Bishop Marty revisits his answers to three questions Alexandra Connors asked him in 2014.The Rt. Rev. Martin S. Field 11 minute read. Resources
Back in 2014, five years ago, I was interviewed for the Spirit magazine (it was still hard-printed and mailed in those days) by Alexandra Connors, a member of and youth leader at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral. She offered me a series of questions, and my answers along with her queries appeared in the October 2014 issue. In the autumn of 2014, we were celebrating the 125th anniversary of the creation of The Diocese of West Missouri, and Bishop Michael Curry was a year away from being elected Presiding Bishop and Primate. Since we were on the eve of our quasquicentennial, the essence of her questions, as well as my answers, was to look ahead rather than behind. Her enquiries invited me to deliberate about the challenge of the future, and not merely to reminisce fondly on our collective past.
Perhaps you missed Alexandra’s article then, but I want to roll it back out today and add some additional thoughts. I believe her well-phrased, well-thought-out questions remain quite pertinent five years later as we look at the coming of our 130th anniversary, our centum triginta annum.
Here are her questions and my responses:
1.) What makes The Diocese of West Missouri unique?
Clearly, one of the things that makes this diocese unique is the unique people who would ask such a unique question. Now, while that may sound cutesy, it’s also true.
In many ways, the people who are The Diocese of West Missouri are not unique; instead they are very much like Episcopalians everywhere having the same hopes and dreams, the same challenges, the same joys. We are by many categories very homogeneous: the vast majority of us are white folks of European-backgrounds, most of us speak English (the American version) with a Mid-West accent tinted with a bit of Southern drawl, and most of us are middle class folks doing our best to be stewards of all the facets of life with which God has blessed us.
On the other hand, the mix of people that make up West Missouri is unique; it’s a distinctive combination of people. Among us, I’ve encountered the rich and poor; conservatives and progressives; rank-and-file workers and daring entrepreneurs; traditionalist Episcopalians and cutting-edge Episcopalians; Missourians by birth and Missourians by choice (and, of course, some Kansans who cross the line to attend church). We live in rural, small town and urban settings. We are farmers and physicians, laborers and lawyers. And we enjoy everything from symphonies to bluegrass, from Broadway to amusement parks. In some ways this may be the least homogeneous place I’ve ever served.
Above all, the Episcopalians of West Missouri bring their distinctive Mid-Western practicalities into their spiritual and religious lives. No one in the “Show Me” state has ever said to me the exact words, “Show me!”, but I have been challenged, nevertheless, to show that my actions match my words, to prove that my walk and my talk are consistent, to earn trust rather than demand it. That is quintessentially West MO!
2.) What are the goals of the diocese moving forward over the next ten years? What are we doing to accomplish these goals? And, what are the potential struggles you see the diocese facing in the next few years?
These are tough and interconnected questions because, in our society, the word goals often conjures up an expectation of achieving numbers: so many attendees on average, so many new churches started, so much increase in giving, etc. It’s hard to put numbers on Church life, and it’s even harder to define “success” for the Church by using numbers. After all, we follow a Lord who did not take attendance, who apparently never knew how much money was available in the common purse to underwrite his ministry, and who judged achievement in terms of faithfulness, not in things quantifiable.
I’d love to be able to name goals for the diocese that include “X” number of church plants, “X” number of clergy ordained, “X” number of baptisms, confirmations, etc. I’d love to be able to say that a “X”% increase in the average Sunday Attendance of our worshipping communities is all we need to do. The trouble is, I just don’t believe that.
It becomes clearer each day that the Episcopal Church – indeed all forms of Christianity in this country as well as in the larger context of Western Culture – is at a crossroads. Much has been written by a lot of bright people about the status of the Church and its message in our day, how it’s being transmitted to and received by the public, how modern communications, social media, and technologies for sharing thoughts are changing the way communities are being formed in our day, etc. The unanimous voice is that the Church must adapt or become an irrelevant archaism of the past . . . which would be a shame because, I believe, the Gospel is as relevant in the United States of the 21st century A.D. as it was in the Roman Empire of the 1st century A.D.
This crossroads time in which we find ourselves – this era of transformation, if you will – is going to be rough for people who want or need the Episcopal Church to remain what it has always been. And that makes sense. If the Church serves you as an anchor of sameness (even sanity) in a rapidly changing, high-speed world, the threat of losing that anchor is not happy news. The Church, however, may simply not be able to remain what it has been for we who are happy with what we’ve received and would gladly leave it alone.
Unfortunately, societal change is happening more quickly than the Church is able to adapt. Voices that do not represent or share Christianity as I know and understand it seem to have seized the ear of the media and, in the public sector, to have preempted or smothered the voice of mainline Christianity. The message of Christianity that too many hear today – and too few have taken the time to check what they hear against scripture and the moral teachings of the Church, or to see if other Christians might think differently – is often perceived as a voice of moral control or outright hate. Fewer and fewer young people are taking the time to learn what a connection to God can be for them, to think about their lives in relation to a Creator God, or accurately to discern the mainline Church’s voice speaking of Christian love and tolerance and community.
So, what are the diocese’s goals? I think it should be our goal to be willing to die.
