Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Now is the time for “Burger King” churches

The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church.

If you doubt that pronouncement, map where the attendees or members of your congregation live. Also plot the locations of all churches – regardless of flavor (i.e., denomination) – in the geographic area in which your congregation lives.

The parish system originated when the Christian Church tailored its organization to meet the requirements of being the Roman Empire’s established religion. Ecclesiastical and/or secular authorities divided territory into non-overlapping, contiguous dioceses. Dioceses were subdivided into geographically defined parishes, with a church and at least one priest assigned to each parish. The nation states that emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire retained the parish system for their established Churches.

The parish model theoretically provided ministry to everyone. Ministry, particularly in pre-printing press days, primarily consisted of administering the sacraments, caring for the sick, burying the dead, and managing the institution.

The parish system has two potential disadvantages. First, as population shifts occur, church buildings and parish boundaries once tailored to fit the population distribution may no longer align with where people live. Second, the parish system presumes a sufficient supply of clergy to staff all of a diocese’s parishes.

The Church of England’s Diocese of Birmingham recently proposed ending its parish system for both of those reasons. Birmingham’s population has migrated from rural areas to urban and suburban areas, producing an imbalance between the location of church buildings and people. The Diocese also has too few clergy to assign one priest to each parish.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) does not have formal geographic boundaries for its parishes and missions. Nevertheless, TEC has functioned for most of the last two centuries as though it had a de facto parish system. TEC divided the nation into geographic dioceses. Dioceses often aimed, intentionally or otherwise, to situate a parish or mission in each town, neighborhood, or other population cluster. Each of those congregations then usually sought to develop the finances to afford its own full-time priest, the primary distinction between parishes and missions.

Both disadvantages of the parish system are evident in the American context. First, population shifts from rural to urban and suburban areas have left many once thriving congregations struggling to afford a priest and to maintain buildings. Second, many rural congregations experience great difficulty in calling a priest because priests generally prefer urban or suburban living. This distribution problem is frequently misdiagnosed as a clergy shortage.

Another factor compounds the parish system’s problems, especially in the United States but also increasingly in the United Kingdom. We are living in a “Burger King” culture. Individuals want everything, including religion, their own way. No longer do people almost reflexively walk to the nearest congregation of the faith group inherited from their parents. People want to choose where they worship – if they attend any worships service at all. Growing numbers in both the U.S. and U.K. now opt to identify as spiritual but not religious, agnostic, or atheist.

Persons who do choose religion increasingly want to choose whether to belong to a Christian church or faith community of another religion. Those who choose Christianity then choose which flavor of Christianity they like, at least the flavor they currently prefer, and may move from one flavor to another. Over half of U.S. Episcopalians, for example, are not cradle Episcopalians.

The desire to choose is so strong, that coupled with the American love affair with the automobile, people unhesitatingly drive past one or several congregations of the desired flavor to find a congregation that offers what they seek in terms of worship, programs, ordained leaders’ personality style or type, parking, etc.

The neighborhood church is on life support, if not dead.

Is there a healthy alternative to the parish system?

Intentionally becoming a destination church – what I more broadly call a special interest church – offers a promising alternative, especially in the U.S. where the parish system is not mandated by law.

“Destination church” is not a new concept. “Destination church” typically connotes a church that offers something so special that it draws people from well beyond its immediate neighborhood, analogous to how magnet schools attract students from across a school district. English cathedrals, and often American cathedrals, are destination churches. A large downtown congregation may be a destination church because of its expensive, high-quality music program or some other, probably costly, distinctive programming.

The concept of special interest church adapts the idea of a destination church to fit congregations of all sizes and resource levels. Let’s stop pretending that any one congregation can, or even should attempt to, minister to everyone. Wealthy congregations, like Trinity Wall Street, will never attract people who believe, as St. Francis of Assisi did, that walking in Jesus’ footsteps requires disavowing all worldly possessions. Large congregations, such as St. Martin’s in Houston, will never attract people who seek the family-like experience that comes from knowing every member of the congregation. Conversely, small congregations cannot offer either the anonymity or diverse programming possible in a large congregation. Not every congregation has the youth, leaders or money to offer top-quality youth ministry.

