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Bishop Edward S. Little: Asking the tough questions, doing whatever it takes

Little’s diocese focuses on developing congregations that can answer Jesus’ call through conversion, evangelism and mission.

March 30, 2010

The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana, presides over an area of mostly small churches. His top priority is congregational development, which begins with this question: “How can a local church discover what Jesus is calling it to be and plan to implement that call?”

Ed LittleLittle was elected bishop of the Northern Indiana diocese in 1999. Prior to that he served as rector of St. Joseph’s Church in Buena Park, Calif., and All Saints Church, Bakersfield, Calif. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern California and holds a master of divinity degree and an honorary doctorate from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He is the author of two books, “Ears to Hear” and “Joy in Disguise.”

In an interview with Faith & Leadership, Little talked about his focus on congregational development, his approach to conflict and his role as a bishop.

Q: Could you speak about the purpose of your work in your diocese?

Primarily, we have a diocese of small churches. We have 36 parishes, and of the 36 only 14 or 15 are served by full-time clergy. The diocese includes three urban areas: Fort Wayne, South Bend and Elkhart. The Calumet region blends into Chicago; it’s all part of one urban sprawl. Then we have congregations that are thoroughly rural. Our largest church has an average Sunday attendance of 180. Our smallest church is in a very remote region where the population is more moving out than moving in. They have an average Sunday attendance of seven.

In the Diocese of Northern Indiana, the major challenge is discovering how we can encourage congregations to be their best. Some churches will simply never grow large. They will never be served by full-time clergy. Even those served by full-time clergy struggle to continue to be served by full-time clergy. In the past two or three years, we put our eggs in the congregational development basket. We’re focusing strongly on that.

We’re connected with an organization called Church Development Institute -- CDI -- and about half of our parishes are taking part in the CDI program, which involves training clergy and lay leaders to develop a plan for renewal and growth within their local context.

Q: How did you choose that as a focus?

It goes back to my early days in the diocese. When I was officially seated [in 2000] as the bishop in the cathedral, I preached a sermon where I offered to the diocese four core values:

  1. A passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ
  2. A heart for the lost
  3. A willingness to do whatever it takes
  4. A commitment to one another

 

Three or four years later, those values had gotten into the culture of the diocese and we were noticing the statistics of decline.

I put together a task force called the Whatever It Takes Task Force. That task force was given the portfolio of asking the hard questions: In an era of apparent scarcity, what kind of challenges does Jesus have for us? What is it we need to be doing now? The Whatever It Takes Task Force came up with what they called ACT: Actions for Congregational Transformation. And those four actions are conversion, evangelism, local mission and world mission. We saw that a church, large or small, can be vibrant if those elements are found in its life.

We realized that we needed to put some flesh on the bones, and the flesh that needed to be put on the bones was congregational development. My diocesan staff includes an assisting priest called Canon to the Ordinary who is an administrator and a financial person. When I called the new Canon to the Ordinary in 2007, a major part of her portfolio was congregational development. We wanted somebody to help us to take those four actions for congregational transformation and encourage real-life parishes to do them.

Q: What do you mean when you use the term “congregational development?”

In essence, it’s helping congregations to be what Jesus calls those congregations to be. How can a local church discover what Jesus is calling it to be and plan to implement that call? To give you a specific example, we have a small congregation in Angola, Indiana. Angola is in the northeast corner of the state, close to both the Michigan and Ohio borders. It is 40 minutes north of Fort Wayne and 40 or 45 minutes east of Elkhart, so it stands on its own. At the beginning of the process I’m about to describe, average Sunday attendance was at 25 to 30, primarily retired people.

The leadership at Holy Family Angola looked around at their community and realized there was something missing. There was no ministry to people who were either uninsured or underinsured. There was a real gap in the safety net providing for people in their county who did not have health insurance through ordinary channels.

Holy Family Angola came up with the idea of founding a health clinic. They began talking to Christians in other parishes in other denominations and finally developed a two-step vision.

Step No. 1 was recruiting medical personnel who would volunteer their time and initially set up shop in a Congregational church. The health clinic opened up about a year and a half ago and serves dozens and dozens of people every week. Step No. 2: Holy Family expanded its own facilities to provide space for the health clinic. They raised a lot of money and built an extension of their parish hall to house the health clinic.

