Confession is Good for My Soul.
I confess that in these pages I have been a skeptic of Bishop Marc’s post parish view of the future of the church believing that a congregation-up view of the mission work of the church was both more in line with our church tradition and better suited to growing the church for the future.
At the Diocesan Executive Council retreat this week we gathered with Bishop Marc to consider the work ahead of us as the board of directors of the diocese for the year ahead. It was a time very well spent. We were schooled about our fiduciary duties as directors, our duty of care, our duty of loyalty, our duty of transparency and our duty of service toand each other in doing the work of the church.
After that daunting dissertation on the do’s and don’ts of being a board member, on Friday morning we got to listen to Bishop Marc’s views on the condition of the Diocese today and his views about its strengths and needs for the future.
Here’s where my confession starts . . .
For the first time as I listened to our bishop talk about the need to be faithful and prayerful and optimistic about what God has in store for us, we also needed to face reality. He told us that 85% of the US population and 92% of our Bay Area population in our Diocese do not have a regular Christian, Jewish or Muslim faith home.
The good news is there is plenty of opportunity to grow by reaching out to other Christians who lack a church home, but the reality is we will not likely grow if we focus just on just others of our Episcopal faith tradition. He talked about the reality that about half of the congregations in the Diocese are struggling financially and that some face serious decisions ahead as the cost of delayed maintenance, seismic upgrades and major facility repairs overwhelms them financially. He told us he felt it likely that within ten years there might be as few as 12 growing, thriving congregations and we must prepare for a time when doing the mission work of the church the way we have always done it would no longer work.
The bishop told us that some problems that are global in nature require a global solution, and we must see our way forward as focusing on the scale of the problems we face and not try to do everything ourselves, everyplace at the same time.
OMG! I sound like my Bishop!
My confession is that, in truth I have said many of these same things myself, so it is unfair to criticize Bishop Marc for now doing what I said needed to be done—facing up to the practical financial and facility needs of the Diocese. I can’t hide from this fact. In an article in our parish newsletter in 2006 before Marc was even called as Bishop ofI wrote:
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 thethese days. No doubt, there are those who see the as appropriately located on the 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 Ignoresto 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. 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 Requireto 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 inDevelopment. 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 cannot 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.
Well, Bishop, here is my prayer:
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Do you see why I am confessing now?
Bishop Marc is actually doing what I said in 2006 the next bishop should do—facing up to this emerging reality. So who am I now to criticize now that it is happening?
As the family of Christ in the Episcopal Diocese of California we have begun to experiment with new ways to build community to meet the needs of those we seek to serve. I realized at the Executive council retreat that my difference with Bishop Marc and the DioCal approach is not a difference of needs assessment but of implementation, style and tactics. Our discussion and experimentation around these issues can open the door to collaboration, to teamwork through area ministry, and to welcome the unchurched and underserved hoping to grow the participation of the faithful in the work of the church and strengthen its financial foundation.
I have a duty of care in my role as a member of the Diocesan Executive Council that includes working with the Bishop and the diocesan staff as well as with my own congregation at St. Timothy’s and others across the Diocese to be good stewards of the blessings God has bestowed on us, to challenge our conventional wisdom in ways that contributes to a healthy, collaborative future for our Diocese and the church.
I also have other duties fiduciary and otherwise that call on me not just to go along passively but to inquire, to share my views, and ask tough questions as part of my duty of loyalty to the church. These duties are not in conflict but part of one fabric that makes up the quilt of the church’s mission that warms our hearts as God fill us with his Holy Spirit.