What does your individual congregation do really well? Honest answers, for most churches, will number only one to a half-dozen items. No congregation, no priest, can do everything exceptionally well. To identify strengths, truthfully compare your congregation to other congregations in the community (of all flavors) and in the diocese. What does your congregation do so well that other congregations could learn from it?

Paul wrote that “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Paul’s statement was clearly a hyperbole. He could not change his race or gender. He remained a tentmaker, being neither a peasant nor a noble. As identity politics underscores, nobody can literally be all things to all people. Let’s stop tilting at windmills, attempting the impossible, and deluding ourselves about congregational limitations. Instead. build on your strengths.

Furthermore, with the multiplication of denominations (making lemonade out of the lemons of schism), extremely few communities have just one church. Only very large congregations have the people, staff, and resources to offer a truly wide variety of first-rate programming for children of all ages, adults of all ages and interests, professional quality music, effective social advocacy that makes a difference locally and globally, etc. People today increasingly reject the mediocre as unsatisfactory. Instead, people want to be associated with the truly excellent, whether in their choice of a smart phone, health care, or a religious congregation. Great congregations today measure success by the quality, not the quantity, of their ministries and missions.

Dream about what your congregation might look like if it single-mindedly focused on its few outstanding strengths. Then design and deliver ministry and mission programs to bring that dream to fruition, boldly scrapping everything else and realigning resources, including lay and staff time, with that dream.

The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Holy Week – some modern images

This year, in the days before Holy Week (the 8 days from Palm Sunday to Easter, inclusive), my thoughts turned to some contemporary images that are evocative of biblical images embedded in the Holy Week narrative. To find those images, read the Holy Week narrative, versions of which are found in the first three books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Luke’s gospel, the biography of Jesus read this year by many churches, including the Episcopal Church, that follow the Revised Common Lectionary for selecting the scripture passages to be read in worship service, the Holy Week narrative spans Luke chapters 22-24.

Here are some suggestive images.

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet before he shared a final meal with them. The disciples wanted to wash Jesus’ feet; his filling the servant’s role discomfited them. Today, the “dirty” may belong to a different political party, different race, or have a different sexual orientation. How can I humble myself to see that I, not they, am truly the one who is dirty? How can I allow Jesus to wash me?

Jesus is famously tried by Pilate who washes his hands of the entire affair. When individuals wrongly or falsely disclaim responsibility for a problem, they emulate Pilate, figuratively attempting to wash their hands of the entire affair. Among such individuals are climate change deniers, flat earthers, white supremacists, and those who rely upon their own “alternative facts.” Who might you add to this list?

Jesus, whom the gospels describe as without sin, was executed as a common criminal, an insurrectionist. When humans harm the planet, wantonly destroying other life forms, humans reenact the wanton execution of Jesus. Conversely, when humans strive to live Jesus’ radical teachings about loving God, neighbor, and creation then those humans become vulnerable, as was Jesus, to forces opposed to any change, actual or possible, that threatens their power. For me, authoritarian leaders and most of the world’s wealthiest 1% invariably react against changes that would bring liberation and give life to the dying, downtrodden, and disadvantaged.

Scripture reports that the Easter event begins with the discovery of an empty tomb. Is emptiness ever sufficient to point the way to God’s loving presence?

The Easter event was unexpected. The disciples had no inkling that Jesus would continue to be present with them. The disciples failed to recognize him in reading their Bibles, in sharing meals, and in one another. When I saw an angry man today, who appeared to be under the influence of some substance, I wondered: Can I see Jesus in him? When I saw a parent berating a misbehaving child, I wondered: Can I see Jesus in the parent, in the child? When I listen to egocentric politicians rant, I wonder: Can I see Jesus in that person? In other words, is God’s Easter promise to still be with us true? Or, will death and evil prevail?

