Rev. Erin Hougland, Pathways Resident Deacon
Here we are, in the first month of the launch of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis’ Pathways to Vitality Pilot Parishes Program! Shew...yes, it’s a mouth full! I’ve been as busy as my job assignment sounds. Many of you want to know and have been asking, “So, what exactly are you going to be doing Erin?” Good question everyone! In all honesty, it is actually the question we have all been holding: What exactly is this work going to look like?
As I have been moving through these few weeks and having conversations with the Pathways Steering Committee, Pathways leadership and the rectors of the Pilot Parishes program, I have come to some initial ideas about the work that I will be doing.
Lay Leadership and Dismantling the Hierarchy
What I see happening in the Church, and much of what I’ve seen happen over the years growing up in the Episcopal Church, is that we are too dependent on our clergy to lead us. The clergy have a particular role, a sacramental role, an outreach role, and very important structural roles to play within the church. To rely solely on clergy to lead us, however, is to destroy the work of the Church in building sustainable and vital Christian communities. Quite simply, it’s not following the way of Jesus who calls us all to do this work.
If you’ve met with me recently about the Pathways Program you may have heard me say, “I seek to dismantle the hierarchy.” Whoa! Yeah, I know this sounds like a loaded, and perhaps even scandalous statement, but here’s what I mean.
The hierarchy of our church structure is important to our tradition, our identity and our way of relating to one another as Episcopalians. Hierarchy helps us make decisions and moves things along. We are not a church that seeks total consensus because we look to our leaders and clergy to make choices on our behalf. We trust our clergy and the responsibility they have as leaders. We also expect a certain level of expertise from our clergy in the way of scriptural formation, Gospel teaching, liturgy, worship and outreach initiatives. It’s okay to want that kind of leadership from our clergy.
But there are unhealthy habits formed by hierarchical thinking and working, namely a dependency on clergy, to make all the decisions for the community and to make anything happen at all. This results in a serious lack of discipleship formation for our Christian community.
Keep in mind the largest body of ordained members within the church are the laity as baptized members. Or you can put it this way — If just a person with a collar shows up to church with no laity, there ain’t gonna be a lot of church happening. If a body of laity shows up with no clergy present, church can happen all day long. That’s the power of our baptism and the beauty of our Book of Common Prayer.
So, let’s keep the tradition of our hierarchy. That’s fine, but let’s dismantle the bad habits we have developed out of this way of thinking. We do this by empowering the laity, not just to voice their opinions, but also to take action and to work collaboratively as leaders with their clergy. This involves a level of initiative on the part of the laity, a willingness to further discipleship and to work within the church. It also involves a level of transparency and trust from the clergy — a willingness to let go of control and to allow lay leaders to work collaboratively.
This is new for me too. As you know, I’m new at clergy work so a lot of what I’m going to be doing is learning. While I have my ideas, as stated above, this will look different within every Pilot Parish and ministry context. I will be learning so much about what it means to be a clergy leader and what it means for me, as Erin, to be doing this work. I hope to work as a resource to each Pilot Parish to enhance the awesome things they already have going for them. I hope to be a resource to the wider Diocese in working out what it means to be revitalizing lay leadership and financial stewardship practices.
So this is the beginning of the journey. I hope you will continue to touch base with me at firstname.lastname@example.org and with our Pathways leadership to voice your questions and ideas.
Even if you aren’t part of the Pilot Parishes program, I want to hear from you. If we are going to learn and grow in this initiative, we have to break down the silos of our individual congregations and do this work together. The work we are doing within the Pilot Parishes is work and learning for all of us on the road with Jesus.