Friday, January 3, 2014

Set 3: It's Gonna Get Weird. Two Dragons.

On the Mickey Mouse Club, they used to have theme days.  Despite the name, Crusty Old Dean is really not terribly old.  But old enough to have watched reruns of the Mickey Mouse Club from the 1950s on TV as a child.  And for any millennials aghast at that, remember this:  the 1990s revival of the Mickey Mouse Club is just as far in the past as the original 1950s one was when COD was watching it in the mid-1970s.  As Yogi Berra once said, "That youth thing gets old after a while."  Anyway, they had theme days:  circus round-up day and special guest day, for instance.  One of the theme days was Anything Can Happen Day.

Welcome to Anything Can Happen Day at the GOEs.  The two biggest wildcard canonical areas are up for today:  Studies in Contemporary Society and Ethics and Moral Theology.  These canonical areas lend themselves to think-pieces (Ethics) or scenarios that people are asked to role play (Contemporary Society).  COD said to the students after Morning Prayer at our Hill Street Blues-esque morning briefing (or for you Sci-Fi fans, the Battlestar Galactica flight deck briefing for a suicide mission to take out a cylon base for some inexplicable reason relating to Boomer's child): "They gave you a straightforward Day 1.  Today could get weird.  But on the plus side, it's essentially all over after today.  Saturday there's one question, Church History, which is usually pretty fair.  Then you have Sunday off and you'll be so sick of this you'll coast on Monday.  And then we will provide food and booze at the end."

So in the words of the immortal Will Ferrell as Big Earl (from the underrated and oft overlooked
You're a very convincing dragon.  You should feel good about that.
Starsky and Hutch) Crusty has a feeling about today:  "I'm not gonna lie to you.  It's gonna get weird.  Two dragons."

Welcome to Set 3, the longest canonical area: "Studies in contemporary society, including the historical
and contemporary experience of racial and minority groups, and cross-cultural ministry skills."

Set 3: Contemporary Society (note: not real name of canonical area)


You are the priest in an inner city parish that has undergone several changes in its 100- year history. It has a strong sense of self-identity as a predominantly African-American congregation, with some members from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some congregants live in the community and others drive long distances. As is currently the case in many urban areas, the economy is changing, and new demographic groups are moving in. New businesses are being opened; new housing is being built. As a result, as in any group faced with change, fear of change is rising in the congregation. You have been called to help the congregation address this fear and move forward.
In an essay of 1,500 words, propose how you will approach this task. Include in your answer:
  •  The probable historical and contemporary experience of the congregation in question and how these experiences relate to the groups that are moving in. Identify at least one such group, and include how aspects such as race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, marital or social status may have affected the fear of change.
  • The role that the mission of the church as stated in the Catechism plays in your proposal.
  • The day-to-day practice of your own ministry that will respond to the complexity of social change both inside the congregation (for example, pastoral care, leadership, and worship) and outside the congregation (for example, the relationship of this congregation to the wider community).

Crusty has some mixed feelings on this question.  Not on what he thinks they are asking; but rather, how students are being asked to approach underlying issues here.

On the one hand, he is glad that the GBEC is actually using this canonical area to explore some of the issues outlined in the canonical area.  You would think that would be a no-brainer, but last year there was a bizarro attempt to expect seminarians to understand finite differences between Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam; the year before, it was all about church-state issues (read about those past questions here and here).  The last two years were perplexing, since the GBEC seemed to almost be trying to avoid having to ask students about the experience of racial and minority groups, focusing the 2012 question on church-state matters and the 2013 question on interreligious relations, when almost nobody gets any kind of prep or background in interreligious questions.

COD called the question last year for Studies in Contemporary Society "The Race Card Not Played."  Last year, by framing this canonical area's question about interreligious relations based on theology, COD thought the question was overlooking cultural, class, and racial differences.  Put simply, many people's issues with Muslims has more to do with racism than theology, since most Americans and Episcopalians don't have the faintest clue about Islam to know enough to object or disagree theologically but are informed by bias, ignorance, and racism.  Likewise, if a congregation is debating about whether to rent space to Pentecostal church, it's really probably more about race and class than theology, and probably has more to do the Pentecostals in question being brown and poor rather than whether they are Oneness Pentecostals or not and baptize only in the name of Jesus or use the Trinitarian formula.  Framing the question around theological differences last year was a cop-out and a failure to address underlying issues of race and class.

