Monday, November 14, 2011

The bishop comes to call (Sunday Reflections for November 13, 2011)

Metro Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller dropped by the church last week. He is setting aside time for “no agenda” visits with pastors in their parishes, hoping to get to most of them within two years. Since, as he said, the bishop tends to be contacted only when there is a problem, these visits are giving him a better sense of what is happening in the lives of synod pastors and congregations.
Our conversation was very cordial. After discussing our congregation and our community, we turned to the church-at-large. Miller was refreshingly frank and open. He made no attempt to hide or downplay the crisis the church is in. Everything is changing, whether we want it to or not, whether we’re ready for it or not. And, of course, the reality is we don’t want to change and we’re not ready. Miller is trying to manage our institutional decline and the resulting tensions and disorder. Yet at the same time, he is looking for signs of new life and energy in the church—green shoots to be nurtured, embers to be fanned.
What is clear is that nothing of the institutional church will be exempt from the changes sweeping through it. Will there be synods? Will there be bishops? Who knows? Already some synod offices are on the verge of closing. At a minimum, a wave of synod consolidation is inevitable. Seminaries are also stressed, including my alma mater, LSTC, here in Chicago. Mergers or closures are coming.
Layoffs in the ELCA’s churchwide organization have left many empty cubicles at the office headquarters on Higgins Road. (Know anyone in the market for an O’Hare office tower?) Board and committee meetings are being reduced, including having the biennial churchwide assembly becoming triennial. Of course, the change obvious to the most people is the shrinking number and size of congregations. Fewer and fewer can afford a pastor’s salary, or even the buildings they are in.
But reducing, shrinking and consolidating can only get the church so far. As Miller and a growing number of others recognize, what is really needed is imagining new ways of doing church, at all levels.
Instead of congregations with separate buildings and full-time pastors, we may need to be looking at starting and nurturing “house churches.” These would have little in the way of formal programs. Instead, they would emphasize more intimate worship and fellowship, as well as community service and outreach.
Three- and four-year seminary programs have become too expensive and impractical. Perhaps pastors can begin their preparation as apprentices. During this period, they would have other employment while working in congregations with experienced pastors. Formal training would be shorter, combining part-time classroom time with online learning, similar to many secular, professional graduate programs.
In general, the trend is away from broad church organizations and bureaucracy to the more local and personal. Such trends are common in many institutions today. Decision making can often be more effective when done closer to where those decisions will be implemented. Yet there can also be a loss of coordination, cooperation, and connectivity. The Internet and social networking, however, may replace at least some of those functions previously performed by more formal church structures.
Later, as I thought about our conversation, I nonetheless felt we had missed something fundamental. I still felt we were talking about rearranging the deck chairs on our sinking ship. And I’m not sure Bishop Miller would disagree. For the reality is that when you’re part of a two thousand year-old institution, genuinely thinking outside the box is really, really hard. Yet that is what we need to be doing, for it is what our times are forcing upon us.
One thing we didn’t discuss was theology. Now I admit that such talk can often seem esoteric and irrelevant. Yet theology is the church’s starting point. It’s where we decide who we are and what we are about. Without theology the church simply exists to exist; we go through the motions without knowing why.
And that is a lot of what has been going on in the church: going through the motions. The church has been running on momentum from its past. We do things because “this is what we’ve always done,” even when we know it doesn’t make any sense today. So we still pray to “God up in heaven,” even when heaven stopped being a map-able place as it was for our ancestors, and when even “up” has no objective meaning anymore!
No, the world of the church of our ancestors is long gone. Where for ancient and medieval people, what was constant and unchanging was the norm and most important, for us the opposite is true. Our world is in constant flux. One generation struggles to understand the world of another, even when they’re living side-by-side.
So the church needs to reimagine its purpose and identity, as much as its structures and organization. But it may be this also needs to happen mostly ad hoc and at the grass roots. Like the bureaucrats, the academics also need to watch and listen (a good Advent theme). The church, like most institutions, has usually wanted the flow of ideas and direction to be from the top down. Today, however, rather than looking to ancient authorities and documents, or contemporary studies and commissions, it may be time to let the spirit blow where it wills, and the theological chips fall where they may.


Dale said...

Thanks for this article. In most conversations about "the state of the church" far too little attention is given to what is stated in the very last paragraph: "so the church needs to reimagine its purpose and identity at least as much as its structures and organization." From the experience of the Center for Parish Development the greater attention and emphasis is on the former. Here is where there is energy for being the church. Here is where communities of God's people are claiming occasions and opportunities for opening minds, hearts, and imaginations to what God is doing in the world, why our church is needed, what God is calling us to be and do in this time and place, and taking the risks needed to be part of it. Purpose and identity flow from this, and where communities of faith are discerning afresh God's mission for them in changing contexts, the witness is taking place and the church is being renewed. Ministries take on different shapes and forms as is needed, and organization and structure follows, but it is first of all responsive to purpose and identity. And as stated here, such discernment is not done at the top and handed down, but is itself the role and practice of the people of God in all of its expressions. A learning curve for leaders and members of communities of faith!

Michael_SC said...

Hey Doug, where have you been? This blog has had some great postings, I hope you will get back to it.

Doug said...

Thanks Michael! I have gotten lazy and busy--if that's not a complete contradiction. I do appreciate the encouragement as I have been in kind of a "what's the use?" state of mind. Don't give up on me completely just yet.