Thursday, September 8, 2011

Getting Involved

by Lionel Deimel
St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon

Individual churches invariably have strong congregational tendencies. This fact is not unique to The Episcopal Church. Churches are understandably concerned with their own financial and programmatic issues. Matters of the wider church, including intermediate bodies (dioceses, synods, etc.) tend to be secondary concerns. We can even see this phenomenon in the recent schism in our own diocese. Many people are assuredly in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh because their loyalty to their parish is stronger than their loyalty to The Episcopal Church. No doubt, our own churches host parishioners who would be happier in the ACNA diocese.

Of course, we have been trying to hold our own parishes together, but, at the same time, we have been recreating our own diocese more or less from scratch. This is not fair; those who wanted to leave The Episcopal Church should have walked out of the diocesan office in 2008 and given us the keys. That did not happen, and we are where we are.

With help from the wider church and the extraordinary efforts of Pittsburgh Episcopalians, we are rebounding from what Calvary’s Harold Lewis is fond of calling “the recent unpleasantness.” Were this not the case, we would not be conducting a search for a new bishop. For a variety of reasons, we are better situated than the rebuilding dioceses of San Joaquin, Fort Worth, or Quincy.

Despite our evident progress, the strain is beginning to show. Our diocese is smaller than formerly, but the number of volunteers needed to run its many governing bodies has not been much reduced. People who were disenfranchised under the previous regime are laboring hard, often holding more than one position, to keep our diocese functioning. We owe these people our deep gratitude. They are tired, however, and they need our help.

It is ironic that our diocese has recovered well enough to initiate a search for a new bishop, but that the search itself is consuming the efforts of very many people who would otherwise be available to help run the day-to-day activities of the diocese. It was not intuitively clear that searching for a bishop necessarily weakens a diocese like ours.

As evidence for this phenomenon, I would cite the fact that we are having a very hard time finding candidates for diocesan offices. Many of the people who would otherwise be in the candidate pool are either helping to find episcopal candidates or planning for the welcome and consecration of the person we ultimately choose as our next bishop.

One of our challenges, then, is to find more people to offer their services in running the diocese. This can be a hard sell; many churches have a difficult enough time recruiting people for their own vestries or other parish bodies. On the other hand, our bishop search has at least focused attention on the diocese, and it is important that we make the most of this opportunity.

Selling the Diocese

For most of the people in the pews, I suspect that the diocese is a source of ecclesiastical services (confirmations, receptions, and occasionally baptisms) and an expenditure line (for diocesan assessment) in the parish budget. For many Pittsburgh Episcopalians who have actually paid attention to the diocese over the years, the diocese and its bishop have been a source of mischief and a cause of great distress.

As we increasingly become a "normal" Episcopal Church diocese, we need to explain to our members that the diocese can be a positive force in our lives. The diocese can help us find a new priest when we need one, help us repair our buildings, and help us get back on track whenever our individual parishes run into difficulty. The diocese provides a safety net that independent congregations do not enjoy. Perhaps even more importantly, the diocese can help parishes band together to do mission more effectively than individual parishes can do on their own. And the diocese offers opportunities for fellowship and friendships in a wider community.

The benefits of the diocese are not immediately apparent to the typical worshiper on Sunday morning. Church leaders need to educate parishioners that the diocese is important—in some cases, they may need to convince themselves of the proposition—and encourage people to volunteer to do diocesan work and to stand for diocesan office.

My own experience, in several dioceses, is that, in the normal course of church life, there is little reporting of diocesan activities, goals, and projects. This is not healthy, as, in many ways, the diocese is the fundamental organizational unit of Anglican life. We need to keep parishioners aware of what is going on at the diocesan level, speaking of it during announcements on Sunday morning, perhaps even mentioning the diocese in sermons.

In this Internet age, our diocese can tell its story more easily than formerly. How many people regularly visit the diocesan Web site, however, or subscribe to its electronic newsletter? Many, but hardly enough. We need to encourage more people to do so, and, for the computer-challenged (or technologically indifferent), we need to post diocesan stories on church bulletin boards and encourage people to read them.

