Once and the Future Church:
Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier
By Loren B. Mead,
Rowman & Littlefield: Washington DC; 1991
A book that has been reprinted numerous times, well into the twenty-first century ought to capture our attention. Loren B. Mead’s classic book is a treatment of parishes and congregations, as they struggle to identify their missions and ministry in a world that increasingly does not understand or value churches or institutions.
Mead begins his book by saying there are three things happening around us simultaneously. Firstly, our present confusion about mission hides the fact that we’re facing a fundamental change in how we understand the mission and identity of the church. Second, local congregations being challenged to move from a passive, responding role in support of mission to a frontline, active role that has led to familiar roles of laity, clergy, executives, and bishops all being redrawn, and they are certainly in states of transition. Thirdly, institutional structures and forms developed to support our vision of mission have collapsed very rapidly.
Mead believes the consequence of this is that thinkers, theologians, and reflectors are called to be midwives of a new mission and vision as well as doing something about the old structures of the old visions. Mead is not optimistic that people really understand what is going on around them: for example, he argues that restructuring and relocating offices, developing new programmes, or trying to ‘get ahead of the curve’ or making aggressive or inflated promises about growth and development, and adding even grander visions, calling the flocks and congregations to ever larger hopes just build in cynicism, exhaustion, and eventual bewilderment.
In every case, he says, the clock is not turned back, the resources continue to decline, belief in the church and its leaders is now in a state of a very rapid erosion. We see this in safeguarding, in education, in theological expertise, in public leadership, in intellectual quality, in imagination, in pastoral care and just about any sphere where one can imagine the church presumes to have or have had any expertise.
To his credit, Mead doesn’t blame the quality of leaders on this, but he does point to the failure of nerve and also a failure of insight that the leaders do not understand that they are prisoners within institutions, institutional structures, and organizational structures that are no longer fit for purpose. He calls these ‘paradigms lost,’ and essentially argues that bishops and executives of churches and those leading large institutions simply don’t have adequate ecclesiologies or theologies to cope with the multiple overwhelmings of modernity.
Mead points out, I think quite rightly, the role of a bishop or a church executive, which is the care of churches and congregations and those in need, is now almost impossible, and even were it possible, the structures in place to deliver that work are no longer apparent. The church has retreated from working in adoption, in hospitals, in hospices, and in many other spheres, to the point where it has ceased to be relevant to most people’s ordinary day-to-day lives. The collapse of industrial mission, of workplace chaplaincy, of the worker priest movement and much else besides shows the church retreating into itself, and unable to cope. Mead refers to this as structural resistances that refer to characteristics built into our system which cause us to serve old paradigms that no longer have public value.
Inadequate leadership is an obstacle, but Mead is careful to ‘make no criticism of the people in leadership in roles in denominations.’ He faults the denominations for the systems of leadership that set impossible tasks without adequate support and training, and without clear delegation of authority.
The leaders we have, in other words, are reflections of the inadequacies of our systems. To take a current issue – safeguarding – it is plainly the case that we don’t have a single bishop or senior church executive well-educated in the role of safeguarding, legally or according to social work or policy, in a way that would command respect and integrity and value in the public sphere. I cannot think of one single person working as a Diocesan Safeguarding Officer who would be able to bring to bear within their role in the church the same expertise that they would be expected to operate with in a local authority, county council or other public sphere. The systems within the church mean that we use language like ‘core groups’ but we simply do not mean the same thing by that as the wider world does. No one on our Core Groups are properly trained in the ways of confirmation bias. They are not trained to sift evidence. They invariably have no legal training. The Church of England cannot even manage to run a conflict-of-interest policy that determines how individuals, victims and the accused are to be weighed and interrogated within Core Groups.
The result is a precarious system with enormous power but a correlation of a complete lack of competence and expertise. Of course, the people on the core groups believe that they are invariably doing a good job with difficult matters. But they simply have no comprehension that they would actually be unable to function as a member of a core group outside the bubble of the church. It would not be fit or qualified to do so.
The Church of England and many other mainline denominations in other countries has faced the same problem in healthcare, in adoption, in fostering, in schooling and in many other spheres. In all cases the church has not been able to adequately plan for and enable proper structures of competency that enable leaders to function and flourish. What this leads to in the end is a rather dangerous game, and certainly some problematic areas in the life of the church.
It becomes impossible for the church to really hold its own in public life. If it cannot produce systems, structures and organizational infrastructure that carries weight, expertise, and excellence within the frameworks it’s meant to be delivering to the wider public. Increasingly it is harder and harder for the church to find experts in education, in theology, in oversight, in leadership, in safeguarding and in many other spheres. This raises the question back to what the church is, as to what its mission is meant to be.
There are good examples of the church serving communities in public life: food banks, credit unions, and many other local initiatives do show that the church has real spark and sparkle when it gets down to it, and empowers and enables the laity to bring their expertise into ecclesial life. What the church needs to do in the end, in order to be not just the once, but the future church, is to strip from bishops and church executives and other leaders much of the power and authority that they currently wield, and hone down their areas of competence to what they can be genuinely good at.
In many cases this will only be pastoral care, and it may not even extend to teaching. But I think that will be good enough for many dioceses, and many localities: having exemplary ambassadors of pastoral care in episcope as bishops would be an excellent thing for the clergy, congregations, and parishes. A bishop who is an expert on education or safeguarding, or on some obscure legal matters is not much use to anyone, and in any case, is unlikely to be any use when their expertise is tested in a wider public framework. The church’s incompetence over safeguarding over the last ten years has taught us that left to its own devices, the church is not competent, and continues to perpetuate extensive damage. It should leave areas alone that it can no longer adequately resource, and it should get back to basics – to what it can do, and what it can do well – and from there, the once and the future church might grow.