Now, please hear me carefully. I did not say our goal should be to die; I said we should be willing to die. We should be ready to die to what we have been in order that God can lead us into the future God is building, in order to be the Church for the next millennium. Our goal should be to fall in love with what God is building next instead of what our forebears built in the past or expressions of the faith that no longer adequately share the Gospel in our society.
Achieving that goal will be a sea-change if there ever was one. To this point we have focused on the survival of the institutional Church, on preserving our congregations and parishes from closing their doors, on growing the Church we’ve always known by means we’ve always used, to achieve what we’ve always achieved. A radical new day is coming, so the big question before us is this: can we find it in ourselves to go along with God as he builds a new Church that is able and nimble and flexible enough to evolve into the Gospel-centered community of the next millennium? This will be especially true for the rural and small town congregations of the diocese where demographic studies either reveal diminishing populations or predict currently rural or sub-rural regions converting to suburban or even urban environments.
Saying yes to this goal, this aim, this new reality, guiding star, core value, basic principle (call it what you like) will be one of the biggest attitudinal changes and cultural changes ever, one of the biggest shifts ever in the ethos of a major institution. But that, I am convinced, is the Episcopal Church’s greatest need, most important task, and most profound challenge in the next 10 years (or more). This will be the singular struggle of the next period of the diocese’s life.
3.) How do you see the diocese changing in the next ten years?
Like others who predict such matters, I think the greatest change coming is the changing paradigm of what constitutes the local church. In the next period of years, perhaps far more than just a decade, what the local faith community looks like will evolve. Church futurists tell us that voluntary associations without rigid membership lists will replace the institutional and rostered form of congregation we know now. For many reasons, congregations (or faith communities) will be less and less likely to want or need expensive buildings and the maintenance costs of the same. Leadership, such as clergy leadership, may transform from the professionally trained and academically credentialed who are called from outside the congregation to roles of leadership to locally called and locally formed leadership with or without significant academic credentials. (We are, perhaps, seeing the beginning of that now.) We may begin to lose the use of the terms parish and congregation in favor of terms that, like faith community, that will indicate a more fluid, less rigid community where people come and go without guilt, join and participate when they feel called to do so, and self-select into other communities (which may be virtual) when and as often as they choose. The local church of the future – indeed the kind of local, faith community that is already emerging in many places – probably won’t look like the building-centric, membership-oriented congregation we have known for so long. And that evolutionary process will be a challenge for the foreseeable future.
Here ends the 2014 article.
I thank Alexandra again for her challenging and provocative questions. I still think about them from time to time, but now my thoughts include how The Episcopal Church has been responding to the emerging reality I described over the last five years, especially since our Presiding Bishop was installed in his current leadership role.
So here are my new thoughts –
My article in the last issue of Spirit adds to and informs the answers I have shared above. That article was about “The Way of Love: Practices for Jesus-Centered Life”, and I believe The Way of Love offers us a path to and through the reinvention of the Church. If the Church is to evolve into something more, if it to willingly die to all it has been so that God can create of it the Church needed for the future, the Church will most probably be more about how we practice our faith (i.e. The Way of Love) and less about the trappings of institution.
What connects us now?
Certainly, we are connected by shared belief in God’s redemptive power expressed through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus and in God’s transformative power expressed in the living presence of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives and in the community of faith, i.e. the Church ecumenical. We are also connected by our traditions, which in many ways are the glue that have held our ship together through some very choppy waters. We are also connected by our sense of corporate and individual identity. To say “I am an Episcopalian” is for many of us a statement of self-understanding and profound identity. Maybe even more so than “I am a Christian”. We are connected by a shared way of “doing church”, which includes how we raise leaders, how we govern, how we organize our corporate structure, and all this is, of course, part of the whole idea of traditions. We are connected by a common history. Take Absalom Jones for example. He was the first priest in our Church who came from African descent, but now he is celebrated not just by African-descent people but by Episcopalians of many backgrounds and ethnic origins. Much of our Church’s history is not pretty. Some of it is glorious. We are connected by it because we acknowledge it is not just history – it is our history.
The Church of the future may lose some of these connectors. So, what is the kernel that must be preserved; what is so essential it cannot be lost? I believe the true essential is Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the World. The institutional Church may shrink. Our traditions may lose their power and meaning for new generations. The local congregation with its oh-so-highly revered building(s) and local customs may falter. But a deep, Jesus-centered life will stand up to the most dire, evolutionary traumas or complications. The faith will be preserved and the praise of God on this globe will not be snuffed. The Church will continue as Jesus’ movement in this world.
But only if Christians learn to live a Jesus-centered life. Only if we learn to live a Jesus-centered life. Only if we learn to . . .
- Turn – Pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus
- Learn – Reflect on scripture each day, especially Jesus’ life and teachings.
- Pray – Dwell intentionally with God each day.
- Worship – Gather in community weekly to thank, praise, and draw near to God.
- Bless – Share faith and unselfishly give and serve.
- Go – Cross boundaries, listen deeply, and live like Jesus.
- Rest – Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.
ResourcesBack to Contents
- Spirit October 2014: www.dropbox.com/s/mq0up3oby0vsnxd/Spirit%202014-10-web.pdf?dl=0
- The Way of Love: www.episcopalchurch.org/wayoflove
- Website: www.diowestmo.org
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/diowestmo/