It’s absolutely wonderful. Here’s a church with perhaps 35 people on a Sunday that is reaching out to its community in a powerful way and impacting lives, helping people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to health care. That’s just one example of what congregational development might mean. They identified an area of local mission and took sacrificial steps to bring it about.

Q: Have they seen growth in the congregation as a result?

Their Sunday attendance is now up to about 40. When I was there last Sunday, I confirmed nine adults. I had a meeting with the vestry and asked the vestry members, “Where are your new folks coming from?” Indeed, some have come because of the witness of the health clinic. It’s bearing fruit evangelically as well as enriching people’s lives.

Just because a church is small doesn’t mean it can’t have an impact. This church is having a major impact in its region. A small church can do great things for the Lord.

Q: Does each church search for its own unique mission?

Yes. We have one church that has a very successful Hispanic ministry, with a separate Hispanic congregation. It works for that community. We have some other churches that have powerful ministries to university students. It depends on where God has placed you and what opportunities he lays before you.

Q: How do you build consensus from your leadership position?

It’s important to utilize every medium of communication you can. As bishop, for example, when we have a clergy conference, I bring in speakers whose topics enhance the vision. When I write for the diocesan newsletter, I write articles that enhance the vision. When I teach in parishes, particularly in a forum setting with dialogue rather than a sermon, I teach about the vision. I use every possible occasion to be almost relentless in putting forth that vision over and over again.

When you stick to it long enough, you begin to hear yourself repeated back to you. Sometimes in the diocese I hear my own vocabulary spoken by diocesan leaders. It involves long-term, consistent teaching and, of course, recognizing that not everybody is going to get on board.

We have 18 parishes involved in our CDI program. We have a few others on a waiting list, and we have some that have said thank you, but no thank you. There are some congregations that are so overwhelmed by survival issues, keeping the doors open and keeping the heat on in the winter, that a broader vision is not something they can begin to approach.

Q: It sounds like you’ve been strategic and focused as you face a multiplicity of issues. With so many legitimate issues on your desk, how do you keep that strategy, that focus?

It’s not always possible to keep the focus. There are times when a parish crisis overwhelms me for a month or two. There have been issues I’ve had to address in congregations that have been so enormous it’s been hard to keep the broader picture in mind.

When the crisis is over, I do my best to return to the major focus, but it’s not easy. There have been a couple of occasions where two or three parishes were in crisis simultaneously; you have to recognize there are seasons when the vision has to be set aside.

Q: What’s your strategy and philosophy for dealing with conflict?

I remind myself of a mantra that was often uttered by Rabbi Ed Friedman. He said that in the midst of congregational conflict you should be clear about your convictions and stay connected. Particularly in the years since 2003, when the Episcopal Church has had an enormous amount of conflict, I try to do both.

I try to be clear about my convictions. I’m not neutral in the issues that we face, but I do everything I can to maintain relationships with people, particularly those with whom I disagree. On the whole, our diocese has managed to avoid major division. We’ve lost a few people on both sides. We’ve lost some people on the liberal side who think I’m too conservative, and we’ve lost people on the conservative side who think I’m not conservative enough.

Q: How do you balance your pastoral role with your supervisory role toward the priests in your diocese?

There’s no way in a small diocese like mine, with so few clergy, that we don’t form deep bonds of friendship between bishop and priest or between bishop and deacon. My clergy are the parish that I serve; they are also my friends, but I’m also their bishop, and at times their supervisor and on rare occasion their disciplinarian, and that can be hard, as you can imagine. There are times when I have to call a priest in and say a hard word. I don’t shirk that duty. I don’t give it to somebody else to do on my behalf. I do it myself.

Parish clergy experience something parallel, because a parish priest is the shepherd of the flock and sometimes has to make administrative decisions and do difficult things. He or she is also a co-disciple with parishioners. To get that balance right and to avoid the kind of friendship that would make it difficult for you to be also their supervisor, but at the same time not to be so supervisory that you’re impersonal with them -- you seek that balance.