Cultivating ‘missional imagination’

By Joe Bjordal
Posted Jan 27, 2014
Consultants from the Missional Network, the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, the Rev. Craig Van Gelder, and the Rev. Alan Roxburgh facilitated the Missional Summit, Jan. 21-23 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Joe Bjordal/ENS

Consultants from the Missional Network, the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, the Rev. Craig Van Gelder, and the Rev. Alan Roxburgh facilitated the Missional Summit, Jan. 21-23 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Joe Bjordal/ENS

[Episcopal News Service] Five Episcopal bishops, three theologians, diocesan missioners and observers gathered Jan. 21-23 in a suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota, conference center to begin a conversation about discovering a new identity for the church in a new age.

The three-day Missional Summit was designed to explore new ways of interpreting, experiencing and acting out God’s mission (‘missional imagination’) and that engaging in God’s mission—not the church’s mission—there are possibilities to change the very identity and culture of the church to better serve the world.

Kindred spirits in making change

The gathering included representatives of four Episcopal dioceses who have, according to the host, Minnesota Bishop Brian Prior, “taken a deep dive into the missional church.” In his opening remarks he described the participating bishops are “kindred spirits who have begun to make organizational and systemic changes in their dioceses,” and said the idea for the Missional Summit, which grew out of conversations with Connecticut Bishop Ian T. Douglas, was that it would be an opportunity for peer learning and sharing best practices and grounded in deep theology.

Minnesota Bishop Brian Prior explaining changes to make the Episcopal Church in Minnesota more ‘missional.’ Photo: Joe Bjordal/ENS

Minnesota Bishop Brian Prior explaining changes to make the Episcopal Church in Minnesota more ‘missional.’ Photo: Joe Bjordal/ENS

Colorado Bishop Robert O’Neill, and Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano also participated with Prior and Douglas, as well as members of their diocesan staffs. And the Rev. Thomas Brackett, the Episcopal Church’s officer for church planting and ministry redevelopment, was invited to observe on behalf of wider church.

Also participating was Maine Bishop Stephen Lane, who is spending a month-long sabbatical in the Episcopal Church of Minnesota to study firsthand how it “is beginning to organize itself differently and to consider its life differently in relation to God’s mission.” He says he perceives the focus in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota is “less on its own internal life and more on the life of God in the world and is organizing for that. I’m trying to see how that works.”

Lane said that following the Missional Summit he planned to “tag team” with members of the diocesan staff as they travel around the state.

Challenged by the theology of Misseo Dei

The Missional Summit was facilitated by three theologians—all consultants with the Missional Network and leading voices in the missional church movement : the Rev. Alan Roxburgh, the Rev. Craig Van Gelder and the Rev. Dwight Zscheile. Their charge was to provide historical, organizational and biblical/theological resources to serve as a baseline for discussion and peer learning about missional efforts and discoveries in each participating diocese.

Roxburgh is a Canadian pastor, teacher and writer who consults with denominations, congregations and seminaries worldwide. He is a member of the writing team that authored The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998).

Van Gelder and Zscheile teach congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. They are the authors of The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Baker Academic, 2011). Zsceheile is also associate priest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Saint Paul.

Brackett said one of the reasons he readily accepted the invitation was that he wanted to hear how Roxburg, Van Gelder and Zscheile “are evolving in their relationship to the possibility of missional ministries coming out of an institutional setting.”

The theologians’ opening presentation, “Cultivating a Missional Imagination,” suggested that missional transformation in the church is possible, but only with a major shift in the way it understands its identity and context:  not as having its own mission in the world, but rather as an instrument of the mission of God (Missio Dei).

Zscheile described “missional” as “identity shaped by participation in the Triune God’s ongoing mission of creation, redemption, reconciliation and consummation in the world.” He quoted theologian Jürgen Moltmann (from The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Augsburg Fortress, 1991) who said “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church, creating a church along the way.”

Douglas, who served as professor of mission and world Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for 22 years before being elected bishop of Connecticut in 2009, said in the October 2013 issue of Crux, the magazine of the diocese (which was distributed at the gathering), that the change of language in describing God’s mission is “more than semantics.”

“Moving from ‘my/our mission’ or ‘the church’s mission’ to the mission of God reflects a profound theological shift, a radical change of perspective. In the mission of God, God is the focus, not us and our activities. God’s mission starts with God and what God is up to,” wrote Douglas.

