Wednesday, May 25, 2011

All Things to All People?

Is St. Paul’s trying to do too much? Here is its mission statement, reproduced from the church’s Web Site:

St. Paul’s mission statement

(This mission statement is actually rather hard to find on the Web site. Nine tabs are shown at the top of the home page. Hovering over the “About” tab displays four options. One gets to the mission statement, however, by clicking on the tab itself, not on any of the options. Many people would not think to do that.)

I find our mission statement wanting in a number of respects. It begins with a slogan which is surely untrue, and proceeds to offer a laundry list of what St. Paul’s does. One gets the impression that, should we take on some new project, we will simply append it to the laundry list.

This is how “mission statement” is defined on Wikipedia:
A mission statement is a formal, short, written statement of the purpose of a company or organization. The mission statement should guide the actions of the organization, spell out its overall goal, provide a sense of direction, and guide decision-making. It provides “the framework or context within which the company's strategies are formulated.”
Writing mission statements for churches is difficult, since most churches do basically the same things. Identifying a special role—charism, even—of a particular church can be tough, but, if the exercise is useful at all, it needs to identify not what churches generally do, but what is special about the particular church in question.

The St. Paul’s statement fails in its being too long and diffuse. A good mission statement helps an organization decide, when faced with a proposed project, whether that project enhances its mission or is a diversion from it. It is not clear that any reasonable project that might be proposed for St. Paul’s would ever be rejected as inconsistent with our mission statement.

A Variety of Styles

Because I had to attend a meeting at St. Mark’s, Johnstown, early Sunday afternoon, I concluded that attending the 10:30 service was not practical. I therefore decided to worship at the 8:45 service, which I had not attended in a long time. It was this experience that got me thinking about our very broad notion of offering, as our mission statement declares, “[i]n worship, an Episcopal liturgy expressed in a variety of styles enriched by great music.”

Under our current rector, we have expanded our three weekend services, each of which was distinctive, to five. The new services are very different. Whereas both the 8:45 service and Refuge follow, in a general sense, the prayer book, one seems aimed at the lowbrow, egocentric Protestant, and the other seems aimed at the equally self-absorbed seeker who is skeptical of organized religion. Neither of these audiences is unworthy to be served by the Christian Church, but are they really the people best served by our parish?

I worship at St. Paul’s for two reasons. First, it is an Episcopal church that is close to home. If St. Paul’s shut down tomorrow, I would look for another Episcopal church. Second, I attend St. Paul’s for the music. If the music at 10:45 deteriorated in quality or changed its character substantially, I would leave in a minute. Although these are clearly not the reasons others attend St. Paul’s, over most of the 24 years I have been at St. Paul’s, the parish’s most conspicuous asset has been its ability to do mainstream Episcopal liturgy really well. Of course, the parish was also engaged in doing what churches in general and Episcopal churches in particular do, but I have felt that traditional worship well done was our calling.

Our branching out to do other worship styles is problematic in two ways. First, it taxes our resources and diminishes what I think should be our main focus. Actually, Refuge, for what it is, is done reasonably well. The 8:45 service is, in my opinion, simply badly done. (I will have more to say about his in another post, but I will at least offer the opinion here that the music of the service is surely not “great music.”)

Second, we have to ask if members we attract with our new services are the kind of members best served by a traditional Episcopal parish. Not everyone needs to be (or should be) an Episcopalian. The 8:45 service is the kind of service done by many other churches that can do it better and whose congregations are more likely to seem compatible with new members attracted by it. In the worst case, members brought in by our new services will have different ideas about how we should worship, and this could be a threat our more traditional services.

Already have the new services affected our worship space. A modesty screen has been removed from the south transept, which is now both unsightly and unusable for seating because of the instruments, audio equipment, and outright junk that now permanently reside there. (See “Clutter.”) Cables snake across the floor, representing a tripping hazard, and unsightly speakers flank the extension of the chancel. No doubt, our new sound system will be influenced more by the needs of our band than by the need to reinforce speech and to record musical performances. How long will it be before we dump our 8:45 service booklets and project PowerPoint slides on a screen at the front of the church?


By now, you may be thinking that I am inflexible and paranoid. Perhaps so. But I fear that St. Paul’s is trying to be all things to all people, and this seldom works for any organization. We should stick to what we’re good at (or what we think we can be good at) and not worry about serving everyone.

In fact, the overall quality of our main worship service has greatly deteriorated in recent years, and not everything can be blamed on new services. (For now, I will resist the temptation to provide a list, though I will mention one problem I have commented on at length—we can no longer count on having a full complement of acolytes at the 10:30 service.)

Our parish is neither big enough nor rich enough to be adding worship services geared to every niche market we can identify, particularly when we are having trouble paying our staff and can afford no money from our operating budget for outreach. Let’s do what we do well, and let others do well the things we can only do poorly.

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