Open Letter to the Next Bishop

April 6, 2006

An Open Letter to the Next Bishop of California:

Congratulations of your election, Bishop.  I hope you realize what you got yourself into in agreeing to be the shepherd of this unruly flock.

As I write this letter during the selection process I don’t yet know who you are or your views on the burning issues of sex and religion that seem to dominate the Episcopal Church these days.  No doubt, there are those who see the Diocese of California as appropriately located on the San Andreas Fault as if that is just punishment for our liberal tolerance and opens arms approach to God’s children.  Our newspapers are full of spin and froth and—owing mostly to their declining circulation—seek to turn your election into the next great marker of schism for the Church.

Bishop, since God obviously was happy enough with you to cast the deciding vote in your favor in this election—I will leave it to Him and you to work out the sex and religion business.  My purpose in this letter is to call attention to more serious problems facing the Diocese of California. They threaten the future of our Diocese.  They are not new problems but how you deal with them—or whether you even acknowledge them—will profoundly shape our future and your legacy as our Bishop.

What are these problems?

Average Sunday Attendance has been Flat for Ten years. Despite the overall growth of population in our Diocese we are not focused on attracting the faithful to come to church each Sunday.  Is the church boring? No.

  • The Fastest Growing Parishes are the Most Diverse. The church is actually growing in both numbers and diversity but the fastest growing parts of the Diocese are often the least served by it.
  • Diocese Ignoring Growth to the East. We see entire new communities sprouting in the Eastern part of the Diocese but our congregation development services are virtually nonexistent there.
  • Failure to Thrive Reality of Declining Parishes. The weakest parts of the Diocese are consuming more and more of its resources; 13 parishes are now actively subsidized by the Diocese because it does not have a proactive program to help arrest the decline or does not want to face up to their changing demographics.  We need a serious discussion of changing demographics, Diocesan priorities for growing average Sunday attendance, and a fresh approach to congregation development and decline.

Fragile Finances in Half the Parishes. We must face the reality than more than half of the parishes in the Diocese struggle with self-sufficiency.  This problem can no longer be ignored without serious risk to the financial health of the Diocese itself.

  • 42 Parishes Fail to Meet Minimum Income for Parish Self-Sufficiency. The minimal income needed to operate a parish in the Diocese of California is about $200,000 per year. Median income for all parishes was $190k in 2004 and 42 of 80 parishes had income less than $200k.
  • 13 Parishes Require Subsidies to Stay Open. The diocese spent $240,000 in 2004 subsidizing 13 parishes that can not make it on their own.
  • 6 Parishes Can Not Afford a Priest. Six of thirteen parishes can not pay the minimum cost of a priest which the Diocese estimates is $59, 207 in salary, housing and taxes plus $32,265 in pension, medical and other benefits for a total of $91,473.
  • 19% of Diocesan Assessment at Risk. More ominously, $672,000 or 19% of the Diocesan assessment comes from parishes that fall below the $200k/year in minimum income needed for self-sufficiency.

Compelling Need for Dialogue about the Growth and Future of the Diocese. The Diocese of California is failing to provide the leadership needed to address the issues of change and growth facing its parishes.  The unintended consequence of this failing is that declining parishes lack a safety net to effectively manage their transition and growing parishes lack the resources and Diocesan support system to manage the growth.  Meanwhile the Diocese itself gets weaker financially and more than half its parishes are barely self sufficient.

  • Concentration in Financial Burden. The ten largest parishes provide 36% of the Diocesan Assessment.  More than half of the Assessment comes from just 21% (17) parishes.
  • The Diocese is focused on San Francisco but the Growth is East. The focus of the Diocese is on San Francisco and the issues it faces, but the growth of the Diocese is largely moving East as its people search for affordable housing, follow their jobs, seek better schools or safer neighborhoods for their children.
  • No Winners in Congregation Development. The current programs and financial policies of the Diocese serve neither the declining parishes nor the growing ones well.  The mission and future of the Diocese is being slowly consumed by subsidies, stagnation and a financial risk among declining parishes without proactive efforts to either arrest the decline or consolidate the parishes to enable them to thrive in the face of changing demographics. Meanwhile, growing parishes lack infrastructure support from the Diocese to manage their growth.
  • The Diocesan Assessment is neither the Problem nor the Solution. Increasing the Diocesan assessment for the largest parishes without addressing the fundamental issues at work in Diocesan finance will not solve the problem.

