Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Should We Wait Until The Day After Tomorrow

The other day my wife and kids decided they would watch The Day After Tomorrow. This is a 2004 movie wherein Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall tries to convince the powers-that-be that rapid climate shifts and desalinization of the worlds oceans would bring about a cataclysm. Of course, because this is a disaster movie, Quaid is correct and a new Ice Age is sprung on the world. If you think about it the Ice Age, while accelerated, was predicted and its signs were clear once you look back making the movie all the more frustrating. This made me think of the interconnection of creation. The idea that we as a global community are in fact connected intimately with the climate, geography, and habitat. People continue to wait until "tomorrow" for change.

The task it seems to me is to make the changes in opportune moments as emerging energies synergize for positive steps forward.

It made me think that we truly live and minister in an ecosystem of interconnected pieces. Eschooltoday defines an ecosystem as: An ecosystem includes all of the living things (plants, animals and organisms) in a given area, interacting with each other, and also with their non-living environments (weather, earth, sun, soil, climate, atmosphere).

As we have approached the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (#GC78) there has been a lot of talk about how the structures of the church should change in order to create a more adaptive organization in the changing context of the world around us. The debate often ends up in an either or category. "We should change or we won't survive." vs. "Why would changing our governance change anything - really?" We have the same discussions about congregational development, judicatories/diocese, the vocations and ministries.

Eschooltoday offers this example of an ecosystem, "Consider a small puddle at the back of your home. In it, you may find all sorts of living things, from microorganisms, to insects and plants. These may depend on non-living things like water, sunlight, turbulence in the puddle, temperature, atmospheric pressure and even nutrients in the water for life."

The ponds live with a delicate balance. Snooping around on the internet I found this helpful description of the delicate balance in a pond.  This website we learn that "balance is the key word. In a balanced body of water the life in it is in harmony. Things come into being, live, reproduce and die at a rate that is for the most part in perfect proportion to the need. That is to say 'what lives and then dies is beneficial to the entire environment.' Each living organism is nourished and dependent on other living things contained in the same ecosystem."

When the balance is affected eutrophication can happen. "A pond that is out of balance or becoming unbalanced might have an over abundance of algae and weed growth. This happens because the available bacteria are not absorbing the decaying organic matter from previous growth at the natural cleansing rate... Eutrophication means over fed. The main reason for this is pollution. [When there is too much] nitrogen, phosphate, potassium, sodium, iron and calcium. All these elements greatly [stimulating] algae, aquatic plant and weed growth. In turn more and more plants die off, which in turn end up on the bottom as organic sludge. If the bacteria can not keep up and dissolve (decay) this heavy loading of organic matter the pond begins to deteriorate. Left unchecked, sooner or later the pond fills with dead plant life and becomes a swamp. Side note: Actually this also happens in the natural order of things. Natural pollution can cause a pond to become a swamp, then a bog and finally a meadow."

I say all of this because the pond is an ecosystem. The world is an ecosystem. Organizations have an ecosystem too. (I am not worried about the church dying because just like the pond the ecosystem doesn't change if complete eutrophication happens. The pond is simply transformed. So I know that the church's ecosystem will be transformed.)

We cannot change only General Convention or congregational development, or ministry. The reality is that as the ecosystem of our whole denomination as it lives within the ecosystem of our culture is shifting and needs to change. All of it will and must go through change - either adaptive or reactive change. Now I don't want to get overly metaphorical and start labeling the "decaying organic matter" that was previously "growth" in our system. I am just offering that we cannot believe that any one change will begin to shift our ecosystem. We cannot believe that any one area will go unchallenged by the shifting ecosystem. Moreover, as a system there has to be systemic change in order to keep everything in balance.

We can't just change the parts of the system we don't like in order to spare ourselves from the pain of change. In our system one house wants the other to change, one wants this or that presiding officer to change, one wants that group over there to change. It is all out of whack and it will take systemic change to give us the opportunity to regain our mission footing.

It is my opinion that we must seek to discover those places within the ecosystem where there is health and balance being restored already. We must create safe spaces for life and innovation. We must create new communities and new ponds. We must realize that we must hold onto the very important pieces of our DNA as a church that are necessary and jettison those things that are no longer helpful or that no longer serving the health of the mission. We must channel resources towards growth and mission and away from decay.

I don't believe that everything that exists within our church will itself somehow die or that all of it has to change. I do believe that we must be focused on systemic change. Tinkering here or there will not in the end bring about the change needed.

