Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Guns, Germs, and The Episcopal Church: Manifesto for Radical Change

Two of the most informative books on institutional and organization structure Crusty Old Dean ever read was a pair by Jared Diamond:  Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies (1999) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005).   In these works, Diamond points out a number of different cultures, societies, and organizations that self-destructed, sometimes due to factors beyond their control, sometimes due to disasters of their own creation. 

COD strongly recommends both books for reasons having nothing to do with inside baseball ecclesial blathering; they are outstanding books by a top notch scholar, the first having won the Pulitzer.  Anyway, COD has several takeaways from Diamond which are churning in his head.

For Diamond, there are a number of reasons why societies collapse.  Some are outside, unexpected, and catastrophic:  how would Native American cultures, some large and elaborate like the Aztecs, know that in a few years some outlandish looking people from out of nowhere would suddenly arrive and decimate 90% of their population with germs they had no immunity to?  Many, many societies, however, collapse due in large part to decisions of their own making.  A couple which are relevant here:

Societies collapse because they can presume the out-of-ordinary to be normal, and be unwilling or unable to adapt when things change.  As an example of this he cites Native American civilizations in what is now the American southwest.  Scientists have been able to demonstrate that, at times, the American southwest suffers through catastrophic droughts, lasting years and years, almost like the seasons on Westeros (read Diamond to see the science, read George R.R. Martin to learn more about seasons on Westeros).  Native American cultures overbuilt during good years, and, when the drought set in, were unwilling to believe what was happening or unwilling or unable to adapt -- and thus the civilization died out.  Let the reader understand:  have we Americans, hundreds of years later, overbuilt in places like New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada?  These are areas which are barely sustainable under current conditions; what if a 100-year-long drought sets in?  This will have a ripple effect, since southern California, in turn, is watered by resources diverted from the potential drought stricken area.  Are we even remotely ready or prepared to deal with what happens if a catastrophic, decades-long drought hits, as we now know they have in the past?

So one problem is taking the blips, the anomalies, to be normative.  COD is convinced that the Episcopal Church has, in a way, done something similar.  We have taken the period from 1950-1990 (give or take a few years) as somehow a normative and determinative time period -- what it means to be the Episcopal Church is what occurred during this period -- when, in fact, it was a blip, an anomaly.

Any perusal into the history of the Episcopal Church prior to this period will reveal a litany of concerns.  Just to name a few:  For one, it wasn't until the period around WW I that the Episcopal Church had more ordained clergy than lay readers.  The church had a chronic and persistent clergy shortage for most of its existence, which, in turn, impeded its ability to engage in domestic and foreign missions, which, in turn, impeded effort at growth.  For another, there were chronic struggles adequately to establish institutions.  Colleges, schools, and seminaries opened and closed.  William Augustus Muehlenberg, considered one of the foremost presbyters of this church in the 1800s, founded a series of institutions that flopped for every St Luke's Hospital that eventually thrived.  Dioceses were established that were unsustainable and had to be re-merged with other dioceses (Duluth; Western Nebraska; we could name some more).  Seems, at times, we have forgotten all of this.  The thought of a diocese merging with another is seen as some unimaginable failure rather than something which happened not unfrequently.  We fret about finding enough resources to meet missional needs, without remembering that the first incarnation of the DFMS was so woefully underfunded that the whole thing was scrapped.

The experience of Anglicanism in the United States has been one of chronic struggle for most of its existence.  The same William Augustus Muehlenberg presented a memorial (in essence a resolution) to the 1853 General Convention lamenting that the Episcopal Church was simply missing the boat on what was happening in the USA and was going to lose out on the opportunities for mission and evangelism, thus jeopardizing its future (any of this sound familiar?).  The General Convention referred it to a committee, and, three years later, rejected any of the suggestions for more dramatic, structural changes and only approved the option of allowing Morning Prayer and the Communion service to be used as separate and distinct forms of worship (at a time when MP, Litany, Ante-Communion/Liturgy of the Word, and Communion were often the order of the day on communion Sundays).  Hmmm...General Convention reluctant to act on a proposal for significant change in the face of struggles of the church to accommodate to massive changes in society?  Thank goodness that'll never happen again.

