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“What Would You Say You Do Here?” Episcopal Church Governance and Mission

By Calvin Lane

Does our governance support our mission?

Are we, as individuals and as a church, clear about what our mission is?

Are we — bishops, diocesan staff leaders, rectors and parish clergy, chaplains, vestries, building managers, the members of General Convention commissions, Sunday School teachers, food pantry volunteers, board members for Episcopal Relief & Development, et cetera — clear about our mission?

The fully catholic and fully evangelical mission of the church of Jesus Christ is to proclaim God’s story of redemption and renewal in Jesus Christ, bring people to a saving faith in him, and then engage in the hard, yet grace-sustained work of forming disciples.  This is our mission: bring people to a lively faith in Jesus. In other words, if we get Matthew 28 front and center, everything else falls into its proper place: our liturgical and sacramental life, our concern for social justice and the poor, and even the way we organize our lives canonically.

But are we clear about our mission?  And then, is everything we do as a church (see the list of people above) working toward that singular, organizing mission?

Karl Barth, reflecting on this organizing priority, wrote “This group is sent out: Go and preach the Gospel!  It does not say, Go and celebrate services or Go and edify yourselves with the sermon or Go and celebrate the Sacraments or Go and present yourselves in the Liturgy, which perhaps repeats the heavenly liturgy. Of course, there is nothing to forbid all this; there may exist very good cause to do it all; but nothing, nothing at all for its own sake.  In it all the one thing must prevail: Proclaim the gospel to every Creature!”  And likewise, Hans Urs von Balthasar argued that if we are not first rooted in Christ, then we surely will not recognize his face in the poor we hope to serve.

Let’s go one step further (and this will be important in just a minute).  The place where this primary and organizing mission happens is in local communities — congregations, parishes, missions, whatever you call them.

In a period of undeniable decline among American churches — in the Episcopal Church this can only be described as precipitous decline — everyone in every form of ministry needs to answer directly and unambiguously how their work supports bringing people to Jesus Christ. Cue “the Bobs” from the 1999 cult classic movie Office Space: “What would you say you do here?

I fear that, in most of the Episcopal Church, our governance structures do not support our mission, and often (unintentionally) work against our mission. It brings me no joy to say this.

This happens, I believe, for two general reasons: we either assume we have to do what we do, even though whatever “it” is may have little to do with the mission, or (more troubling) we misunderstand what the mission of the church is.

Here are some concrete ways of checking our mission priority:

  • If clergy are drawn away from parish work for convention, clergy conferences, board meetings, is it unambiguously clear to everyone that the work being done will help said parish clergy go back to their congregation a stronger missionary, and in identifiably practical ways? Programming itself is not the problem. It is the nature and amount of our programs.
  • What is more valuable in the life of our church? Here we can simply follow the expenditure of money, time, and spiritual/emotional capital. What should be getting the most resources: local parish education ministries, local parish evangelism initiative (and by that I mean explicitly those to talk about Jesus, not outreach; think Theology on Tap), Diocesan Convention, and General Convention. Which of those do you honestly think brings people to Jesus? Does it get the resources?
  • Where is money going in our parishes? Do parishes — again, this is where the mission happens — benefit from the structures they are financially supporting? I write this while fully affirming Rowan Williams’s description of the diocese as the basic unit of Anglican churches. I need a bishop and I’m eager to fund a bishop so that my bishop can lead me and my parish in mission. I’m also happy to fund some staff members — canons can be extremely helpful in ministry. I like canons. But one more time: conversions and discipleship happen in the local parish and this has to be the priority.
  • Does the apparatus of the “National Church” which includes, as of the last General Convention, a budget of $650,000 per triennium for the office of the President of the House of Deputies, empower the mission of the church? Three years ago that position was volunteer. Can anyone deny that the overarching structures are getting larger while our parishes get smaller and smaller? John the Baptist’s words in John 3:30 race to my mind: I must decrease while he must increase. But do we really think that mission happens at the level of the “National Church”?

Let me reframe this last one. Other than the Church Pension Group, if every program run by the “National Church” were to disappear tonight, would your congregation even notice? I write this as one who currently sits on a General Convention commission.

Every one of these examples, especially the last one, needs to answer the question: how are you supporting local clergy and local congregations bring people to Jesus Christ?

Again, pushback will generally take two forms:

(1) the assumption that we have to do all these things (projects out of 815 that have nothing to do with the local church; diocesan conventions that last multiple days and use up lots of resources on hotel ball rooms; enormously funded General Convention commissions).


(2) a misunderstanding of the central, organizing mission of the Church of Jesus Christ to bring women, men, and children to a saving faith in him, living out and enacting the story of God’s Kingdom. All our projects, including some very laudable ones, have to flow out of that mission.

So, to the question, does our governance support our mission? I think, in these increasingly lean years, we’re all learning the hard answer. But will we act?

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio, affiliate professor of church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of history at Wright State University in Dayton.


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