Monday, March 08, 2010

Skating Toward Where the Puck is Going to Be

Last week my friend and fellow blogger Nick Knisely (Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix and short-list nominee for Bishop of Kentucky) posted an essay on the speed of technological change viz a vis mobile networking (using the incipient release of the iPad as the springboard for his reflections). He suggested that it would behoove churches (among other societal institutions) to try and get ahead of the change curve in the area of information technology, rather than always bringing up the rear. To illustrate his point, he alluded to legendary professional hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s response when asked to account for his astonishing performance in the NHL: “I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where it’s going to be.”

That quote immediately arrested my attention, and I’ve been pondering it for several days. In fact, it’s almost hijacked my thought processes. I have a deep intuitive sense that there is a profound truth here that applies to a lot more than hockey in particular and sports in general. The ability to recognize changing circumstances, adapt to them quickly, and take it a step further by anticipating their implications is, I would suggest, the better part of what distinguishes good and great leaders from mediocre and incompetent leaders.

This is a subject of some importance to me because I am, among other things, a leader. I’m a parish pastor, and I have vestry members and parishioners who look to me for leadership. I’m among a group of leaders in my diocese, by virtue of serving on the Standing Committee, the Commission on Ministry, and the Examining Chaplains, to say nothing of a stint as General Convention Deputy. And simply on the basis of that last office, I guess you could say that I am—in a broad sense, at least—a leader in the Episcopal Church. Some might suggest that my presence in cyberspace over the last few years also qualifies me for the designation “leader.” While greatness as a leader is obviously beyond the range of my giftedness, I surely do aspire to be a good one, or at least to avoid being an incompetent one.

So what does it look like for a responsible leader to skate to where the puck is going? This is neither a whimsical nor an abstract question. The institutional contexts in which I exercise leadership are in distress. The level of conflict in my parish is not crippling (or even close), but it’s certainly sharper than the kind of background noise an experienced cleric learns to accept as a baseline norm. We halted a precipitous numerical decline that began in the middle of the last decade and continued until my arrival in mid-2007. But in the wake of last summer’s General Convention, there is once again evidence of erosion. My diocese is a demographic microcosm of much of the Episcopal Church—slowly but steadily declining Sunday attendance, slowly but steadily rising median age, fewer and fewer full-time clergy positions, only about a third of our congregations able to afford a full-time priest, and some of them only marginally so. And the Episcopal Church itself, of course, is in numerical and financial free-fall, on a glide path toward institutional meltdown.

None of this is particularly news, or course. As a pastoral leader, the sort of of response I have advocated and tried to implement has included several components:

  • A robust liturgical life that embodies the breadth and depth of our Anglican tradition, leading to the sanctification of matter, time, space, gesture, and action; rich symbolism and vibrant sensory experience. This includes music of a variety of styles, but always done with an unfailing standard of excellence.
  • Engaging preaching that opens up the scriptures, sets forth good news with consistently compelling clarity, and calls people to ever-deepening discipleship and stewardship.
  • Leadership that persistently casts a vision of communal dedication to mission—both spiritual and material.
  • Strong and challenging programs of Bible study and Christian formation, for both adults and young people.
  • Pastoral care that makes no pretense of being a therapeutic milieu, but winsomely leads people, in their hour of need, to a connection with Jesus, their suffering and crucified and risen Lord, the true “Shepherd and Bishop of their souls.”

This is how I attempt to ply my trade, to exercise my craft as a priest. I’ve done it this way for twenty years. It’s all I know how to do with any confidence. At some level, these things define my very sense of self, they are central to my vocational identity. And I’ve been modestly successful with them, relatively speaking. Treading statistical water certainly conveys no bragging rights, but in a larger context of accelerating decline, it is, so to speak, nothing to sneeze at.

What’s been bothering me the last few days, though, is the growing sense that operating in this area of my competence and comfort, even if I do it well, even if I were to do it better than most of my colleagues and peers (a big “if”), is still just skating to where the puck is, rather than to where the puck is going to be. And I have a suspicion that there are plenty more where I come from, that there are a great many Christian pastors and lay leaders who can readily find themselves in the bullet points listed above. If so, we’re all skating toward the edge of a precipice, and Wayne Gretzky has a word for us.