Anyway, back to Diamond:  So one major problem we have is that we embrace the blip -- 1950-1990, when the church grew, in part because of positive steps and actions taken, but in part due to factors utterly beyond our control, like a population surge in our core demographic -- as normative.  This includes taking things like establishing a large centralized church organization headed by a CEO in New York City as the normative way to organize for mission, because this was also a time of consolidation and coordination by centralized institutions, in both church and society.  We had the first full-time Presiding Bishop beginning in the 1940s, accelerating developments begun in 1919 with the establishment of the Executive Council (originally National Council) and making the PB and elective office.  We look back on this period from 1950-1990 as normative, when one could argue, if anything, it was out of the ordinary for our experience.  For almost all of its existence prior to 1950, the Episcopal Church was a collection of networks (dioceses, missionary organizations, etc.) loosely connected and coordinated.

Reading Diamond, it's important to note there's nothing inherently wrong with assuming the anomaly is normative, it happens to almost all organizations and cultures at some time.  It's how you react when the real normal comes back, or when a new normal emerges, which is important. 

One reaction is refusal to acknowledge this.  One of the more comical demonstrations of this to COD is the endless angst and spinning of numbers from the "golden age" of the blip.  Instead of even knowing how much the Episcopal Church scraped and struggled, or admitting much of the growth from 1950-1990 was us riding a wave which lifted a lot of mainline Protestant boats, we instead ascribe it to our own abilities and as part of an inexorable process of growth and expansion.  And thus follows, in some places, the spinning of numbers in the "decline", perhaps the most disingenuous being that this decline is due to decisions made which have driven out conservatives.  With membership peaking in 1966 at roughly 3.6 million and now just under 2 million, there is the outlandish argument that this 40% decline is due to ordination of women, prayer book revision, and consecrating an openly gay bishop.  (Make no mistake:  the decline is real, but a decline due to a number of different factors).  These persons making such arguments are either delusional or deliberately deceptive -- the single largest number quantifiable in that "decline" is a result of the "loss" of thousands of members of the Episcopal Church from dioceses which became independent of the Episcopal Church in the 1980s and 1990s: the Philippines, Panama, etc.  The majority of the rest has to do with demographics (were are old, old, old compared to broader society -- folks are moving from the pew to the columbarium) and colossal failures in evangelism and discipleship (nobody coming into the pew to replace those heading out).  Those colossal failures are legion: an inability or unwillingness to embrace cultural diversity (we are overwhelmingly white, white, white in an increasingly multicultural society; the Roman Catholic Church is losing Anglo members but maintains slow growth, under 1%, because of ministry to Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and African communities), just to name one.  To be sure, some of these losses do come from those who left the church in reaction to certain decisions taken, but this probably only makes up 5-10% of that decline, if that much.  You can read more of my reflections on "decline" here.

In fact, if you want to draw the circle even wider, one could argue that we are witnessing the end of another blip:  the whole period from 500-1900 or so when Christianity held a privileged place in North American and Western societies.  First beginning in Europe in the 1800s and 1900s, waves of secularization are coming ashore in the USA.  This is going to wash away many notions in the West of what the church should be: a building belonging to an organization people join and hire a clergy person to minister to them which in turn is part of cluster of churches holding vaguely similar beliefs that pretends the culture as a whole thinks it has something to say.  That blip is over as well.  And guess what?  Much of Christianity prior to, say, 400 can be described as diverse, loosely connected set of networks...maybe the new normal is just the old normal?  (If you want to learn more, read Crusty Old Dean's 2005 page-turner, "The Past is Prologue: the Revolution of Nicene Historiography, available here, for only $167.)

COD finds himself thinking that restructuring is so 2011.  The past few months have convinced him that one the one hand the scope of change we are looking at in the next 50 years is so profound, and, on the other hand, how utterly incapable governing structures currently are at shaping a discussion about what is needed (a quick run-through of the Blue Book Report shows that nothing of substance will likely emerge from this General Convention this summer, brought to us by the same people who can't use Excel properly).

