course, historically one can argue that it is all of these things because a religion that has been around for a couple of thousand years would have all these dynamics in it.  The phrase becomes more important for me when applied to the current situation in The Episcopal Church.

When Bishop Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Church was in serious trouble.  Despite loyalist, particularly Progressive ones, trying to spin an optimistic view, the numbers told a more critical story.  The number of members, attendance, and congregations were all trending down.  On top of a historic 30 year decline of 1/3 of our membership by 2000, since 2000 we have lost another 1/3 of our membership.  Significantly, the major discussion and debate in the year previous to Bishop Curry’s election was over restructuring which was really a kinder way of saying downsizing. 

Bishop Curry seemed to instinctively realize that the problems facing TEC were not in adapting to these historical trends, but in infusing new life, new vision, and positive leadership.  Like any new visionary leader, he brought change in both perspective and in language.   Here is where the phrase The Jesus Movement becomes significant.  It communicates two significant and important truths to Church members.

First, Bishop Curry is reminding us that we are about Jesus and not just good intentions, progressive politics, and inclusion.  By his own account, he learned of this Jesus from his grandmother, and he has never forgotten that the Church and its mission are inseparable from the person, work, teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is from this Jesus that we draw our identity, our purpose, and by His Spirit, the power to accomplish his work of redemption and reconciliation. 

Second, by this phrase he states clearly that the mission of the Church and its organization and institutional life are inseparable.  The fundamental problems facing TEC are not about our General Convention structures, nor our low birth rate, nor our aging membership, nor our lack of gender inclusiveness, nor our loss of mainline status, our problems are fundamentally theological and missiological.  By re-phrasing our identity as a movement, Bishop Curry has changed our paradigm.  This is what a revitalization leader has to do, redefine reality, and all clergy called to such revitalization on a local level should take note and learn from him. 

In further blogs, I hope to extend a conversation about congregational revitalization, so I will leave that last statement hanging, because I want to address the question about a Movement versus an Organization, Community or Institution.  Many years ago, one of my favorite history professors said something, almost in passing, that I have never forgotten.  It is this:

The history of almost every organization or institution whether it is an Empire, a Country, a Political Organization or even a Corporation is the same.  Namely, people discover that they have a common experience or concern.  They gather to draw from one another and start what we would call a Movement.  This Movement generates leaders.  Over time, these leaders create structure and organization.  This Organization creates hierarchy and this hierarchy then generates over time a bureaucracy.  Finally, this bureaucracy creates rules and regulations to assure that the experience that created the Movement is controlled and suppressed. 

He went on to note that this is the history of the most Empires, the Roman Catholic Church, the Communist Party, and will be the history of The United States.  The only thing that can delay this inevitable process for any organization or institution is the leaders’ ability to reinfuse and recapture the essence of the Movement often expressed within a new context.

I believe the history and continual viability of the Church rests the multitude of leaders and movements that have happened within the life of the Church.  When you read the history of Benedict, Francis, or Wesley for examples, you are reading about movements initially held in suspicion by the hierarchy and its bureaucracy. 

The Anglican Church can be seen as a part of the Protestant Movement.  Within Anglicanism, the Evangelical Awakening, the Oxford Movement, and the Social Gospel Movement can all be seen as movements within the organization to rekindle the initial flame and life of a now decaying institution concerned primarily with its own organizational life and institutional survival instead of its mission.  One could say, I would certainly say it, that Anglicanism itself represents an umbrella Organization under which a number of sub-movements and their adherents exist.  Until 2003, I would claim that TEC was a Church that held together at least 6 sub-movements that had generated new life at some point in our Community. 

I would suggest that if everyone reading this thought about it, he or she would realize that our own identity is made to some degree by various movements that have influenced and framed our life.  For any Episcopalian, this means movements in and outside the Church.  I know that I am and remain an Episcopalian because Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Progressives have all had, brace yourself, a positive influence on my life, and as a Southerner, I have also been deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. 

Sydney Ahlstrom of Yale said that one cannot tell the history of Christianity in America by way of denominations, but rather by way of the leaders and movements that have touched each denomination.  Some denominations formed in the last 150 years owe their very existence to one of these leaders or movements. 

Will Bishop Curry’s attempt at reinfusing our calcifying and decaying organization result in revitalization?  It is certainly too early to know.  This one thing, however, is true.  If TEC will have a future, it must begin with Jesus and have his mission and ministry at the center.  If Bishop Curry can help accomplish this, he will have accomplished something significant. 

Remember this; revitalization for Christians in never merely about structure, programs, or strategies.  It will involve these things, but it is first about Jesus and his movement.  All else is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  This is as true on the local level as it is on the Denominational level.