As pastoral leaders, we need to lay hold of a fresh vision for our mandate. This is, of course, where the lights start to get dim, but those of us who are members of a “developed world” western culture can start by really acknowledging that the era of Christendom is over. We’ve been talking about this for decades now, and while we’ve been talking the death spiral of Christendom has accelerated exponentially. Even while acknowledging this reality, we’ve been engaging in largely rear-guard action, trying to cope with and manage the situation, hoping, perhaps, to slow down the process a bit. If we’re going to skate to where the puck is going to be, however, would it not make more sense not to merely accept it, but to embrace it? Rather than trying to hang on to vestiges of cultural Christianity as long as we can, would we not do better to proactively cast them aside? The culture we want to engage is one that only recently was the stuff of jokes: People who really don’t know the difference between Easter and Groundhog Day, art students who would really ask professors why the Louvre holds so many paintings of a mother and child, store clerks who would really tell a shopper, “Yes, we have several crosses to choose from; some are plain and some have a little man on them.” These are not aberrations to joke about; this is our world.

There’s no shortage of ideas about what Christianity 4.0 will or should look like. Brian Mclaren’s A New Kind of Christianity takes on the subject, and is all the rage at the moment. (I haven’t read it yet, only about it.) Walter Russell Mead offers a biting analysis of the mainline church scene in this op/ed piece, which I have read, and partly agree with and partly take issue with. Thinking strategically about how to do church in a post-Christian culture is, as they say, above my pay grade. If I were to forget myself for a moment and transgress the boundaries of my station in life, I might venture the suspicion that it would not require us to jettison the beliefs and practices enshrined in that benchmark Anglican document, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.

But, alas, I’m a mere line officer, and must ultimately confine myself to tactics. Mead, in the essay referenced above, posits that all churches will of necessity emulate a model that is drastically less dependent on “professional” leadership than most churches are today, with much more informal and decentralized structures of governance. By analogy, he offers that Americans (and all denizens of western liberal democracies in general) now consult the internet where they once would have phoned or made an appointment with a professional. We take responsibility for gathering our own information and making our own decisions. Cyberspace enables the democratization of information, including theological and spiritual information. We have Wikipedia, so who needs a priest?

Ah, my sarcasm betrays my bias. Mead’s prescription may work for those Christians who are inclined to embrace only the first two of the Chicago-Lambeth 4. But Catholic Christianity (by which I mean, at the very least, those communities that order their life, wittingly or not, according to all four, though I would probably want to put an even sharper point on it than that) is an inherently communitarian enterprise. It is its own culture. It takes seriously St Peter’s declaration that we are a chosen race, a holy priesthood, God’s own people (I Peter 2:9). It has ways of doing things that are not immediately or intuitively clear to the uninitiated. It has a technical vocabulary. It should strive very hard to meet people where they are (and has largely failed to do so, which explains a big part of the mess we’re in), and then it should strive even harder to bring them to a very different place. It’s called evangelization, formation, and catechesis, and if it was once as simple as teaching a child to memorize the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (though it never was actually that simple; we just acted like it was), then it is infinitely more complex in the post-Christian world, where art students no longer have a context for understanding the tradition of which they are an extension, and people see the cross as nothing more than an item of jewelry, and they do so not out of rebellion or even intellectual laziness, but out of invincible ignorance.

So a proactive tactical response to the demise of Christendom, by which I mean one that aims at where the puck is going to be rather than where it is, invites us into a delicate dance of discernment: Among those things that we are in the habit of doing and saying (and singing), which are part of our Christian (counter-)culture—the lore and technical vocabulary of our community into which we must form and initiate people—and which ones represent truly excess baggage (what Mead in his essay calls “crap”)? This is difficult, because it’s important that we not err too far in one direction or the other. I was recently in a Facebook exchange extolling the merits of some liturgical music that is much beloved among many American and Canadian Anglicans (Healy Willan’s Missa Sancta Maria Magdalena). We were having a fine time until another commenter chimed in with “This is 2010! Get over it! Time to move to something more contemporary!” (or words to that effect). I happen to love this music, and have eventually taught it to every congregation I have served. But is it part of that sacred deposit of Catholic Christian culture into which we need to form the catechumens from our post-Christian world? Probably not, I’m sorry to say.

