The 2012 General Convention created a Taskforce on Reimagning the Episcopal Church (TREC). I was a Deputy at this convention, and I was delighted when we voted them into existence, so I’ve tried to pay attention to their work. They seemed a sort of committee on continuous improvement, which we always need to push us toward greater faithfulness.They have done excellent work during this triennium, much of which can be explored at their website http://reimaginetec.org/ .
As we prepare for General Convention 2015, we need to pay attention to their statements, so I plan to write a few posts reflecting on their statements and papers. They are hosting a church wide conversation on October 2 at the National Cathedral (wish I could be there!).
As I begin this project, I own that my reaction to their work, and my thoughts on our denominational structure in general, are informed by experiences in my churches of origin – the SBC and the ABC. The Southern Baptist Convention as it exists today is very different from the church of my childhood, but I believe it is still the largest American protestant denomination. After growing up in the SBC, I was ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA and spent a few years in ministry with that group before eventually (and joyfully!) finding my way here.
The trajectories of these two groups are case studies in how denominational structure affects shared mission, for good or ill. Both of these groups are Baptist, sharing the same historical roots and congregational systems of organizing. Until the 1980’s, most of their theological statements were pretty similar. But the two groups organized themselves very differently on the denominational level, and I believe those denominational systems led to profoundly different outcomes at the congregational level.
Southern Baptists came into existence just prior to the Civil War when Baptists in the US split over the issue of slavery. Baptists in the US had historically been a loosely organized bunch. Congregations met together in geographical “associations,” but there wasn’t much that tied them together until people started wanting to do things like start seminaries, publish Sunday School lessons, and send missionaries to different places. These tasks required institutions larger than a few congregations, so Baptists, who valued congregational autonomy and didn’t really like working together, started working together.
This work of organizing had just gotten started when Baptists in the south nominated a slave owner as a missionary. Baptists in the north objected, which led to a split. Baptists in the north were on the right side of history, and I think they honestly assumed after the war ended that their friends in the south would realize this and return to the fold, but it was not to be. Baptists in the south had already gotten busy reimagining their church.
Southern Baptists continued organizing institutions at full speed. They started a Sunday School Board, domestic and foreign mission agencies, seminaries, women’s societies, conference centers, and more. They created a reliable funding stream by strongly encouraging every congregation to contribute 10% of its budget to a central pot which funded their shared ministry. With organizational capacity and funding in place, their institutions went to work – starting lots of churches, training pastors, sending missionaries, educating the faithful. Southern Baptists developed a clear, fairly consistent identity. You could go into any SBC church anywhere in the country and probably find the same hymnal and Sunday school materials used in your church back home. Southern Baptists grew very quickly and became one of the most effective denominational systems in American protestantism in terms of congregational strength and institutional capacity.
The one thing they got wrong was not taking human sin seriously enough. They created a massive denominational organization but concentrated great power in one office (the President). For reasons I’ve never understood, they did not think to create checks and balances on that power. To make matters worse, they also created a Convention system which met and voted every year, which allowed change to happen very quickly. When the culture wars of the 70’s and 80’s came to the church, conservative leaders within the denomination elected a conservative president who began appointing conservatives to key positions. Because the convention voted every year, it took only a few years to change the entire leadership, and therefore the direction of the church.
Plenty of Southern Baptists applauded this change and saw it as a helpful course correction for a church in danger of becoming too liberal. For the most part, those who disagreed (like me) now worship and serve elsewhere. Today the denomination is a very different kind of church.
American Baptists, on the other hand, never did create the kind of strong central institutions their brothers and sisters in the south created. When they finally realized they the south was not coming back, they were still a small, loosely organized network of associations without a lot of institutional strength. They started a few seminaries and tried to send a few missionaries, but they never created a clear identity or fully reliable funding mechanism for the denomination. I served American Baptist churches for just a few years and visited the denominational offices in Valley Forge a couple of times. Every congregation I encountered was different. There wasn’t much common sense of mission or identity. Since pastors came from many different seminaries, pastoral training and clergy skill varied greatly. Individual congregations did lots of great things, but I never could figure out what American Baptists were excited about doing together.
I mean no disrespect to my dad and the other ABC and SBC pastors I know whose congregations serve God faithfully in their communities. I tell this story simply to point out that two similar churches with very different denominational structures experienced different outcomes at the congregational level. The SBC of my childhood as I remember it, with its strong central structures, produced a pretty consistent congregational experience. The ABC as I experienced it, with loose central structures, produced widely varying congregational experience. You probably can’t draw a straight line from cause to effect here, but there is some relation.
So back to the Episcopal Church. As a connectional church, we have been by nature a lot more like the SBC than the ABC. We have a strong, fairly unified identity, centered primarily around liturgy. Historically, we’ve been pretty good at starting institutions (seminaries, publishing house, church pension, General Convention, CREDO, etc.). We have a fairly reliable funding stream for our denominational work. Unlike the SBC, fortunately, we have a slow process for making decisions. General Convention meets every three years, and constitutional changes have to be approved by two successive general conventions. Changes cannot happen quickly in our system, and that is wise. We also have checks and balances – bishops, deputies, etc. All of this is good, really good, in fact.
So why change? The vision that led to the creation of the TREC recognizes that we live in a time of great social transition. Strong centralized institutions are suspect. We are post-Christendom, meaning that the church is not as socially powerful as it once was. The organization that we currently have is costly in a lot of ways. We spend a lot of time and money on General Convention, but do we ever talk about the right things? What sort of denominational system is needed to engage God’s mission together in a changing world?
And together is the key. Episcopalians are by nature together. Lots of good stuff happens at the congregational level, but we are not primarily congregational, though we sometimes act that way. We are by nature a large, networked system that embraces diverse voices and cultures. How do we organize ourselves fairly and effectively?
In general, I think the TREC is on the right track in a lot of ways. I like their vision for General Convention as a mission convocation. They have offered several thoughtful models for clarifying the offices of the Presiding Bishop, President of the House of Deputies, and Executive Council. I like their vision of networks. Their suggestions around denominational staff seem problematic to me, and I don’t fully buy the premise that centralized institutions are completely passe. I’ll offer more detail about all of this in future posts. For now, if you’re interested, I commend their study papers on various topics.
My point in all of this is not to lift up the SBC or the ABC as models for the Episcopal Church. We’re a different kind of Christian community. Rather, this history lesson is intended simply as a reminder that how we organize our life together, especially in a changing world that is thinking differently about organizational patterns, will affect how we work together across the church and how our congregations engage mission in their local contexts. The different organizational structures of Baptists in the south and Baptists in the north created very different congregations. How we organize ourselves today will affect how we serve God’s mission together tomorrow. So let’s pay attention.
Suzanne Wille said:
This is a very helpful and thoughtful analysis, Grace. Thank you for taking time to think this through and share this. Missing you in Indy! Suzanne
Thanks for reading, Suzanne. I owe you a phone call!