The opportunity of numerical decline

Management guru and bestselling author Jim Collins has spent years studying “How Great Companies Turn Crisis into Opportunity” (Fortune, February 2, 2009, pp. 48-52). In doing so, he unwittingly identified three critically important factors for helping the Episcopal Church to reverse its current decline.

First, Collins notes that great companies remain firmly attached to their moorings. For example, great manufacturers do not pinch pennies by substituting inferior raw materials. The ecclesial version of this comment is that the basics – great worship, powerful music, reliable childcare, inclusive pastoral care, safe and clean facilities – are non-negotiable essentials. Looking to reverse numerical declines with “quick fixes” borrowed from other liturgical traditions will confuse communicants and ultimately fail. Instead, the Episcopal Church should concentrate on being who it is and doing what it does as well as possible. Skeptics should recall Robert Webber’s book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, which recounts the journey of many who want to share our tradition.

Second, Collins emphasizes that in times of crisis great companies focus on their employees. The Episcopal Church must focus equally on its clergy and laity. Concern about a clergy shortage should never prompt the Church to lower its education or ordination standards. Studies repeatedly show that inferior or ill-prepared clergy leadership bodes ill for a parish and that thriving congregations invariably have superb clergy leadership.

The Church, however, should avoid confusing ends and means. The end is superb clergy. The means – how the Church identifies and educates those clergy – can benefit from continual improvements. Debates, for example, about whether seminaries over-emphasize academic preparation to the detriment of spiritual formation or acquiring practical skills are especially necessary with diminished financial resources. New models of ministry to maximize the value of each clergyperson’s service (team ministry, yoked parishes, etc.) similarly need exploration, refinement, and implementation.

The Episcopal Church tends to overemphasize clergy at the expense of its laity. Clergy too often reserve for themselves what they regard as highly rewarding tasks, relegating the rest to the laity. A few tasks (e.g., celebrating Holy Communion) require ordination. However, laity and clergy alike can perform most ministerial tasks: visiting the sick, offering pastoral counsel, teaching the faith, organizing programs, etc. With scarce resources, volunteers are more important than ever. They, like clergy, need effective recruiting and screening as well as excellent training and education. Expanding the ministry of a well-equipped, well-supported laity minimizes costs while maximizing the Church’s impact. Focusing on enlarging and enhancing lay ministry multiplies clergy efforts – and the results of shared ministries – far more than any other alternative.

Third, Collins opines that the way to differentiate great talent from the rest is that great talent does not need managing. Applying this concept to the Church requires two behaviors that most clergy find seriously uncomfortable: delegating and functioning as part of a team. Our ordination pipeline for priests tends to produce “lone rangers,” clergy prepared for and focused on serving organizations with only one clergyperson on staff. Initial experiences as a curate in a multi-staff setting more often than not reinforce the pre-existing bias toward being a “lone ranger.”

Bishops and priests desirous of using the current crisis to move their organization toward greatness must develop the leadership skills to delegate effectively and to build teams of talented players where no teams now function. Building trust among staff and volunteers gives everyone the comfort and security needed for effective delegation. In the process of trust building, people mutually discover skills, competencies, and passions, and naturally form teams. Building trust takes time and effort, but the techniques are readily learned and the investment will repeatedly pay outsize dividends.

Jim Collins has observed, “One of the lessons we’ve learned is that turbulence is your friend” – but only if one is ready to face tough times. The Episcopal Church can no longer afford to cherish the illusion that its life and ministry are still and peaceful turmoil. If so, the Episcopal Church will slowly wither and die on the vine. Alternatively, drawing life from the vine, the Church can take these lessons about how to thrive amidst crises to heart and embrace its present turbulence, confident that its best days lie ahead.


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