Talking of vision; talking of strategy

I have no desire to take sides in an ecclesiological culture war, so let me be upfront: I believe in Fresh Expressions, New Congregations, and Church Plants. I really do.

Over the last couple of years my mind has been changed through the patient ministry of my diocesan bishop, diocesan secretary, director of mission, and others. I am sure that I have exasperated them at times, but overall they have perhaps been more right, even as I have been more wrong.

But, here’s the nub I also believe in the parish church. In fact I believe in it passionately. I have been told that I am ‘instinctively a parish priest.’ I am not quite sure, however, how I feel about this: is such a statement, in these times, a compliment or a criticism? Is to be called ‘instinctively a parish priest’ to be ‘damned with faint praise?’

I ask because the reports in the Church Times last Friday (2nd July), ‘Vision and Strategy update for Synod’ and ‘Welby endorses urgent plan for church-planting,’ don’t big up or stress the continuing centrality of the parish churches, as places of mission. Rather the reverse, in fact. The Parish Church is to be ‘reimagined.’

Now let be clear: in saying that I am passionate about the parish church, I am not dewy eyed about the parish church. Of course there are parish churches that are really struggling and, of course, there are parish churches that will not sustain. But, equally, there are many parish churches that are not only sustaining but thriving. For many parish churches the ‘mission strategy’ is built on creativity, adaptability, and imagination.

Overall, net-net, the parish church is both good and necessary, and should be supported, and yes ‘bigged up.’ The Parish Church is able to do things – pastoral things – that the Fresh Expression or New Congregation will struggle to do, for the very straightforward reason that the parish church exists for all. The parish church requires a congregation, a worshipping and discipling community, but its distinctiveness is that it is explicitly and intentionally parochial. The parish church requires a congregation – hopefully a vibrant congregation – but it can never be characterised solely through reference to the congregation.

The parish church is therefore not limited to serving those who attend. For the parish priest ‘church or congregational leadership,’ is a subset of parish ministry, of a much broader leadership role; an important subset for sure, but a subset nonetheless. I do wonder whether the incessant focus on ‘church (or congregational) leadership’ is a good thing? Is it a bit reductive? And, crucially, could it end end up undermining mission and evangelism? I genuinely think that these are a set of questions worth pondering.

The way that the report was presented in the Church Times has left many parish types feeling down and despondent, perhaps for obvious reasons. Now, to be fair this may all be in the reporting, but prima faca, the tone was triumphalist, and the statements made absolutist in nature. My fear is that the Vision and Strategy work is inadvertently creating cultural conflict, igniting unnecessary cultural battles.

The Bishop of Islington is quoted as saying ‘it is always new churches that are best at reaching younger generations, the unchurched, minority groups, and groups of people not seen in existing churches.’

I have one straightforward question and, an observation. My question is this: Is it true?

My observation is that statements such as this position the inherited, traditional, parish churches as palliative care units (underfunded ones at that), capable of ‘nothing other than placating the needs of the elderly,’ (a quote from a twitter feed). The implication is that a mentality pervades that ‘anything good has to be built from scratch.’

If we are to be a humbler church , then perhaps, in order to avoid deepening divides, ramping up the level of parochial anxiety, and increasing the stakes in the already existing culture wars, the claims of some of those charged with leading change need to be a little more self-effacing and modest?

The Vision and Strategy Group seem to have settled on a number of 10,000 new (predominantly lay led) churches by 2031. Leaving aside the thorny ecclesiological issue (for another day) of being a ‘lay led’ church, in the reformed-catholic tradition, (and the fact that the vision stands in tension with earlier GS reports – reports which were evidenced based) the number itself is highly problematic.

Now, I know that the authors are keen to suggest that the number isn’t a specific target, more of an aspiration and a cypher, but the problem is that aspirations, principles, cyphers, and even ‘issues’ tend to suffer from ‘mission creep’ and end up becoming policies (or even strategic goals!), and then the blame game starts and the house becomes ever more divided against itself.

The number needs jettisoning and jettisoning fast, it needs to be kicked into the long grass, before synod, never to be found; that is if the church wants to avoid further escalation in the culture wars, and in the inevitable and ensuing blame game. If we are to remain united then let’s get rid of the numbers, especially the big round incredulous numbers.

Before we let this one go let’s do a little maths, just to scale how bizarre and demotivating the number is: 10,000 new churches equals 3 new churches a day (including weekends) for the next ten years! Not doable! The number, as can be seen, is undermining of the very vision it seeks to support! Let’s just get rid of it for the sake of the vision and strategy (and the £1 million new disciples ‘target’ as well). To be clear I don’t, per se, have a problem with the use of numbers, but if we are to use numbers to motivate, let’s at least do so scientifically and realistically. Let’s build the numbers from the ground upwards, for this is the only way they can make any sense whatsoever. It is also the only way to achieve a sense of shared ownership and buy in.

