Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Stop the Navel Gazing: It's Not Just Us

One thing we need to keep in mind as we look at how to prioritize what the Episcopal Church should do and how we should be doing it, and how to structure and fund those priorities, is that it's helpful to have some perspective: this isn't just us.

At its General Conference next month, the United Methodist Church -- nearly four times the size of the Episcopal Church with around 8,000,000 members and over 40,000 clergy -- will be debating a wide ranging restructuring proposal.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has gone through two major restructurings in the past decade. (Oh, and by the way, even through these painful restructurings at the churchwide level, the ELCA still managed to fund youth and young adult ministry and get over THIRTY SIXTH THOUSAND registrants to their triennial youth event in 2009. Don't say we can't or shouldn't do it, just that some don't want to. All it takes is five minutes to look to the ELCA and see that youth and young adult ministry has a place at the denominational level.)

Unlike the Episcopal Church, the UMC and ELCA restructuring plans were a product of discussion and debate, presented to the church for consideration, and voted on at their churchwide bodies. For the United Methodists, this has been a multi-year process of discussion throughout the church; you can read it about it here. As the website dedicated to this process notes, "Thousands of leadership conversations. Three years of research, never done by a mainline denomination. Hundreds of ideas considered.These recommendations encompass the best thinking of bishops, clergy, and laity of our church." Looking over this process the United Methodists have gone through makes COD wants to cry. I mean, couldn't we have done something like this?

Moreover: The ELCA itself is an example of a process of discussion and deliberation. As Lutheran churches in this country moved towards merging into a single church, they began to ask what a church should like look for the 20th century. They combined some elements from Lutheran polity of their predecessor bodies but also created some new forms of organization and structure in the inauguration of the ELCA in 1988.

And it's not just our ecumenical partners. The National Council of Churches is going through a complete meltdown and implosion, feel free to get the latest here (though this announcement does little to convey the complete free-fall the Council is in). For much of the past decade, it has struggled financially. In 1999, it needed a bailout just to keep from going bankrupt. For most of the 2000s, it has gone through repeated financial crises. It has slashed stuff, cut program, and moved its annual governing Assembly from meeting yearly to every two years. Essentially it has tried to run smaller versions of the old model, doing less with fewer resources. None of this has worked, and it is facing another massive financial crisis. It is calling a new General Secretary, but only on an 18-month contract, to help see it through this reorganization. Any of this sound familiar?

Here's the problem, and here is why looking to our partners might be helpful. Some of this is the NCC's fault. Some of it isn't.

Brief interlude (and this is important because it speaks to larger structural issues denominational organizations are facing): as COD mentioned in a previous post, the way Christians "did" stuff in the 1800s was to form member-based organizations focused around specific issues and causes, many of these crossing denominational lines. However, by the late 1800s society was getting more complicated. There was a move to create an organization which would help coordinate some of the initiatives -- and in 1908 the Federal Council of Churches was formed. (Interestingly enough, the Episcopal Church did not join until 1940 -- because the Episcopal Church was committed to Christian unity, not federation for the sake of coordinating our separate mission.) In 1950, the NCC was formed as a successor body to the Federal Council. It's important to note the NCC was founded as kind of an umbrella organization, collecting a whole bunch of these voluntary organizations under its roof to coordinate them on behalf of the churches. Some took their time in joining - Faith and Order, the body which coordinated theological dialogue between churches, didn't come under the NCC until the 1960s.

OK, end of interlude. If you really want to know more, COD wrote about 10,000 words on this in the fall and you can find some postings in the November archives, or click here for Part 1 of 3 of those postings and get some more detailed exposition on this.

So what part of this is the NCC's fault? Put simply, it got disconnected from the churches at times and kind of started doing its own thing. For example, one of its restructuring plans presented involved cutting out Interfaith Relations. When presented to the Governing Board for approval, the churches rebelled, telling the Council it was one of the things it should be doing, since this was something the churches wanted to do together -- were Methodists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians all supposed to now set up bilateral dialogues with Jews and Muslims? To give another, it was in such a financial crisis in 1999 that it had to go begging to the churches just to keep its doors open. It sent out a fundraising letter asking for donations so the NCC could lobby on something that about a third of the members communions are adamantly opposed to. To give another, only about half the member churches even give a cent to the NCC for operations. These are signs of an organization disconnected from its core constituencies.

