February 11, 2012

Restructuring the Church

I had the chance (and the bandwidth) late last week to view the  presentation by the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Stacy Sauls, concerning the restructuring of the church, and "becoming" a Domestic and Foreign Missiionary Society. I have a couple of thoughts on its strengths, possibilities and weaknesses.

I applaud the effort to look at changes to the structure of the church to empower mission. That includes streamlining, reallocating, and so on. I think a lot of change is needed, and have my own ideas about where that could happen.

But I think there were gaps in the presentation that need to be filled, as well as more of the clarity in distinguishing which structures we are talking about. The General Convention and its interim bodies, and the staff at 815 Second Avenue and in other satellite locations, are not the same thing; and the mission of the church is broader still. The Episcopal Church is not one monolithic, unified structure, and portraying it as a pyramid with General Convention at the top is hardly an accurate picture. It might be true in terms of governance, but clearly not in terms of mission. And I don't think that is a bad thing.

First and foremost, the idea of organizing the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society was not to found a centrally based or governed mission agency, but on the contrary precisely to empower every member of the church as a missionary in person. I have never thought of General Convention as "missionary" -- any more than I would think of Congress as "military" -- General Convention is there to govern the church, and to direct and serve the mission; as is the staff at 815 (what PB John Maury Allin called and modeled as a "service center"); and all those interim bodies are there to do the same. But the mission is primarily carried out by the members of the church working as individuals and in coordination with others in their parishes and dioceses. (Just as the army carries out the policies of the government but is distinct from the government.)

Second, we need to be very clear about what we mean by mission. The BCP has a definition of mission, summed up in three questions and answers on page 855.

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
These answers do a number of things. The first places mission in a theological as well as a human context. That is, it is about people, but it is also about God. The second prevents us thinking that worship and proclamation are not just as much mission as the soup kitchen is. The third makes it clear that all of the members of the church are called and equipped to carry forward this mission.

It seems, therefore, odd to talk, as the presentation does, primarily about the national budget, while ignoring the billions of dollars raised and spent by the parishes -- only alluded to in the presentation -- when talking about the proportion of money spent on mission. The proportion of our "Gross Episcopal Product" spent on mission is substantial -- as we have to include the salaries of the missioners, the maintenance of the places in which we worship, and so on. It is deadly dangerous, and verges on a kind of missionary gnosticism, to forget that the cost of running a parish is a crucial part of its mission. Seek economies, by all means, but let us not say to the foot, I have no need of you!

One of the major problems in how people think of mission, it seems to me, is revealed in the commonly inverted understanding of Matthew 25 -- as if the mission of the church was identical with the works of mercy described there (which is not to say the church shouldn't do them, under the Golden Rule). But the text is not about the ministry or mission of the disciples, but about ministries performed (or not) to the disciples by those to whom the disciples went on mission. Matthew meant this passage as a comfort to the disciples as they were sent on their way to the "nations" -- not as a job description for the disciples' task, but as a comfort to them and a warning to those who would be on the receiving end of their mission to "baptize all nations" --- and let us remember that was the ultimate "mission of God." (It is odd in our present day that some are second guessing the importance of baptism as the essential and first sacramental mission of the church, leaping right to communion as if the radically transforming death to self in baptism were not essential in order fully to share in the communion Christ desires for us -- the accomplishment of the mission.)

In other words, the mission of the church is about much more than ministries of social service -- which is not to denigrate social service, but to see that it grows out of, but is not identical to, the unifying mission of the church. I have known congregations that become "doughnut churches" where much energy is spent on outreach, but there is no center or heart, and the energy is quickly expended and the parish is on the verge of collapse. Ultimately, the Matthew passage raises another important distinction: that between mission and ministry. They are related, but they are not the same. Much of what is done by the staff of the Episcopal Church Center is service; ministry rather than mission.

In the long run I think the PB and Bishop Sauls are onto some good things, but I fear that the focus on GC and 815 -- important as that is -- misses where the mission is most ably happening. I would like to see GC and 815 leaner and more effective in serving that mission, and to the extent that this is their aim, Amen, and again I say, Amen!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

Tobias, thanks for the reminder that prayer and worship are part and parcel of the mission of the church.

Daniel Weir said...

