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.