What contemporary images do you associate with the biblical images? How does the story of Holy Week come alive for you?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Protest resignations OR protest retirements?

A reader of my article, “Duty at All Costs: The Ethics of Protest Resignations by Military Officers,” (Naval War College Review, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Winter 2007), 103- 128) raises an interesting question regarding a military retiree being recalled to active duty and prosecuted under Article 88 of the UCMJ for “contemptuous words.” My response follows:

First and foremost, I am a priest and not a lawyer. I am completely unqualified to offer legal advice. The thoughts that follow are simply my musings about your question.

To the best of my knowledge, the military has not yet recalled and court martialed a retiree for expressing political opinions. The retired Marine recalled for a court martial to whom you refer in your letter, if my internet research identified the correct individual, was living in Japan and convicted of child pornography offenses. His case is similar to the cases I found in my quick, non-exhaustive search. Every military retiree court martialed for an offense committed while retired, whose case I read about, faced charges of criminal activity such as child pornography or sexual harassment.

However, the possibility of prosecution for expressing political opinions does seem to exist. James Joyner in a blog post, “Prosecuting Retired Generals” (Outside the Beltway, April 27, 2006 at, quotes Dean Falvy from a post at FindLaw:

Even retired officers may be at risk when they speak out – as Lt. Col. Michael J. Davidson noted in his July 1999 Army Lawyer article, “Contemptuous Speech Against the President.” Davidson noted that Article 88 may apply to retired commissioned officers by virtue of other articles of the UCMJ. No charges have been brought against a retired officer for such an offense since 1942, and most retired commentators are probably oblivious to the risk. But the theoretical possibility does exist.

Criticism is not synonymous with contempt. Furthermore, free speech is a protected right in the Constitution, unlike child pornography or sexual harassment. Recalling retirees for court martial because a retiree expressed particular political opinions or participated in the political process would, I suspect, place the Department of Defense and probably the incumbent administration on very thin ice politically. At a minimum, such a prosecution would create an explosive news story.

CAPT Michael Junge, USN in his blog post, “The Retired Admiral, the President, and the Military Profession” (Defense One, August 20, 2018 at recognizes the impracticality of recalling for court martial or non-judicial punishment an officer whose speech may have expressed contempt for the president. He argues that the military profession should be self-correcting, i.e., peers should correct one another. Failing that, the Secretary of Defense should informally but publicly reprimand the officer by using tweets, for example. Importantly, CAPT Junge defends the retired admiral’s prerogative to offer political criticism.

Distinguishing between political opinion and contempt is often difficult. Consequently, courts have generally exempted the authors of comments directed at prominent political leaders from libel suits. Indeed, legal opinion is divided over whether the comments of the admiral in question were contemptuous or merely strongly worded political opinion.

Recalling and prosecuting even one retiree under the UCMJ for expressing his/her opinions would invariably create a “chilling effect” on retirees exercising their first amendment right to free speech and on their active participation in the political processes as a citizen. The chilling effect might deprive political leaders and voters of valuable advice, e.g., that the U.S. was actually losing and not winning a long-fought war. If that occurred, the real measure of a retiree’s convictions and courage would become whether the retiree chose to resign from the military, thereby forfeiting all benefits a military retiree receives but regaining the freedoms all civilian citizens enjoy.

Of course, the less prominent a retiree is and the smaller the audience his/her comments attracted, the less probable any punitive action becomes. Any action, of course, presumes that someone in a position to act knows of the comments, in itself a rather unlikely presumption.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What's next?

The Presiding Bishop’s canonically required visit to my diocese (Hawai’i) occurs in late March of 2019. His visit, following his well-established pattern, will primarily consist of several events, most open to the public, intended to renew and revitalize the diocese and its people.

Reflecting on his upcoming visit, which certainly builds on Bishop Curry’s skill as an exhortative preacher who energizes his hearers, I wondered, what next? How does this diocese, or other dioceses post-visit, capitalize on whatever renewal or revitalization that they may experience and move forward? Alternatively, do Bishop Curry’s diocesan visits simply provide a one-time injection of spirit that dissipate without producing any substantive long-term gains?