So Crusty's glad the GBEC actually decided to ask a question about what this canonical area is supposed to address:  "Studies in contemporary society, including the historical
and contemporary experience of racial and minority groups, and cross-cultural ministry skills."

But then it gets a little weird in the setup.  Students are asked to put themselves in the place of being rector of a church that is predominantly African American.  The setup itself runs smack into one of the realities of the issue of race in the Episcopal Church and most of mainline Protestant Christianity, namely, the extraordinary de facto segregation.  Most congregations tend to be overwhelmingly one ethnic background or another, and most of those backgrounds are white.  And most congregations of one ethnic or racial background tend to select a rector that matches their background.  Overwhelmingly white churches choose white rectors.  Church of our Savior in New York has not had a rector for several years because it's a historically Chinese congregation seeking an ethnically Chinese Anglican priest.  Now of course COD knows that there are multiracial and ethnically diverse congregations (and was a member of one at one point): but these are sadly the exceptions.  And of course there are examples of, say, an African American priest serving a predominantly white congregation; one of the faculty here at Bexley Hall is a Caucasian serving an overwhelmingly African American congregations.  But those are exceptions as well.  In addition, students taking GOEs are identified only by their number, like Toots Hibbert (now someone else has that number), so they are not supposed to use personal details about themselves.  They can't say, in response to this setup, "As a Caucasian serving in a historically African American Church" or "as a Latino serving in a historically African American Church I would have a different perspective."  They've chosen a rare entity -- a predominantly and historically African American congregation -- and asked students to enter into this world without being able to self-identify their own context.  Strikes me that students are being asked to do the ecclesial equivalent of riding a unicorn in today's question as some kind of fantastical setup.  Crusty, by the way, doesn't mean to imply any resignation or God forbid endorsement of this reality of the Episcopal Church; our rarely acknowledged legacy of institutional racism is a great sin of the Episcopal Church, and that legacy is the main reason it's still an overwhelmingly white denomination in an increasingly pluralistic country.  He also doesn't mean to denigrate the seriousness of the situation outlined here, only that the way this is set up for students to deal with the situation that is problematic and perplexing.

So COD is a bit perplexed by the nature of the setup.  Not by the underlying issues, mind you --  issues of multiculturalism and diversity are critical to the life of the church.  Failure to build a church that reflects the diversity of our society is a sin against the Gospel which calls us not to see those differences.  It will also lead to the eventual death of many forms of Christianity if they cannot embrace multiculturalism, because America has always been diverse and is becoming more so.  So not the issue itself, but the setup.  Asking white people (and yes, while there are exceptions, the overwhelmingly majority of the GOE takers will be white) to imagine themselves as rector of a historically African American congregation does not sit well with Crusty.  Is this replicating the dynamic of, say, movies and books like "The Help", where African Americans and their realities are only real when white people notice them?

COD also has a few quibbles with the description of the change process as outlined in the setup.  Having interviewed for several rector positions of the years, and serving as reference for seminary grads interviewing for jobs, he's not
Yes.  A gun-toting cat riding a fire-breathing unicorn over a rainbow.  You're welcome.
so sure about someone being called specifically charged to deal with change.  Congregations use their own code words for the process outlined in the setup:  "We want to grow" or "We want to reach out to the community" or "we want to get more asses in pews pledging so we can keep the roof from collapsing."  Anytime anyone says things like "we want to grow" or "we want to reach out", COD always asks, "Great, let's talk about how we would need to change to do that," resulting often with members of the search committee or whatever staring at him like he has just farted.  Now, of course there are exceptions, but here we have a magical congregation where the race-less rector (since students can't identify themselves) of a black church has space to park his unicorn also has the foresight to realize it needs to hire a change agent as well.  COD would have thought something like, "This church has called you to help with expressed desires to grow and reach out to the community, and you realize you will need to work with the congregation on addressing issues of change and adaptation" could do the trick here.

