Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. There’s no doubt that a lot of serious prayers were prayed and good sermons preached in the Castle Church where Luther posted his theses. But over the years a lot of holy crap had collected there: by 1518 there were more than 17,000 ‘holy relics’ in the church, including such treasures as the body of one of the babies Herod had killed in Bethlehem, straw from Jesus’ manger, a piece of Moses’ burning bush, a sample of the milk of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a set of the swaddling clothes she used on the Christ child. If you visited each relic and prayed the appropriate prayers, you could knock more than 125,000 years off whatever time you were expecting in Purgatory.
Martin Luther understood something very important about the Castle Church: the holy crap had to go. There might have been a time when a vial of the Virgin’s milk would connect the peasants with the story of the first Christmas and remind them both of the dignity of women and the awesome presence of God on earth. The brutal knights of an earlier day might be terrified into honoring their oaths if sworn on one of the 35 pieces of the True Cross lying in various reliquaries and altarpieces at the Castle Church. But that time was no more; if Castle Church was to play its part in the great changes on foot in the world, old ideas would have to go, and once-treasured relics be accepted as frauds and cast aside.
That’s a pretty good description of where the American church is today: there’s a lot of holy crap on the premises, and it is long past time for a good housecleaning. The American church is staggering under the burden of a physical plant that it doesn’t use and can’t pay for; it staggers under the burden of dysfunctional and bloated denominational and professional structures that it can no longer carry; and it is crippled by outdated ideas about what it needs to do its job. All these buildings, bureaucracies and assumptions may have been holy once, may have played a real part in advancing God’s work, but for a lot of them that time has passed.
I don’t mean for this to be a blanket denunciation of every seminary, every parish or local church, every judicatory (diocese or other administrative and territorial division found in a particular denomination). There are noble exceptions and the United States is a big country. And I’m talking about mainline Protestant churches mostly here, though I think others may recognize that some of these problems are shared.
The Christian churches in the United States are in trouble for all the usual reasons — human sinfulness and selfishness, the temptations of life in an affluent society, doctrinal and moral controversies and uncertainties and on and on and on — but also and to a surprisingly large degree they are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth. The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today. They are organized around what I’ve been calling the blue social model, built by rules that don’t work anymore, and oriented to a set of ideas that are well past their sell-by date.
Without even questioning it, most churchgoers assume that a successful church has its own building and a full-time staff including one or more professionally trained leaders (ordained or not depending on the denomination). Perhaps no more than half of all congregations across the country can afford this at all; most manage only by neglecting maintenance on their buildings or otherwise by cutting corners. And even when they manage to make the payroll and keep the roof in repair, congregations spend most of their energy just keeping the show going from year to year. The life of the community centers around the attempt to maintain a model of congregational life that doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work no matter how hard they try. People who don’t like futile tasks have a tendency to wander off and do other things and little by little the life and vitality (and the rising generations) drift away.
At the next level up, there is another level of ecclesiastical bureaucrats and officials staffing regional offices. When my dad was a young priest in the Episcopal diocese of North Carolina back in the late 1950s the bishop had a secretary and that was pretty much it for diocesan staff. These days the Episcopal church is in decline, with perhaps a third to a half or more of its parishes unable to meet their basic expenses and with members dying off or drifting away much faster than new people come through the door — but no respectable bishop would be caught dead with the pathetic staff with which Bishop Baker ran a healthy and growing diocese in North Carolina back in the 1950s. (Bishop Baker was impressive in another way; he could tie his handkerchief into the shape of a bunny rabbit, put it flat on the palm of his hand, and have it hop off. I was only six when he showed me this trick, but it was clear to me that this man had something special to offer. Since that time I’ve traveled all over the world and met bishops, archbishops, cardinals and even a pope — but none of them made quite the impression on me that Bishop Baker and his jumping handkerchief did.)
Bishops today in their sinking, decaying dioceses surround themselves with large staffs who hold frequent meetings and no doubt accomplish many wonderful things, although nobody outside the office ever quite knows what these are. And it isn’t just Anglicans. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, UCC, the whole crowd has pretty much the same story to tell. Staffs grow; procedures flourish and become ever more complex; more and more years of school are required from an increasingly ‘professional’ church staff: everything gets better and better every year — except somehow the churches keep shrinking. Inside, the professionals are pretty busy jumping through hoops and writing memos to each other and grand sweeping statements of support for raising the minimum wage and other noble causes — but outside the regional headquarters and away from the hum of the computers and printers, local congregations lose members, watch their buildings fall year by year into greater disrepair, and in the end they close their doors.
There’s another parallel structure: the seminary system. Peter, James and Paul didn’t have any degrees or professional training, but that is not good enough for us today. Our priests, elders, ministers or whatever we call them must be professionals. They must have graduate degrees from an accredited institution with a tenured faculty and, best case, a large grassy campus. These schools are expensive; students need to take out very large student loans, which must be paid back out of the salaries which, increasingly, shrinking congregations can’t pay. The tenured faculty, like tenured faculties everywhere, is generally less interested in teaching than in ‘research’ into various arcane but no doubt highly interesting ideas that can be published in peer-reviewed journals. Science! Progress! When it comes to theology, they are more interested in academically hot new ideas than in that boring old stuff that has been around forever.
