Ian T. Douglas: Our job is not to keep the church in business

Image courtesy of Episcopal Church in Connecticut

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The Episcopal bishop of Connecticut says his role is prodding, challenging, inviting and encouraging the faithful to ask the question, “What is God up to in the neighborhood?”

As bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, the Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas takes seriously his administrative duties.

But, he says, he also enjoys “throwing all things up in the air, causing chaos, inviting imagination and encouraging folk, particularly by virtue of their baptism.”

Specifically, he points to efforts, at both the diocesan and the parish level, to send Christians out into the world, open to the work of the Spirit.

“How do we join in that faithfully, and what does it mean to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus today, who is sent into the world as an apostle to join God in God’s mission?” he said.

Douglas, who was elected bishop in 2009, serves approximately 168 parishes and faith communities in the state of Connecticut.

Prior to that, he was the Angus Dun Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He earned an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. in missiology from Boston University.

Douglas spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke for the 2018 Convocation & Pastors’ School. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: As a missiologist and a theologian, how do you understand the mission of God in the world?

You’re beginning at the right place, because I think too often particularly those of us in church leadership begin with, “What is the mission of the church?” rather than, “What is the mission of God?”

Speaking as a Christian, understanding that the mission of God comes from the narrative given to us in Scripture, that God out of God’s love created the universe and all creation, and it was good, as Scripture tells us. No sooner had creation and all of its diversity come to be than power with God and one another gets exchanged for power over one another, understood as human sin.

In the Episcopal Church, in our tradition, we describe sin as the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationships with God, with other people and with creation.

The rest of the biblical narrative is God’s desire and God’s initiative to heal that gulf, to bring God and humanity — humanity and creation and God — into right relationship, beginning with God’s treasured people and the covenants God made with the people of Israel, bolstered by the Torah and the giving of the law, and the reminding of right relationship through the prophets.

Then finally, [reading] as Christians, God’s taking upon God’s self that crossing of the gulf between God and humanity in the incarnate one, Jesus the Christ, the world’s inability because of our sinfulness to countenance that action by God, our attempt to subdue it by nailing Jesus to the cross, and God’s ultimate victory in saying, “No. Right relationship will prevail in the resurrection.”

As the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost, we are included in that project of God to restore all people to God and each other in Christ, and we mess up as quickly as the people of Israel. Yet the vision at the end of the narrative is that all of creation, all creatures, are gathered around the throne of God in right relation.

The short answer — I just gave you the whole biblical narrative — the short answer is God’s mission is that of restoration to unity and reconciliation of all people to God and each other in Christ. That wholeness, that connection that God yearns for that was given to us in creation. That’s the mission of God.

Q: As a bishop, how do you see that mission alive in the world today?

My understanding of my role and function as a bishop — having been a seminary professor for 22 years — I privilege the teaching office of the bishop.

I think the role and function of a bishop is to help the faithful connect with, understand, embody that narrative of God’s mission, and then to encourage the body of Christ to be connected to that mission of God in the world.

Prodding, challenging, inviting, encouraging the faithful to ask the question, “What is God up to in the neighborhood? How do we join in that faithfully, and what does it mean to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus today, who is sent into the world as an apostle to join God in God’s mission?”

Q: Are there any particular places where you see that happening in more robust ways?

We in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut are one of five dioceses that have partnered with the Missional Network, which is a group of theologians and consultants who are encouraging historic churches, mainline Protestant churches, to engage with this mission of God in the world.

We do that through spiritual practices — as compared with strategic plans and projects — and trying on small experiments to see what is life-giving. The grand theorist of a lot of this is Alan Roxburgh of the Missional Network. Alan is a very close friend and colleague and has been really helpful.

We continue a five-step process — those practices of listening, discerning, trying on, reflecting, deciding, listening, discerning, trying on, reflecting, deciding. Where we’ve done that as individuals, as parishes, as a diocese, we are enlivened by our participation in the mission of God.

Q: Describe to me some of those experiments.

Most of them are done at the parish level. For example, I had one parish in which two individuals — two by two, like in Luke 10 — walked the main street every day, praying for whatever they saw, both prayers of thanksgiving for where the Holy Spirit showed up and also prayers of petition where there was division and alienation.

Similarly, Bishop Laura Ahrens and I are blessed to spend a retreat with our postulants and candidates for ordination every year. One year we dwelled in the Word, Luke 10 in particular, and then we had the 30 postulants draw lots and we sent them out two by two into three different cities and towns for a full day to just be there and see what God was up to.

They were scared. “What do you mean, ‘Just go into the city’?”

“Just go.”

The experiences that they reflected upon [were rich] — whether it was connecting with clinics that are addressing the opioid epidemic or rest homes for elderly people or a judge’s chambers that they wandered into.

Another example, at the diocesan level, is we’ve appointed six missionaries, five of whom are under age 35, three of whom are under age 30, whose job it is within the [six geographical regions of the diocese] to help catalyze leadership, convene gatherings, build capacity and foster communication.

