The Monsters Under the Bishop’s Bed

Bishop Marc’s pastoral letter aptly states our widely shared goal to “foster the sense of Christian community within the Diocese of California”.  But he muddles the message when he tries to define the “central assumption” of the call for a change in the Diocesan assessment as the big parishes versus the small congregations and ethnic ministries.  That is nonsense as is the statement that the large parishes are frustrated “at how they believe they are viewed by our smallest congregations – with mistrust, envy, dislike.”  There is a sense of frustration in the pews, but that frustration is with the Diocese not with the small congregations or ethnic ministries.  But frustration is only one of the monsters under the Bishop’s bed.

Like our childhood fear of those monsters lurking under our beds at night, the sour economy has forced us all to shine light on the monsters under the Diocesan bed to show the faithful that through prayer and honest collaboration our problems can be solved with God’s help. But when he looks under the DioCal bed, the Bishop is finding things he did not expect and may not like, but the light reveals them anyway.

What are the Monsters under the DioCal Bed?

  • Recession Ravages Church Income. The biggest monster is the recession that has ravaged the pledge income of the church across the board and a slow, weak recovery that will not allow a ‘business as usual’ approach to the mission and ministry work of the church.  Both the Diocese and its parishes are forcing this scary monster to face the light.  In truth, ‘business as usual’ even in the boom times of the economy was not working so well for the Diocese with a growing number of small congregations and ministry programs struggling and unable to secure pledge income or other revenue to be self sufficient.  Support from the Diocese was enough to keep them dependent and on life support, but not sufficient to enable them to thrive. The longer the Diocese let these financial issues fester the worse they got.  This problem has nothing to do with the large parishes and everything to do with the ineffectiveness of Diocesan congregational development strategy and execution.
  • Assessment Formula Threatens Congregation Viability. Another monster under the bed is the Diocesan Assessment formula which is progressively graduated like alternative minimum income tax rates so congregations with more pledge income pay a larger assessment.  Until the recession hit the parishes hard we all muddled through.  An earlier spat over the assessment formula resulted in a cap on the assessment.  This worked to keep the monsters under the bed quiet but the recession ravaged parish pledge income and forced lay-offs of both ordained and lay congregation staff threatening the viability of even the strongest parishes in doing the work of the Church.

The larger congregations that raised the assessment formula issue anew could have taken the easy way out and quietly just underpaid their assessment if pledge income fell short asking for forgiveness after the fact rather than permission in advance.  They did not do that because it put the missions and ministries the Bishop’s pastoral letter suggested they did not care about at greater risk.  Instead they went to the Finance Department and said again “we have a big problem and we need help to solve it”.  Out of that honest confession came the Finance Department Working Group assessment revision proposal.

  • The Beloved Community Raises Expectations.  The Bishop characterizes this as a contest between large congregations and small missions and ethnic ministries.  That is nonsense. For many years, our Diocese has not been very effective in spreading the Good News as measured by average attendance and a thriving pledge base—and this monster under the bed we must face candidly.  This is not a problem Marc created, but now he owns it.

Congregations large and small have time and again asked for help from the Diocese to grow mission and ministry programs, but the answer is always the same—we’re behind you, way behind you!  The result is a growing perception problem for the Bishop that the Diocese does not listen to the ‘views from the pews’ and has a patronizing ‘we know better’ attitude about priorities.  That may be unfair, but perception is often reality.

The monster under the bed for the Bishop is that he succeeded in persuading the congregations to believe in the Beloved Community concept of reaching out and working together—we get it, we like it!  But having raised our expectations about community he must change the ‘business as usual’ style and performance of the Diocese to enable the Beloved community to be more than Dio-speak that leaves the congregants asking—‘what did he just say?’

  • The Monster of Frustration Among us. My belief is that people of goodwill across the diocese will tame the Assessment monster through dialogue and discussion before the Convention in 2011.  Legitimizing the dialogue opens the door to new ideas. And that will drag the monster of frustration out from under the bed for all to see.

What is the monster of frustration?

The hidden monster of frustration is the difference in views between the diocese and the congregations.  The diocese prefers a traditional top down strategy where the assessment produces enough revenue to cover both the DioCal administrative budget and its mission and ministry programs.  Under this top down strategy the Diocese calls the shots but the congregations put up the money.  The congregations, on the other hand, want to live into the mission and ministry work of the Beloved Community to do the work of the church through Christian joint action.  They want to thrive and grow and believe the Diocese should help them achieve their goals.  The congregations have an ‘out from the pews’  bottom up strategy view based largely on the belief the Diocese should believe in their Beloved Community, enable and empower them to do the mission and ministry work of the church, and not frustrate their efforts.

So what?