In order for us to move into this new era and navigate it, we will need to become comfortable with a measure of chaos and complexity and their effects across the church system . “What is being sought,” writes biologist Steven Rose, “is a biology that is more holistic and integrative, a science that is adult enough to rejoice in complexity.”[i] We need to remind ourselves that God is a God of chaos and disorder and is always playing and molding and making. It is true for the church that comes next. It will have to mimic and invite God into co-creative work. Yet, not unlike the faithful people of Israel who believed in the Creator God, we may find God’s hand is already creating in the world around us.

We must be willing to allow ourselves to become accustomed to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, we must allow our “fear to be transformed into prudence, our pain into information, our mistakes into initiation, and our desire into undertaking.”[ii] We must also realize that we are going to have emotions of anger about these changes and that we need to capture and harness that energy into action and invest in good works. As the author of Hebrews writes: “Do not neglect to do good and share what you have for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13.16)

It is not too late for The Episcopal Church to transform itself into the kind of vessel needed to navigate the waters of the new world of tomorrow. We are a church of tradition and innovation. We are a church of resources spread across seventeen countries. We are a church made up of every kind of human being; with every kind of gift; and with multiple resources. We are a church that has never been afraid of facing difficult tasks or asking hard questions.

The answer is that it is not too late. God has a mission and God’s mission has The Episcopal Church helping to undertake God’s reconciling work on earth. Our vision is clear and it is up to us to breach the gap between the vision God has of God’s reign and the reality we experience. It is our work to think intentionally about the shape of the once imagined and future church that even now lies before us.

Bob Johansen reminds future leaders that it is up to us to make the future.[iii] Leadership, organizational vision alignment, and governance all must shift from being a locked system to an open and usable organism. On the one hand, we must be permission-giving; on the other hand, we must take initiative. The Church exists to invite people to interact with the God who has repeatedly sought to enjoy the diversity of God’s creation. The Good News of Salvation, the love of God, and the unique witness of Christ are to be possessed by all God’s people and not held captive by the Church.

In the Diocese of Texas we are not simply asking questions about old structures and staffing we are changing the ecosystem. We are talking about change and adaptive leadership at every level from the attractional church, the sending church, the missional community and diocesan structures. We are seeking to discover new models of lay ministry unchained from the internal work of the church (altar, lectern, usher) to leading communities. What does it mean to have a diocese and be a bishop in a different kind of church that is adaptive to the ecosystem it is called to do mission within?

We are going through a 360 degree review of our canonical structures and our diocesan staff. We are moving from an old pedagogical model of telling people how to do things and running programs to a new model of coaching and connecting people to people and resources. We are putting as much money into congregations as possible. In fact we gave away more money this last year for congregational projects than we took in by directing our foundations and budget to community work. Why? Because we believe the church is an ecosystem and like an ecosystem the the whole thing must be moved into a sustainable, healthy, mission focused organization based upon the context in which we find ourselves.

The reality is that the ecosystem that we live and minister within is already changing our church organization. General Convention and the Episcopal Church structures are already changing. The ecosystem is changing because there are not enough dollars to support the work we want to do and so we are gradually cutting the budget bit by bit and changing the shape of our ministry and impact in the community reactively and based upon income. Slowly we are, for example, pulling dollars from our mission dioceses and ministry to the least of these in order to support structures. Our retired clergy in poorer diocese are going without benefits or enough to live on.

We are tasked with the responsibility of leading our church in proactive decision making that supports the mission. The questions we ask ourselves and the decisions we make are important at this General Convention. Will we be a Convention that supports the new and emerging forms of mission leaving ever more dollars in the diocese accounts to do local mission or will we continue to believe that what we do at convention is the highest and best use of our time, energy, and dollars?

We are writing the story of our time. We are writing, year by year - triennium by triennium, the story
of how our generation responded to the Gospel imperative before us. Each generation writes this narrative. It is our turn. Who we chose as our Presiding Bishop, who we chose as our executive council members, our board members, what legislation we pass, and how we chose to spend our money tells a story of our priorities. These choices matter. 

Our time and our actions tell the story of the pond and its health. It tells the story of a church ecosystem. The words that are written will reveal if we are an organization in eutrophication. Our actions will tell a story and reveal if we are waiting until the day after tomorrow.

I personally am invested in writing a different story than I believe we are writing today.

[i]  Wheatley, New Science, 12. 
[ii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York: Random House, 2012), 151.
[iii] Johansen, Leaders Make the Future, 32.

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