COD also doesn't care much for the "fear of change" stuff.  Crusty holds to the Ed Friedman systems theory mantra that people don't really fear change, they fear loss.  Congregations actually make all sorts of changes all the time over the years and survive them, from letting women on vestries to giving communion to infants to switching to a new prayer book.  As Friedman says, it's the fear of the loss of something, not change itself, which is what lies behind most of the anxiety in times of transition.  Learn how to lessen anxiety over sense of loss and you can help walk through change.

As for the essay  Crusty would love to assign something like this to every clergyperson and lay leader, not just GOE takers. But he is also terrified that the Episcopal Church's general inability to discuss its own history with racism may mean students are not adequately prepared to handle this.  Crusty has tried to do his best in his context, including sections on the history of underrepresented groups in church history classes, and having the entire seminary community, including faculty, go through anti-racism training, among others.  But this is a really complex issue.  Let's break down the three sections that students are being asked to cover in an essay of 1,500 words (realizing this blog post, even without quoting the question, will probably run to twice that word limit).

Include in your answer:

  •  The probable historical and contemporary experience of the congregation in question and how these experiences relate to the groups that are moving in. Identify at least one such group, and include how aspects such as race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, marital or social status may have affected the fear of change.
Keep in mind all that is being asked here.  Include "the probable historical and contemporary experience of the congregation."  Give a brief historical sketch of this hypothetical community!  For one thing, this requires some knowledge of the African American experience in the Episcopal Church, where predominantly African American congregations were formed in most major cities by the dawn of the 20th century.  If a congregation is 100 years old and predominantly African American, chances are it must have roots as an historically African American congregations, or otherwise be an even rarer entity, a multicultural church that is not
COD demands law enforcing use of Oxford comma.
historically African American but it also not a new church start since it's 100 years old -- something likely as rare as the rarely seen fire-breathing rainbow unicorn.  THEN students are expected to include, in essence, a comparison of that that historical experience -- which is a history of marginalization, exclusion, racism, and oppression -- with the newer groups moving in: "and how these experiences relate to the groups that are moving in."  Wow.  OK, so "Compare the African American experience with middle class LBGT persons and poorer recent immigrants from Honduras."  And remember, that's only one-half of the first thing they're asked to do!  Not just the historical and contemporary experience of an African American congregation and how it relates to newer group moving in, but THEN look at how issues of race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, martial or social status may have affected the fear of change." BTW, Crusty would prefer the use of "and" with an Oxford comma here:  "race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, AND martial or social status may have..."

And this is only part 1 of three things that need to be covered in a 1,500 word essay.  Speaking of which, here's the second thing students have to include:

  • The role that the mission of the church as stated in the Catechism plays in your proposal.
Again, keep in mind what is being asked here.  The mission of the church is to "restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."  Students are being asked to talk about how the church can be an agent in that reconciliation of differing marginalized communities which is fundamental to God's vision for the creation.  COD thinks this is really a fantastic thing being asked in this portion of the essay, but is concerned about the leap to church as agent of reconciliation.   Many communities are in denial on the question of anti-racism and anti-oppression; some have moved into resistor status (using anti-oppression terminology); to move to becoming an anti-racist and reconciling community is exactly what we are being called to do.  But that's something you don't just ride into as gun-wielding cat on a fire-breathing unicorn.  The sheer complexity truly to be that kind of community can be staggering -- this community may have a long, long road of discernment and discussion truly to embrace multiculturalism and COD is chary of leaping straight to asking how they can be a reconciling community.  It is what we are called to do, and our replication of patterns of oppression within the church and failure truly embrace the Gospel that calls us not to see these differences is one of our greatest collective and individual sins. But this is just #2 or 3 things students are being asked to do in this essay!  They must also include

