Of broken things in the church

church failNot long ago, a Facebook friend wrote that the General Ordination Exam is “the most idiotic thing” in the Episcopal Church. I disagree. Last year I wrote a blog post in which I asserted that the GOE, while imperfect, is useful. Anyway, in the comments on the Facebook post, I suggested some other things more flawed or broken than the GOE, trying to prove that it’s not “the most idiotic thing” around. Among the items on my list, “deanery meetings.”

As a result of this conversation, which went on for several comments, a colleague sent me a list of ten broken things in the Episcopal Church, each of which is considerably more problematic than the GOE. So, dear reader, I’d like to know if you agree with this list. What would you add or remove? What is broken — and how can these things be fixed? By the way, I mention all this because I think we have to be honest about our shortcomings. Many of these issues are easily addressed, and doing so would make our church stronger.

Anyway, here’s the list. Her list is in bold and my comments follow.

Our deployment process.
This one was on my short list. Basically, the problem is that the median tenure of a rector in the Episcopal Church is about five years. The search process takes 18 months for most places. That means that many congregations end up without settled clergy leadership for 1/3 of the time. Those delays suck the momentum away. I’ve written about this before, but basically we need to increase the median tenure and massively shorten the transition time. There are plenty of ways to fix this, and our complacency is the only excuse for not making this one go away.

Our compensation system. Associates don’t work half as much as rectors. Priests in wealthy parishes don’t work twice as much as those in rural parishes. Let’s get a standard, toss in some cost of living and length of service factors, and call it a day.
Agreed. Our current system sends newly ordained people into some of the most challenging parishes with few resources. Meanwhile, the economics of clergy compensation encourage many pastorally-minded clergy to become program-sized rectors, where their skills are simply not a good match with the needs of the community.

The Church of England pays clergy assuming that a priest is a priest is a priest. Curates and vicars make the same. Rural benefice and urban fancy place gets the same. Newly ordained and twenty-year service gets the same. That system has some problems, but they’re less than the problems by our system here in the US. In an everyone-is-paid-the-same system, clergy are less influenced by a paycheck in discerning where they might be called. And, let’s face it, it’s a more just system.

Our understanding of membership. We basically don’t have one. Let’s decide what we think it actually means to be a member of a church and make that part of our canons (national and diocesan) and bylaws. We should at least pretend to take membership seriously and require some level of commitment.
The churchwide canons have some things to say, but they’re quite vague. Unless one keeps worship attendance records, how would you know if someone has received Holy Communion three times in the last year. Canons are quiet about transfers and people who attend multiple places, and any number of other issues. For both theological and practical reasons, I think we need some clarification here. Baptisms is theologically said to be full and complete initiation, but should there be additional requirements for status as an active member of a congregation? I think so.

Confirmation. A rite seeking a theology. Is Confirmation just about connecting us with bishops? Is it an adult affirmation of faith? Let’s figure out what we think it is and get serious about it. Or get rid of it. I don’t care, I’m just tired of trying to make people care about something that the Church is so unclear about.
Confirmation could have profound meaning, but my colleague is right that it is problematic now. The prayer book has the sorted out, but in practice too many bishops, clergy, and lay persons treat it as the requirement that it was under previous canons and prayer books. So you create this Frankenstein of a rite/theology. Clarity would be helpful: confirmation is an (optionaL) opportunity to make a mature profession of the faith and to confirm the grace of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. Another option would be to amplify the chrismation in the baptismal rite and essentially dispense with confirmation except for those who were baptized under different rites. Or there are other ways to untangle this hairball.