Collapse, my friends.  That's what's coming.

So COD offers the following:

1)  Realize the blip is not normative, and that the much of the structures we have cannot be tweaked because the structures are part of the blip.

2)  Dismantle national church structures to be solely canonical governance.  Looks like we will spend 2012, just like we did in 2009, letting the General Convention and the Politburo that makes decisions slowly decide what we cannot do (in 2009, things like Liturgy & Music, Theological Education, and others; in 2012, Youth & Young Adult; in 2015, what next?) so they can struggle to do what they think they can still do or prefer to do.  A slow, slow death march to irrelevance.  Begin to end it now; shut it down but do so in order to

3)  Begin a process to fully empower dioceses, provinces, networks to do the mission of the church.  We have some assets:  $250 million in endowment funds held by the DFMS; property in New York; a series of networks which, at times some more successfully than others, coordinated by denominational staff; a network of over 7,000 parishes and 100 dioceses and many, many affiliation based groups and networks.  Empower the networks fully instead of having them have stuff periodically dumped on them every three years.  We will still do many of the things we used to do, but in different ways, with broader buy-in and support -- maybe Forma (formerly NAECED) or provinces would hire Young Adult & Youth Ministry network coordinators to work with congregations and dioceses instead of what 815 used to do.

Or, maybe like those germs which devastated the Aztecs, maybe a whole new and unexpected way of doing church is going to emerge.  Or maybe it's already here and we can't fully empower it blowing millions on a building in New York and on holding a once-every-three-years meeting.
4)  End parishes as clubs for members with a chaplain to minister to them, set up as Ponzi schemes for committees, which sees recruitment as getting people to serve on committees.  Would many of the towns where our Episcopal churches are located even notice, or care, if they were to close?  How many of our parishes function solely as clubs for the gathered?  How many dioceses have 10%, 15%, 20%, of their parishes on diocesan support?  How many dioceses are struggling to function?  We have to change not only the diocesan structure, but fundamentally reshape what it means to be a parish and a diocese.  Some of many options which are available, should we be willing to pursue them:

--We could recruit and train non-stipendiary priests to gracefully end parishes which are unwilling or unable to engage in any actual mission, evangelism, or discipleship; even develop a system of training and education for non-stipendiary priests which wouldn't make them have to drop everything to go to seminary.

--In turn, for what full time clergy we have, train them not to be chaplains to a gathered community but missionaries and community organizers.  This will also require a fundamental rethinking of seminary education in how we train such folks.  You know, COD is a Dean, and is ready to partner with whomever is willing to work on the two points above.

A good portion of the Episcopal Church, and most of Christianity in Europe and North America, is going to collapse in the next 50 years.  How much?  50%?  75%?  Decisions we make will help determine exactly the scale and scope of that collapse.

A cursory study of the history of the Episcopal Church shows that at many times people lamented whether it would survive, and at other times showed a constant litany of concerns about growth, organization, governance, and finance.  Yet we can also learn from the past that, despite all of this, many believed Episcopal Church and Anglicanism have a charism to tap into something greater.  By being a church catholic and reformed; by not being tied to a particular ethnic group; but not defining itself solely by theological confessionalism; by combining historic catholic order and representative governance.   People like William Augustus Muhlenberg, William Reed Hungington, and others argued this in the 1800s.  In our own time people like Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass and Peter Rollins are pondering whether Anglicanism is missing out on exploring how it can tap into a new Great Awakening in the religious trends sweeping our way, instead wrapped up in internal squabbles.

We can do so again.   However, the only way to be resurrected is to die.


  1. Wow. Just wow. Challenging, daunting, heart breaking. As much as my heart cries out against what you say I can't seem to find a crack to begin the argument.

  2. Great stuff here to think about, Tom. Thanks for this insightful analysis. I've been reading about "collapse" in the "secular" arena for some years now, and all of it compelling if not scary (like Kevin Philips' "American Theocracy," or James Speth's "Red Sky at Morning").