Which leads to another point. The churches also have their own share in this blame: when the churches get distracted by our internal issues, when we do not stay engaged and connected, of course the NCC will start doing its own thing. The NCC was founded to be a way for churches to coordinate its mission, not to become its own entity doing its own things apart from the churches.

So what part isn't the NCC's fault: you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, 'cause the times they are a changing. The last century of the ecumenical movement has been one of centralization, consolidation, and professionalization. Instead of groups of lay people and clergy forming organizations, we have centralized these in national and regional structures and hired professional staff to coordinate them. This is part of a larger move towards institution-building: after all, the UN General Assembly building, the brand-new Episcopal Church Headquarters on 2nd Ave, and the NCC headquarters on Riverside Drive were all built and dedicated in New York City within a few years of one another. Times are a-changin. This arc from 1920-1990, this drive towards consolidation and centralization and building buildings and institutions, is over. Has been for quite some time. It's not the only way ecumenism is done. What is the place for a denominational-based organization in a post-denominational world? For centralization in a time of flattening? For an institution when the huge bulge of millennials think post-instiutionally?

In 2002, when COD was EYEO (Eager Young Ecumenical Officer), he went to his first Governing Board meeting of the NCC. Saw his first budget restructuring in what was then considered a dire time for the Council. Looked at it, in in his small group discussion said, "What if we made this a membership based organization instead of a denominational based organization?" The other members of EYEO's small group, all over 45 at the time (EYEO was 33 years old) look aghast. One finally said, "What could possibly be the advantage of that?" EYEO replied, "For one thing, it would foster and force connection with your constituencies." COD admits he said that as much to shake things up as for anything else (you might have guessed that already about COD) -- to challenge that organization to think about something other than preserving a current model, to try to get just that small discussion group to consider to stop privileging a single way of doing things and realize there's no foreordained reason we have to structure ourselves in a certain way. That, of course, didn't happen and in 2002 they began the cycle of rolling out successive models of running the same organization on less, with no strategic vision, no acknowledgement that the fundamental way people do things ecumenically is changing.

So if the NCC needs to die, let it. A new ecumenical body will be born, because we need to have one. You know, the WCTU, Anglo-Catholic Congresses, Evangelical Alliance, Anti-Saloon League, and Congress for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor were all wildly popular church organizations at one time, mobilizing thousands of people and lots of funding and doing all sorts of program. And NONE of them exist anymore. Times changed, the causes they stood for changed, society changed, the churches changed.

We need to look outside ourselves and realize this is happening to a lot of other religious based organizations. A way forward is going to be partnering and collaborating more intentionally, as appropriate, and specifically with the ELCA. After ten years as ecumenical officer, coinciding with ten years of full communion with the ELCA, COD is simply heartbroken that we have not done more at the denominational, churchwide level. In terms of staffing, right now we have a single, shared churchwide staff position, someone who is sponsored by both churches and works for the Washington office. That is simply, completely, and utterly pathetic result to show after ten years. And for once COD says that with no snark. It depresses me to no end, and it was not for lack of trying.

Look around, friends. What is happening in our own church is partially our own fault, and partially a result of massive changes in our society that is impacting religious organizations. As COD keeps saying, we have never had a churchwide discussion about what our priorities are and how different levels of the church can come together to live into those priorities. Instead we seem to be setting down the path of trotting out gutted versions of the old structure, simply doing less with fewer resources. This is a path to institutional death.


  1. It is my experience that at parish level intercommunion with the ELCA has no visible reality unless local congregations begin to fail, and shared ministry may help. It's hard to get Episcopalians to contemplate sharing resources with the ELCA if they do nothing of note together at grass roots.

  2. That's not really the case everywhere, Fr Tony: there are actually a goodly number of ELCA-Episcopal collaborations on the congregational level. Over 30 joint, merged, or yoked churches; over 18 joint campus ministries, and numbers of clergy serving as interims and on short-term assignments in the other churches. A long way to go, to be sure, but the grassroots level is leading -- but the diocesan and churchwide levels need to follow.

  3. Fr Tony that is not the case here in mid Michigan where we have thriving Episco-Lutheran congregations and many collaborative programs including shared mission trips, youth programs and interfaith efforts. The Call to Common Mission has blessed our lives here.


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