A top down number, especially a very large well rounded top down number, isn’t, by definition, a visionary or strategic number. It just can’t be.

Vision and strategy, if they are to be ‘realised,’ aren’t the consequence of abstract thought processes, or even group deliberations (however diverse the groups), but, rather, the fruit, of hard work, critical analysis, and nitty-gritty engagement with both people and data. Vision and strategy doesn’t start with a number, but can, and often does, end up with a number: a real and achievable number. A number that is rarely a round number!

If a number is to be used to support, animate, and give ‘fresh’ expression to a strategy, it needs to be a real and credible number (a strategic number, in other words), arrived at through a strategic process; a process that turns aspiration into reality, dreams into vision, vision into strategy; real and empirically grounded strategy. The good news is that determining the strategic number needn’t be too hard, or even time consuming. The Church of England has the resources to determine the ‘right’ number in fairly short order, if it wants to do so. To do so would add credibility to the vision.

I don’t want to comment on the quotes attributed to Canon McGinley (‘limiting factors’) or indeed to the Archbishop of Canterbury but instead to return to the Bishop of Islington’s quote which concludes with the really quite astonishing claim that ‘church planting is the most effective methodology on the planet of growing the church.’

Now I might be an over sensitive instinctive parish priest, but is this statement either true or helpful?

Over the last fifteen months or so many parish churches have stepped well and truly up to the plate feeding a multitude of people, physically, spiritually, and digitally. The parish church has reached out to the unchurched, the previously churched, minority groups, and the excluded. Growth is, of course, a contested term but nonetheless the ‘parish church movement’ has acted diacionally, missionally, and evangelistically through the pandemic. Methodologically speaking it has done so as an empirical and observable phenomena.

My other problem with the reference to methodology is that comparing the parish / inherited church to new churches or congregations is methodologically highly problematic. Let me offer an analogy:

The parish / inherited church can be regarded as akin to the BBC. As a public service broadcaster the BBC’s successes and failures are there for all too see. The Beeb’s viewing numbers are in the public domain. The quality of its offering is a matter of public debate. Scrutinising the BBC is an ongoing and continuous process. For the BBC there is really very little shade it stands, permanently exposed, in the heat of the Midday Sun. The same is more or less true for the parish church. As a ‘public service’ church its successes and failures are there for all to see. Fresh Expressions, New Congregations, even New Churches (especially those without their own buildings) by contrast, operate in the shade, at least initially. They are more akin to, say, Netflix, which in the popular imagination is the most successful digital entertainment channel ‘on the planet.’ There is, however, an awful lot of myth surrounding Netflix. Not of all its offerings are successful, but it enjoys the structural advantage, unlike the BBC, of being quietly able to both hide and drop its failures, of which there are many. The successes therefore stand out, and the failures, well, they are quietly placed out of sight and out of mind, The myth further suggests that Netflix is growing rapidly – as the most successful entertainment channel ‘on the planet – but this is a fertile fallacy, for Netflix is struggling to entice new subscribers.

My plea to the Church of England’s visionaries and strategists is simply this: make sure that your points of comparison are methodoligically valid, and beware of exhibiting ‘survivor bias;’ the tendency to ignore / discount (or even not count!) ‘failures,’ and only count – for methodological purposes – successes. Presumably many of the 10,000 hoped for New Churches will ‘fail?’ Let’s count the failures as well as the successes before ascribing qualitative statements to the strategy (i.e. ‘the most effective methodology on the planet of growing the Church.’)

Is there enough in the BBC – Netflix analogy to render it useful in deliberations on the future Vision and Strategy for the Church of England and specifically in relation to the relationship between the parish church and New Congregations, New Churches and Fresh Expressions. Clearly I think there is!

Let me end where I began: ‘I believe in Fresh Expressions, New Congregations, and Church Plants. I really do. But I also believe in the parish church. In fact I believe in it passionately.’ As a missionally minded parish priest I want nothing more than to see the church ‘grow in number and in holiness.’ I strongly believe, that a bigger church is capable of making a bigger difference (I am thoroughly Bayesian in this respect and in others too – let the reader understand!). I also believe that we are called on to be a humbler church and for me this implies being a more modest church, a church which places less stress on big round numbers, absolute statements, and false comparisons. If we are to be a compassionate church, one that takes seriously the well-being of its members (clergy and lay alike) we need to recognise that every part of the church faces serious challenges as the way ahead is discerned and, we need to be sympathetic to the fact that the parish church – as the ‘public service church’ – has nowhere to hide. It is duty bound to operate in the full glare of the Midday Sun.

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