Of course, like almost all academics, seminary professors must sometimes put their research aside and trudge into the classroom, but when they do (like their colleagues and peers in so many universities and colleges across this great and dysfunctional country of ours) they often want to teach recondite and abstract subjects rather than the dull, pragmatic bread and butter topics that church pastors actually need to understand. There are glorious exceptions: but we have somehow built ourselves an unsustainably expensive and cumbersome system which is geared to produce and support dysfunction.
Finally, denominations maintain national staffs — both individually and collectively. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others have national headquarters and/or lobbying presences in Washington; they also join to support a national staff for the NCCC (National Council of the Churches of Christ). Again it is rather mysterious what these organizations all do — but it is clear that if any of their work is directed at promoting the growth of the congregations of their respective denominations or of increasing church membership in other ways, they have little but failure to show for the millions of dollars they’ve spent over the years.
In the spirit of Martin Luther, let me post a provocative thesis on the wall: If virtually the entire regional and national staff of every mainline denomination were to be called home to heaven overnight in a mainline version of the Rapture, leaving only the equivalent of Bishop Baker and his secretary in their place, I am sure that someone somewhere would notice a difference, but the effect on either the spiritual state of American Christians or the health and well being of local congregations throughout the United States would be hard to detect with the naked eye.
Maybe that goes a bit far, but it’s much too close to accurate for comfort.
Those bureaucracies, institutions, and assumptions: It’s holy crap and it’s got to go.
What would we do instead? Scale down and build a mission-centered church. Perhaps instead of the large dioceses stretching over several counties or in some cases whole states, a ‘diocese’ should consist of a collection of house churches or other congregations in a single town or urban district. A bishop might oversee half a dozen house churches — and hold down a day job in the secular world. Paul did.
In this model, few or no priests would attend anything like the formal seminary programs that now exist. Education for ministry would be less formal, and more ‘hands-on’ — apprenticeships rather than graduate school. Candidates might work under the direct supervision of an ordained priest or bishop, take correspondence or internet courses to meet some basic requirements, and then be ordained — without any expectation that ordination would lead to a life’s work as a paid full time religious professional.
Freed from the crushing financial burdens of maintaining large physical plants, expensive and unproductive regional and national bureaucracies, a professional establishment and a network of professional schools, the Christian congregations of the United States might actually be able to accomplish something. Who knows? They could concentrate on nurturing the spiritual lives of their members, reaching out to the unchurched, and serving their communities and the world. They could operate charter schools, teach English to immigrants, develop cooperatives for day care, and reach out to the aged. The laypeople would no longer hire professionals to carry on the life of the church and to lead it. The gap between ‘leaders’ and ‘led’ would diminish; initiative would pass from structured positions of authority to the people at large.
I don’t know exactly how all this would work. It would be new; there would be many experiments. Some would not work, others would, and the successful models would spread. But this is what is happening in society at large; the churches should be a source of innovation and creativity, not the last lingering bastion of a dying way of life.
The crisis of the clergy in the churches is tied up with the broader crisis of professionals in American society as a whole. An increasingly well-educated and independent minded society doesn’t need as much guidance from professionals as it used to. Curious parishioners can get many of their religious and theological questions answered on line — just as Americans are turning to other sources for answers to legal and medical questions. And just as Americans are less and less willing to accept the leadership of professional politicians, journalists and labor leaders, they are less willing to accept (and pay for) the leadership of the professional clergy.
However irritating and uncomfortable this shift is for professionals, and however costly the mistakes people inevitably make, on the whole this process is a necessary and good one. It is part of the small ‘d’ democratization that means real liberation for ordinary people. Thanks to the rising general level of education and now the wide dissemination of knowledge over the internet, the average person is becoming more and more free to live without the guidance of social and professional ‘betters’. For the very large majority of people around the world, that kind of empowering freedom is what progress is all about.
The era of long, genteel decay among the mainline churches is drawing to an end. Years ago my father tried to warn the mainline churches that their gradual financial decline would one day lead to a crisis. Now seminaries, the weakest link in the chain financially, are beginning to close in significant numbers. National and diocesan budgets, shrinking for years with staffs increasingly demoralized, will soon reach a crisis point when the resources simply don’t permit the current structures to limp on. Every year in most denominations sees the list of endangered churches grow; fewer and fewer can do more than simply keep their heads above water — and more and more can’t even do that. There is no prospect for turnaround, friends. This cake is baked. Radical restructuring is coming; the only question is whether people actively work to shape and embrace it, or whether they huddle together like turkeys in November, telling each other that Thanksgiving isn’t on the way.
The ax is laid to the root of the tree, guys; the holy crap must go.