Truth and Attention

There is a phrase that gets whispered, “managing the decline.”  As someone once said to me at a winkel “we are a dying organization.”  That was of course immediately inspiring to someone who had just left a nice career, spent a ton of money to finish seminary and was relatively new in the parish.  Both of these phrases would find a home in leadership like Denethor, Steward of Gondor – poor steward that he was.  Neither of those phrases have to be true.  And even if a certain expression of an institution is dead, or no longer sustainable, a truly necessary institution like the church rediscovers her first love and the King returns.  Not to take away the lampstand, but to secure it (Rev 2).

The purpose of this letter is to explain some of my background and experience, and to flesh out a part of the vision I am arguing for.  And I am arguing for a vision, because I want to know one of two things.  I would hope that I would earn your nomination and vote to implement that vision.  If I do not, I would hope that you and this effort would require those you are nominating to spell out their agenda.

I have no interest in taking part in managing the decline.  While there might be enough stock of churches in decline left for some to safely reach retirement, there are not enough for me, and there sure as heck are not enough for those we are supposedly recruiting into the pastorate.  Rediscovering our first love and renewing our common mission requires some significant change in our hearts, and I am convinced a normal election will just produce more of the past.  Our God is one who takes complaints seriously, even invites them, but those complaints must be directed at those who can do something.  In this case, that is you and me.  You are the people who will elect our next leadership.  Expect something! And in my own case it means this, trying something different.

Once upon a time, in my life prior to ministry, I was an engineer with an MBA managing the financials of a multi-billion-dollar business.  Being assigned out of seminary to a congregation that was worshipping 20 across two services might seem like a different world, but you’d be surprised at some of the continuity.  And the biggest continuity is the necessity of leadership to be both truthful and attentive.  Those phrases I mention above were attempts to be truthful and struggling if failing to find an answer.  One answer was simply a separate peace which is a betrayal of fraternity. 

The other answer was a lack of attention.  In my time at this parish, we have never had more than next month’s payroll in the bank.  Doing anything new meant something old had to stop.  Proposing a budget was more like a covenant.  Increasing numbers was a promise that they would be wisely used, because increasing numbers largely meant that those proposing and voting agreed to increase their giving.  And you quickly came around to what MBA school would agree upon.  If you are going to do something, fund it fully.  If you are going to cut funding, cut it all, now.  And make all those decisions based upon your principles and goals.

I wish that I had a full readout of everything the Eastern District has collected and spent over the past decade.  Go ahead and try to find that information.  Every time I’ve asked for numbers I’ve been told such things as “that is not what I do.”  One thing that I can say, because it was shared at a winkel, is that we have spent over a million dollars on a campground.  And that number would not include the separate money raised by the organization itself.  I bring this up not to denigrate Pioneer or its ministry.  I bring it up as the big example of funding something partially and letting it twist for years.  Because we wanted to be nice.  Because making decisions is tough.  Because the mission caused a warm fuzzy. Because for some of that time we were in denial.  Because we thought good times would come back, even though we didn’t have a plan.  Maybe because some had a plan, but we wouldn’t commit to fully funding it.  Insert your own reason.  But this is what happens when leadership is not attentive.  You manage a decline.  Things like this are also why we are unable to accomplish anything together as all trust is squandered.

The first part of my agenda is to reestablish fraternity in the things we do together by:

1) Stopping things that are not fully funded and that are not clearly based in our shared mission.

2) Making our budget a covenant of that shared mission and making the district something you can trust

3) Being attentive in building a shared mission, in building fraternity under the Word

In my next note I will specify some investments that we need to enable that fraternity, and some shared mission that would be enabled by this.

Blessings,

Mark

PS: A Couple of pieces of housekeeping. 

  1. These notes are being published at agricolae.net
  2. I received a request after my first note “hey, what do you look like, include a photo.”  On the about page of that website you can find a headshot of me. I’d include it here, but I’m already intruding in your inbox.  I wouldn’t want to scare anyone with my mug. 
  3. I also received a request about “how do I do this nomination thing?” You or your church office have probably received from the district a mailing by this time with the nomination procedure.  Last cycle these were also on the district website, but they are not up yet.  I will scan them in this week and put them up on agricolae.net with a short explainer.  When they get to the district site I will also include that link. 

