It’s halfway through September, and clearly I haven’t been writing on this blog. It is not because I haven’t been writing! On October 8th, the diocesan profile for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan’s bishop search process is scheduled to go live on our website. I didn’t write much of the profile, but I am deep into final edits. (Want to guess which section I wrote? Let this post be your clue.)
Meanwhile, our current bishop is on sabbatical. I am honored to have been one of the people invited to contribute to his weekly teaching series in his absence. Today my first contribution was published. Especially since it won’t be up at this link very long, I thought it was worth reproducing here.
There is no doubt that, as Susan Brown Snook recently wrote, it is not restructuring that will save us, but reawakening. Indeed, in Jim Collins’ book How the Mighty Fall (relevant reading for mainline clergy), he notes that restructuring initiatives are often part of the process of decline.
Reawakening means recognizing that even though we do need to restructure, our life in Christ depends on much more. It includes a certain level of holy indifference: If we live, we live to the Lord… if we die, we die to the Lord… so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:8)
Until I get back to writing a full blog post (likely after the profile is published), I send you this. Though meant for the Diocese of Western Michigan, I hope it is relevant to the wider church and to the world.
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For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8-10)
Our diocese was founded in 1874. In the 138 years since, laity and clergy have continually praised God, led people to discipleship in Christ, and ministered in His name. Half the state of Michigan has been blessed by the ministry of this diocese.
As a member of the search team for our next Bishop, I’ve been studying the data about our diocese. When our profile is published early next month, our major findings will be shared with the world… including our next bishop, whoever he or she may be. At this point we’ve completed our analysis, pending independent confirmation that all our calculations are correct.
Our data includes some challenging facts about our life together. Just about half of our churches struggle to afford a full-time priest, if they can afford one at all. One in five congregations reported that they had no church school students in 2011. Even our largest congregations are not the size that church consultants generally consider “resource parishes” – large enough to have resources to share. Bringing these facts into the light can make us feel anxious.
Our data also includes encouraging facts. Despite the recent financial downturn, average giving to annual operating budgets of churches held steady across the diocese. Most of our congregations have at least six months of operating funds in savings. Some of our congregations have endowment funds; of those that do, a majority are using them in a way that is sustainable for the long term. Bringing these facts into the light can give us hope.
As I’ve studied and analyzed this data, I’ve been asked if I am a “numbers cruncher” or a “NT” on the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am an unabashed sensitive soul who weeps in movies and avoids even fictional accounts of violence. I haven’t taken a math class in twenty-five years; I structured my college education to avoid all exposure to the hard sciences (and lived to regret it).
But I am also a disciple of Jesus Christ, who asks us to walk in the light and speak the truth. It seems to me that figuring out facts about our life together is part of following that call. All of our congregations have numbers… in the operating budget, in the parochial report data, in the balance sheet. When these numbers are tracked and reported accurately, they are facts.
Facts matter, because without facts we cannot make wise choices. It is by wise choices, “pleasing to the Lord,” we may thrive to minister for years to come. Facts serve us well when we see them in their proper place: as servants of our mission to make disciples of Christ and minister to the world in His name. We may not always like the facts before us, but as disciples of Christ we cannot fail to acknowledge them, recognizing that no fact – indeed, nothing at all – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.