Van Gelder said that understanding a missional view of the church has three implications for its identity:  it is missional by nature, the world is the horizon for God’s mission, and every context is a mission location. He said the missional church learns to “read its context,” asking “what is God up to in the neighborhood?”

“God’s spirit is always out ahead of us,” said Van Gelder. “When we really begin to believe that, it invites a very different understanding about how we relate to the world around us and our identify in God tied to the context in which we live.”

The Missional Network team also presented information and facilitated discussions around topics including “Historical Perspective on Denominations and Their Congregations,” “Understanding the Difference Between Technical and Adaptive Change,” “Addressing Adaptive Challenges,” and “Cultivating Missional Life and Practices.”

“The presentations were challenging because we are trying to turn over agency to God and we are the institutional managers,” said Lane. “It’s so easy to fall back into just being church—church centric. It’s a struggle to get out of our own way. That’s a challenge we talked a lot about.”

“The theologians have done a really great job of walking with us and pushing us to places where I don’t think we would have gone on our own,” said Prior. “We would have shared our best practices, been impressed and there would have been good networking, but they have really forced us into something much deeper and that’s been very beneficial.”

Common themes, common challenges, common bonds

The Missional Summit also provided a setting to use the theological concepts as lenses through which the specific contexts and missional efforts in the participating dioceses could be examined and discussed. Each diocese presented a comprehensive case statement about its history and current efforts to change identity, culture and practice, and common themes began to emerge. All four dioceses are working to make governance less hierarchical and more collaborative; there are efforts to help congregations discover their unique identities and understand their unique contexts (Van Gelder’s question about “what is God up to in the neighborhood?”). One participant wrote on the white board “context is everything . . . and every context is challenging.”

Missional Summit attendees in prayer at the close of the three-day summit. Photo: Joe Bjordal/ENS

Missional Summit attendees in prayer at the close of the three-day summit. Photo: Joe Bjordal/ENS

There was also no illusion that significant challenges and needs exist, such as changing the narrative “from church to God”; redefining the role of clergy in ministry development; identifying and equipping lay leaders; teaching and cultivating a “posture of listening”; cultivating a culture of deep formation as lifelong practice; fear of failure and many more.

Through a series of honest and vulnerable conversations over the three-day gathering, the participants agreed they did not have “all the answers,” but felt a renewed confidence in the directions they have charted. They spoke of growing close together in a new sense of community that they said would be supportive and empowering as they move forward.

“This has been about bringing together people who are struggling with the same issues; struggling with how we awaken the imagination that God is calling us into without being encumbered by all the typical things that we have to deal with,” said the Rev. Tim Hodapp, canon for mission leadership in the Diocese of Connecticut.

“Having all these people at the table has been really extraordinary,” said Rolf Lowenberg-DeBoer, missioner for community engagement in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. “So many things came to light. We came up with some key growing edges and ministry challenges that we are all facing across each of our dioceses.”

“Many of the changes we need are very big picture, adaptive changes—paradigm shifts,” said Lowenberg-DeBoer. “You can’t just say we are going to do this, this and this in a technical process and make certain results occur. What we really need to do is to change the conversation and the questions about what is at stake here—in the Gospel, for Christians and for the world—and then take the conversation out and help people connect the biblical narrative to their own stories and experience.”

“It’s a bit challenging for me in that it means I have to question some of my assumptions about the church,” said Provenzano. “For example, it will inform who we look to for leadership in the church, particularly in terms of ordained ministry. Usually we look for people who are the best and the brightest, the most energetic, the entrepreneurs, people of prayer. But maybe now we also need to look for people who are going to be adaptive leaders, people who understand the collaborative nature of doing ministry moving forward.”

Douglas said it was “confirming and very encouraging to be together both with thinkers who spend a lot of time pondering how churches can be ever more faithful to the mission of God and with colleagues, both in the episcopate and on diocesan staffs, to have a liminal space to wrestle with and open up these questions. It has been really confirming and empowering.”

The participants promised each other that the conversation will continue. They made initial plans to continue sharing ideas, efforts, successes and failures with each other via social media and began a discussion about “widening the circle” by inviting other dioceses into the conversation.

Diving deeper

In interviews with ENS on the last morning of the gathering, participants said they found the summit helpful and hopeful and expressed resolve to continue with the work at hand .

“This has completely exceeded my expectations,” said Prior. “The sharing by people about their own contexts, what they are doing and the level at which they are doing it far surpassed what I assumed or expected and that has caused us to go deeper—to take a deeper dive.”