  • The day-to-day practice of your own ministry that will respond to the complexity of social change both inside the congregation (for example, pastoral care, leadership, and worship) and outside the congregation (for example, the relationship of this congregation to the wider community).
Part 3 of the essay does allow students some room to begin to explain how such a process of change and transformation might unfold, and rightly notes the need for an "internal" process within the congregation, and an "external" process, with how the congregation relates to the broader community -- with Crusty feeling the need to note that these boundaries are not hard and fast and we need to be wary of creating false dichotomies or projecting certain schema onto how churches relate to their communities.  Having been part of urban and rural communities, COD was frankly surprised at times how porous the boundaries were in some ways with the broader community; while not hard and fast, speaking personally COD has often seen that suburban churches or churches in more residential rather than downtown urban areas seem to have more rigid boundaries between the internal and external overall.  To give two quick examples.  1)  Serving as interim pastor at a very rural (town population 500) congregation, on my first day on the job, standing in line at the post office, everyone knew who I was by name.  The town was small enough, and people interacted at the only diner in town over breakfast and the town hall, that word had already spread.  2)  As seminarian intern in a downtown urban church, COD was tasked with going door-to-door and handing our flyers inviting people to a meeting at our church, we were considering opening a 24-hour drop-in shelter for homeless women and wanted to be in conversation with our neighbors about the proposal.  COD was surprised to find out how many people already knew about the project and about our other outreach programs.  By contrast, Crusty was serving as interim rector at a suburban congregation, went to the hospital to visit a parishioner, who was out for tests.  He chatted with her room-mate in while waiting for the parishioner to return from tests, who had also lived in the town for 50 years, mentioned to roommate he was pastor at X church, and the woman said, "Where's that?"  Granted, of course, there are all sorts of ways this dynamic can play out, and many rural and urban communities have differing degrees of engagement with their community -- COD is just saying here boundaries can be porous as well.

So section 3 does begin to allow students to address some of the truly complex issues raised in sections 1 and 2, and explain how one might actually begin to lead a congregation through a process of change and transformation.  Which is exactly what we need to be doing as a church:  helping lead communities through processes of change and transformation, in order to adapt to the truly changed contexts of mission and ministry where we find ourselves.  As my colleague and Lenten nemesis Scott Gunn has noted, there are congregations which are growing, and (spoiler alert!) they are ones which have devoted themselves to discipleship and mission, not maintenance.   On the other hand, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of congregations in the Episcopal Church which will close over the next 25 years because, for various reasons (inability; unwillingness; it's already too late) are unable to navigate a process of change and transformation.  We will need clergy and lay leaders who can be change agents, so thank God to the GBEC for making this part of this canonical area this year.  When Crusty was ordained -- again, despite the cognomen, COD isn't that old, and was only ordained 5 years ago after serving as full time lay professional), throughout the process (well, processes, since Crusty was turned down for ordination three times) nobody asked him a single question about mission or evangelism, just asked him to explain whether he was called to preside at the Eucharist why he needed to be ordained to do the ministry he was called to.

So COD is thrilled the GBEC has shaped a question which addresses two of the most critical areas facing the Episcopal Church.  Our need truly to embrace multiculturalism and diversity, and our need to develop leaders who can leads communities through processes of change and transformation.  COD so wanted to give this question the Axios! ranking.  But the issues noted above with setup and framing of the question must, sadly, result in this question receiving the ranking of:  Meh.

My advice to you GOE takers on Anything Can Happen Day is my advice to all you out there in cyberspace wasting time doing something important by reading this blog:  Now go out there, listen to something by The Dan Band (warning:  NSFW, includes cursing) and be the best dragon you can be today.


  1. The thing that troubles me about this question is that it is, in so many ways, about a minority scenario. Most of our congregations are not in inner cities. Your point about the founding of most African American congregations is critical to understanding their experience. How does answering this question help the candidate to imagine what it would be like to minister in a rural or suburban congregation, which is much more likely where they are likely to find themselves?

  2. How could I answer this question without self-identifying who I am? That is, if something were to have magically happened with more unicorns and dragons that you could imagine, and I were to end up in the Process and taking this Test.

    This congregation is already dealing with me as vicar, rector, or priest in charge. I am an over 6 foot tall person that is (somewhat) proud of his Celtic ancestry (without denying there are a few other things back there), who is openly partnered. Speak of rainbows!

    What is it that makes it work for me to be the incumbent? It could be a very tolerant congregation that is just happy to have anyone. I might have some skills or experiences. God's grace may be rising over anything I can do to destroy the situation. What is it?

