A Modest Proposal (Part Two—Benefits and Excuses)

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.

A Modest Proposal (Part One–The Need and The Plan)

The New Testament book of James is all about the relationship between faith and works. The author was the brother of our Lord and the first ‘pastor’ of the church in Jerusalem. An exceptionally wise man, it was James who, as moderator of the “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15), brought forward a proposal that averted a rift between leaders of the new Christian movement which could have permanently damaged the church from its infancy.

In the “open letter” which bears his name, James made it clear that true faith always expresses itself in good works. What we believe has to affect the way we behave or there is reason to question the genuineness of our belief. He said it this way in chapter 2, verses 14-17.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

It is in the spirit of “Pastor James,” then, that I have the temerity to bring forward a proposal to address a potentially damaging rift between our faith and our works in the ACNA.

We have before us a challenge from the Archbishop to plant 1000 new Anglican churches during his five-year term as leader of the denomination. When I was ordained a priest last May, I was commissioned to plant one of those churches. Now, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, and I certainly don’t claim to have the wisdom of James. But it seems to me there is something missing from this equation, namely the part that enables the progression from vision to reality.

When I was asked recently how the effort to plant a church in Grandview Heights was progressing, I replied, “We have everything we need for this new church… except money, people, and a place to meet. Oh, and I live thirty miles away, have been unemployed for three years, and have no means to relocate to the community wherein we hope to plant the church.” That attempt to couch my response in humor, as lame as it was, nevertheless illustrates the dilemma we face in ACNA. There is no strategic plan in place to provide the resources necessary to turn the Archbishop’s challenge into reality. At least, if there is, I’m not aware of it.

I’m growing a bit weary of good-hearted people wishing me well and assuring me of their support for my endeavors. (Remember, I told you that sooner or later I would annoy you. Perhaps it’s today.) Frankly, it has begun to remind me of the fellow James described in the passage above. You know, the guy who looked at the naked and hungry man and said to him, “Go in peace; be warmed and fed.” Nice sentiment but practically useless. That’s where my proposal comes in. I believe this could benefit the entire ACNA, but to make my point here, I will frame it in terms of my own diocese, the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes.

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.

Those funds would then be disbursed according to a schedule which would underwrite 100% of the new church’s costs for the first year of its existence, two-thirds in the second year, and one-third in the third. The goal would be self-sufficiency, or something close to it, for the new church by the third anniversary of its launch.

I can’t imagine there is any parish in the diocese that is living so close to the edge of insolvency that trimming 10% of its budget for the purpose of supporting church planting would drive it over the brink.

I will address this matter more fully in my next post. (If I still have any readers, that is.)

Talking Turkey About Giving Thanks

A friend who is very familiar with my pilgrimage of the past few years recently asked me, “Do you think your transition to Anglicanism has been worth all that it has cost… emotionally, socially, materially?” My immediate, less-than-thoughtful response was, “Not yet.” In this post, I want to consider that question a bit more carefully.

By almost every measure, our decision to identify with the Anglican communion has been costly. It cost me my job as a Bible college professor. It cost me relationships with friends and family who simply cannot understand why I exchanged the “simplicity” of faith in the Anabaptist tradition for the “complexity” of Anglican Christianity, especially the “smells and bells” of liturgical worship.

The process of preparing for Holy Orders (ordination) was costly in terms of both time (two years) and money (for tuition, books, and travel). And who knew that clerical shirts and liturgical vestments were so expensive? (Well, all my colleagues knew, but they never told me; they probably feared the shock would be too great.)

Not only did it cost a lot to become Anglican and to prepare for ministry in this communion, it all had to be undertaken with the knowledge that, even after I was ordained, I still would not likely have a “paying job” as a brand new priest in this brand new diocese of the brand new Anglican Church in North America. My new ecclesiastical home, I would soon discover, has tremendous potential but limited resources. If I were to find a context for using my gifts in ministry in this communion, I would likely need to “create” it.

So I shared with my Bishop a vision for planting a new Anglican church in a community just west of downtown Columbus and close enough to the OSU campus for students to be an important part of our ministry focus. With his blessing, I summarized my vision in writing and began sharing this Prospectus with anybody who expressed interest. Then I sat back to wait for the thunderous response. The silence was deafening.

Although it pains me to admit this, I confess that the situation left me neither gratified nor grateful. As recently as three weeks ago, I was up to my armpits in what John Bunyan called the “slough of despond.” In one really, really cynical moment I summarized my circumstances like this. “It seems that the Anglican communion is saying to me, ‘If you want to be part of us, come ahead. Bear the expense, take the risks, pay the price. If you can somehow generate sufficient interest in and support for what you want to do, and if it gains traction, takes root, or otherwise becomes a reality, then, despite the fact that we couldn’t underwrite the endeavor in any way, we’ll still let you be accountable to us.'” (Please note, I said this came out during one really, really cynical moment.)

And then, as He so often does, God intervened. The good people of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, a brand new work just getting started on the northeast side of Columbus, informed me that they sensed God telling them to underwrite the rental cost for a small office in Grandview Heights so that we can begin to have a presence in that community. Even as I type those words, my heart is so full of gratitude, to them and to God, that I cannot compose a sentence which adequately conveys what I am feeling.

It has been a very long time since a group of God’s people has reached out to Shirley and me in such a tangible, material, and sacrificial way. St. Augustine’s is a small congregation, just getting started. Their commitment to help us lay the foundation for St. Patrick’s Church represents an expenditure which they could readily, and justifiably, put to good use in their own situation, meeting their own needs. And yet they have chosen to make outreach and mission a part of their congregational ethos from the beginning. My admiration, and my gratitude, knows no bounds.