Brackett said he observed “a greater tolerance for uncertainty, a willingness to say ‘I don’t know but let’s discern this together,’ and a renewed sense of hopefulness for what is emerging on the margins of our institutions.

“It’s encouraging that there are people in the church who are thinking about the realities of what is happening about the call to engage God’s mission in ways we are not typically thinking about within diocesan structures,” said Provenzano. “We are usually plodding along, addressing issues as they come at us and not being proactive about where the church is headed. We need to engage mission in a very different way. Personally for me the last couple of days have provided an opportunity to reflect on leadership of a diocese that is very complex and the need for me to perhaps ask more questions than have answers.”

“God is saying ‘come on out and be part of what I am doing,’” said Hodapp. “Here we’ve been able to take some real intentional time and give ourselves the permission to not have all the answers and explore what is possible. It’s been hopeful and exciting!”

— Joe Bjordal is an ENS correspondent.

Comments (17)

  1. Good beginning. I forwarded this to my network and one of the comments is the glaring lack of representation from the New Community: the ethnic community leaders and the young Episcopalians who are still largely connected with the outside world, outside of Episco-speak. To a large extent, the future-church, if not the present, belongs to them. Maybe the continuing forum should intentionally include them.

    1. Amanda Ziebell-Finley says:

      I would be interested in having a deeper conversation about this offline. I will be at the New Community gathering in March, but if you’d like to connect before then, I would love to be in touch. I attended this summit as the Missioner for Mission here in MN.

    2. Stephanie Spellers says:

      Amen! I attended as Canon for Missional Vitality for the Diocese of Long Island and know there is already conversation about the next iteration of this gathering — broader, larger, including bishops and canons/missioners, as well as the leaders engaged in missional initiatives and imagination on the ground and on the margins. There’s so much to share and learn from each other, from the top-down AND the bottom-up. Praise God for beginnings (and thanks Minnesota for getting us moving!).

  2. John Andrews says:

    Ditto as A Good Beginning and also hope that future conferences will include ethnic and the young in the representation around the table. Listening as well as talking…………. Thanks be to God

  3. Nancy Mott says:

    Ditto, ditto to Winfred and John. I’m incredulous that a missional summit would be convened and include if I’m observing correctly only one person of color and one woman. Startling! Lord have mercy and on the whole world!

    1. Janet Diehl says:

      The first thing that struck me when I saw the photo of the whole committee standing was – why are there 10 men and only 2 women? Why are all but one face white? Is there any representation of our Hispanic and Native American Episcopalians? Where are the Lay leaders of any color? Personally, as a lay women, I like bells & smells, chanting & good hymns, holy paintings & statutes, learning about the Saints, The Angelus, Mass, Compline, sung Evening Prayer, meaty sermons & substancial teachings, etc. I think of myself as a progressive Anglo-Catholic who likes going to church & who actively invites others to come with me. While my income is very low, but I make little gifts to my parish, ERD, Nature Conservacy. In the past we had great Mission active churches that were High Churches in the inner cities; what was their method????

  4. Gerard Pisani Jr says:

    I see that one of the problems is a phrase that has been called “the seven last words of the church” – (We have always done it this way). As an “entitledment” church for so long the tendency is to believe that what we have been doing is “the right and only way”. I believe that one of our primary habits that may also hinder this movement is our current view of God and theology we seem to support about ourselves in our Prayer Book liturgies. I believe we have a lot to think about how much of this can and should be altered to truly express the comprehensive and pervasive caring love of God to all creation.

  5. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    Once again theologians and church leaders are talking about renewal of mission without citing the most dramatic and winning example in decades if not the whole modern era: Pope Francis. The reason we do not appeal to many young adults and to non churchgoers is we don’t live the life. Pope Francis has been doing that. His simple way of living and dedication to the poor is causing a stir throughout the world. Only reactionary elements within his own church fail to see the positive impact of the Pope’s radically Christian way of life. The Pope is loving but also strong and courageous. He demotes and fires cardinals who have been undermining the Church’s mission and appoints moderate cardinals in their place. If we want to know how to reform and renew the Episcopal Church we need to pay close attention to the life and ministry of Pope Francis.