Communion without baptism. Our prayer book actually says something about this. Parishes, priests, and often bishops blithely ignore it. They want to be “welcoming” and “inclusive.” Fine. If we want to change our worship, let’s actually take the time and energy to do thoughtful reflection about what it means and what it should look like. I’m all for being welcoming and inclusive. Let’s just decide to do it together.
I would have put this one at the top of the list. Inviting the unbaptized to receive Holy Communion is not the best way to be welcoming. I will believe the hospitality argument when I encounter a parish which routinely invites newcomers into people’s homes. On the first Sunday. That would be hospitable. It is ludicrous to hear many of the same people go on about the Baptismal Covenant and then assert that the Eucharist is for all. It is not coherent, and it smacks tradition in the face. Now, I am open to the possibility of reordering our theological and liturgical life to make room for all people at the Holy Table, but it is not something to be done casually. And certainly we shouldn’t be disciplining clergy for violating some canons while we ignore infractions of others. (I’ll stop here. This needs to be another blog post.)

Anti-intellectualism. It is not a bad thing if our clergy (or your laity, for that matter) are intelligent, thoughtful, well spoken and coherent writers. It’s not the only qualification that matters, but it is also not the opposite of, or exclusive of, pastoral care and sensitivity.
Yes. Preach on. In short words, please.

The tab on the new TEC website under “What we believe” that says “Christ-focused.” It is idiotic on a number of levels (grammatically, etc.), not least of which is the fact that I was under the impression we were a Trinitarian church. Sigh.
Hmm. This one doesn’t concern me so much. The first item in that list is “Baptismal Covenant” which includes the (Trinitarian) Apostles’ Creed. Also, I think it’s fair to proclaim faith in a triune God as we follow Jesus. To be sure, the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift in the Episcopal Church, but I’m not sure that a tab on the Episcopal Church website is the problem or the solution.

Holy Women, Holy Men (if this list were in numerical order, this would be higher up there).
Yes. This one has been covered here on 7WD.

The state of preaching in the church.
Yes. One of the leading causes of our decline, I believe, is woefully inadequate preaching. The sermon is not the place to comment on the news. The sermon is not the place to make people feel good about themselves. The sermon not the place to show how many movies the preacher has seen or how many books the preacher has read. No, the sermon is the place to proclaim the astonishing news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The sermon is to call us to respond to that Good News in our lives. Sermons should be biblical, steeped in the church’s tradition, and well thought out. The language should be accessible equally by those who have attended church for decades and by those whose first time in worship is this very moment. Lots to do here. I think I need to blog about this.

Colored Advent candles. Yes, you’ve converted me, and they now bug me to no end. And I’m running out of time and steam here.
My colleague refers to my effort to use plain, white candles in an Advent wreath once. (I was scolded by a parishioner for “ruining Advent.”) We don’t use red candles on the Day of Pentecost. We don’t use green candles in the summer. Why do we think these particular candles need to be colored? The Advent wreath is really best used as a home devotion, where the color makes sense given the lack of vestments. But in a church, there are blue or purple or rose vestments and altar hangings. (Don’t get me started on people who use “Sarum blue” for Advent and then put a “pink” candle in for the third Sunday. Sigh.)

Well, dear reader, what would you add? What would you take away? I’m interested in constructive solutions to articulated problems. That’s how we’ll get a better church.

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26 Responses

  1. Marguerite says:

    Really, all I can say is that this is an outstanding essay. I am in 100% agreement on Confirmation, Membership, Compensation and Deployment.

    As to preaching, I don’t to visit many other churches, but I have found preaching in the Episcpal church is MUCH better than anywhere I have ever been on a Sunday.

    Thanks for this great and thought-provoking writing.

  2. Alexei says:

    I think that those who have not been baptized should not be given the Eucharist. If it is given, I feel that the sacrifice behind the ritual, the ritual itself, and the significance of the whole deal is slighted. I think the current protocol is that, when an unbaptized person comes to the alter, they are blessed by the presiding clergyman. Why not continue this?

  3. Laura says:

    Oh, Amen, Amen! I am so with you on this.

    Along with deployment, I would add the discernment process. ’nuff said.

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Alexei, you are right, that’s how it should work. But many clergy believe that inviting only the baptized is “exclusive” and thus to be avoided. They would offer the Holy Eucharist to all people.

    Some very wise people favor this approach, and I do not think it should be dismissed lightly. Perhaps our cultural context demands it.

