A friend of Anglican Watch previously served as canon to the ordinary in a prominent east coast diocese. We’ve had many good conversations with her. In the context of clergy discipline, her viewpoint has proved enlightening.
Specifically, she reports that it’s hard for bishops to get a good feel for what’s happening inside a parish. And it’s even more challenging, when an issue comes up, for a judicatory to pierce the family systems veil and intervene.
So, how might this be resolved? And what additional benefits might accrue?
Before we look at possible answers, here is some background.
In many dioceses, especially larger ones, the bishop may see a rector or priest in charge a few times a year. Typically, these are during clergy training, the annual clergy conference, and a decreasingly often episcopal visit.
As a result, much of the information exchanged between bishop and parish is the superficial sort of chatter that goes on at clergy conference receptions—pleasant and inconsequential.
Or it’s the sort of gossip that flows through back channels—often wrong, skewed to favor one side or another, or one-sided in nature.
Thus, bishops and other judicatories have minimal situational awareness, often learning of significant issues only once the stuff has hit the fan. This lack of information makes resolving issues far more difficult for all involved.
Additionally, other data points now get lost in the shuffle. For instance, many parishes quit publishing updates to their register once they realize people are leaving en masse. That’s not helpful, as it reduces visibility, discourages anyone from doing anything about the issue, and ignores the reasons behind the departure.
Regarding resolution, it seems like a brief monthly report from the ecclesiastical authority in each church would be helpful. Questions might include:
- Spiritual health.
- Average weekly attendance for the month.
- Financial status, challenges, and opportunities.
- Changes to church register.
- Level of conflict within the parish and steps taken towards resolution.
- Staffing issues.
- Emerging issues.
- Needed support.
- Monthly evangelism efforts.
The ecclesiastical authority in each parish could be encouraged to be candid, with the understanding that the bishop will look with disfavor on being blindsided by issues.
There could be numerous advantages to this approach. These advantages include:
- A recognition of ministry as a shared obligation between diocese and parish.
- Increased ability to address issues before they become disasters.
- Individualized responses to parish needs versus one-size-fits-all solutions.
- Support for ministry models that will increasingly rely on volunteers, bi-vocational, and non-stipendiary clergy.
- Increased understanding by judicatories of the health of individual parish family systems.
- Early identification of training needs.
- Encouraging parishes to take a holistic versus transactional approach to organizational health and family systems.
Such an approach would still be vulnerable to manipulative clergy, who might, for example, falsely report problems as retaliation against parishioners.
Relatedly, a vestry may have a different approach to specific issues than a rector.
And many clergy are conflict-avoidant, displaying an alarming tendency to hold hands and sing, “It’s a Small World After All,” even as their parish goes down in flames.
We also note that some concepts would be very new for Episcopal parishes. For example, evangelical churches are often significantly growth and numbers-oriented. Episcopal churches, by contrast, see no irony in asking newcomers, “How did you find us?” Thus, such an effort would work best as part of a more extensive education and formation program.
Additionally, many Episcopal family systems are profoundly narcissistic. In these situations, it’s all about image. Meanwhile, parish newsletters babble on about their retreat, their repairs to their elevator, their food pantry, and more. Thus, sharing dispassionate information with the diocese will be alien to these family systems.
We also note that the topic of training is a sore one.
For example, other dioceses have recommended additional Title IV training for years in the Diocese of Virginia. Yet the diocese has brushed off these recommendations, even as it has repeatedly gotten a black eye over poorly handled clergy discipline. That begs the question: Wouldn’t it be easier to get the stinkin’ training?
Indeed, one of the three intake officers lacks a basic understanding of his role in the process, which is hardly reassuring.
However, we believe that increased monthly collaboration between dioceses and their constituent parishes could be a helpful way to grow the Episcopal Church. A practical first step could be regular communication with judicatories over key indicia of parish life.