This past weekend, I enjoyed a great retreat with St. George’s vestry. It marked the beginning of a new chapter in my own thinking about ministry. Some years ago, we started to chip away at having vestry function as the unpaid, overworked staff of the church. That was was turning more people away than towards the Body of Christ. In recent years, we’ve started to end the thinking that vestry-members are the ultimate institutional managers. That wasn’t healthy, either — one, they weren’t able to see the hand of God in the whole of the parish and, two, it had the potential to set-up a battle between rector (visionary) and vestry (management). For the first time since ending those unhealthy ways of functioning we’re on the verge of beginning something new.
As a team, we’re preparing to follow a new and fairly bold vision. At the same time, we wonder how we might grow or, rather, nest this vision organically, not impose or even teach it. If the vision gets properly nested, we wonder, it may very well change the way we operate from the inside out, making the institution called “church” all the more akin to the living Body of Christ.
Recent events with the social networking site Groupon highlight this point. Groupon’s founder and CEO, Andrew Mason, was fired last week. The site isn’t making money. In fact, the declining institutional Christian church looks remarkably good compared to Groupon’s performance. Their current worth is a mere 18% of what it was just over one year ago! Beguilingly, the company which is only five years young was Mason’s own idea.
I think the church could learn from Groupon.
Vision isn’t a Business Plan.
I guess CEO/Founders aren’t exempt from being fired. Many church leaders think of themselves as visionaries. Diocesan conventions reinforce this. And no small amount of church members participate in this delusion — just ask anyone who’s ever served on a search committee. What a shock, then, that having a vision doesn’t prevent getting canned.
The church’s only business plan is God’s kingdom. What we call “vision” isn’t always the same thing. The reality is that we’re mere infants in knowing how to talk, firstly, about the things of God. It’s only been since the church was moved to the margins of society that we’ve had to learn another language, another besides secular business models. (A priest friend once said she never passed up the opportunity to go into the “Business” section of a bookstore. “They’re all so applicable to church life,” she said. Guess Borders should’ve read them, too!)
And thus the cycle. Leaders keep visioning while vestry-members fret about paying the bills. Vision goes up against institutional management, evidenced in too many arguments about whether to give more to outreach ministry or pay the gas company. It’s equally unfortunate to vault vision over business.
One of the ways the institutional Episcopal Church has figured out how to shut down business-as-usual is to teach its priests how to use power effectively. The word rector (Wikipedia tells me its “from the Latin verb rego, regere, rexi, rectum“) has to do with being a ruler: “In a moral sense a rector has the function of keeping those under his authority on the ‘straight and narrow path’.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) This isn’t altogether bad. In a congregation it’s important to have someone such as a priest, someone ultimately sensitive to seeking first the kingdom of God. And yet clergy have been too well trained to know what power we have and what we do not need to share with others.
Only last week I was approached by someone from another congregation in another diocese who wanted to know if a rector had the right to hire or fire someone. This person genuinely loved her church and her priest, but the situation was presented as a done deal. It struck me that the better question wasn’t what power the rector had or didn’t have but, rather, whether there’s a better way altogether.
Clergy have been formed to function as we do. I’ll go out on a limb and admit that, yes, there is a better way altogether, a way which involves honesty, openness, trust and humility. This way is both visionary and institutional, exciting and banal, fresh and old-fashioned. But in order to get there we need all the ministers of the church — lay and ordained — to show a real willingness to embrace the ways Jesus would have us function, and resist a ready compliance with the established business practices of yesterday’s world.
After years of work and prayer and patience, we’re at the precipice of this at St. George’s, Valley Lee. Thank you, God!
Turn into the Skid.
One of the criticisms leveled against Groupon is that they identified the wrong client. Others have tried to understand Google’s rise or Facebook’s IPO flop.
Social media is incredibly popular, but it’s not turning a profit in the way traditional businesses which follow traditional business models are supposed to. The illusion of analysis is that we can understand a current trend by examining past performance. This, however, is uncharted territory. The connections we think should exist between popularity, use, and sustainability do not exist.
This applies to churches. “If only we could attract the young families who are moving into that new subdivision,” someone thinks, assuming that if we attract them they’ll use us then they’ll help us. This makes perfect sense to a previous business model. The only fear is an insufficient amount of newcomers.
In my experience, it’s not about if we get newcomers. Living and preaching the Gospel makes that a certainty. The deeper challenge is what happens, when? When the Body of Christ grows it’s newer members will, more than likely, not pay or participate in the same way and to the same degree that those among the bulk of our current membership do. The Millenial generation, for instance — the oldest of whom, at the most conservative estimate, turn 33 this year — will be the first generation of people who will make less money than their parents. Underlying forces are changing deeply, and no one knows how this will turn out.
Learning to drive in Chicago, as I did, there’s an essential skill of winter driving called “turning into the skid.” A driving instructor in Colorado put it well: “‘You have to go against your natural tendencies,’ he says. ‘Turn into the skid. You also need to accelerate.’ That last piece of advice seems to freak people out the most, he admits. ‘People don’t think about accelerating to control the car.'” Your natural tendencies tell you otherwise. Under the church’s chatter about becoming more relevant, I suspect, is a simultaneous assumption that we’ll grow in numbers, money and participation. But if you want to truly grow, you’ve also got to turn into those underlying assumptions, crash into them and, in fact, accelerate. That really will ‘freak people out.’
What if our increasing relevance leads, in turn, to the end of the previous business model? What if we get more people but few care to fill the slots on committees? Are we ready to have lots more people hungry for Jesus’ message of new life and at the same time — and as a consequence — toss out our old secular not-for-profit business model of church management?
This, I’ll offer, is our future reality. In preparation for it, as a kind of practice, we should become more focused, nimble, lean and trim. That’s the only way we’ll be able to turn into the forces besetting us, once they truly beset us.
Ironically, it turns out that all this work of vestry formation and leadership development was not to maintain that which we’ve had but to prepare, entirely, for something new. It feels like that something new is also something true, something more fully the Body of Christ. At St. George’s, Valley Lee, we’re getting ready, together. We’ve been getting ready all these years.