Organizations have a hard time learning; churches are no exception. Though we in the Church spend considerable time and energy asserting our differences from other organizations, we still share many of the same attributes for good and ill. After all, along with the military, we are one of the oldest bureaucracies in the world.
Organizational learning does not come naturally. The decade of evangelism in The Episcopal Church is one of my favorite examples of this truth. There is nothing wrong with the fact that, for the most part, the actual measurable outcomes of the evangelism efforts were not encouraging and did not even approach projections. The real issue is in the learning. Why did we not meet our objectives? How could we do it differently? Even if this analysis was accomplished, it was not shared. That makes it impossible to learn. The church went right into the 20/20 vision to double The Episcopal Church by 2020. We all know how that’s going. We did not learn. The problem is not falling short, the problem is not learning.
In our diocese, we embarked on a bold missional effort with three congregations in Greenville, Hermitage, and New Castle, which we called St Jude’s. God gave Canon Dennis Blauser a mission-focused, One Church vision that called for deep collaboration between three congregations. We knew when we set out on this journey that it could ‘fail’ or that our desired end might be changed by what God was doing in our midst. Still, Canon Blauser, with my full support, put the vision forth to the people in compelling ways and made the personal sacrifices necessary to make this vision possible.
That fact is that St. Jude’s did not work the way we thought it would. For the past year, the leadership has engaged a process of discernment grounded in mission. The leadership put everything on the table and decided to learn from what worked and what didn’t. The result of that hard work and discernment is that we will close the church in Hermitage and plant our first new congregation in 50 years. The new congregation will have a close relationship to Greenville, and New Castle will enter a new phase of development as a separate mission. The learning from St. Jude’s moved beyond the St. Jude’s circle to inform the creation of collaborative ministries in Warren County and in the two Episcopal and two Lutheran congregations that now work together in McKean County.
This is my point: while St. Jude’s will not exist as we knew it or thought it might, we needed St. Jude’s to get to this phase of mission development in that region. Without St. Jude’s and our willingness to mine our learning for what we could apply to the future, we could not have made it to this place—period.
This process was hard for many involved and many people made sacrifices along the way. I, for one, had a hard time letting go of this particular iteration of God’s mission. I was a true believer from the beginning and still believe that collaboration is our only way forward. Real learning, though, requires us to push past our own discomfort and our own personal desires. The next iteration will build on the collaboration of St. Jude’s and draw us to a deeper level.
Creating a diocese that learns is a critical component of a diocese that innovates in mission. Learning as a diocese does not come easy. That’s why it’s miter off to one of my mentors in mission, our Canon Missioner Denny Blauser, and the co-wardens and vision committee of St. Jude’s. Each of you, in your own way, made space for learning. Thanks for listening to the Holy Spirit.