July 18, 2012

With: Strengthening Congregations through Partnerships

Part 3 of 4: Exercising Leadership with Viability Threatened Congregations. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

This four-part series has been intentionally named "Exercising Leadership with Viability Threatened Congregations". "With" not "for" or "over" is a critical distinction particularly for the role of the bishop. The bishop as chief pastor exercises a crucial pastoral role with a congregation whose long-term life could be threatened by its viability challenges.

In The Episcopal Church some bishops struggle to find an in-between leadership space that avoids their being either authoritarian or passive. The bishop's exercise of leadership with a congregation is a part of their episcopal role as pastor to the diocese with the responsibility of "building up the church." In many but not all viability threatened congregations, the bishop and standing committee provide support through financial assistance. Too often financial assistance comes without an agreed upon process of accountability with timed benchmarks that the congregation is required to meet. In such instances, the result is that the bishop's and the standing committee's passive response drains the assets of the diocese for congregations that on their own cannot transform from non-viability to viability. Instead of building up the church, passive, non-accountable actions such as these hasten the demise of a congregation and the length of its suffering.

As stated in part 1 of this four-part series, the viability threatened congregation often does not have the capacity to name their needs or the infrastructure to plan a course of transformative action. In addition, the congregation's system does not allow for healthy decision making, particularly, the ability to name its prospects. Without pastoral intervention a viability threatened congregation will most often close, after a long period of decline.

A number of bishops have stated that they will never close a parish church in their diocese! Bishops should continue to resist closing down parishes. However, the bishop has the potential to offer the congregation a vision that some viability threatened congregations otherwise cannot name for themselves. The vision should not be given from on high but worked out with the congregation through discernment with its rector and vestry leadership. It is not only a vision that the congregation needs but does not know how to ask for. The congregation needs the infrastructure and pastoral leadership of the bishop to be a companion with the congregation to lead them through a discernment process that restores viability or helps them recognize other forms of new life. When the bishop chooses to do nothing for congregations threatened by viability challenges, their passive decision is neither a pastoral choice nor a responsible choice for congregations or for the diocese.

Congregations threatened by viability challenges need abundant and active pastoral care from their bishop. Even in dioceses where the canons of the diocese have firm boundaries between the office of bishop and congregations bishops still have the privilege and responsibility to offer pastoral care to congregations when these congregations are unable or unwilling to help themselves. As one leadership style example, read my July 6 ECF Vital Practices post and consider Rt. Rev. Thomas Shaw's pastoral leadership with the congregations of the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Join in the conversation and tell us about the way your diocese and your bishop offers pastoral leadership to congregations threatened by viability challenges.