On February 1, 2013, President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings gave the keynote address at the Winter Convocation of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. Jennings is an eight-time deputy Ohio deputy.
Wilderness Tips for Episcopalians: Leading the Church in a Post-Christian World
Not too long after I was elected president of the House of Deputies, I got a call from Rob Radtke, who is the president of Episcopal Relief & Development. He asked if I would lead a pilgrimage this summer to some of the programs that the Episcopal Church supports in Ghana. These programs fight poverty and help prevent malaria and other diseases that kill nearly 8% of the country’s children before their fifth birthday.
Of course I said yes. Episcopal Relief & Development is one of our church’s most essential and effective ways of doing mission. How could I say no?
And then I got the packing list.
So now, because I believe in our baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and because I believe that our relationships with Anglicans across the globe are the essence of the Anglican Communion, I have a corner in our guest room where I am storing an increasingly large stash of gear. I have a bandana that has been treated with mosquito repellent. I have a water bottle with a built-in filter. I am on the lookout for bug spray with more DEET than I knew you could buy and I need to arrange for a dizzying array of medications and immunizations. Plus, there has been talk of crocodiles. I don’t do reptiles, especially large reptiles.
My belief in how we are called to respond to the Gospel is taking me way, way outside my comfort zone.
Now, you may be glad to know that not all of us faithful Episcopalians gotta go to Ghana to be faithful to the Gospel. But here in Ohio, in the second decade of the 21st century, Episcopalians are being called into one kind of wilderness or another, and we need some pretty good gear for what lies ahead.
If you’re old enough, you might remember when it seemed like everyone went to church on Sunday morning and the Episcopal Church was regarded as the American establishment at prayer. Every Sunday morning, I went to Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church in DeWitt, New York with my parents and sisters, followed by a visit to my grandparents, followed by Sunday dinner. But whether you remember those days or not—whether they ever really existed or not—you surely know that they are gone and they’re not coming back.
You probably know the statistics: One-fifth of American adults claim no religious affiliation at all, and the number is growing. The “nones,” as social scientists call them, based on the answer they give on surveys asking religious preference, account for fully one-third of Americans under the age of 30. Young adults today are the most religiously unaffiliated generation in this country as far back as we have data, according to one of the researchers at the Pew Research Center, which released a much-reported survey of nones late last year.
In one of those reports, broadcast on National Public Radio in mid-January, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam pointed out a trend that might be the most important thing that the Episcopal Church needs to understand about the nones. He said that today’s young adults aren’t just less interested in the church, they are less interested in all institutions. “They’re the same people who are also not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club. I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them,” he said, “but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.”
So, if we believe Putnam, young adults are, as a generation, not only less interested in church, they’re less interested in the kind of church we are. Because let’s face it, the Episcopal Church has a lot of trappings of an old-style institution. What does this mean for us?
Don’t panic. First of all, it doesn’t mean that we need to throw everything out. Institutions—specifically, religious denominations—are still good for some things, says author Brian McLaren, even if they don’t appeal directly to the Millennial generation’s sensibilities. Here’s what McLaren told the Duke Faith and Leadership blog in 2010:
There are a handful of things that denominations are doing extremely well. The first is they embody an ethos. It’s almost like a brand name but it’s a true identity that denominations must conserve. Second, they conserve treasures.
Those treasures are a whole range of things such as doctrines, memories and virtues. Third, denominations support relationships. They help people find local churches; they also support regional relationships, national and global relationships.
Next, denominations play an important role in protecting physical assets: buildings, universities, publications and all the rest. They also have to protect and preserve human assets, taking care of clergy and other people important to the community. They provide things like pensions, insurance and professional development. These are very important tasks.
Next, I think denominations are doing a good job of seeing and solving problems. Finally, when you see and solve problems you want to keep those problems from happening again, so you create policies.
Sound like a denomination you know? Episcopalians are good at all of these institutional functions. But sometimes, we’re so good at being an institution that we begin to believe that our doctrines, our physical assets, and our policies are what we have to give to the world. As Theodore Levitt put it in his seminal Harvard Business Review article, “Marketing Myopia,” we believe that we are in the railroad business. But if you remember what happened to the railroads with the advent of automobiles and, later, airplanes, you know that we don’t want to be in the railroad business. We want to be in the transportation business.