What can you do to get more involved in the diocese and to involve others?


  1. Thanks for this, Lionel.

    One of the things that you often see after a catastrophe--say, a fire or flood--is that the survivors have the initial instinct to rebuild what was lost more or less along the same pattern and in the same place. But sometimes--if the insurance money doesn't get spent on that right away--a little reflection later on will lead to the new insight that a different kind of structure in a different location might just be better all around for the needs of the future.

    One of the things I notice as I review the "organizational" pages of our diocesan Profile is how similar in structure it looks to the diocese pre-October, 2008. In some ways I think the instinct for survival has led us to want to get to be "normal" again as soon as possible. But I wonder if we might be missing opportunities to rethink identity, mission, and ministry and to move in some significantly new directions.

    The "Task Force on Collaboration," which you and I with others have worked with now for a couple of years has pointed in some helpful directions, though just as a beginning. But it was of course born in the scuttling of a request to rethink things at an even deeper level by exploring the possible reorganization of the Episcopal Church's ministry in all of Western Pennsylvania. I personally have a belief that that exploration has only been deferred.

    The reality is that wider forces in society, the economy, regional demographics, the Episcopal Church, etc., suggest that the current ecclesial model isn't working very well almost anywhere. The General Convention has as a task force right now looking at fundamental restructuring issues, which over the long haul inevitably will lead to big changes. Probably many fewer dioceses, for example, and with dioceses functioning in significantly different ways.

    One of the things that folks in the military are always worried about is whether they are training their officers and troops and developing material resources "to fight the last war, not the next one."

    At least thus far in our diocese I think the desire, again, to "be normal again" has worked against our ability to see that the "old normal" isn't likely to be very relevant to the future. The declining numbers of people available or willing to serve in diocesan offices and committees, etc., may not simply be a function of a smaller pool, but may be something of a canary in the mine, to be a kind of signal to us that the way we've been doing things for the last 50 years may not be the right way to be doing things in the years ahead. I certainly hope the conversation we will be having over the coming months, in anticipation of our episcopal election, will be able to get into some of this in a substantial way.

    Bruce Robison
    St. Andrew's, Highland Park, Pittsburgh

  2. Bruce raises the question of how our diocese should look in the future. Our Diocesan Profile—this may be true of most profiles—implies that we know the answer to that question and are looking for a person to bring that future to fruition. Perhaps we should be looking instead for a person with the talents to discover the right vision for our diocese and to help us move in a direction that we had perhaps not expected. This may be closer to the industry model of executive recruiting, where it is understood that the CEO being hired will be most remembered for how he or she handles future challenges that cannot even be anticipated.

    Lionel Deimel
    St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon

  3. Yes, Lionel, I think that is very much a way to think about this--and it's not just about a bishop. We all of us need to look in the mirror in terms of our assumptions--in terms of the boxes outside of which WE need to be thinking . . . .

    Bruce Robison
    St. Andrew's, Highland Park, Pittsburgh

  4. The thought of fewer dioceses is not one that fills me with joy. The only reason I can think of for such a solution is that we are assuming that dioceses must keep what so many of them have developed over the last fifty years, ie huge staffs in big offices overseeing all sorts of departments. If we give that up, we can have more and smaller and yet more effective dioceses, where the bishop is also the rector of a church big enough to afford an assistant when he's off doing confirmations (although they don't have to be on a Sunday, do they), and serves fifteen or twenty parishes. We could eliminate several committees and commissions, and cut the rest in half. Pittsburgh may still be too big to be effective! I suppose the Anglican Communion would regard such a multiplication of American bishops with horror, but at least in organisation, if not doctrine, we would be more biblical than the rest of the Communion.