The discernment dance involves thousands of little steps just like that one. Some items are essential. They will seem quite foreign to “seekers” and not make any sense to them. (“The hell you say? No sex outside of marriage?!”) But discipleship is neither seeker-driven nor particularly seeker-friendly, so this is when we trust the Holy Spirit to work on a person’s heart and mind. Other items may be cherished treasures, but will need to be laid aside lovingly (and perhaps indulged in from time to time by those who are inclined to do so—“Choral Evensong with Howells Collegium Regale? Sign me up!”) for the sake of the essential mission of the church.

Perhaps the biggest horse pill we need to swallow is letting go of the notion that Sunday morning worship is our show window to the world, the place where we meet those whom God is preparing to respond to the gospel in our midst. This is such a “Christendom” assumption, and one we need to let go of. Before Christendom (that is, before Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the second decade of the fourth century), the Sunday Eucharist was the last place Christians expected to meet a “seeker.” Might we need to re-engineer the social architecture of our church communities such that potential new members find us and are integrated into various aspects of our common life even before they have ever darkened the door of the nave on a Sunday morning? A great deal of thinking-outside-the-box is called for here.

Honestly, I don’t much like where the puck is going to be. I don’t even like where it is. I much prefer it where it used to be! But I’m wearing these skates and I have this stick in my hand, and it’s my job to get in the game.

Jesu, mercy.

Mary, pray.


Bob G+ said...

Fr. Dan - I have not yet read the entire post, which will perhaps be a mistake. I want to say that I am right there with you in terms of "where the puck is going."

Two months ago, I was appointed as Missioner for a couple new ministry projects in the Diocese of Long Island by the instigation of our new bishop. I have said that where I want to be is where emerging generations, technology, and faith development collide. That is now where I can focus (for the past four years, I've worked on a research project with CPG and haven't been able to focus on ministry full-time).

I've decided that as best I can I will attempt to step outside the eddy of conflict that is the Episcopal Church/Anglican Communion and frankly most of American Christianity these days. Barna Researches analysis presented in the book, "unChristian," tells us how a majority of younger people view the organized Church in the U.S. and Christianity in general. The slow stream of the Tradition moves on, and we tend to swirl around. So, it isn't where the puck might be for this Church or most of current expressions of American Christianity, but where the puck is heading within our current culture and contexts, particularly among the emerging generations.

Our culture will be far more like pre-Constintinian society than post. So, ministry will have to be in that kind of environment. Evangelism will result by unchurched people seeing something compelling and different among Christian people, not simply a reflection of current culture. Christians will need to be able to explain the palpable difference - why we are the way we are. This begins with the Church reclaiming its primary purpose - the Cure of Souls. We are the imago Dei, after all.

Discipleship, or Formation, is of first importance for the Church as we reclaim our primary purpose. We are malformed by our culture, and must engage in an intentional process of re-formation to be made into the image of Christ. We give ourselves to the transformative power of the enduring Christian Spiritual Disciples and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work.

The project is in the very beginning stages, but we've got a bunch of younger people excited about the development. It will be under the "Imago Dei Society" (the tank-take and umbrella) and the "Red Hook Space" (the physical and tactile working out of the developing work).

I would love to hear your reactions. There are a couple preliminary and working websites that I've used to help organize my thoughts. The launch of the real web-presence will be in May. Here are the URL's if you are interested in reading about the project. Truly, I would love to hear your reactions!

Peace. Bob Griffith+

Anonymous said...

Dan and Bob,
I would ask these questions regarding the church connecting with contemporary society. Is the Roman Catholic Church connecting with Society? Is is shrinking or growing? Is is changing? Dcn Dale Matson

Daniel Martins said...

I clicked on your link and will look forward to developments in May.

My understanding is that the RC Church in the US is slowly growing, but only because of Latino immigration. Without such immigration they would be declining--though certainly not to the extent that mainliners are.

Anonymous said...

I like the concept, which can be very helpful not only for church leadership in general, and all disciples, but even specifically while vestries and bishop's committees are discussing mission, vision, purpose statements.