Or, to use a slightly more hip analogy, here’s Brian McLaren:
So, how do we get into the music business? Let’s start by considering a topic that no one thinks of as particularly musical: church structure.
If you’ve followed Episcopal Church news in the last year or so, you know that there’s been quite a lot of talk about restructuring. It’s a mark of how far we’ve come, perhaps, that the controversial issue at the General Convention last summer was not human sexuality, or women’s ordination, or a new prayer book. It was church structure.
We came through that debate in fine form with a resolution that passed both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops unanimously. In the institutional fashion we Episcopalians know so well, the resolution directed the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies to appoint a task force to draft a report to present to the next General Convention three years hence. It was a compromise resolution drafted after hours and hours of committee hearings and debate—I was the chair of the House of Deputies structure committee at this convention, so trust me, I know.
We have appointed good people to the structure task force and they are getting to work. I expect that they are going to draft some excellent recommendations about how we can streamline and consolidate and flatten our corporate and governance structures. We need to do all of those things. Soon.
But the structure task force is not going to put us in the music business.
We need to restructure, and we also need to stop looking to structural reform to save the Episcopal Church. When we talk about structure as if it will save us, I think we’re not really talking about structure. We’re talking about our identity and our vision for the future. Do we Episcopalians want to remain producers and purveyors of vinyl records, or do we want to get into the music business? And if we decide to care less about the medium and more about the message and the mission—if we worry less about our physical assets and our policies and more about spreading the message of Jesus—how will we still know that we are Episcopalians? What will be distinctive about us?
There’s good news on that front. Across the church, innovative leaders are trying new ideas that take the best of our Anglican traditions and make them new again. Dent Davidson, our worship leader, has just given us a taste of what Stephanie Spellers, an author and editor who is also on the bishop’s staff in the Diocese of Long Island, calls Anglicanism remixed. Here’s Stephanie speaking in 2011 to the convention in the Diocese of Chicago:
I think we do love the church enough to save it from itself. I think we love it enough to remix Anglicanism in ways that suit our own contexts and our own communities, and I know we can do it here in Ohio. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that fresh expressions of the Episcopal Church can only succeed in Chicago or Boston or New York or Seattle. I’m privileged to know people all over the church, and I see how innovative leaders are figuring out how to do things differently. I can tell you that the power of honest conversation across ideological differences has transformed a parish in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Community organizing for inclusion and equality has created a movement based in the Episcopal parish in Holland, Michigan. Intense focus on Christian formation and evangelism has, in just six years, turned a small church plant into a 400-member congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona.
We Episcopalians can do this. I see it happening around the church. We can get into the music business. But just like me going to Ghana, it’s going to take us way outside our comfort zones. We are going to have to lead through the wilderness, and we are going to have to take big risks and be willing to make some mistakes along the way.
About a year ago, a deputy name LeeAnne Watkins from the Episcopal Church in Minnesota took one of those big risks. Here’s part of a video she made about it:
The point of this video is not to encourage you to go home and cancel your formation programs. But every one of our congregations has something that isn’t working, something that we’re holding on to that we need to let go, remix, or toss out. If we’re going to get out of the record business and into the music business, we’re going to have to take the risk to admit where we’re failing and make a change. And we’re going to have to take this initiative ourselves. The structure task force isn’t going to do it for us, the General Convention isn’t going to do it for us, the diocese isn’t going to do it for us, and the bishop isn’t going to do it for us. Clergy, your vestry isn’t going to do it for you and laypeople, your priest isn’t going to do it for you.
I’ll bet as you’re sitting here, you already know what risk you need to take. And you already know what rationalizations—or, as my mother used to call them, excuses—you can make for not taking that risk. But all that’s left to be done is to admit that things have to change and pack up your gear for a journey in the wilderness of the 21st century church.
Here are four tips to keep in mind:
The first tip is not to try and go it alone. Whether you’re a deacon, a layperson, a priest or a bishop, if you’ve chosen leadership in the church, you probably have a tendency to try to do too much yourself. We come by this honestly—it’s been passed down to us all the way from Moses.