    That said, I would just caution against lumping all congregations into the "private club with a chaplain" model. I don't think that's true or fair. I know a good many congregations that really are making a difference in their communities, doing great gospel work, and they would indeed be missed if they were to disappear. Is "collapse" headed our way? Yes, on all sorts of fronts. But not likely with a whole scale implosion. Evolution rarely happens with big bangs, but with uneven steps and processes.

    I don't mean that we have any room for apathy. But the variety and complexity of the situation I think calls for lots more nuance. Thanks for prompting this conversation!

    1. Agreed, drjayson -- my intent was not to imply all of our congregations are, only that we need firmly to end that model, by either transforming or gracefully ending those that are. There's plenty of vitality in plenty of congregations, which is what we need to build on.

  3. "In turn, for what full time clergy we have, train them not to be chaplains to a gathered community but missionaries and community organizers."

    Or how about spiritual leaders who can communicate our theology and spirituality in clear and concrete ways and help us laity recognize the presence of our faith in our lives and, in turn, communicate that to those whom we meet and influence.

    Ideally, I'd think that spiritual leadership would be a component of "missionary" but there are so many different definitions of "mission" floating around these days I no longer have any idea what people mean when they use it...

    1. Yeah, the "mission" thing is getting confusing, isn't it? As Inigo Montoye once said, "That word that you keep using. It does not mean what I think you think it means." We need to transform lives and communities; that's how we transform the world, and adequately expressing what and who we are as a spiritual community is an integral component.

  4. There is no doubt that your fundamental diagnosis is correct. One might quibble with the ending of the blip. The decline was palpable in the late 1970s. Though perhaps the 1980s and 1990s were when we feasted on our seed corn... I am a little skeptical of how good we will be at choosing parishes to euthanize and what activities to call mission. I would really hate to see a cadre of fully employed denominational "resource" hacks smugly fail in the name of mission-as-they-see-it, while worshiping congregations are neglected.
    Still, if we do your numbers 1 & 2, the form of 3 & 4 may well emerge. It will require creativity and persistence. Or, equally likely, the Episcopal Church may die and Christianity will emerge unexpectedly.

    Drew Kadel

  5. Right, the 1950-1990 figure is very much a ballpark, and one could argue for a 1920-1980 range as well. I, too, would hate to see a carde of resource hacks fail while worshipping congregations are neglected...wait, isn't that what's happening now (in addition to being a short-lived sequel to Wha's Happening!)

  6. Thank you Dean Ferguson.

    This is insightful stuff. In the Diocese of North Dakota the vast majority of our clergy didn't go to seminary and serve without pay. This has helped solve some problems, but the challenge of becoming missionaries, community organizers, and evangelizers still remains. Here dioceses and seminaries and other groups (religious orders, parachurch organizations) could partner together to get us going in a missional direction.

  7. Great stuff, Dean. Thank you. You say, "We have embraced the blip". I agree. What that "blip" has done is to establish "mission creep" which has become like kudzu and our structures are dying in its stranglehold.

    We are collapsing under the kudzu of mission creep and, while folks at 815 are talking about "restructuring for mission" and the "sacrifices" we are going to have to make in order to "dance with the world", no one there is modeling that sacrifice.

    Has anyone looked at the historic reason we created the office of PB? Have we considered restructuring the office of PB so that, like the ABC, s/he also has a diocese to run? For that matter, have we considered restructuring the office of bishop so that they are also deans of cathedrals / rectors of parishes?

    We haven't because we are still infested with 'mission creep'. At best, the 2012 budget will probably not do the things we need it to do in order to cut back some of the kudzu. At worst, it will cut some things - like youth mission - that ought not to be cut.

    No wonder Jesus weeps.

  8. As a seminarian, I am both excited and terrified by the direction you propose. But the current model is dying out, and we have to find somewhere to go.

  9. This is the most insightful critical commentary I've seen (for, possibly, ever) on the future of this church. It needs to be circulated and discussed widely -- along with the excellent responses.

    And in the meantime, thank you!