We've had some of this discussion before. From the vantage point of charismata, the spiritual gifts, as in 1 Corinthians 12, etc., it is the gift of prophecy that points to where the puck is going to be (any of the revelatory gifts can do the same, words of knowledge and wisdom). According to scripture, "all" may prophesy. But there are also some, perhaps a few, who are able to take on or claim the mantle of Prophet. The Holy Spirit uses and directs the Prophet (really, any prophecy, but the Church-recognized Prophet in a much more authoritative way) to tell where and when. And since "when" can be down the road a ways, you get the sense of moving toward something (or waiting for something) that has not yet materialized, thus where the puck will be.
Using the same context for your metaphor, the ice rink at game time, to illustrate how our Church currently is so engaged in allowing culture/the World be such a powerful voice in discernment, can you imagine Gretzky stopping on his way to the opponents end of the rink, looking up to the crowd, and asking them for their opinion about where they think he should station himself in order to be where they think the puck is going to end up being?!
Gretzky had a gift which was informed by talent, skill, training and experience. Where Gretzky utilized intuitive talent to be where the puck would end up, the Church looks actively to the voice of God through the Holy Spirit (informed by giftedness, faith in Jesus Christ, the study of God through the Word, and through working, praying and giving for the building up of the kingdom of God) to lead them to where God wants them to be.
In the meantime, we have to be careful of the temptation to that change of structure or styles of worship, etc., are the means to that discernment. After all, Gretzky may really appreciate the Zamboni out there to smooth the ice after each period; but it not's going to help his game to remove chunks of the ice itself.

Thanks for the reflection. This is critical for the Church right now, in my estimation. The Church should be praying for prophets to rise up. For quite a long time they seem to be hiding, or under wraps.

Dale Matson said...

I think this is an important conversation. Fr. Rob's comments bring in the team (parish)aspects to the conversation. Is the Bishop the one with the traditional role of anticipating where the puck will be? It is one of seeing where God The Holy Spirit is moving and becoming involved. I have recently come to understand church growth using the metaphor of a tree. Church planting is top growth and the new leaves provide new life that is transferred to the roots. The Roots provide nutrient storage and stabilization. The church must evangelize but also equip the saints through catechesis and descipeling. The church has to cultivate both the Marthas and the Marys. I see my gifts as building up the body from within. We need to take care of our parishoners better including avoidance of burnout by the worker bees. The Green Bay Packers played an orthodox game of football similar to what you describe as your game plan Fr. Dan. They won because of Execution. They did it better. Unfortunately most winning teams fail to recruit new talent and fall from the ranks of winning teams. Just some thoughts about where I am at.

Unknown said...

Dan, I have long held the observations you have shared in this current post. Thank you for articulating these thoughts so clearly and powerfully!! Keep it up my friend. I'm going to share this with my vestry.

Bob G+ said...

Dan+, you wrote, "Cyberspace enables the democratization of information, including theological and spiritual information. We have Wikipedia, so who needs a priest?"

I think I was listening to "Speaking of Faith" when I heard this. There was discussion about the upsurge in public library usage as a result of the economic downturn even while budgets are being cut, and many are saying that physical libraries will soon be out of date. The interviewee referred to the essential nature of librarians not as people who will get information for us, but as people to help us understand how to ask the right questions. Getting the information comes after understanding what one really wants or needs. Wiki's can't do that very well.

Many may think priests and pastors as part of institutional churches may not be essential (or even important) any longer because of the availability of information on the Internet, but as "specialists" akin to librarians, we can help people understand how to ask the right questions, help them understand the consequences of taking on this Way of living, and assist/disciple them in navigating along the way. As you said, evangelism, formation, and Catachesis.

Being in a post-Christian, Postmodern, "pre-Constintinian" environment will mean the role of priest and pastor must change from current perceptions and expectations, yet remain very much the same as it has always been within the enduring Tradition.

It will be another twenty years, at least, before we can understand somewhat clearly the way "priest" or "pastor" or "discipler" or similar roles will be played out in these new contexts.

Finally, you wrote, "But discipleship is neither seeker-driven nor particularly seeker-friendly, so this is when we trust the Holy Spirit to work on a person’s heart and mind." This is essential to understand, I think. For evangelism, we need to be able to discern at what stage in the "planting and reaping" process a particular person is in, due to the work of the Holy Spirit, and meet them at that place. It isn't where we as evangelists, priests, disciplers might want them to be or think they should be - it is not at all about us. We need to be where they are. None of this is new, but rediscovering it all in new contexts and by new generations is.