So, Bishop, are you having second thoughts about this job?

Well, now that you know of these big problems facing our Diocese what are you going to do about them?

I believe that God loves us unconditionally and so, does not give us challenges He knows we can not meet.  And so it is with the Diocese of California and your stewardship of this flock.  God has sent you to us because he must know something about you that we do not.  I suspect God has high expectations of you or he would have sent you to someplace else. You could play it safe, and maybe nothing bad will happen on your watch.  In fact, there is an old Episcopal joke you may find instructive about such a strategy:

“A Bishop was retiring and his successor arrived as he was cleaning out his desk.  The new Bishop asked his predecessor for advice.  Not to worry, the old Bishop said, I left you three envelopes in the top desk drawer.  If you get in trouble open the envelopes in order and you’ll know what to do.  Time passes, and the new Bishop made a big decision that changed a long standing tradition and caused uproar.  Remembering the envelopes, he opens the first.  It reads: Blame your Predecessor. He did as instructed and soon the waters were smooth sailing again.  Later, another conflict among his team created a big mess.  He goes for the second envelop; it read: Re-organize.  So he rolled a few heads and rearranged the boxes without really addressing the cause of the problem.  Well, that worked too for a while.  But eventually the problem came back with a vengeance and having tried everything else the Bishop goes for the third envelop.  Only this time it read: Prepare Three Envelopes!

Well, Bishop, I took the liberty of preparing three envelopes for you to consider.

  1. Love us and Help us See God’s Plan for Us. Take stock of your Diocese and be honest with us about what you find—and what you feel.  Blaming your predecessor may be easy but it won’t solve the problems we face now—on your watch.  Half of your parishes are struggling financially and need help to learn to thrive again.  The other half of your parishes are struggling with growth and need your help to do so according to God’s plan for our Diocese.  Teach us to confront both realities, to talk to each other, to help each other, to love each other and to serve God in this Diocese.
  2. Pray for Us and Be Among Us. We need you to lead our journey wherever God calls us to go.  Tradition is wonderful if it still gets the job done. But change is sometimes needed to help open our eyes to God’s plan for us. So give us permission to dream, to hope and plan and create a better future for ourselves, our children and the Diocese of California. No doubt some reorganization of the work of the Diocese would be liberating and enable you to put your stamp on its operations.  My advice is ‘get on with it’ and as you do align the resources and programs of the Diocese to your priorities and challenge us to roll up our sleeves and get to work helping you to turn your call into action.  I recommend several specific actions:
    1. Charge the Standing Committee with Long Term Planning with a continuing duty of linking the goals and finances of the Diocese into a Long Term Plan to guide the work of the Diocese.
    2. Make Congregation Development a high priority charging it with three specific tasks: Growing Average Sunday Attendance across the Diocese setting clear and measurable goals; Define strategies for declining congregation failure to thrive; Define strategies to help growing congregations plan and manage growth.
  3. Teach Us to Fish. The problems we face today as a Diocese are real and challenging but so is the resourcefulness of your flock.  Subsidies for struggling parishes do nothing to teach them to fish and thus thrive.  Raising the Diocesan Assessment for the largest, fastest growing parishes does nothing to encourage them to collaborate, innovate and learn to fish for new members of our faith community.  Teach us to fish by enabling the Diocese to devise congregation development strategies that work and leverage our resources, talents and faith to do God’s work.  Here I recommend the following specific actions:
    1. Create a Parish Buddy System. Challenge the Biggest Parishes to expand their Outreach efforts to help the weakest Parishes learn to thrive by matching the Big 17 with one of the Struggling 13 in a buddy system.
    2. Retain the Diocesan Assessment Cap and End the Subsidies. Encourage this Parish Buddy System by pledging to the big parishes that if they step up to help the smaller ones the current Assessment cap will be retained.  Encourage the smaller ones by ending any Diocesan subsidies.
    3. Circuit Rider Supply Priests.  Use a portion of the subsidy to fund a Diocesan Circuit Rider system of priests to support the parishes both small and large with supply priest resources and peak load resources for projects and special ministry needs.

Bishop, I know you didn’t ask for my advice.  I also know there are plenty of others also giving it to you as you start your new job.  But I believe in you and I have faith that God’s call that made you our shepherd was a pure and perfect symbol of His unconditional love for this unruly flock.

We are ready to follow you.

Signed

Timothy

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