Kingdom Stewardship

During his earthly ministry, Jesus talked a lot about money. More than he talked about heaven and hell combined. Far more than he talked about sex or marriage or even love. More, in fact, than he talked about any other subject except for the Kingdom of God. And much of what he said was a warning about the sinister and subtle ways that money can distort our thinking, pervert our values, and impede our formation as citizens of the Kingdom.

Jesus made three things very clear. One, everything we have, including our money, comes from God. We are stewards, managers if you will, of the resources God puts at our disposal. The idea that we give God a tithe (technically 10%) of our money and the rest is ours to use however we want is simply inconsistent with Kingdom stewardship. Two, money is either our servant or our master. If we do not use it wisely (and for Christians that means in the interests of the kingdom), it controls us. And three, when Jesus referred to “rich” people, he meant not just people who have money, but people whose money has them, whatever their level of affluence. It is in this sense that Jesus used the term when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And American Christians need to remember that, compared with the vast majority of people on earth, we are all wealthy.

I did not enter the Christian ministry “for the money,” and I have never been generously compensated for my ministry, nor have I expected to be.  Vocational ministry is not a profession.  I have tried to live according to the principle established by Paul in his instruction to Timothy: “If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1 Tim. 6:8)  In a culture obsessed with materialism, adopting a frugal lifestyle not only offers an opportunity to exhibit Christian values which counteract the prevailing culture, it also frees up resources which can be used for the work of the Kingdom in other ways.

I am trying to be faithful. God led me into Anglicanism, but it has cost a lot to follow that leading.  For one thing, I lost my job.  As I write this in the fall of 2011, it has been more than three years since I have drawn a paycheck.  During that time, I walked with my wife through her battle with breast cancer, and I completed the requirements leading to Holy Orders in ACNA. Were it not for the sacrificial generosity of some longtime friends, we would be destitute. As it is, my bank account is busted, but my credit rating is still strong, and my spirit, while bruised and downcast by times, remains unbroken. God, too, has been faithful.

I mention all of this for two reasons. First, I want to make it clear that I practice what I preach in this area. Second, God may have brought me to the Anglican communion “for such a time as this.” I believe that my experience and my perspective can be particularly helpful as the ACNA takes on the challenge of finding material resources to underwrite its spiritual vision.

More anon.

M is for Missional… and for Money

The Anglican Church in North America is facing almost unlimited opportunity but with limited financial resources.  If we are to realize our potential and take advantage of that opportunity, we will need to be creative in the use of our finances and willing to sacrifice for the good of the Kingdom.  I know that God is infinite and possesses boundless assets, but I am always amazed that the infinite God has chosen to accomplish His purposes in the world through finite humans and to make the advancement of the Gospel dependent on our faithfulness.

This has been the case since the church’s very beginning. The second chapter of Acts records the story of some remarkable events that took place in Jerusalem just seven weeks after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Ten days earlier, Jesus’ disciples had watched as He ascended back into heaven, having completed the work for which He had come to earth, and with joy in their hearts they waited to see what God would do next. Then, with Jerusalem teeming with Jews who had come there to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost (fifty days after Passover), the Holy Spirit came upon them, resulting in the conversion of thousands who understood and believed the good news about Jesus the Messiah.

The Christian community faced an immediate dilemma. Many of the new believers chose to stay in Jerusalem, where they could be nurtured in spiritual growth, rather than to return to the lands from which they had come. This was both a blessing and a burden for the church in Jerusalem. The infant church would benefit from the fellowship and enthusiasm of the multitudes of converts, many of whom would eventually return to their places of origin as missionaries for the Gospel of Christ. In the meantime, however, they needed to be housed and fed and cared for.

And the church rose to the challenge. As Luke records in Acts 2:44-45 (ESV)—

All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

We have wasted a lot of time over the centuries arguing about whether or not the early church practiced some form of communism. That is beside the point, which is that the early church did whatever was necessary to provide the material resources which their situation, and their calling, required. The ACNA faces a similar challenge.

God has moved among us, His Spirit has descended upon the Anglican communion, and the Gospel of the Kingdom, once again faithfully preached and practiced in the beauty of the historical liturgy, has proven enormously attractive to many, including me. Many of us “converts” bring gifts and talents and enthusiasm and vision to our new “Jerusalem.” We want to live here, to serve here, to help the ACNA realize its potential and to do what we can to make the Archbishop’s vision for 1000 new churches a reality. In this historic moment, however, at the threshold of what could potentially be an “Anglican hour” in American Christianity, too many voices are calling out, “But we just don’t have the money.”

Nonsense. There is always enough money to do what God is calling us to do. Where God guides, He provides. Any apparent shortage of financial resources means either that the vision is not really from God or that the people of God need to rearrange their priorities and reconsider their view of Christian stewardship in order to make sure that their resources (all of which come from God anyway) are not being mismanaged or misused.

The ACNA is not the Episcopal Church (TEC). Especially for those parishes, formerly in TEC, that have been led to align with the new work of the Spirit which God is beginning to do through ACNA, this is a potentially transformative moment. But that transformation involves far more than merely changing the name on the church sign. It requires one of those “paradigm shifts” that so often accompany, or give evidence of, authentic transformation. It may very well be that, for ACNA, one of the most significant paradigm shifts will involve a change in the church’s attitude and practice in the area of financial stewardship.

I have much more to say on this important subject, including some specific suggestions and recommendations, and I will share them in future posts.