    However, I think the practice as articulated in our prayer book and in the canons is theologically sound and that it promotes the Gospel quite well. It’s also the law of the church, until that law has been changed.

    There are ways we can be inviting without including the unbaptized in Holy Eucharist.

  5. Ethan says:

    I’d’ve liked to have seen something about actually funneling time and effort into helping the poor, as Jesus talked about that a lot, and never actually commanded much of anything specific about sacrament or priesthood, other than laying out the Eucharist in the most basic possible terms, and also said something about “Not all who say unto me, Lord, Lord shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father, who is in Heaven.” The church is not notably doing (or paying attention to the fact that it’s not doing) Christ’s work. More or less everything else is Satan distracting from the actual problem with the church: it’s too afraid of the possibility of its own death to live the mystery of compassionate sacrifice, and so it’s not willing to do its job, and so it ensures its death.

  6. Scott Gunn says:

    Ethan, you are spot on. This list, as I said above, is ad hoc. A thorough list would surely include our failure to continue the mission of the church in lots of ways.

    The danger, in today’s church, is that we might begin to think that feeding people, etc., is that only true purpose of the church. We are not, of course, a social service agency. Though we’d better be spending lots of energy serving others in Christ’s name.

    On an unrelated note, I enjoyed re-reading your thoughts on “Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain” whilst pulling together my top 10 of 2011 post. That was brilliant work.

  7. Raewynne says:

    I agree with most all of these – and as a homiletician, especially the one about sermons. How do we invite people to encounter God and then live out that encounter day by day?

    But I’d also add, forgetting our mission to make disciples. Too often I hear people saying our mission is to feed the hungry, etc. My reading of Scripture is that there is a whole pile of Messianic stuff about justice, in which we are invited to participate, but if we we read the Great Commission as foundational for our mission, we are to focus on making disciples, teaching and baptizing, etc. And as we come to know the character of God ore fully, and imitate Christ, and allow the Spirit to work in us, we won’t be able to help ourselves working for justice, etc.

  8. Rachel says:

    So. Right. On. And another nod for the discernment process.

  9. Joseph F says:

    I think making disciples is a big one. Disciples are all on an equal footing, each strengthened and educated and nourished for the journey (the word ’empowered’ is mostly meaningless here), and they’re sent out bearing the Gospel. Do we really trust people to go out there in the Gospel, or do we rather trust ‘professionals’ to do it for us?

    Communion without baptism is a problematic one. We don’t want to be communion rail police, keeping the chalice and bread from the unbaptized, but I think a good preparation for baptism might include refraining from the sacrament to meditate on WHY it is important to receive it.

  10. John Bassett says:

    Okay, it’s really NOT all that important in the great scheme of heilsgeschichte, but could we please observe the rubric that directs that the service and readings be read from books of “appropriate size and dignity”? Reading the whole thing from the bulletin is just sooo tacky.

  11. Scott Gunn says:

    Raewynne & Joseph, right on about discipleship.

    John, I am right there. My favorite is to get lectors to read out of an actual (gasp!) Bible. You know, the ones where you have the find the passage and then read out of the giant book, suddenly becoming aware of the vast sweep of it all.

    Rachel, I think I may blog some stuff about the discernment process. It could be better, Lord knows.

  12. Jonathan says:

    I’d expand on the last point. It’s not that I mind advent wreaths in church, so much. However, we do need parishioners to have home devotions, not just at Christmas time but the rest of the year as well.

  13. Reverend Ref says:

    Communion before Baptism — I’m okay with this theologically. However, I don’t make a practice of inviting all people to receive communion. I make a practice of inviting “baptized Christians of all denominations to receive Communion.”

    If we are going to eventually go that route, and I think we will in time, then we probably need to also think about reorganizing the building so that the altar and font switch positions.

    And yes to the compensation problem. I served two small parishes in Montana for 6 years before accepting my current call. In short, I didn’t accept this call because of salary, but I was forced to search for a new call because of salary.