    Only after (self-) identifying these matters could I even begin to answer this question. It would be what I can do, not some hypothetical generic person in the Process.

    My inability to play be such rules as not bringing myself to the table is one reason why I probably haven't been invited to join the Club. Maybe I am luckier than I know.

  3. Too much for a 1500 word answer - better save yourself 30-45 minutes at the end for editing - although raises some great possibilities for the scenario. Imagine an historically African-American congregation (St Philip's) witnessing an influx of hipsters. After a century or more of having any African-American who managed to wander into St James' (only a few streets over) being approached by a warden and having it politely suggested that perhaps they's be more comfortable at St Philip's Church, how would you ask them to risk their unique identity in order to evangelize the hipsters (largely unchurched). Talk about fear of loss!

  4. Having taken the exam today, my immediate reaction is that this is a WTF question. The question requires us to make stereotypical assumptions about a minority within the church. It claims this hypothetical parish (high, low? Pentacostal? Evangelical? Who knows!?) has been through several changes but gives no indication of the types of changes through which the parish has gone. It implies gentrification by naming trends associated (again stereotypically) with young white people. It does not however own that and says only that some sort of vague unspecified "Demographic Groups" are moving in. The question pushes you to make implicitly racist assumptions about congregations, about their income level, and about their politics based largely on race as the only explicitly stated demographic. Theoretically, this could have been about a black church in Minneapolis struggling with an influx of eastern African Christians and Muslims.

    But it is quite clear that isn't what the question is asking. This question reeks of a "gotcha" question with the racial and ethnic landmines it lays out such that there is really no good way to answer it without first assuming all sorts of things that would turn you into a poster child for the need for inter-cultural competency training.

    I answered to the best of my abilities, and think I gave an acceptable accounting given the vagueness of the question, but after addressing the question they apparently wanted answered but were too afraid to ask, I felt as if I needed a shower.

  5. Daniel, Crusty was torn on this one. COD thinks thgat if we're going to have this as a canonical area, and are going to try to be a church in a multicultural society, we need to and ask hard questions on issues of race, gender, class, and other aspects of what diversity means -- and think hard about processes to live into that kind of multicultural society. Complex questions have complex answers, as Crusty always says. I hope by comparing the setup to a gun-toting cat riding a flame-breathing unicorn flying over a rainbow, and comparing the setup with things like "The Help", shows how much COD thinks the setup was flawed, and, perhaps, even implicitly replicating the kind of racial assumptions it is calling asking students to work through in an answer. These are very, very complex issues and they only gave people 1,500 words -- if the readers don't show the kind of foresight and patience to deal with the struggle students had breaking down such critical issues in such a compressed format in a magnanimous way, believe me, COD will make it known. This does have the potential to be a ridiculous gotcha question with students being judged on unclear standards -- but it doesn't have to be.

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  7. Hrmm...what if one did hypothetically self-identify as Caucasian?

    1. Jonathan: good question...

      Dan: I am not sure that I agree with your assertion regarding the inherent racism in the question. I will have to consider this more as the question does not strike me as making the same assumptions that you are taking issue with.

  8. Remember all you GOE takers -- get a beverage of choice, listen to the Dan Band or something equally inappropriate, be the best dragon you can be, and know that this is all nearly over.

  9. And a gentle reminder to GOE takers: some of us reading this blog are Readers with a capital R. Please don't tell us what you've written with any specificity. For the process to work, it needs to be anonymous. - Anne LeVeque

  10. In all seriousness COD strongly endorses Anne's statement and will reinforce in subsequent blog posts. This blog series is intended to be a comment on the questions, not an open forum on the GOE itself. Double blind anonymity is part of GOE process.

  11. The question is more complicated. It states that the GOE taker is the "priest" and not the rector. This makes a big difference in my mind. How has this priest come to be in this church? I think a rector goes through a process of being chosen and hired by the congregation so there is a different sort of authorization implied. The role of "priest" means a lot of other potential organizational arrangements, and makes me wonder who is asking for help changing this congregation---the congregation or the diocese?

  12. inthewoods, you just blew Crusty's mind. The question just got weirder. What kind of Jedi mind stuff are they trying to pull??


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