Saturday, May 16, 2009

Letter to my bishop--or how not to advance my career (Sunday Reflections for May 17, 2009)

I recently wrote our synod bishop to express my frustration with his “Turnaround Synod Initiative” (TSI), a plan to assist congregations to reverse their loss of members. There are few details at this point (those are promised for our convention next month), but what is obvious is that it is yet another attempt to patch our leaking boats with no more prospects for success than any of our previous efforts. Here is what I had to say:

Dear Bishop Miller:

I have been thinking, speaking and writing about the church’s decline for quite awhile. I am very aware of the challenges churches are facing and understand the inclination and even the sense of urgency “to do something”. In a crisis situation, however, that is often not the best first step and I think that is true in this case. “Doing something” implies we understand the problem when, in fact, I don’t believe we do. As a result, the “Turnaround Synod Initiative” (like similar previous efforts) will fail to achieve its goals, resulting in wasted resources, discouragement and frustration.

As I know you are aware, the decline of the church in the US has been long in the making. Membership in mainline denominations peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both the ALC and LCA were shrinking prior to the merger forming the ELCA and reversing this was one of the hopes for the new church. Instead, the decline has continued with hardly a pause. The recent ARIS report showed that the number of self-identified Lutherans (of all stripes) has declined 25% in less than twenty years. By most measures, that would qualify for “falling off a cliff” status.

There is nothing to indicate these trends will change in the foreseeable future. Indeed, things may get worse. ARIS showed 30% of Gen X/Y young adults claiming no religious affiliation, the highest percentage ever recorded. The mortality rate of our congregations’ members will only increase as their average age continues to climb and we have little prospect of balancing that, let alone improving on it, with new younger members. The well publicized ARIS and Pew reports show this trend is nationwide and, to varying degrees, across the denominational spectrum.

As a result, I don’t see how TSI is going to be anything but an exercise in frustration. Your letter’s words about how every congregation “is a potential mission outpost” and many “are ready and willing to rise to the challenge” and “unleash the energy for mission” intend to stir enthusiasm but sound to me more like whistling past the graveyard. I fundamentally disagree that giving our congregations “some help and encouragement” will reverse or even stop the slide so many of them are experiencing. This kind of thinking serves only to enable us to hide from unpleasant realities and avoid dealing with real problems. Where is there any evidence that this situation is now changing? What have we learned that we didn’t know before, that we can now apply and which would make a difference? Setting ambitious goals and providing leadership training, coaches, consultants, and “resources” are the types of things we have been trying for decades. This is a classic example of “If it doesn’t work, do more of it” thinking.

The obvious rejoinder to this is: Well what would you do? In regards to our shrinking membership, I don’t know that there is anything we can do. I believe there are cultural forces at work here that are beyond our control. That does not mean, however, that the church will simply evaporate. It does mean that the church is going to be a different institution and play a different role in our society. We can influence that transition but only if we work at it. Efforts like TSI, however, prevent such planning and action by maintaining the illusion that fundamental change is not necessary and that if we all just work a little harder we can get things back to where they were before. That dog just won’t hunt.

Therefore, one of the most important things to be done now is to stop the denial that is going on at every level: churchwide, synods, and congregations. I believe this is a real leadership need, to name the situation clearly and honestly and to acknowledge that it is unlikely to change anytime soon. Engaging in this denial is resulting in frustration, anger, blaming, and guilt. Parishioners, pastors, bishops, and national church executives and staff all engage in finger pointing accusing each other of being lazy, incompetent, unfaithful, unimaginative, etc. Such behavior only serves to make the situation worse. To counteract the denial we need instead healthy doses of honesty and empathy.

We need to be talking at all levels about what should be done now to manage our shrinking resources. What kind of national and regional church management do we really need and can we really afford? Can we honestly expect to continue operating eight seminaries as we do? Can we continue to maintain the model of full-time professionally educated clergy in the face of higher seminary costs, rising student debt load, and the declining number of congregations able to afford a full-time pastor? Can we continue to maintain the model of the stand-alone congregation, with its own staff and its own building? Are there other ways to do ministry? What ministry ought we to be doing? In short, how can we think about new ways of “doing church”?

While I grew up when American Lutheranism was at its peak, my ministry has been during the years of decline. I have seen an unending parade of proposals, from the sublime to the ridiculous, to “fix” our problems. I have been in countless conversations with the theme of “What we really need is . . . a new pastor, another pastor, a youth director, a new building, a new hymnal, more Bible study, air conditioning, a new organ, guitars and drums, free child care, an elevator, more liturgy, less liturgy, better stewardship, more advertising.” And the list goes on and on. We’ve all been there. And now comes TSI to continue this unending and fruitless search for a panacea. When will it occur to us that we are barking up the wrong tree? That we are asking the wrong questions? That we need to think about the church and the world in which we live in a new way?

Right now, at a minimum, we need to be talking to each other. There is so much pain, anger and frustration among pastors and congregations as they try to manage the continuous loss of members and resources. We need our leaders to publicly and honestly recognize our difficulties and admit we really don’t know what to do about them. This sounds simple but I don’t think it will be. Denial has a very strong grip. That grip needs to be loosened, however, before we can move forward. We need to let go of what was and isn’t coming back before we can recognize and reach out for the new opportunities before us. In other words, there needs to be some dying before there can be a rebirth (John 12:24).

I know I have been blunt but that has only been because I see us trapped in an endless loop of stale thinking and fruitless endeavors. We need to shake ourselves out of our stupor. To take a genuinely new direction will be a long and difficult project which we haven’t even begun yet. This is my appeal for us to get off the treadmill and actually start moving, or at least shoot the starting gun.

I will post his reply and my thoughts about it in a couple days.

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