  14. Mike Besson says:

    Good list. On the preaching…I listen to sermons online from Episcopal Churches and it’s scary sometimes. Very little if anything is done in the “life application” area. I hear a lot about church history and process theology. I hear very little passion in the preacher’s voice…much like what I would hear in seminary bible classes. The majority of our people don’t care much about the history of the Council of Nicea, at least not from the pulpit. What it means and how it applies…yes. I speak to so many who still write on Saturday nights. It shows. Trust me.

  15. Paulie says:

    If you think clergy salaries are unfair try to make a living as a church musician.

  16. Alexei says:

    I’d really have to agree with both Ethan and with Joseph F, about feeding the poor and fulfilling the beatitudes, and about making disciples. My only real bone of contention with an exclusive focus on those two areas is that it discards thousands of years of church tradition, going all the way back to the Council of Nicea. If we strike so dramatically at our own root, how can we hope to help others while suffering such an identity crisis?

  17. I blogged about it, but how we treat deacons.

  18. Ethan says:

    In response to the several posts saying essentially, “yes, social justice is important, but how can we focus on that and maintain our traditions / teach the Word”:

    This is not rationally a bipartisan issue. It IS a bipartisan issue in the church right now. That is a thing that is broken about the church.

    The church is not a social service agency. It is, however, a body whose fundamental purpose is to teach people to imitate Christ (discipleship.) Christ taught the Kingdom of Heaven by signs, miracles, and parables. Assuming you can’t perform miracles, you’re down to signs and parables. Teaching absolutely falls under parables, and you shouldn’t stop doing it.

    Helping the poor, feeding the hungry, healing the sick: these fall under signs. You can do them, and it is part of your job to do them, or to cause your parishioners to do them. Anyone who says that you can’t do this and teach is obviously wrong. Anyone who argues that you should refrain from performing social justice-related signs in order to protect the traditions of the church is probably Satan or an unwitting sock puppet thereof. This is especially true in a country in which social justice is being devoured by demons right now.

    If the church itself is not performing demonstrable signs of the Kingdom, and your teaching and traditions are failing to cause your parishioners to perform signs of God’s Kingdom, then your church is failing. Rather than allowing the only sign your church shows the world to read “please come to our church and pledge generously so we can keep our building/staff/social traditions,” you should put your house in order and die, or even better, repent and deal with the hard work of doing God’s will, which may well involve your institution dying regardless (it certainly did for the original.) I mean, Occupy Your Local Episcopal Church? “As long as people are occupying places, we thought our attendance could use a boost?” Are we serious, people? If we are, are we Christian?

    Arguing about fine points of sacrament obscure to the world you’re trying to save when the outreach budget of every parish I’ve belonged to has been less than a tithe of median income for its region is insane, and Jesus hates it. Please wake up. You’re important.

  19. Deb Capman Kirk says:

    Having gone through the tedious transition period for new clergy by working on the profile and chairing the search, I have a lot of opinions about the process. It is so true that a good interim could be positive, but there is a certain desperation that encourages you to take ANY interim just to get the process going with very mixed results for a number of churches. Now we are facing the search for a Bishop. The retiring Bishop exits when then new Bishop comes in. Involved with both of these searches, I am confused as to why there should be such a long wait with a mandated interim for the parish.

  20. J. Michael Povey says:

    From a correspondence I had with a friend about three months ago. She asked if we Episcopal clerics had been taught never to mention Jesus in our sermons. (I include myself in these criticisms).


    Indeed there is a problem with preaching. Never of course (in my experience) have Clerics been told at a Conference not to mention Jesus. But the Clergy Conferences I attended were mostly about “how to” – how to do better stewardship, how to welcome new members, how to make the parish grow – in other words, we were being given a steady dose of “here is the business model for the Church”.

    Never once have I been offered a Diocesan Conference on preaching. Never once was I offered a Conference on (say) New Testament Theology.

    I once asked Bishop (n) if we might have a Clergy Day which was devoted to theology. He told me that the next one would be rooted in theology. Instead it was the same old/same old on stewardship.

    Incidentally, most of the Clerics I know well are perfectly orthodox Trinitarian believers. There ain’t that much heresy out there. But we have become so convinced that the gospel has a message of inclusion (which it does), that we ignore that the gospel also has a message of discipleship.

