At the Diocesan convention in San Francisco we heard Bishop Marc Andrus open the 161st meeting of the body politic of the Diocese of California talking about the evolution of the church across the country into a post parish form of governance. Like much of Dio-speak I had to listen carefully to try to figure out what those words meant.
Bishop Marc described the differences between congregations in the East and West. He said that in the East congregations raised financial endowments through bequests from the faithful over generations to provide ongoing support for the mission and ministry work of the church. Bishop Marc said the tradition of the church in the West is that the endowment of the church is best embodied in its buildings because lacking a history of many bequests, the congregations had to reach deeply into their own pockets to finance the building of the church and filling those spaces with programs, prayer and community.
The Bishop said his view was that there were global problems we faced that could only be addressed globally and that a congregational focus on the mission of the church was not always best.
I wrote that down because I found myself struck by the profoundness of that statement.
Think about it, the Bishop of California is telling us the future of the church is imagining a life beyond our parish, and that we should expect the church future to be decided more globally primarily b y the Diocese to live into that life beyond our parish. He’s not talking about rolling up your sleeves and doing the mission work of the church off your parish campus. Taking this post parish concept to its logical conclusion, he’s talking about whether there is a higher and better use of the endowment of the church as embodied today in the building and grounds of parishes by turning that property into cash to support the mission and ministry work of the parish as determined by the Diocese.
Area ministry, we are told, is the way to give life to that post-parish strategy by bringing congregations together around shared programs designed, managed, financed and directed by the Diocese. The benefits of area ministry we are told is an end to the feeling of being isolated—of going it alone—to one that parishes are collaborators not competitors. So if the “endowment” of the Church in the West in places like the Diocese of California is the buildings of the parishes then it is the role of the Diocese to decide if that endowment is being deployed for the highest and best use of the church.
I really have to think about this because it flies in the face of what we have known in the history of the church as a collection of congregations serving the faithful and providing a foundation for corporate worship.
If area ministry and a post parish future means encouraging congregations to work together on shared goals, common mission ad ministry programs and partnership to grow the mission of the church that is a strategy most will embrace. I love the idea of encouraging parishes to work together on shared programs, but I have a sense what the Bishop is talking about goes well beyond encouraging collaboration.
But if it means a policy of slowly, eroding the viability of congregations and substituting ‘global’ Diocesan programs for parish programs until over time the parishes atrophy and wither away and their buildings are sold and that ‘endowment’ is used to support more Diocesan programs—that strategy is going to be a hard sell in the front pews of congregations both small and large.
Maybe I’ve got it all wrong and if so someone will surely correct me.
This view of a post-parish future for the church seems to fly in the face of one of the transformational features of the American church at its founding after the American Revolution in the formation of a Standing Committee of the clergy and laity to share the leadership role of the church bringing a sense of democratic ownership of the church to replace the divine right of kings and bishops to decide what is best for the body politic.
Imagining a post-parish church, area ministry and the top down strategy of mission and ministry run by the Diocese instead of a congregation-up commitment to mission and ministry by the People of God creates a ‘holy friction’ that should be named, debated and finally decided in a healthy, collaborative, prayerful, but deliberate way by congregations and the convention of the Diocese of California. It isn’t something we want to find pressed upon us as a fiat accompli.