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.