From The Living Church by the Rev. Dr. Neal Michell:
Posted on: January 8, 2010
Theologian Walter Brueggemann tells the story of Toots Shor, the famous New York saloonkeeper who died of cancer, who said just days before he died, “I don’t want to know what I have.” That’s the impression I sometimes have of our church: We don’t want to hear that we are in danger of terminal decline.
In The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann writes of a “royal consciousness” as he describes the conflict between the prophets and the government of Israel that had solidified royal power in Solomon. He uses Jeremiah as an example of a faithful prophet and talks extensively about the Solomonic regime, naming it the dominant or royal consciousness.
The prophets were continually calling Israel back to faithfulness. Their job was to remind the people of their death and the end of an age. They grieved the end of the age, the death of their people, and that what was so transparent to them was not so clear to anyone else.
Brueggemann describes the royal consciousness as “numbness,” “denial,” and “self-deception.” The task of the prophet is “to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord.”
The Need for Urgency
Contrast the royal consciousness with John Kotter’s counsel regarding how to transform an organization. Kotter is a professor in the Harvard Business School and widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on leadership and change. In a seminal article he wrote for Harvard Business Review, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Kotter presents an eight-step process for leading successful change in an organization.
The first and necessary step, without which any attempt to transform the organization will fail, is to establish a sense of urgency. A high level of complacency and a low sense of urgency, Kotter asserts, constitute the two most significant impediments to change.
Kotter gives several sources of complacency. Some of them are the absence of a major and visible crisis; too many visible resources; low overall performance standards; a lack of sufficient performance feedback from external sources; and a kill-the-messenger, low-candor, low-confrontation culture.
So, where is our sense of urgency in the Episcopal Church? Consider this: in 2007-08 our average Sunday attendance declined by 60,000 people. Ponder that reality: 60,000 people who were worshiping in Episcopal churches in 2006 were no longer there two years later. That represents losing the combined dioceses of Atlanta, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Upper South Carolina.
Or, to place those losses in the Western part of the United States, those losses represent the combined attendance of the dioceses of Alaska, Arizona, California, Eastern Oregon, El Camino Real, Hawaii, Idaho, Navajoland Area Mission, Nevada, Olympia, Oregon, and Spokane.
Gone. Buildings might remain, but no real churches. Imagine all those people, the equivalent of eleven whole dioceses, walking out of church one day and not returning. That is what has happened in the Episcopal Church in the space of two years.
Several of our dioceses face questions concerning their future viability as independent, self-sustaining dioceses. Of course, we know that the dioceses of Ft. Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy and San Joaquin need financial support as a result of departures from the Episcopal Church of the majority of their churches and leadership. In addition, the dioceses of Eau Claire and Fond du Lac have discussed merging; the Diocese of North Dakota is lending its bishop to the Diocese of Louisiana as an assisting bishop for one week per month to help pay his salary; and the Bishop of Western Kansas has resigned and returned to parish ministry partly because of the financial strain that a full-time bishop’s salary places on that diocese. These dioceses represent a warning to us that more consolidations and mergers are on the way.
Killing the Messenger
During the previous triennium the State of the Church Committee told the truth about the condition of our church. It did an excellent job of reporting the difficulties of an aging, financially challenged denomination. It acknowledged further losses due to conflict in our churches, particularly over sexuality issues that have exacerbated the decline in attendance and membership. The committee made recommendations for addressing these challenges.
Were their recommendations heeded? No. Our General Convention had no real strategy in its decisions. The cuts in the triennial budget were hailed as “fair” and “across the board.” But they weren’t strategic. Seemingly strategic staff positions of three years ago and even one year ago were eliminated with little dissent. The convention passed all evangelism-related resolutions while at the same time eliminating the church’s evangelism officer.
So many of our dioceses are in financial difficulties. Some of the financial shortfall in diocesan income is due to the recent recession. But remember, giving to the Episcopal Church by the dioceses is based upon previous years’ income. The most recent financial shortfall for the Episcopal Church is attributable, not to the recent recession, but to decreased income to our collective dioceses in the past three years.
With ever-increasing decline in attendance and giving and ever-increasing costs of doing business at the congregational level, assessments paid to the Episcopal Church by our dioceses will likely decrease even more within the next six years. In other words, this current financial shortfall was a long time in the making, and it will likewise be a long time in the remedying.