  10. Another challenge is how utterly unprepared full-time clergy are to re-enter the secular workforce. I graduated from college with a BA in Clinical Psychology and a minor in Computer Information Systems. I was a technical support specialist for a couple of years prior to seminary. Now that I've been in full-time ministry for approaching 20 years, my skills and experience in non-church work are practically nil. Yet when I search for web sites and other resources dealing with bi-vocational clergy, I find next to nothing, let alone something that might help me make a transition to part-time clergy ministry.

    1. Interestingly, you might find that Baptists, Church of the Brethren, and Lutherans have a great many resources on bi-vocational ministry...

  11. Right on! Y'know, there's other seminaries doing that whole education-without-dropping-everything thing, and I'd be delighted if Bexley were to begin offering programs in conjunction with one of them or on its own to give us non-residential seminarians a wider set of options when figuring out how to get educated for whatever mission it is we want to serve in whatever ecclesiastical future is to come.

  12. Tom, everything you describe has been creeping up on the West Coast faster and sooner than in most places. I know what you're talking about, and I agree that drastic changes are needed in response. On a bad day I think it will take utter collapse to get us out of our rut. But on better days I think there are things that can be done. We should talk about possibilities for innovation in seminaries – you know we're already well on in that direction at CDSP, and I know you're heading that way at Bexley/Seabury.

  13. I think one of the interesting developments in the past decade has been a leveling of some of the regional differences which FACT surveys and some of the Pew Research data is showing -- many parts of the northeast and midwest are really not that much different in patterns of church affiliation and institutional identity as the West Coast. And as you mention with seminaries, and as I noted in Jay's post, there are places out there which are in the midst of productive and adaptive -- at times difficult to be sure -- processes of change. We lived so well so long, as Paul Simon once put it to the tune of a nice Bach fugue.

  14. Thank you so much for this post. This has articulated for me where I am at with all of this more than anything I have read. I will be sharing it alot.

    In many ways a big ship is taking in water and going down. Many people seem to be looking for ways to either comfortably stay on as it sinks or to look for life rafts. You seem to be saying and I agree, "Let's build a new boat!"

    Randall Curtis
    Ministry Developer for Young Adults and Youth
    The Episcopal Church in Arkansas
    Forma board member
    Province VII youth Network Coordinator

  15. A decade before Diamond, Joseph Tainter wrote "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (1988). There's much to learn there too; the point is, it's industrial civilization that's coming down, and any faith group that depends on its structures to survive is coming down with it. That includes narrowly defining "bi-vocational" as clergy working another "job" in the "workplace." (In case we haven't noticed, finding those jobs is a struggle for a good chunk of the population. At least clergy have the Pension Fund...for now.) Perhaps it's time for parishes that have them to consider turning their spacious, well-groomed lawns into mini-farms, look into acquiring glebe land as part of clergy salaries. We'll need to grow a lot more than budgets and ASA's in the future.

    1. Thanks for the additional suggestions -- right, part of the complexity here is the broader shifts and changes in society. Postindustrialism, globalization, new forms of communication and media, etc. Some great work in church history is being done looking at how the church is changed when society as a whole is undergoing massive shifts: things like the Crusades and the Reformation came at times of incredible technological, sociological, and other developments in Western European society.

  16. I'd also add the Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and Murray Jardine's "The Making and UnMaking of Technological Society" for structural/political collapse and change. But yeah... Right on, man.

  17. In a few words, Tom, you are right. I've said elsewhere that I'm pessimistic about the church in the short term, but I'm optimistic about the church (the Body of Christ) in the long term, once we have come to accept the reality of the collapse of the big structures.

    And when I hear talk of 'mission' from the powers in the church, my eyes glaze over, because I mostly don't know what the hell they're talking about.

    1. That's the important line between The Church and the church. Our particular expressions of church may change, decline, advance, and whatnot -- but The Church can never die, it would have already (Great Persecution, Black Death, Reformation, Darwin, etc.) -- the question will be what will it look like and how do we adapt or die and be reborn to new contexts.