    Philip Wainwright, St Andrew's Highland Park and Pitt Episcopal Chaplaincy

  5. It may be that part of an "outside the box" reflection would be to detach the ministry of oversight from the apparatus of administration. At present it costs us something like a million dollars a year (excluding the $400k for "legal expenses")to operate a diocese whose 32 congregations all together will have at worship on an average Sunday about the same number as my sister's suburban Roman Catholic parish in Burbank, California. It's just lousy stewardship. The rule seems to be that we do it this way because "this is the way it's done," and that we spend the money we spend "because we have it to spend." In a wider Church, anyway, growing older, smaller, and poorer at a pretty consistent rate, the system will collapse of its own weight unless changes are made. And the longer the changes are postponed, the more radical they will need to be to be effective.

  6. There is one thought I have had recently that might be pertinent to the idea of "thinking outside the box." It seems to me that there would be value in selecting a candidate for bishop who is familiar with the Diocese, but who has been outside the Diocese for the last several years. Such a person would have a head start in understanding who we are, while bringing a fresh perspective (thinking outside our own particular box), and would also not carry some of the baggage of having gone through "the recent unpleasantness." On the other hand, I may just be rationalizing, because I have a certain person in mind who I think would be excellent on several counts and who just happens to fit that description. What do other people think about the desirability of someone who has been part of the Diocese, but not recently?

    Bill Ghrist
    St. Andrew's, Highland Park, Pittsburgh

  7. Bill,

    I can think of more than one person in the category you’ve identified. I think I would say that they are viable candidates in spite of their association with the diocese, not because of it. I think it better that a new bishop arrive without preconceptions. Someone who left the diocese years ago knows how the diocese used to be, not how it is now. If the candidate has kept in touch, his or her view will have been limited by the friends with whom the candidate has communicated over the years.

    To be clear, I consider being in the diocese to be absolutely disqualifying and to have ever been in the diocese to be a significant liability.

  8. I personally think it's a mistake at this point to be thinking too much, or perhaps even at all, about individual candidates--although many of us will of course in this month of September be offering ideas about "possible" nominees to the Nomination Commitee.

    My own view, anyway, is that we have a very weak handle on who we are ourselves as a diocese, and that the biggest danger we have is that we'll project too much of our need for identity onto the blank screens of a potential bishop. I've seem some folks drift into marriage when that kind of dynamic is in place, and the results are often tragic.

    The reality is that the most perfect, perfect, perfect bishop in the world will only help us a little bit, and perhaps not at all, if we aren't pretty clear about who we are ourselves and ready to move forward in the hard work of getting healthy, in the deepest moral and spiritual and missional ways, and that if we are ready to move forward in that work even a far-from-perfect bishop won't be able to slow us down. Any other thought than this is something like magical thinking.

    I personally think that one of the reasons Bishop Price has been effective during this season of his provisional tenure is that as a West Virginian and someone who spent a substantial part of his ministry in Wheeling, which is practically a suburb of Pittsburgh in many ways, he was in a deep way attuned to the deeper themes of value and culture in our region.

    But I'm somewhat agnostic at this point, striving to be, anyway, about the question Bill and Lionel raise regarding locality. If anything I probably am initially most biased in favor of a local candidate--either here now or "once here"--and perhaps against someone we might call a "stranger."

    In the beginning of Acts, after all, and certainly at a moment of crisis even more profound than any we've experienced in Pittsburgh, the 11 gather to elect a replacement for Judas in the assembly of the Apostles, and they are clear, in nominating Justus and Matthias, that they would choose "one of those who bore us company all the while we had the Lord Jesus with us, coming and going, from John's ministry of baptism until the day when he was taken up from us."

    But in all, my prayer will be for a godly spirit of discernment that would free me and all of us from a distorting prejudice.

    I think we have some local priests who would have the potential to be great bishops of our diocese. But for that would happen, we would also have to have it in ourselves to be a "great diocese." I'm sure there are some who "were once here" and who now are elsewhere who would be good, and perhaps as well, despite my original impulse, there might be someone truly "from outside" who would stand out. I think God has someone in mind for us, and I'm not at all clear that he's given any of us much of an advance signal about who that may be.

    Bruce Robison
    St. Andrew's, Highland Park, Pittsburgh


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