Thursday, March 26, 2020

The New Normal

The Diocese of Connecticut is one of the most venerable of the Church.  It elected the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Samuel Seabury, shortly after the Revolutionary War.  Seabury was a Tory like many of his fellow Anglicans in New England where they faced stiff persecution by their congregationalist neighbors.  Seabury was a traditionalist and set the tone for the Diocese.  When I attended Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, I like many of my seminary classmates served my assignments to parishes in congregations in the Diocese.  I also started ordained ministry as a curate in Wilton and my first tenure as a Rector in Stamford.  During that time, the Diocese was one of the largest in the Episcopal Church.

I was very surprised when my friend and seminary classmate, Andrew Zeman, mailed me a paper that had been sent out by the Diocese entitled “Transition is the New Normal” by their Transition Officer Lee Ann Tolzmann. It outlined the Diocese’s response to the present crisis of decline in the Church.  As the title suggests, the leadership of the Diocese under their Bishop Ian Douglas are taking intentional steps to meet the challenges of the Diocese amidst this change.

I plan to focus three blogs on the issues presented in this paper.  These are all related to the demographic changes in America that are having direct effects upon the Church.  The first is that the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut (ECCT) is changing the way congregations with full-time clergy are now transitioning to new ordained leadership. The second issue is the changing demographics of ordained clergy, and if you haven’t heard of this, many baby boomer clergy will be retiring in the next five years creating a shortage.

Third is the way the ECCT plans on handling the 2/3rds of their congregations that no longer have full time clergy serving them.  Let me repeat this, the 2/3rds of the congregations of Connecticut that do not have the number of people to support full-time clergy.  My friend Andy servers one of these in retirement on a part-time basis.  All this is accentuated in ECCT because most of these congregations have long standing facilities larger than the current congregations need and face costly expenses in upkeep.

I think each of these issues deserves a blog.  I want to start with the first issue because of the creative way ECCT is facing the issue of recruiting clergy to serve effectively because the full-time positions are also being affected by the looming shortage of clergy. This will be reducing the number of candidates that will be available when transitions occur.  It is here where their strategy moves in a courageous and creative way. It is here as Lee Ann clearly writes that transition is now the new normal.

To make their case, ECCT lays out in the paper the conditions of what Bishop Douglas calls “The New Missional Age.”  I don’t have the space here to reproduce this and neither do I want to steal the Diocese’s thunder.  What is outstandingly persuasive is what they call “Landmarks in the Landscape of a New Missional Age.” They list 8, and in my opinion, the whole leadership of TEC should read these!  I will share the first one:

   “Our current model of church is being funded by the increased giving of a smaller and smaller number of people who are getting older and older.  This clearly not a sustainable model.”

Almost every Bishop and lay leaders of the Church knows this is true.  Sadly, most keep doing what they have always done, hoping for different outcomes.  This, of course, is denial, and it pervades our church community.  This is why I say that ECCT is courageous in making the changes now.

What have they changed?  Effect starting this year, when a clergy person leaves the parish, the Vestry does not form a search committee.  Instead, with the guidance of one of the two Bishops, they form a Transition Committee to help the parish face these new missional realities and to make adaptive and systemic changes to function in this new environment.  As part of the process, the Diocese will recommend a short list of clergy persons who will help the Transition Committee and the Vestries do this work. The Diocese and the Committee agree on the clergy person best equipped to lead this process in each congregation.  This clergy person becomes the Priest in Charge (PIC) for three years.  After that period, if the leadership and the PIC are making these missional changes, the Vestry may, with the Bishop’s approval, call the PIC to be the Rector.

During this three-year period, the PIC works with the Transition Committee on a plan for educating the congregation on the current realities and putting together a strategic plan the future.  Some of you will recognize what is, I think, one of the best practices that some dioceses have developed.  This in the present structures is asking the Search Committee to continue as a Transition Committee to help the new clergy carry out the task around which they have been called.  The ECCT has intentionally removed the old model of search which quite frankly does meet the realities of our present situation. I wholeheartedly agree with this step and it will be key in making the new model work.

I also like a couple of other elements in this plan.  For example, the PIC meets monthly with a peer group and coordinator in support of this work.  I applaud making the Bishop and Diocese a partner in the transitional work.  I support the idea that the Diocese takes an active hand in recruiting the possible PIC people.  Given the looming shortage of clergy, this is a necessity for the parish to find good quality ordained leadership who understand the task before them.  In other words, or at least my words, don’t start this process with a clergy person who is skilled in operating a model that we know will not work. 

Four times during my 9 years with Bishop Payne, he intervened in congregations in a similar way, two of them were quite large.  All faced a crisis just before they were to start the transition to a new Rector.  Bishop Payne approached the Vestries and told them that he did not believe they were able to make the best decision about a clergy person for the future, nor did they have the typical time given their crisis.  He offered to them a Rector in Charge who he had selected for them to interview.  In all four situations, the parishes took the person offered and later called them to become the tenured Rector.  In every situation, the Vestry leadership gave us feedback that the Bishop was right and that it became obvious over time what this person was the best leader for the future.  That was, of course, back in the 1990s before the dramatic demographic changes of the beginning of the 21st Century had taken place.

Let me observe that the Bishop and Diocese acting in this more directive way brings TEC more into line with the way things are done in most of the Anglican Communion.  Imagine Bishops acting as if she or he has oversight! This is what the original word Bishop meant.

As I close this first blog, let me share that I am encouraging Lee Ann and the Diocese to make their paper and actions available to the wider church.  In my next blog, I will share their understanding of the looming clergy crisis before the Church.  Let me end with Landmark #2

“Formerly successful models are not helpful.  Trying to do what we’ve always done, even in new improved versions is not the answer when the whole world is changing. And it is not a faithful response to the God of resurrection’s call to move towards a new life. “