  18. Two points. First, at least financially, bigger is almost always better so it would probably be helpful to look at what services and/or functions parishes and even dioceses can combine. It might even be worthwhile to gather funds into a more central pot before dispersing them to parishes, although that approach depends on at least some parishes generating more than enough funds to support themselves. That could even go in the direction of parish clergy as diocesan employees.

    Second, you're apparently doubling down on the clergy-as-boss idea. Why should our missionaries and community organizers have to be clergy? In old, established parishes, why must the "CEO" of the parish be a clergy person? Why couldn't a lay person be in charge of the business side of running a parish while hiring clergy to provide liturgical, pastoral care, and ascetic expertise? For parishes that can't afford to hire more than one person, why should that person be a priest instead of a lay person who's focus is on how to grow small parishes?

    1. Gather funds from where? My diocese only gets money from parishes (ok there are a couple of endowments at the diocese to fund some basic bishop's office item). Parishes are taxed 20% which funds most of the diocesan budget as well as a chunk that rolls uphill to 815.

      Congregations that can't support themselves are subsidized heavily by the ones that can.

      The taxing of the well to support the sick is part of the problem.

    2. How else are we going to fund missions? Actually, the bigger questions are around compensation and benefits, and who gets the most competent priests and other staff personnel.

  19. As for point #1, I see that as a larger discussion of how we need to come up with better financial models than the current one we have. There's a lot of financial resources out there -- while attendance/membership is cratering, giving is actually doing OK. How do we best use that for what we need to do?

    Wouldn't say I'm doubling down; the rector as CEO has gotta go. These were just a couple of suggestions out of probably dozens of different models we can be looking at. How can clergy work most collaboratively in a particular context? It might mean they are the community organizer/change agent; it might be a given context already has those gifts and skills there. It might mean hiring lay people and have non-stipendiary clergy work with worship teams. 80 years ago the place where a clergyperson hung out in the church was called a "study", now they have an "office". A lot of clergy may become more like rabbis, teachers/preachers/worship leaders, whereas in any given Temple there's a board which handles most of the administrative stuff.

  20. I do not sympathize with the arguments advanced above. The article's subtitle - 'Manifesto for Radical Change' (surely something - anything - would be more original than a 'manifesto' calling for something 'radical') - opens with a tantrum of anti-institutionalism (blame General Convention!) and concludes with a call to 'empower' dioceses. How 1968! Such rhetorical 'strategies' - used ad nauseam by the leadership in the Episcopal Church - are unreflective and dated. But what if 'the times they are a-changin''?

    A few thoughts:

    COD's assertion: 'We have taken the period from 1950-1990 (give or take a few years) as somehow a normative and determinative time period'.
    COD's evidence: none is offered.
    Comment: if 1966 was the peak in our membership, then why see 1950 - 1990 as the 'golden age' or 'blip' defined by 'growth'? This makes little sense. Or, is this 'rhetorical theology' in action - an attempt at persuasion rather than logic? Perhaps the reason why people are concerned is not because they are historically naive, but because the Episcopal Church has never had a period of membership decline comparable to that of the past 40+ years - a rate of decline that continues unabated?

    COD's assertion: 'To be sure, some of these losses do come from those who left the church in reaction to certain decisions taken, but this probably only makes up 5-10% of that decline, if that much.'
    COD's evidence: none is offered.
    Comment: This claim is far out, man! The significant membership dips in the wake of 1976, 1979, and 2003 - not to mention the far steeper rate of decline since 2003 - surely point to something like dissatisfaction on the part of a significant number of laity. To blow all of this off as 'only...5-10% of that decline' is simply self-serving.

    COD's assertion: 'A good portion of the Episcopal Church, and most of Christianity in Europe and North America, is going to collapse in the next 50 years.'
    COD's evidence: none is offered.
    Comment: Secularization theory dates to the 1960s. Perhaps we might therefore consider it a reflection of those times, rather than a revealed doctrine of inevitable historical development? Perhaps we might also consider that the struggles of the Church over the last 40+ years are due principally - to the current generation of ecclesiastical leadership? Given the considerable failures of Baby Boomers in other matters - marriage, for example - one might consider that our real problem is not the inevitable collapse of Christianity (how American - an apocalyptic prophecy of doomsday and irreligion!) but, instead, the abusive complacency of those who deny the destructiveness of their own decisions.