Critiquing The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) long-term numerical decline and other organizational problems is easy. I’ve penned such critiques, as have others. To date, these critiques appear to have prompted few changes, much less reversed the decline.

Consequently, perhaps Episcopalians collectively should do what Bishop Curry has done as an individual: play to our strengths. Appreciative inquiry argues that flourishing organizations emphasize their strengths rather than weaknesses or problem solving.

Appreciative inquiry’s starting point is a focused version of what Hawaiians call “talking story.” In congregations (both parishes and missions), talking story might consist of attendees (not just members!) discussing what attracted the person to that particular congregation and what keeps the person returning. Also, what has the congregation done in the community of which its attendees are proud? For dioceses, talking story might connote congregations describing what they learn and the benefits they receive from the diocese and other diocesan congregations. Additionally, what does the diocese do to make a difference in its geographic area and/or member congregations? Similarly, on the provincial and national levels, people could talk story by sharing what why they personally find rewarding by participating in the province or national church, what they perceive the province or national church contributes to dioceses and congregations, and ways in which they believe the province or national church changes the world for the better.

Talking story locally, in dioceses, and nationally will create new narratives about Episcopalian congregations, Episcopal dioceses, and TEC. Concentrating on problems, lamenting lack of growth or diminished influence, and so forth attracts few and energizes even fewer people. The path to life abundant lies in using our God given gifts (strengths) to incarnate God’s love manifested in Christ more fully as individuals and as the gathered body of Christ.

When I consider what drew me to the Episcopal Church and what keeps me involved, among the concepts that cluster at the center of my thinking are:

·       Acceptance and inclusivity that are the building blocks of community

·       Affirmation that I am beloved child of God

·       Pastoral sensitivity that emphasizes helping one to live more completely in the light, respecting the individual’s journey without inappropriate judging

·       Celebrating beauty in the cosmos, persons, and worship

·       Compassion, practicing love for my neighbor locally and globally

·       Working together for justice

Individual lists of what drew the person to an Episcopal congregation and what causes the person to continue participating, may be different. And even if the words are the same, the specifics will differ. Talking story and building narratives is not about creating lists. The process is about actually listening to one another, learning the specifics of how, for example, a person experienced acceptance and why that was a memorable element of the person’s spiritual journey. Similar guidance applies to dioceses, provinces, and TEC as they talk story.

God does not ask anyone or any part of the body of Christ to be something they are not or to do something impossible. God gives individuals, congregations, and dioceses particular gifts expecting that those people and organizations will use their gifts to do great things for God. Incidentally, doing great things for God stands in sharp contradistinction to popular prosperity gospels that masquerade as Christianity, pseudo gospels that simplistically equate health and wealth with God’s agenda.

According to 2017 parochial reports, average Sunday attendance for TEC was 556,774 people in 6447 congregations organized in a nationwide network of dioceses. TEC’s more than 1.7 million members annually contribute in excess of $1.3 billion to its congregations and dioceses. A politician would think s/he had died and gone to heaven to have that many volunteers in an organization that reaches into almost every U.S. community and has those financial resources.

In other words, the time has come to stop looking back, wistfully focused on what our congregations, dioceses, and national church used to be. Capitalize on the renewal and revival that Bishop Curry is trying to engender in the Church. Look to the present. Who are we? What draws us together? What keeps us together?

Then, living into those new narratives, dare to dream about how we can build on our present strengths and past successes to achieve new and future successes for God? What is next for your congregation, diocese and The Episcopal Church? Lastly, after designing plans to turn those dreams into reality, work in our parishes, dioceses, provinces and TEC to deliver the projects, programs, and other initiatives we have designed to a broken, hurting world desperately in need of God’s transforming love. Even as we transform the world, we will discover that we ourselves are transformed and have become part of a transformed Church.