Finding Peace in God at the Center of the Storm
By now most of you have become aware of the Executive Council’s proposed budget for the 2013-2015 Episcopal Church triennium, which reduces the Christian formation and vocations line item (all things children, youth, young adult, adult and older adult) from $3 million to $286,000. This 90 percent cut is explained as devolution or subsidiarization – the theory that in this extended season of economic strain, Christian formation is most effectively delivered and sustained at a more local level – province, diocese, or congregation.
Church-wide program cuts were anticipated in response to the continuing precipitous decline in membership and commensurate diminished voluntary giving by dioceses (optimistically estimated at 19 percent of diocesan budgets). The proposed budget virtually eliminates denominational staffing, resources, and programming for Christian formation. To make matters worse, the parish and diocesan structures from which Christian formation leadership is intended to devolve are themselves under severe stress. The aggregate number of staff layoffs far exceeds new hires as congregations and dioceses undergo “restructuring.”
It is no wonder the budget news has sparked a firestorm of indignation and protest. People are talking, blogging, organizing, petitioning and, yes, even praying! Perhaps this is not all bad. Oscar Wilde once said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” and then there’s always the popular (if debatable) adage, “any publicity is good publicity.” Christian formation is certainly getting press.
While there is much amiss with the process and priorities revealed in the proposed budget, the outcome may yet be holy (see the blog by Thomas Ferguson, Bexley Hall Seminary Dean, Crusty Old Dean). After over 30 years of hard, intentional work surrounding the baptismal covenant (inspired by the liturgical revisions of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer), the language and practices of faith formation across the life span are beginning to take hold.
The adoption of the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation at General Convention 2009 was a strategic, if unfunded, victory. It yoked allies and advocates across the Church and is inspiring active collaborations and partnerships to embrace the Great Commission through evangelism and discipleship. Christian formation is no longer equated with Sunday School or formal programming in congregations. Christian formation is now understood by many to be the essential work of the Church. If we are not committed to a lifelong process of encountering and engaging the Gospel of Jesus Christ, what are we about? If we do not know what we believe, or how to practice what we believe faithfully, what difference does it make if the Episcopal Church survives or not?
It turns out that a poor budget has been released to a wiser, better networked, more agile, hyper-connected and serious Christian church. Voices from every corner are alarmed by a budget suggesting Episcopal mission will thrive without attention to the core work of making disciples. Unlike the Episcopal Church of the Charter that invites, inspires, and transforms, the Episcopal Church of the proposed budget appears to be competitive and unimaginative.
Ironically, the very outcry, indeed revolution, we are witnessing is the fruit of intentional, strategic work at the denominational level. My challenge to us all is to resist the temptation to defend what was and instead to look forward, building on what we know best as educators whose ministries are grounded in relationship: incarnate love.
Let us lend vision, hope and courage to a church in crisis. Let us live as if we actually believe all things shall be well in Christ. Let us commit ourselves to the basics.
1) Pray: Double-down on spiritual practices; discern what is the will of God.
2) Listen: Be well informed, see the big picture in its historical context.
3) Act: Make direct contact with bishops, General Convention deputies, and members of the Program, Budget and Finance Committee. Thank these people for their ministry to the greater Church and offer a specific example you have witnessed of growth in Christian faith inspired by engagement with the greater Episcopal Church.
When the General Convention is over – no matter the outcome – return to prayer. Remember that Jesus explicitly exhorts us not to worry, saying, “Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Lisa Kimball, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center of the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary. This article appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Episcopal Teacher magazine, published by the CMT and is used with permission. Lisa is also a Forma board member.