    Furthermore, despite the amount of ink poured out on so-called 'secularization theory', we find that it has offered zero predictive capacity. Consequently, thirty years ago no one predicted the surge of so-called 'fundamentalism' or that the language of 'desecularization' might become important. As Islam does not suffer from 'secularization', why should we assume that Christianity will suffer from it? There is rather little reason for assuming that current trends will always remain current. History is flux. To offer predictions about the future based upon the last few decades simply takes the recent past as, in the author's words, 'somehow a normative and determinative time period ... when, in fact, it was a blip, an anomaly.'

    1. Hello Guyer - thanks for the comments. I thought dismantling governance structures above the diocesan level was pretty radical. And I'm actually talking more 1868 than 1968.

      The decline is real, and I don't mean to discount the reality of decisions made by the church driving some people out. However it is one of many factors. Average Sunday attendance has dropped 23% in a decade; if 5-10% of this is due to decisions taken on human sexuality, that's almost half of that number.

      None of this was an effort to be exhaustive or definitive; there will be more detail with lots of footnotes in the book I'm writing.

  21. Thank you for putting this conversation out into the world. This is similar conversation that is had at the Episcopal Church Building Fund's Symposiums - terrifying and exiting all at the same time. I continually reflect on the need to die fully to have resurrection and try not to be frightened by that.
    I work in Fort Worth in a parish and at the diocesan level. It is a struggle to constantly remind folks that we are not going back to the old model of a full-time priest in every parish. It is no longer sustainable on many levels. We are forging a new way (or re-learning the old ways) - this is the new normal for us and for many others who just don't know it yet.
    btw - anyone know of a resource that outlines different ministry models with an overview of how they work? I can find specific ones, but not a comparison.

  22. Yes, this resource exists. Check out section 5.2 of http://www.tec-europe.org/Documents/Forms/handbook/VI_SmallChurchGrowthStrategy_Sept08.pdf

  23. It might also be useful if we abandoned the myth of ontological ordination, and reverted to the Reformers understanding of ordination as calling and function.

    Now retired, I used to insist on "ontological ordination", mostly as a cover and a bluff for my own insecurities, faults and failures. Now I realise that I was called to serve the Lord Jesus, and to function as a presbyter.

    We might then be able to follow our Lutheran companions, and set aside presbyters to serve as bishops for fixed terms.

  24. I'm as eager for the deconstruction of our overbuilt national apparatus as the next guy, no question. But I'm also suspicious of claims about new paradigms. My general guess is that the failures of structure are most of the time symptoms rather than causes of the present unpleasantness. It's fairly easy on a clear day to see what isn't working anymore, and it's also fairly easy to see that most of the brilliant ideas folks have brought forward as alternatives aren't really working either. In the midst of that, I found this helpful and encouraging, even if it doesn't seem to fit into too many new-paradigm conversations.


    Bruce Robison
    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  25. The notion of non-stipendiary clergy has much to commend it. There are many in the church -- myself included -- who feel called in that area, but cannot now reconcile that call with taking several years out of my life and paying a boatload of money to attend seminary.

    That is not to say that places like VTS lack value. To the contrary, they may well become increasingly important over time. But gone are the days when folks followed a steady, straight-line career path, and three years of full-time seminary for many do not reflect present-day norms.

  26. Seminarians should not graduate with a load of debt. What about supporting seminarians with free or quite modest tuition? Perhaps consolidating seminaries would save expenses, and the money could be applied to tuition. I believe we should try to hang on to the practice of giving our priests a sound education.

  27. The Episcopal Church has way,way too many seminaries. Before we talk about closing parish churches, where actual baptized Christians are formed, it might be a good idea to close all of the underfunded, redunant seminaries soaking up resources that could better be spent at the local level.