Exodus tells about Moses coming to terms with how he would be a leader. Here’s what happens: Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, comes to see him in the desert, bringing back Moses’ wife and sons, who’d been on a visit to see grandpa.
The day after they arrived, we’re told, “Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.”
And Jethro said “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”(Exodus 18: 14-18)
Jethro, himself a seasoned priest, knows that Moses will not get those people out of the desert of Midian if he tries to do it all alone and wears himself out. He goes on to counsel Moses to cultivate leadership and growth in others by sharing responsibilities and authority. Jethro is calling Moses to be the same kind of leader that we will need to be if we are to make it through this post-Christian wilderness around us. None of us can get to the Promised Land by ourselves.
Second tip: You’re not in it to be loved.
When the great Christian educator Verna Dozier preached at Jane Dixon’s ordination as Bishop Suffragan of Washington, she said the following during her charge to Jane, who was just the second woman to be ordained bishop in the Episcopal Church. “Every leader in Christian community most often wants one thing,” said Verna to Jane. “They want desperately to be loved. Jane Holmes Dixon, you must find that place in you that wants desperately to be loved . . . and let . . .it . . . die.”
If our primary motivation as leaders, lay and ordained, is to find love, approval, and even adulation, we won’t do what we need to do to save our beloved church from itself. We won’t have what it takes to lead change. The Gospel call is to be brave and bold for the cause of Christ, and, as Jesus taught us, boldness is not always welcomed.
Third, as my husband Albert often counsels, be yourself. As Oscar Wilde said, everyone else is already taken.
In the summer of 1953, fresh out of high school and hoping to make a record, Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. The receptionist asked him what kind of singer he was. Elvis told her “I sing all kinds of music.” “Well who do you sound like?” she responded. He said, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
Sing your own song. Worry less about how people might respond if you make changes, and worry more about whether you are singing a new church into being.
Fourth: Be willing to take a different road if the one you are on is leading nowhere.
This Epiphany, the end of the Wise Men’s story in Matthew’s Gospel stayed with me: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2: 12).
All of us Episcopalians in the 21st century are going to have to go home by another road. The road we have been on was a good road for a long time for many people, although if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that it wasn’t a great road for everyone. But this road will eventually become a dead end, and that is happening faster in some places than in other places. and we have to find a new road.
Last month I was at 815, aka the Episcopal Church Center which serves as the primary office headquarters of our church. Like every diocese and every congregation in the Episcopal Church, they are on a new road as well. I told them that when I am driving to a new place, I have to pay attention in ways that aren’t necessary when the road is familiar and well known. A GPS helps, but sometimes it is actually a distraction as I navigate unfamiliar territory since I am looking at new landmarks as well as the GPS.
Neuroscience tells us some interesting things about how people navigate. The way people experience where they are is very complex. Our brains create mental maps of where we are located in time and space. When we are going somewhere, our brains are continuously reprogramming, or, as neuroscientists call it, remapping. So when I go somewhere new or unfamiliar, my brain creates a new map. And when I return to that place, my brain recalls the map already made but makes adjustments if there is something new. Mapping the unfamiliar territory can be both stimulating and challenging, and not particularly easy.
Our beloved Church is in new territory. We are constantly remapping what is, for many of us, unfamiliar terrain. We are no longer, as some called the Episcopal Church, the frozen chosen. In a span of 60 years, our Church has changed in ways most people could not even imagine in the 1950s. With many others throughout the church, you are the catalysts for this change, remapping in a new landscape, all the while serving as agents of God’s mission. And mark my words, the landscape will continue to change, and our minds, as well as our hearts and souls, will need continual remapping.
I’d like to take some questions and have a conversation about what risks you’re taking, what’s working, and what’s failing. But first, let me close with a blessing by the Irish teacher and poet John O’Donohue:
May we have the courage to take the step
Into the unknown that beckons us;
Trust that a richer life awaits us there,
That we will lose nothing
But what has already died;
Feel the deeper knowing in us sure
Of all that is about to be born beyond
The pale frames where we stayed confined,
Not realizing how such vacant endurance
Was bleaching our soul’s desire.
(“For the Time of Necessary Decision,” To Bless the Space Between Us)