    So our preaching is often ingenious, amusing, witty, entertaining or clever but it rarely has a cutting edge. It’s mostly “inspirational”. It often has next to no teaching. It arises from snippets of scripture rather than trying to preach the whole counsel of God. And it is oft times geared to the “needs” of congregants who have said “no more than 10 minutes if you please”,

    The bottom line (for me) is that many preachers and congregations in TEC have become obsessed with the survival of the Church. We do indeed confess Jesus Christ as Lord, but we make this implicit in our preaching rather than explicit in our proclamation.

    Them’s my thoughts! If offer them to you for what they are worth,

    Michael Povey

  21. Bill McLemore says:

    In 1946, just after WWII, the church listed 2,300,575 baptized members with 6,450 clergy or about 1 ordained for every 357 baptized. The latest figures I have (2008) show 2,057,292 baptized with 18,002 clergy (1 for every 114).
    I know the phrase “the priesthood of all believers” but what happened to the value of lay ministry along the way? And how are a fewer laity able to support more clergy? It’s a modern miracle!

  22. Jim Strader says:

    I’ve recently completed the deployment process. I can say that it was tedious but fruitful.

    I interviewed and met with a variety of parishes and the parish that called me seemingly chose from a diverse, motivated, and well prepared clerics for the parish. That being said, the process, took more than two years from when I first started discerning a call till when I signed a letter of agreement. It took similarly as long for the parish that called me to be their rector. That’s a short amount of time for some priests and congregation.

    The issues with the deployment process are indicative of broader opportunities for improvement for us as Episcopalians. Our denomination is neither nimble nor efficient. Processes require too much oversight and are too expensive for many parishes. In “corporate” terms — we are lethargic, overweight, and too methodical in the marketplace. Our ecclesiastical nature doesn’t benefit us in terms of accomplishing the mission of being Jesus the Christ’s disciples in this cultural environment or current economic realities.

    I’m a true fan of the Episcopal Church’s ecclesiastical nature; however, the staffing and deliberative costs and protocols associated with such a model of leadership are becoming increasingly difficult for parishes, ministries, and dioceses themselves to effectively manage. Many dioceses have too many parishes. Moreover, there are too many dioceses, IMHO. We nonetheless are generally reluctant to find ways to merge, close, or incorporate such organizations. The Episcopal Church’s administrators surely have recognized, given recent staff reductions and movement of present program officers to locations outside of NYC, that our traditional “headquarters” model of being Church is inept at meeting denominational needs for growth and productive interactions with churches small and large alike. A longstanding but often true argument is that we claim to be Episcopalian in nature when we are in fact more Congregationalist. Parishioners in the pews are rarely aware of, or “connected” to interactions between the Episcopal Church’s staff, dioceses and parishes. Many parishioners complain that their pledges and offerings support an organizational model of Church that doesn’t manifest many benefits at the local level. That’s a rather inane argument in many ways but it exists when people expect to get something for what they pay for with their time, talent, and treasure.

    I have an inference. My sense is that parish priests will remain in place longer in the coming years as it becomes clearer to them and to Episcopalians on the whole that we need to either become leaner or, much better yet, do what we can to grow. We also need to find other ways of being “parochial.” We should not penalize parishes who are growing because they are inviting people with less economic means to become members.

    These points prompt me to discuss a more theological question. What is the nature of our presence as organized disciples of Christ and what is it that we are doing in terms of liturgy, outreach, “presence,” and prayer that invokes the commandment of our Lord, Jesus the Christ, to love God and our neighbors as ourselves? Are we willing to summon the Holy Spirit’s responses into our conventional ways of being? How, and how effectively are we proclaiming the Good News of Jesus the Christ’s Gospel and who are we proclaiming The Word to in bold and public ways. I’m not sure that we’re very effective at these processes. We certainly don’t benchmark mission-related growth strategies particularly well. Regrettably, many parishes are quite comfortable in being small and unfruitful. Our budgets, generally speaking, don’t typically support non-revenue producing activities such as missions to low-income communities or young adult, “emergent” programs.