    1. Susan J Zimmerman says:

      ….I like that Jesuit…I studied 14 years with them…BUT…when the entire Christian community and the entire Jewish community (yes, many Hassidics also) have spoken regarding the ordination of women…the magisterium must listen…also the poor are not without sin…

  6. Susan J Zimmerman says:

    ….Episcopalians the hint is that we are now living in the time of the Holy Spirit (oh oh!)…Our Lord knew Ruach (רוה) and Shekinah (שׁכנה) … both feminine by the way … also they were feminine in the Aramaic he knew… your picture here, after 2000 years (2 days with our Lord), might grieve HER just a little-more….so if it is about the imagination, the creative side of God, you had better have ‘her’ at your tables…

  7. Beverly Van Horne says:

    This is heartening and hopeful.

  8. Jim schepers says:

    Good to see the Episcopal church catching up. Imagination is indeed the place to start. However, I am not hopeful that a top down approach alone will yield much more than warm feelings. Missional church is inherently ‘bottom -up’.

  9. Jan Rogozinski says:

    These guys are copying the current marketing theory of “rebranding.” Let us decide what “image” we want folk to see. Well, it seldom works for corporations. The ones that are successful don’t worry about their image; they just try to do what they do better. (i.e. Apple) Think of it as an “artisanal” approach.

    And an artisanal approach is the only one appropriate to the worship of God.

    Calvin would have loved the parish I attend. No icons. Never mention the saints. A service on Sunday only. Etc. Blank white walls. Focus the service on the Jewish scriptures. (Am I the only to notice that the Jews always read their scriptures with the Jewish Commentary? Whereas we read them in translation, ignore the Jewish commentary, and then read into them the trendy current theories. )

    The one thing missing is the content of the sermons. Calvinism emphasized folk living in a Godly way in their daily lives. Here, of course, the word “sin” is never mentioned. No one talks about whether it is possible to survive in business if honest. We all do our best to become as rich as possible and then give alms to the folk we have made poor. It’s like English boxing day. All year long, the lord of the manor is severe and merciless with his tenants. On the day after Christmas, the lady of the manor goes around and gives little boxes of goodies to the tenants starving because of her husband.

    HERE’S A RADICAL IDEA NEVER TRIED (AT LEAST NOT IN THE LAST 50 YEARS). The Episcopal church has a 2000 year old history. How about practicing what the prayer book calls for. How about reading what the Anglicans divines and saints wrote? Even if one does not go back before Cranmer, there are still dozens and dozens of sincere, devoted, brilliant thinkers to ponder.

    Why go chasing after the false gods of Capitalism instead of the true God of tradition.?

  10. (The Rev) Carlton Kelley says:

    It seems to me that many in the church have been practicing these principles all along. Nothing new has been discovered. The most fervent and dedicated Christians have never lost them. There is vitality everywhere. I am the rector of a small parish in Michigan and can tell you that I am surprised every day by the wind of the Spirit moving among us to be God’s people to our neighborhood. We seemed to have learned – long before I arrived on the scene – that this is God’s work and it is only ours in so far as we are able to cooperate with God. It there, perhaps, a feeling of disconnection between our leaders and bishops? Have many of us caught on to these ideas without the hierarchy realizing it? I believe so.

  11. The Rev. James C. Rhodenhiser says:

    This meeting is a cause for rejoicing. I also think that a vital congregation in tune with what God is up to is a spiritual “home” of hospitality and embracing love. So we are not called to die as functional institutions, but to discard our medieval and modernist anachronisms in light of God’s present moment, to become profoundly fruitful, functional, happy, and blessed. Renewal is both beyond our doors, and within our midst as the called out people of God. If you haven’t read the books these theologians have written, you should!

  12. George Swanson says:

    In what way did this meeting restore all (or any) people to unity with God and each other in Christ? Is this question relevant?

  13. Jon Spangler says:

    I read this story with some interest as a 16-year member of St.Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, an Episcopalian for 51 of my 62 years, and a jail Bible study volunteer for a decade.

    But what bothers me the most–other than the older, mostly-white males in this meeting–is the “church-speak” language that obscures rather than reveals: “missional imagination”?!? Puhleeze!

    How many people out on the street could define that obfuscatory, distance-increasing term? Does anyone outside of a diocesan office or a seminary know–or care–what “missional imagination” means?

    Jesus did not speak in bureaucratese or use the language of the elite power structure of his day, and neither should we. He told us that He had come so that we could have “life”–not “missional imagination.”

    Part of our problem in the Episcopal Church is that we talk like we are out of touch with reality–because–at least as an institution– we still are.

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