As a denomination, we need transformational change, not incremental change. Incremental change represents business as usual. Incremental change represents “just trying a little harder.” If we continue doing things as we have done, we will continue our decline, continue bleeding off the endowments of previous generations, continue to congratulate ourselves on the pockets of vitality while we become a church pastored primarily by retired and part-time clergy. One recommendation of the previous
State of the Church Committee was that some members be reappointed to provide for some continuity with the previous committee. Was that advice heeded? No. Not one member of the 2006-09 State of the Church Committee was reappointed for 2009-12.
Sources of Complacency
If we look at John Kotter’s sources of complacency we can see patterns of deeper complacency within the church.
Major and visible crisis. We do have a major and visible crisis. We have had several, in fact: the conflicts over human sexuality, the significant decline in membership and attendance since 1965 and now precipitous decline as a result of the consecration of the Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
Too many visible resources. Yes, we are a denomination rich in resources—people, buildings, finances, and spiritual life. Yet, year after year, we see both individual churches and dioceses spending the principle of their endowments as giving to local churches diminishes. We see that our churches and dioceses are in trouble, but we spend tomorrow’s resources today sufficient to keep us in denial about the urgency of the situation.
Low overall performance standards and a lack of sufficient performance feedback from external sources. As a denomination we have remained satisfied with maintenance. Do we have any measurements for what we expect of our clergy? Of our bishops? Instead, we hear, “Oh, it’s the culture that is against us” and “All mainline denominations are doing poorly.”
A kill-the-messenger, low-candor, low-confrontation culture. Did I mention that none of the members of the State of the Church Committee were reappointed? Did I mention that none of the House of Deputies’ members of the budget committee were reappointed?
John Kotter says, “Without an organization-wide sense of urgency, it’s like trying to build a pyramid on a foundation of empty shoeboxes.” When is the urgency level high enough? Kotter suggests it is when 75 percent of your leadership is honestly convinced that business as usual is no longer an acceptable plan.
Max DePree, author of Leadership is an Art, says the first task of the leader is to define reality. Reality is that the Episcopal Church is in precipitous decline. Sadly, I do not believe that we are honest enough about the condition of our church to begin healthy transformation. We are too complacent about the decline in our denomination. We are too infected with the royal consciousness to get to a place of real need that will motivate us to move from our complacency and denial.
The Forward Movement Story
I pray that we may get to the place of despair that General Convention experienced in 1934 when it met in Atlantic City. From that despair emerged the Forward Movement. Weariness and resignation pervaded the air at that General Convention. The Great Depression had led to widespread distrust of church leadership. Revenues for the several previous years had fallen greatly short of projections. Programs were cut and the denomination was in debt due to heavy borrowing to pay bills.
Two wealthy laymen from Ohio, Harvey Firestone and Robert Taft, suggested a special campaign to retire the heavy debt of the church, using the theme “Hold the Line.” This campaign raised enough money to pay off most of the debt. But something else happened at that convention that did more than simply pay off the debt. One deputy said that, despite the difficulties facing the Episcopal Church and the country, the church should not retreat. Another deputy, from Tennessee, is reported to have said, “This church needs more than a campaign to ‘hold the line.’ We need to move forward.” From this unknown Tennessee deputy’s passionate plea sprung the Forward Movement.
Forward Movement held meetings and conferences to deepen the discipleship of Episcopalians across the country. It developed devotional materials for Lent in 1935 to “unite the church in Bible reading and prayer.” It aimed to restore confidence in national leadership. Finally, it established the Forward Movement Commission to oversee and continue this commitment to discipleship.
We are being lulled into complacency by the royal consciousness. Who will loose us from this torpor that is immobilizing us? The problems facing our church are not financial or cultural. Our decline is not the result of not having the right programs in place, or that all the mainline denominations are in decline, or that the culture is against us. These are all symptoms of the underlying problems.
The problems facing our church are spiritual in nature. We have not been faithful enough disciples of Jesus Christ. We have not reached out to those around us with the Good News of Jesus Christ. We must not be content with attempting to hold the line. Simply trying harder will not be enough.
St. Paul said, referring to the gospel, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (KJV). Our sin is that we have treated our denomination as the treasure and the gospel as an earthen vessel. The royal consciousness will only drive us into a deeper stupor. We too need a forward movement.
The Rev. Dr. Neal Michell is canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Dallas.
h/t Fr. Dick Kim