    1. I agree - I think the same dynamic is at work. Those parishes that can change and adapt will survive; we'll close those that don't. The seminaries which work best to adapt to changes in the church and in education will survive; those that dont will close.

  28. You hint at larger forces at work, i.e. in the way attendance increased during the "blip" and is decreasing due to secularization. I tend to agree. There's good data out there, for instance, that suggests that Episcopal Church membership increases during good economic times and decreases during recessions.

    But how far can we push this? What if church membership, church size, etc. are all just beyond our control, no matter what kind of structure we have, what kind of clergy we produce?

    One criticism of Diamond is that he is too deterministic, that is, he leaves no room for "the great (hu)man of history" theory. Where do you draw the line and say that larger forces matter but we still have a role to play?


  29. Thank you so much for naming this. This is the conversation we need to have and I think we've been dancing around it for a while. (I'm new here myself, so I have no idea how long.) Inspired by your post, I wrote one with more data from the Church Center and some projections of my own. http://plainsongfarm.com/a-time-to-be-pruned/

  30. Having read Nurya's essay, I was very impressed and highly recommend it. Thank you, Nurya.

  31. Wonderful post!

    I hear you call for a what organizational change consultants call deep culture change. The 815 restructuring efforts are premature and they will do little without massive cultural shifts at the diocesan and congregational levels.

    You volunteered in your post as a seminary dean to take part in the transformation and cultural change process. I would like to expand the ways you might participate as a seminary dean working with other deans and the entire church. In this more expansive view you would lead and offer a model of cultural change for and to the entire church.

    Of course, I trust you would agree that the Episcopal seminary system is not an exception to the patterns you articulated and the need for change or the necessity that they be also a part of the necessary transformation. I would argue that the seminaries need to change more than the way they train future clergy and lay leaders.

    In light of your all encompassing call for change, do we really need all the Episcopal seminaries we have in the USA? Is it really a good stewardship of resources to have all the seminaries we have in the name of The Episcopal Church?

    The recent seminary mergers here and there of a few seminaries is a perfect example of the kind limited and futile change you see coming from 815 for the national church governance and the limits of real transformation. Of course each seminary is independently managed and are free to do with their boards as they please, even if and when they choose in ways that continue the dysfunction in the larger system.

    The result has been the survival of the fittest which may not leave the best seminaries or best faculties equipped for the challenges you so eloquently articulated in your post. I imagine substantially fewer seminaries with substantial technological investments that go ways beyond blackboard like tools. With fewer Episcopal seminaries we as a church could pool the very best faculty to staff a few rather than the peanut butter method in place where each seminary is spread thin. With fewer seminaries pooling the very best talent, an Episcopal seminary would be more broadly competitive as among the best theological schools in the country.

    In your role as Dean of a seminary coupled with your passion for deep change you have a wonderful opportunity to lead a more broad based coalition of seminary transformation than has been undertaken by any one of the seminaries. Of course if you are inspired to lead such a coalition you will immediately face the same impediments and challenges as 815 has and also congregations and dioceses have too. Your seminary coalition would build up not merely expertise in cultural change but also develop the necessary empathy that will be necessary to move The Episcopal Church forward.

    The seminaries like congregations are trapped in a dominant ecclesial culture of competing with one another rather than working together to address the systemic issues you have raised.

    There is so much work for all of us to do wherever we find ourselves in The Episcopal Church.

    Joseph Duggan
    Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow with 20 years of organizational change experience

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  33. Agree completely, Joseph. As someone said to me when I came to Bexley Hall, "Wow, from denominational staff to theological education? You sure know how to pick growth industries." Rethinking seminaries is part of larger question of theological education and the nature of the priesthood -- what kind of priests do we need and how should they be trained? Bexley's federation with Seabury and Bexley's own partnership with Trinity Lutheran are important steps in what is a very fluid, changing, challenging, and, in the end, I think will be exciting and transformative for theological education.

    Would be glad to be in touch by email or phone if you want to talk a little more. I'm all about building partnerships, and I am far less Crusty in person.


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