Saturday, December 20, 2014

Scrap TREC's A001 — Or, on Having My Mind on TREC Changed (just a bit)

So, though others have been much more critical/cynical when it comes to the report of the Task Force for Reimagining the Church than I was in my last post, for the most part I stand my much of my analysis... with one small exception.

My significant disagreement with the report was its support for bi-vocational clergy as a part of the wave of the future—this despite the fact that we've been doing it for forty years, albeit begrudgingly. I argued that this model should not simply be held up, but that it is time for a critical analysis of whether or not it actually works. Does it have a positive effect upon congregations? Does it wind up burning out clergy who are expected to work more than they are compensated?

I concluded, "To wit, this is not bold thinking, it is the same tired thinking that has led to continued decline in the Episcopal Church over the past several decades. We don't need more support for this model. We need for the model to be evaluated, perhaps by a task force appointed by Executive Council (EC), and then determined if it can be saved or if it needs to be thrown out."

The Rev. Susan Snook — Priest,
Church Planter, and author of
first essay that changed my
thinking on TREC. Two points.
Well, Susan Snook has taken the thread I left dangling in that post and pulled the whole thing apart. As she says, "What worries me is TREC’s apparent prognosis. They don’t name it specifically in the report, but many of their recommendations seem to be aimed at providing palliative care for a patient that has entered a long, slow, inevitable decline."

Yes. This.

Seeing this suspected prognosis does indeed bring light to why several of their recommendations are being made. It entirely deconstructs their very first resolution (A001: Restructure for Spiritual Encounter) and reveals that it should probably be renamed to "Restructure for a Shrinking Church." As Snook notes, much of this resolution fits with what you do with a dying church, "You make arrangements for clergy to find other ways to make a living, you think of non-church ways to use the buildings to keep them open a bit longer, you try to find ways to provide pensions for people who can’t actually make a living in the church, you try to get seminaries to educate people for less money with more practical skills they can use elsewhere..."

In a recent conversation with my deanery chapter about bivocational ministry and ministry in small churches, I suggested a different model.

Part of the problem is that our canons allow a way for a "mission" congregation to become a full "parish" of a diocese, but they don't have a mechanism for the reverse. That is, when a congregation has slowly declined and lost all the markers that enabled them to receive parish status... what can you do? In most cases, the small struggling congregation does its best to act as though it is still a parish. Thus, if it cannot afford its own priest, it will maybe share a priest with another church. Or, maybe it will hire someone who only needs half-time work.

But I suspect that in most cases—not all, but most—this approach merely enables a congregation to continue as though little has changed, to pretend as though they are still a parish.

What if, instead, we created a mechanism whereby a parish could apply to return to mission status? It would have to be attractive—financial assistance in the budget, the specific attention, perhaps, of a diocesan missioner who is highly skilled and has a demonstrable track record for helping declining parishes reverse the trend as they return to a mission mindset. But for it to work there would also have to be a willingness to let go—the autonomy of the parish would need to let go so that hard changes could be made to reverse a decline, changes that very few small congregations are willing to make on their own.

If this mechanism existed, then the diocesan missioner, working with the mission church's council, could indeed appoint a priest in charge of that mission who was not simply someone who would take a less than full-time job at a small church, if need be. Perhaps a limited availability of mission funds would enable that church to hire someone full-time—and not just someone out of seminary, but a well-trained and experienced priest. Or, perhaps a more strategic (and explicitly time limited) use of a yoke with another smaller church in the area would enable them together to hire someone who does not merely take the diocesan minimum, but to create a salary that makes the position attractive for someone who might otherwise take more comfortable job at a larger church.

I don't know the specifics of how all this should work, but I do think that one essential part of "reimagining" that needs to take place—perhaps the most important reimagining we can do—is how exactly we do ministry in small member churches.

Thus, I'd say, let's scrap the entirety of Resolution A001, acknowledging that, in the end, it had less to do with spiritual encounter and more to do with how do we get people to hold the hands of churches as they die. Instead, let's come up with a substitute resolution called something like, "Restructuring for Local Mission." It could read something like this...
Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 78th General Convention urge Episcopal seminaries to work collectively by the appointing a Task Force on Clergy Formation comprised of members from each Episcopal seminary and tasked with two goals: (1) an exploration of the current structure the MDiv degree in our seminaries and whether they are indeed the competencies needed for Episcopal clergy to lead thriving congregations and (2) the creation of post-MDiv and Mdiv concentrations that focus on mission, evangelism, creating healthy congregations in areas of decline, and cultivating ethnic diversity in monocultural locales, with such task force  and Episcopal seminaries’ reportage of their progress to Executive Council and to each succeeding General Convention; and be it further 
Resolved, That every diocese—or geographic grouping of dioceses—appoint a Diocesan Missioner who has experience and a track record with effective ministry in small member churches and that Diocesan Councils and Commissions on Ministry, in collaboration with their Bishop and Diocesan Missioner, develop specific model for ministry in small member churches, such models to encourage growth and change, creating situations where highly trained and capable clergy can enter into these churches and begin to reverse decline, including a mechanism whereby a parish can return to mission status, exchanging autonomy in the status quo for time-limited expanded funding and the leadership of Diocesan Missioner; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Executive Council study what portion of our Churchwide budget supports evangelism and mission, both in small member churches and through church plants, and create a report for the 79th General Convention which provides specific suggestions for what percentage of our budget should be focused on this need and how such funds might enable the work of parishes and dioceses to reverse decline; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Trustees of the Church Pension Fund study the following and report
to the 79th General Convention: how a portion of the resources of that fund might be put to work in providing funding for clergy who seek to enter into training as missioners across our church; compensation models and pension benefits that may not be adequate or may be just in certain areas of the Church, particularly in dioceses outside the U.S.; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society develop a Churchwide Missioner, who will facilitate connections and lead our church in this movement towards reversing decline, revitalizing that which has become stagnate, and provide resources, conferences, and other opportunities for training leaders, lay and ordained, throughout the Episcopal Church, who desire to turn their local parishes into more effective staging points for Christian mission and evangelism.  
Now, I'm clearly not a resolution wordsmith. I'm a young, thirty-three, year old priest who has only been at this for six years. I'm an Alternate to General Convention—not a Deputy—and so have no standing to propose anything. Indeed, the actual mechanisms for all these pieces likely need to be rewritten by people with much more experience than I.

But I do think it is clear that Resolution A001 needs to be fundamentally rewritten to go from an offering of, in Snook's words, "palliative care" for a dying church. It is the first resolution coming from TREC and it needs to be bold. It needs to create an effect specific change in a way that connects the various parts of our church in a movement towards mission. It needs to... reimagine who we are.

To be clear, Resolution A002 still makes me very giddy because it seems very good and very needed. Resolution A003 probably needs to be tweaked to make it clear that it is not about keeping the dying alive a little longer (this is actually the real reason we need stricter rules about endowment spending, particularly when that spending is simply supporting the status quo and not enabling mission and change). The changes to Constitution and Canons, to CCABS, all of that that I said I liked so much in my last post... I still think all that needs to be there.

But this Resolution A001, this one needs to change. The question is, who will be the ones to change it?


  1. Great suggestions, Jared. I'll be thinking about your proposals as I write my next post!

  2. Jared, Casey proposed that very resolution in the diocese of RI a few years ago (enacting a mechanism to revert parishes to mission status) for the same reasons you suggested. It was lambasted and he received a great deal of venom directed at him personally for even proposing it. I think it's probably much needed, but it is likely to be incredibly unpopular.