So, the Department of Finance Working Group proposal is a compromise loosening Diocesan control by separating the DioCal budget into a mandatory Administrative budget and making the mission and ministry budget voluntary so congregations can target their spending to fund mission and ministry programs.   That compromise goes too far for some who fear the priorities of the parishes will be different than those of the Bishop and Staff so their fear is sometimes mistakenly cast as large parish opposition to the ethnic ministries or missions.

The Bishop is exactly right that we must shine light on this fear through dialogue and prayer to see the beauty in this beast.  That is the beauty of the Beloved Community vision and goal of the congregations working together with a strong commitment to and capacity for supporting the mission and ministry work of the church including ethnic ministries.  That joint action can shape and define the Beloved Community much more effectively, powerfully, and sustainably than dependence on the Diocese alone for subsidy.

If we believe in the Beloved Community we must live into it. My concern is that the Finance Working Group proposal does not go far enough to create an area ministry framework that enables the congregations to create sustainable mission and ministry programs including ethnic ministry that can thrive.  By encouraging shared ministry collaboration as the true meaning of the Beloved Community we breathe life and love into each of these mission and ministries that is true discipleship and evangelism at work.

That is why I have offered a strawman alternative to the Department of Finance Working Group proposal that is more parish-driven, more directly focused on mission and ministry including ethnic ministry needs, and creates a self-help framework for living into area ministry to develop shared programs that shape the definition of the Beloved Community in fresh new ways.

The strawman seeks a mission and ministry strategy for the diocese that is sustainable and empowering not a business as usual dependence on subsidies.

My strawman proposal does not make it easy on the congregations. It requires them to enter into participation agreement as binding contracts to assure other congregations that joint action will deliver the committed resources to support the agreed mission and ministry programs.  My proposal encourages true area ministry with its work products as shared programs, mission congregations, and large parish support for an expansive ethnic and social ministry to meet the broad needs of the Diocese.

I share the Bishop’s belief in the concept of the Beloved Community.  But right now that concept is too ‘squishy’, too vague to be meaningful for the faithful.  It is Dio-speak, but I believe the way to that goal is to engage, empower and enliven the people across the parishes to roll up their sleeves and do the work of the Church rather than wait for the diocese to tell us what to do.

The Beloved Community is true discipleship listening to God and doing God’s work by living into to the lesson Christ taught us to “love one another as I have loved you”.   If we can do that everything will be just fine.

Encouraging Diocesan Discussion

The Bishop’s best contribution to this Diocesan Assessment discussion has been to lay out a careful, deliberate process and time line for consultation, collaboration and consensus-building.  His prudence in this process is smart and encourages broad discussion of the issues across the Diocese.  We should applaud the Bishop’s leadership in this approach because as he said in his pastoral letter:

“These perceptions and real stresses are not new to the diocese, but I believe have become more acute with the needs our congregants and communities face. It became apparent to me that the most needed response was not just a new assessment formula, but rather a coming together between people representing different contexts of church life, and an honest exchange about those settings of life and ministry.”

“We are now at the stage of extending the work of this task force for broader diocesan input, and shall begin this process with an extended lunch period at diocesan convention for small-group discussions. I’m pleased that many members of the task force will be present to help lead small group conversations at convention and beyond, and I’m grateful for their ongoing support. The process for diocesan conversation will continue beyond the convention with the goal of arriving at a revised formula by March 2011, at which time the revised formula will be presented to the Finance Committee.”


3 thoughts on “The Monsters Under the Bishop’s Bed

  1. Thanks for the feedback received on this post and for one important ‘nit-pic’. I often use the word “parishes” when I should more accurately use the word “congregations” since the intent is to encompass both parishes, missions and other special communities of faith.

  2. Gary,

    I find the distinction you draw between congregations and the Diocese most unhelpful.  While it feeds into a partisan congregationalist view that is understandable and very American (and most clamorous in times of stress!) this does not represent the polity of our Church.  We have suffered for too long under this congregations vs. diocese mentality.  I find it fundamentally divisive and that it imperils our efforts at reconciliation.  

    Further, I have lived and worked in both a small, struggling ethnic congregation and in a larger more affluent congregation of this Diocese.  The jealousies and suspicions between these forms of ministry among us are very real and quite destructive.   They, too, are the “monsters” under our bed.  I feel it important they be named, and I am grateful Bishop Marc did so. We deny them at our peril.  As he wrote, these are old hurts — they may not be my responsibility or yours in origin, but they are our responsibility together to help heal in Christ’s name.

    We are the Diocese… together.  That means we share these challenges without blame.  That is why I agree with you that the discussion just beginning with us meeting together as a body is critical to look at these questions of how we share God’s gifts in the building up of the Body.  I look forward to that conversation.

    Your servant in Christ,

    Richard Helmer p/BSG
    Rector, Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley
    President, Marin Deanery

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