A Candidate With a Purpose

When I put myself up for Circuit Visitor of Rochester-West I had two ideas in the back on my mind.  The first would go under the label fraternity.  I’ve been in this circuit and this district 12+ years, and the relative lack of brotherhood hurts.  Especially when I hear the experiences of others elsewhere.  This is part of what I’ve taken to saying in other forums “the theology didn’t fail, the sociology did.”  All those faithful women that used to run the social aspects of congregations? Gone, or no longer feeling the burden to carry them.  The honest brotherhood of disciples? Seemingly gone, in its place an ersatz therapeutic bonhomie and a retirement plan. I wanted to attempt to address that.  One of the ways I did that was through starting a content heavy newsletter that a friend calls my epistles. I hoped to model and encourage by sharing and expressing some of my struggles in the office and how I worked through them theologically. Take a look at my publications for a good idea. I was hoping it might encourage a sense of shared mission and honest exchange.  Not psychology, but fraternity. 

The second idea in the back of my mind was that the animating force of any brotherhood was the Word of God, Christ our brother.  Which is why I insisted on a solid bible study in our circuit winkels. Something that had not been happening prior. It is part of why when I hosted I composed a fresh sermon with the winkel in mind.  It is also why “my epistles” were invitations to solid theology.  If all I was after was the Elks, my favorite member of St. Mark’s could have gotten me in there.  The church is not the Elks.

The LORD knows that there are lots of “unsolvable” questions before us collectively. How do we arrange ourselves? With a year long effort at re-doing our circuits that is reshuffled at the last minute? That doesn’t pay attention to the reality of congregations other than building in “future loss safety margin?” This is a much deeper question than voting circuits. Are there not ways that instead of being in competition we could arrange ourselves for solidarity and local mission?  The virtual church that many of us started in February is now three churches: the in person, the online and the missing. Can a sacramental church really do virtual? Are you really ever going to get someone who came in the virtual door, to come in the real door? Are you going to get people who have accustomed themselves to virtual church to come back? Is there a way that we could collectively address this so that we don’t have patchwork of underfunded attempts? And then there are the hidden in plain sight issues of what does the district do beyond exist? When was the last mission plant? What was the last teaching or challenge you heard from the President’s office? What was the last thing we collectively did together that wasn’t on auto-pilot?

By now you’ve received President Wicher’s note about not running for office again.  Nominations will be open from September until January 2021. Given the comments I’ve made here it would not be a big surprise to anyone my saying that I feel like from a leadership perspective the past twelve years have been a void.  You might have heard me joke about how we pick our DPs as designed to produce a void.  You have to be over 55, but under 60, with 30 years in the ministry and at least 20 in your current place.  You have to be from a big enough congregation not to be a loser, but you can’t be from too big a congregation to encourage envy.  And you have to appear more energetic than Joe Biden, but not energetic enough that you might actually do something.  And most importantly, you must not say what your real agenda is, in fact it is preferable that you not have one.

I break all of those.  I don’t care.  I’d like to stand for the District Presidency, knowing that it is a quixotic run. (As John Adams sang in 1776 I’m obnoxious and disliked or haven’t you heard.) But I’m running for the very purpose that I will most definitely have an agenda.  And along the way hopefully making those who meet my tongue in cheek criteria explain theirs. A bishop’s seat should not just be “it’s his turn.” It should not just be the reward for the best glad-hander. Not when the questions before us are tough, large and existential. The two biggest planks on my agenda would be rebuilding a sense of fraternity in the ministerium, we have chosen a noble task if not an easy one, and an emphasis on a life under the Word which is the call of all Christians.  The more practical agenda items, which I’ll be writing up and explaining, would include: focusing resources and the remains of strength, using the office as the public teaching office it was meant to be, and putting real skin in the game that we are in this together.  You’ll notice that these are all stewardship points.  We have been terrible stewards of the resources and opportunities given to us.  I’ll be posting a series of letters here. I hope that you would read them, think about what they are talking about, and ask any other potential candidates to explain their agenda.

So, if anyone is willing to put my name in that nomination pile, I’d be appreciative.   I’d be open to talking to you or any of your congregations.   If you have any questions please ask.  I promise I’ll answer to the best of my ability.  And if I don’t call me on it.