There are two important aspects of our identity as Episcopalians that are in tension. One is the hierarchical polity of this Church, a hierarchy of conventions and not of people. The property disputes and the attempts of some diocesan conventions to take their dioceses out of TEC rest on misunderstandings of our polity, seeing either diocesan conventions or vestries as having unlimited autonomy. The second is that, like politics, mission tends to be local. Only by holding these two in a healthy tension will we be able to move forward.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mimi, and Daniel. These are the important neglected factors that I think need more attention from the leadership.

As to polity, a document is forthcoming that attempts to lay it out in the committee hope helpful terms -- but there is indeed a tension between the "center" and the "edges"!

June Butler said...

PS: Thanks for the reminder of the definition of mission in the Prayer Book. No wonder that, at times, when I hear our leaders and others in the church speak of mission, I come away with only a fuzzy idea of what they're talking about

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks again, Mimi. I think it is very important to keep returning to that definition, or rather, answers to questions about the nature of mission. It is so easy to recline in the fuzzy warmth of supposed familiarity, and forget the hard innersprings! Mission is foundational.

Jesse Zink said...

I agree with a lot in this post. To make explicit something I think you're hinting at, I think we need to talk more about what we might call a "spirituality of mission." (I'm adapting this idea from Gustavo Guitterez, who talks about the need for a "spirituality of liberation.") When we just put the focus on the stuff we do - all important stuff that needs to be done, like soup kitchens, shelters, etc. - we miss the deep personal conversion to a new way of life to which God in Christ calls us to.

-Jesse Zink

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Exactly so, Jesse. I think a deeply incarnational approach is needed, holding body and spirit together. The "spirit of mission" ought not be neglected in the "work of mission." In a sense, this is why I favor using "ministry" for the work, and keeping "mission" as the driving force behind the ministry, its raison d'être in every sense of that Word (= logos).

The Rev. Dr. David Perkins said...

Mission is God's ongoing activity, calling all people into union with the divine love. Our challenge as the church is to discern God's activity in the world and to join in that activity at the personal, congregational, diocesan, national, and international levels.

The dichotomy between governance and mission is a false one (See Galatians 2; Acts 15). Governance serves mission; mission trumps all else. The Presiding Bishop and the Chief Operating Officer are seeking to restructure governance more fully in the service of mission.

Why would we resist? Is it the $100,000? Is it the calling of an additional national meeting? Is it an additional deliberative body? The money can be found. And, an additional General Convention for this purpose can focus exclusively on mission and governance. Also, an additional commission would bring fresh eyes and new voices, outside the existing structures, into the dialogue.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Dr. Perkins. I think my issue is that I did not hear this holistic understanding of mission in the talks by the PB and Bishop Sauls. The focus on the "national" -- perhaps understandable as that is where they work -- seemed not to take adequate stock of the rest of the church. That is the disconnect I find problematical.

I'm not keen on your definition of mission, and prefer that in the BCP. I don't think God has an activity in the world without people -- so it is not just a matter of "joining in" to my mind, but doing what God wills us to do. Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, but the "God's mission" language troubles me on a number of levels. It seems to me that God has given us a mission, and the mission is now ours (though not ours alone) to do -- or fail to do.

The Rev. Dr. David Perkins said...

My response to your comment about God having no activity in the world apart from people astounds me, if by people you mean those engaged in mission. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 speaks to God's ongoing activity in the lives of all people--Christ present in them before the missionary arrives.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dr. Perkins, I'm afraid I'm losing the thread here. I did not say or intend to imply that God was only active in the world in people involved in mission. What I said is that God's mission is carried out through people -- and yes, that includes the inner prompting in the heart of one who has yet to hear the Word.

Joe Duggan said...

I completely agree with the expressed concerns of the original post. It is probably worthy of note in this specific conversation as well as the larger restructuring conversation that the most prophetic change in The Episcopal Church does not come from 815 or even General Convention as much as it does from the grassroots of the church. We all know this, but do we need to be reminded? Women's priesthood arose out of the local church and then was approved by GC. Bishop Robinson's historical election emerged at the diocesan level and then approved. The debate over open communion has emerged at the level of congregations. Perhaps then 815 and the Executive Council might do well to encourage the grassroots, congregations and dioceses to think about the way the church - 815, dioceses and congregations might work better together. Structure should serve not dictate especially for Episcopalians. We must not replicate the Anglican Covenant style of dictating structure from above and expect it to make sense in the local context.

Joseph Duggan

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Joe. I think that is the goal, but my concern is that micro-management will set in.