Archbishop Robert Duncan’s 2009 challenge to plant 1000 new Anglican churches by 2014 was a bold but necessary act of strong leadership. Many, if not most, of the congregations which made up the ACNA at its founding were formerly parishes of the Episcopal Church. New denominations comprising churches formerly aligned with an established church body can fall prey to a pattern of thinking that focuses more on recovering from the trauma of separation than on moving ahead with a new identity. The tendency to concentrate more on where they’ve been than on where they are going can stymie a new group and delay any real progress for a generation or more.
By issuing a bold challenge to plant new ACNA churches, Archbishop Duncan shifted the new denomination’s focus from the past to the future. As I watched the streaming video of the Archbishop’s address, I was a newly-confirmed Anglican, two years away from ordination as a priest. It was an historic moment, and I was both happy and proud to be a part of it.
In recent months, that initial euphoria has given way to cold, hard reality. Upon my ordination to the Anglican priesthood last May, I was commissioned to plant one of those 1000 new churches. As I began to consider all that would be required to accomplish this task, it soon became clear that something vital was missing from the conversation. There was, and is, no strategic plan in place to supply the necessary resources, both human and material, to enable the transition from vision to actuality. In my last post I laid out a proposal for addressing this situation, framing it in terms of my own diocese but believing firmly that it merits application to the denomination as a whole.
In case you have not yet read that post, here is the pertinent line. I propose that every parish in the diocese set aside ten percent of its gross revenues each year for the next several years and deposit those funds in an account, administered by the office of the Bishop and exclusively for the purpose of financing church plants in the diocese.
I have already begun to hear from naysayers—ranging from those who resonate with the idea in principle but doubt its practicality to those who flat out reject the idea as wrongheaded and misguided. Before I speak to the objections, I want to outline some of the benefits to be derived from my proposal.
First, it ties the entire diocese together in the support of a common vision for advancing the Kingdom through church planting. Each time a new church is planted and takes root anyplace in the diocese, all the member parishes rejoice because they all contributed to its success. Second, by drawing support from all parishes in the diocese, it enables the planting of churches in areas where nearby existing churches may lack either the means or the vision to underwrite a new congregation. Third it gives all diocesan parishes a practical way to be actively involved in responding to the Archbishop’s challenge. Without such a mechanism, it will be all too easy for parishes to profess support for the vision without any concrete participation in bringing it to pass.
Finally, the diocese will know what kind of resources it has available to use for church planting each year and can plan accordingly. As a prospective church planter, knowing that I could count on a specific amount of funding from the diocese would help to overcome one of the many obstacles which contribute to a failure rate of around 80% for new church plants (or so I have read). It would be far better to support four new churches in the diocese each year and see three of them succeed than to attempt to plant ten new churches and have eight of them fail for lack of resources.
As Anglicans committed to an episcopal polity, the primary ecclesiastical identity for clergy is the diocese, not the parish. I would never belittle the importance of the parish as a setting for worship, community, and service in a specific neighborhood or locality. But I come to Anglicanism from a lifetime of service in the Free Church tradition where the tendency, too often, is for local church pastors to get so wrapped up in their unique agendas that they lose sight of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” church while becoming myopic, territorial, and competitive. Diocesan identity and episcopal polity should help to reduce that tendency among Anglicans. We are all in this together. Ideally, when one parish suffers, we all share the pain, and when one parish flourishes, we all rejoice.
What about the objection that a ten percent, off-the-top contribution to a church planting fund would wreak havoc upon parish budgets and force the reduction or curtailment of local programs or ministries? Baloney. It is a matter of priorities. I am willing to wager that there is no parish in our diocese that could not carry out its mandate for ministry and service effectively and efficiently simply because its available revenues were reduced by ten percent in the coming year. It might take some creative planning and implementation, but I know God would honor the effort if that ten percent reduction were going to spread the Gospel of the Kingdom through church planting outreach.
Eleven years ago I left a position with a parachurch ministry to assume a teaching post in a small Bible college. Our family income dropped 30% in one year. Three years ago my position at that Bible college was terminated when I followed my convictions into Anglicanism and the liturgical tradition. Our family income dropped 60%. I have been unemployed since then. Still, God has taken care of us. We are solvent, virtually debt-free, and our credit rating is exceptional. Don’t tell me that a parish cannot afford to contribute ten percent of its revenues to a fund for church planting. I don’t buy it.
So, there you have it—my proposal for helping to underwrite the Archbishop’s vision so that his challenge has a greater likelihood of becoming a reality. Of course, God may want to do it some other way, but I think we are supposed to use our sanctified minds whenever we can. In that way, we can often become the answers to our own prayers.
Now, truth be told, I doubt that my proposal will be adopted. The forces of pragmatism and cynicism are too vast, the power of rationalization too great to give me much hope. Still, I hope… and pray.
Soli Deo gloria.