    We’re coming to a time and place, if we have not already gone by it, (based upon today’s realities) that are deployment process will need to change because we will must find lay and ordained parish ministers and priests who are more “hybrid” and vocationally diverse as our denomination transitions through this reformation period of being Anglicans in 21st Century North America and wherever else throughout the world where Episcopalians are proclaiming the Good News of Jesus the Christ.

  23. Shannon Kelly says:

    I would say one of the broken things is how we treat and fund formation of children, youth and adults. Formation does not stop at baptism or confirmation. Rather, after baptism and confirmation is the time when one should dig deeper and want to know more about their faith, their calling and their spiritual habits.

    We do pretty well in understanding that children need formation so they know the story and tradition. We know that youth need formation, but how and why and what seem to remain a mystery to many. As adults, we tend to either (and this is a vast oversimplification and generalization from my experiences) read about the Bible or about the Episcopal Church or about the social issues to which we are called to respond, but we don’t do well in delving deeply into the Bible in study (not just reflection, but study), we have difficulty studying and understanding who we are as Episcopalians and Christians, and finally we are unsure of how to respond to many of the issues we know we should be addressing and responding to through our actions and words.

    Formation is a life-long process and we need to treat it as such. We also need to find ways for all to enter into formation wherever they are in their faith journey. Formation also needs funding, time and energy.

  24. Fr. Scott,

    I confess to you, to God, and to the 7WD readership that I am continuing to worship primarily with the church plant I can no longer serve fully as pastor primarily because I am frightened of Episcopal Church sermons. Another reason is that I don’t want to be asked repeatedly to do for free what I have been and should be paid to do (e.g., design curricula and basically create Christian formation programs for congregations without a paid staff person in that field or with a staff person in that field who doesn’t have as much training or time as people think I’ve got). A third reason is that music poorly done is to me as nails drawn down an endless chalkboard.

    I love this church, but I have an easier time, despite my traditional liturgical and musical preferences, worshipping on the fly with a bunch of unchurches guys in their 20s than I do with sitting through awful sermons. At the very least, couldn’t we do our liturgical reflection on the gospel with the presider simply saying, “So, we’ve just read this text. What does it say?” Why not spend 10-20 minutes TEACHING rather than making a speech if the presider doesn’t have anything so pressing to say as to promise more than insights the congregation might have? Heck, congregations might even start reading the bible during the week once they know they’ll be asked to talk about it as part of the Liturgy of the Word on Sunday?

    Call me crazy. It’s true. But maybe we need more congregations making use of the gifts of all of the crazy Baptized.

    And I also support the continued existence of the GOE. Actually, I’d like to see the Board of Examining Chaplains establish an exam (easy for dioceses to mark — mostly fill-in and multiple-choice) exam on literacy in the bible and BCP. The exam could be used optionally by congregations wanting to see how their formation staff are doing, how fresh their clergy are in these things, as an assurance that postulants have actually read the bible and BCP before starting seminary, or for any other purpose they desire. Or they could not use it at all. Their choice.

  25. Amy K says:

    As a ‘cradle Episcopalian’ who left and is coming back I really enjoyed this post. I see a running theme of vaguness being a big issue in the church, and I can honestly say it was one of the reasons I left. Shannon Kelly’s comment above totally resonated with me. I think the lack of focused formation really contributes to that vagueness and almost a lack of identity as a church.
    Also, I have to agree with the original poster on the issue of the ‘What We Believe’ tab on the website. I’ve noticed the church has made great strides in coming up to speed in their website. BUT, hitting that tab and seeing what appears to be a large list each with its own link could be confusing to someone who is searching. While I agree it isn’t a big deal I see it as a potential deterrent that could easily be cleaned up.

  1. January 12, 2012

    […] post that caught my eye last week was Scott Gunn’s “Of broken things in the church” on his blog, Seven Whole Days. An alternate title could have been “Things more flawed than the […]

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