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!

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The New Normal and Revitalizing Churches

     My last blog centered on the Diocese of Connecticut’s paper and strategy called The New Normal.  In it I called attention to the fact that 2/3rds of their congregations can no longer afford the services of full-time clergy. Another way of saying this is that formerly larger congregations have declined into Family Size churches and the typical strategy for maintaining these is often placing a bi-vocational or retired clergy person in these situations. This situation is made more dire in Connecticut because many of these once larger churches have property and buildings more suited to a larger congregation with larger budgets. We should face that all this is a crisis, but it is the kind of long-term crisis that dioceses usually react to rather than respond.  Connecticut is trying to respond.

     A further complicating factor for this Diocese is that bi-vocational, part-time, and retired clergy are not likely to move to the church’s community to serve them.  Not only is this a problem in recruitment, it is a further expansion of these churches’ essential dilemma, how are they to even maintain themselves in this situation?
Put along side these issues the growing clergy shortage and you have the perfect storm for the future.  The Diocese of Connecticut is rightly concerned and in my last blog, I talked about the creative ways they are attending to the churches that can at least afford a full-time clergy.

     This allows me to comment on the increasingly failed strategy of the wider church in addressing the basic problem of how to carry out revitalization for these smaller congregations and even grow them.  Lets even put this for a moment in the wider issue of evangelization.  The communities in the US are simply becoming more unchurches especially as the Millennial Generation replaces the GI Generation. The former generation is less than 10% churched and the latter were over 60% churched. Bishop Doyle of the Diocese of Texas calls this the Tsunami of Death. It has driven the decline of church membership in North American from a predictable 40% after World War Two until 2000 to the 2019 figure of 20%!

     The first thing that we should say, and mission people have been saying this for decades, is that evangelism in a post-Christian society is different from that of either a pre-Christian society (where Anglicanism is growing fastest) or a Christendom model where denominations are basically recruiting new members.
So, ironically there are more unchurched and non-Christians living all around us making the target for evangelization larger, but we are reaching fewer of them which contributes to our decline.  For me, Connecticut’s situation highlights all these issues.  What is to be done?

     The first thing that I think church leaders should acknowledge in all this is that a strategy that is primarily maintenance directed is doomed to failure!  What I saw during my year traveling about Oklahoma and talking to leaders of town parishes is that a part-time clergy person seldom ever leads a church to revitalization and growth.  The frequent changes in clergy serving these situations often leads to further decline. 

     The second thing I think church leaders should acknowledge and even rejoice in is that some clergy and small churches have figured this out.  We do have examples all over the church of such churches not only surviving but also finding healthier life and growth.  Bishop Doyle said to me that at the beginning of his Episcopacy he thought that many of these smaller congregations would just close, but what he found is that given some support many find a way to hold together.  The question, of course, is what do these revitalizing congregations and their ordained leaders know that the rest of us do not?  I like to ask the even more obvious question as a church consultant, why not let these leaders both lay and clergy train those sent to these congregations?  Truth is that many of these leaders are outliers and not used as resources.

     Third thing I think church leaders should do is develop a plan for the revitalization of these congregations that uses proven strategies. As I said, most diocesan leadership see such congregations as a problem to solve and solve them by attempting to put part-time clergy in these to maintain what already exists. Must of what the Diocese of Texas does now is based on its former Bishop Claude Payne’s understanding that revitalization involves a series of steps by a Diocese. These would include:

a.        1. Learning what congregations have a readiness for revitalization and targeting them.

b.     2. Recruiting the right clergy person and backing them in their placement.

c.      3. Identifying the key lay leadership to give stable direction to the parish which often means keeping the same wardens and vestry in place for 3 to 5 years. (Rotating leadership by 1/3 each year may be a helpful strategy to keep existing and growing parishes healthy, but it is too unstable for a small congregation with limited leaders. We asked such congregations to “put the A team” in charge.)

d.     4, Revitalization often takes place in a church with limited budget and resources and declining facilities with deferred maintenance. This means that the Diocese needs to invest in such parishes to refresh its facilities.

e.      5. All this means that there must be a group of local leaders and diocesan leaders to oversee this work and to hold each other accountable 

     Knowing all this, I not only commended the Diocesan leadership of Connecticut, but also recommended that they learn from places like Texas to do the above.

     In summary, when it comes to revitalizing these declining congregations let those who have done it teach others, use proven strategies, and form a healthy partnership between the Diocese and local leaders all of whom work off the same play book.

     Imagine a Mission Training Center dedicated to such work at a time like this and you have imagined a healthier and growing Episcopal Church.