Monday, September 22, 2014


Can systems change?

I am self-conscious that I go on so much about what a wonderful group of colleagues I have in the other bishops, how kind and supportive they are, what a sane, gentle, and caring group I encounter each time we meet.

But it was not always so. Back in the bad old days I kept my distance from bishops, even when they were solo. As for when they gathered in a pack, I’d have sooner hung out with a pack of wild dingos. So I don’t know much first hand about those days. But I am told that it was bad.

There were times when one faction of the bishops refused to stay at Camp Allen with the others. That faction held their own separate worship services rather than receive communion with the rest. Bishops would stand on opposite sides of the room shouting insults at each other. This did not happen during the main era of seceding congregations and dioceses. The era of bishop rancor was what led up to it the fracturing of the Church. For better or worse, bishops do lead. That dysfunctional group of bishops led us into chaos. Of course, there had to be good bishops in those days. I am sure there were excellent bishops among them. I knew some of them and admired them. But the group as a whole was, as I am told, not playing well together.

I remember when one of the leading left wing bishops and his arch enemy, one of the right wing bishops, retired within a short while of each other. Rather than stop fighting, they went on the road together continuing to duke it out for the entertainment of churches around the country. I am not sure but I think this may have coincided with the popularity of The Jerry Springer Show.

Today, things are different from that as the night from the day. But how did the change happen? Yes, of course, some of the hotheads retired and went away. But that doesn’t always change things. Usually when one troublemaker leaves, another arises to take his place. So the departure of the difficult bishops may have created the opportunity for change, but it did not guarantee it.

I am told that Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, with his contemplative spirituality and devotion to the discipline of conversation, undertook a specific program to change the way the bishops behaved. We went from sitting in straight lines with seats assigned according to seniority to sitting around tables with the same small group assembled for three years at a stretch. We began to meet more often. The College For Bishops worked on building relationships among the new bishops coming in, and connected the new folks to veterans as we were assigned first a 90-day-companion and then a bishop coach for our first three years. I don’t know what all the changes were or when they were made. But I am reliably informed that there was an intentional plan to change the way the bishops related to one another. We now have a network of personal relationships that bridges differences of theology and politics. We work well together and my life is the better for knowing these good people.

As the tenor of the House of Bishops has changed, it seems to me that a different kind of people are seeking the office. A different kind of people are being elected. How that happens is a mystery. But I observe it to be true. We are more measured, balanced, temperate in speech and action than many of the bishops in decades past – not all of them certainly, but many of them, the ones who grabbed the headlines.

The point here isn’t to praise the current team. It’s to say that a bad system became a good one through intentional action. With Bishop Griswold’s leadership, continued by Bishop Katharine, we decided to change.

Could a congregation do the same? I have seen it happen there too. I have seen a congregation that has been swimming in its own rancorous bile for years decide to get healthy. It takes some action steps, some intentional work. It doesn’t change all at once. It takes time, patience, and determination, but it can be done.

There is no one right way to go about it. I think Gilbert Rendle’s Behavioral Covenants In Congregations is a great guide for starters.  I believe the practices and principles of broad based community organizing can change how people treat each other in a congregation. Others agree. In fact, there is a short and easy book on how to do it, Michael Gecan’s Effective Organizing For Congregational Renewal. 

I am intrigued that our new Archbishop of Canterbury is going around the world having a one-on-one meetings (the basic building block of community organizing) with each of the Primates of the Anglican Communion before he calls another Primate’s Meeting. It looks to me as if Archbishop Justin has got it. I confess I sometimes slam my head against the wall in frustration over how hard it is to get our people in Nevada to sit down together one-on-one and just talk. We want to make speeches and send out e-blasts, anything but relate eyeball to eyeball.

Our best turnaround in a parish has been led by a priest trained in Christian conflict transformation at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. There are other models that invite relationship building – the Indaba Process, World CafĂ©, Appreciative Inquiry, etc. I don’t know that any one model has all the answers. But what I do know is this: a group can change how it functions. Old habits can be broken. New habits can be formed. The bishops have done it.

As I look at some of our congregations that have been stuck in bad habits, relational vices that may even have seeped down into them from the bad influence of the bishops in decades past, I wonder which of those congregations might decide to give up their familiar rancor and misery to try something new, something like becoming the Church the New Testament calls us to be, the kind of community worthy to be called the Body of Christ, a community that looks like Jesus, heals people instead of wounding them, and ushers in the Kingdom of God.

1 comment:

deboissiere said...

Bishop Dan,

What a wonderful post of reconcilation and the spirit of cooperation. Go to aggregate to your post to our blog.