Q: What do they actually do?

Oh, well, see, you’re asking many of the questions of Christendom — no offense — where production and measurable goals are the end as compared with an awareness and openness to the work of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, in our lives.

What they do is such things as two of the missionaries who are very outdoor-oriented — they both happen to be named Rachel, and they invite people to go “hiking with the Rachels.” They hike with people from across the parishes, and also people who are not in the church, and pray in the beauty of creation.

Another region partnered with a retired bishop to have a collaborative venture that is called Swords into Plowshares, by which individuals working with the New Haven Police Department and their gun buyback program destroyed 132 firearms. They partnered with a group out of [Colorado Springs] called RAWtools and the New Haven Correctional Center and taught prisoners, inmates, to forge those guns literally into garden tools.

Q: You’ve made a point to distinguish between the mission of God and the mission of the church. So what do you mean by that?

The church as the body of Christ does have a vocation, a purpose, a mission, if you will, which is derivative of the mission of God. Sadly, I would say the temptation — and I use that language deliberately — the temptation when we speak about the mission of the church is to maintain its institutional structures and manifestations as we’ve known it, as compared with asking, “What is God up to, and how do we join in that?”

I’ve said, and I say every Sunday, God has had, since the incarnation and the Pentecost, has had and will always have that body of Christ — we call that the church — to be about God’s purposes. We call that the mission of God.

The question for all of us in the Episcopal Church is, “Will we be part of that, or will we be distracted, tempted by trying to keep the church in business as we’ve known it?”

It’s kind of an outrageous thing to have a bishop saying, “Look, folks, our job is not to keep the church in business.” And people say to me, “Wait, you’re the bishop. That’s your job.”

I say, “That’s not my job, and it’s not your job either, whether you’re an ordained or lay leader.”

Q: As one who cares so deeply about mission, how is it for you to occupy such an institutional role?

Oh, it’s a joy. It’s so much fun. A lot of my job is a ministry of encouragement and imagination, helping people to be free from the constraints that limit them from participating in the mission of God. For whatever reason, I have been incredibly blessed to have huge institutional access.

Part of that is because of the realities of racism, sexism, heterosexism, clericalism. I’m a straight, white guy, bishop, age 60, so that gives me a huge privilege and access institutionally.

Having said that, my primary allegiance is and has always been to the mission of God. I get great joy poking at the institutional structures that I think tend to be limiting for the baptized for participating in the mission of God.

Throwing all things up in the air, causing chaos, inviting imagination and encouraging folk, particularly by virtue of their baptism. I have a very high theology of baptism and a very low theology of ordination for an Episcopalian.

Q: Do you ever feel that your mission and your office are in conflict?

Never.

Don’t get me wrong. I have pledged and vowed in my ordination before 4,000 people that my job is to uphold the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church as we’ve received it.

So I do clergy discipline. I enforce canonical roles and responsibilities. I recognize that I have an institutional role, and I think we’ve made huge strides — whether it’s better staff relations with job descriptions and annual evaluations or what we describe as our title for disciplinary process. I’m not an anarchist.

You’d think, given what I’m talking about here, I’d have a huge conflict. But it’s never been a conflict.

Q: When you imagine the church in 25 years, what does it look like in Connecticut, in your context, in the U.S., around the world?

Well, although you just said three profoundly different contexts — Connecticut, the U.S. and around the world — I’ll try to address all three. This is not a prediction. These are my own fantasies that I’m playing with.

Beginning with Connecticut — which is the leading edge of the end of Christendom in the United States — Christians will become increasingly more marginal. The rate of decline will not be turned around. And with it, all of the business models, the economic underpinnings, from parish structures to clergy salaries to theological education, seminaries, will be increasingly challenged.

Nationally, I expect that experience to spread even south of the Bible Belt, even where populations are growing.

At the same time, within world Christianity, the shift that’s occurred in our lifetime from the church being primarily identified with an Anglo-American North Atlantic alliance — that shift to a genuinely world Christian community where the majority of Christians are in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Rim — will only continue.

Max Warren, the great Anglican missionary statesman, said in the 1950s, “It takes the whole world to know the whole gospel.” We’re getting a lot closer to that because of the realities of the world Christian community.

Q: As the Anglican Communion prepares for the Lambeth Conference of the bishops in 2020, what do you hope is on the agenda for the gathering, and what do you hope comes of that gathering?

I’m biased, because I was one of five members of the design team for Lambeth 2008. Lambeth 2008 embraced the twin foci or commitments to it being fundamentally about helping bishops to own their role as leaders in the mission of God.

I would hope that Lambeth 2020 continues in the path of that post-colonial engagement across our differences and does not fall back into some kind of parliamentary process of global decision making for the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Engagement across our differences for the sake of helping leaders be more faithful to the mission of God is what I hope Lambeth 2020 will be about.

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Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Faith & Leadership, December 11, 2018

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