C. Andrew Doyle: Imagining the church of the future

Andy Doyle

Photos courtesy of Episcopal Diocese of Texas

In this Q&A, the Episcopal bishop of Texas talks about his new book, which he hopes will encourage Christians to imagine a vital church that’s part of God’s work in the world.

The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle is excited about the future of the church.

In an atmosphere in which church leaders may feel overwhelmed by bad news, Doyle, the ninth Episcopal bishop of Texas, is brimming with enthusiasm and excitement.

“God is out there, reconciliation is happening out there, salvation is happening out there, and we are invited as church to be a part of that work with God,” he said.

Cover of the book "Church" be C. Andrew DoyleInfluenced by his training as a painter and by economists, theologians and organizational experts, Doyle has written “Church: A Generous Community Amplified for the Future,” a book that he hopes will invite people to imagine the church of the future.

Doyle spoke to Faith & Leadership about his thoughts on the future of the church. The following is an edited transcript, and a podcast of the unedited interview can be found on Doyle's blog.

Q: What do you want people who read your book to take away from it?

The goal of the book is to create safe space for conversation about the future church, and to begin to imagine a hope-filled, vital, living, missionary church at work in the world around us -- and to do that, not only from a framework of history, but also in conversation with futurists about what’s actually shaping the culture that we’re in.

There are huge cultural trends that are at work right now, and we can see those out in advance of us. We need to imagine the world in which we want to be doing ministry.

God is out there, reconciliation is happening out there, salvation is happening out there, and we are invited as church to be a part of that work with God.

Q: In your book, you say that one problem is that, on the one hand, we can see that our organization does not work, yet on the other hand, we are invested in how it works now. How do church leaders get people beyond that?

A big piece of it has to be to grab hold of a vision and understanding about what the future looks like. That’s the point I’m driving -- to recognize that.

But let’s imagine: Do you imagine a living church? Yes. OK, so we imagine a living church. What does that church look like? Well, we think it’s going to be adaptive. OK, so that means it has to be light; it has to be structurally flexible. OK, good.

So how, based upon the economic future, are we going to empower this mission, when actually we see a scarcity of resources?

We have huge assets. The reality is we haven’t been courageous or visionary enough to see how the assets that we have can be used.

Well, we begin to understand that we can unlock the power of people and their free time to undertake this ministry; it doesn’t all have to be paid.

So you can begin to imagine the future and begin to make decisions about it, but you can only have that conversation once you do that.

If you are focused on now, then you simply are imagining, “How am I going to get people to read the lessons next Sunday?”

What does it mean to then say, “I imagine this thing, this vision of what church is,” and to begin to spend our time on that?

So if you can’t see or imagine the future, if you can’t hear the beckoning voice of God desperately in need of help out in the world, of course you’re going to be really focused on getting the leaflet done for Sunday or whatever it is that you are taking up your time with.

The other piece about this -- this is so essential -- is leadership formation is based upon leadership needed. So most of the way in which we think about forming leaders today has to do with how we are using leaders today.

So for us as denominations and Christian leaders, what we really have to do is imagine the tasks and the work and the ministry of the future church in order to raise up people, so that by the time we arrive there, we have them. Because right now what we’re doing is we’re always 10 to 20 years behind the curve.

Q: How do you do it differently? Futurism is a difficult art, as anyone who has wished for a personal jetpack to get to work knows.

I keep waiting.

Q: So how do you get those leaders trained now?

First off, the majority of the predictions that are in the book are from people who already see this stuff taking shape. They’re really not that much in the future.

But that being said, I think that the first piece is that leaders have to give space for people to begin to imagine that they already are equipped to lead.

We completely bind up the leadership of the church by telling them they’re not ready yet. And what we know is that creativity, innovation, adaptability are all characteristics that come out of actually doing work, trying new things, being placed in circumstances that demand people’s best efforts.

So the first thing that we can actually do is start allowing space where people could fail generously and not get persecuted for it.

And I think that as we do that, we actually begin to be more on top of the leadership that we need now. We also begin to understand better the challenges of our future context, and I think we start looking for people differently.

So as judicatory heads or diocesan ministers, we have to cast a vision for the things that we think are needed for the future clergy, which is a capacity to fail and pick themselves up and do the work, the ability to be adaptive in circumstances, the ability to preach, to talk to and captivate people.

We need vision people; we need people who can communicate well; we need people who are using social media and are digital immigrants at the very least, and are digital natives at the very best.

And that’s the kind of work that you communicate out to your leaders now. But you have to begin to drive the vision of where we’re going.

Q: You emphasize the importance of thinking of organizations as organisms, rather than in mechanistic terms. What does that mean for leadership?

We have been looking predominantly at our organizations as linear cause-and-effect models: you plug in the right stuff on one end, and you get the best correct answers on the back end of things.

And what we know about organizational theory today is that every organization has a system of causes and effects that are constantly and randomly occurring within the system, which the organization or organism is constantly at work integrating.

What we have to understand is that the culture and context in which we live is an organically connected system, and that the success of any part of our organization is deeply rooted in all of those ties and connections to the context.

The organization itself is an organism -- not unlike the image and parable of the vine -- growing, expanding, sending out branches. And so beginning to do that work is much more [productive] if we can talk about how we’re all responsible for it, we’re all connected to it and there are many ways we can do it.

At the same time, we know the vine is a particular kind of vine; it’s supposed to bear fruit. So our part of the world, as organic and connected and interconnected as the [larger] system, is going to look Episcopal, it’s going to have an Episcopalian DNA to it.

Q: How are you helping the congregations, seminaries, laypeople and all the leaders in your sphere of influence imagine themselves and their roles differently?

Part of it has to be beginning to change what we value. How do I begin to model that?

For example, I can tell you that average Sunday attendance and budget are huge predictors of what your congregation’s probably like. But that may not be helpful in actually unlocking the needed energy for a mission that you have.

So maybe we should measure some different things. How are you in contact with your community over the week? How many telephone calls with members of your community?

I’m just asking questions; I don’t have a lot of the answers. I’m just wondering, and we’re wondering together, about what those new things look like.

I think it means sitting down and listening to what’s going on. So we’re trying to figure out these new Christian community models that are emerging, these missional communities, or what I call in the book “small batch” communities.

I’ve been collecting stories: What are they reading? What are they looking toward? Who do they talk to?

And so for me, the work really is coaching and sharing and connecting people. It’s making myself available so that I can create some safe space for people, and say as a bishop of the church, “I’m interested in this.” And that has power to shape conversation -- to value things that maybe haven’t been valued.

And then I think another big piece is to constantly be on guard that I don’t set up some kind of policy that I think is going to solve something [but] that inadvertently shuts the thing down.

Q: So people who might otherwise do some really creative things are afraid?

Or they leave and go do it for somebody else or on their own.

You know, it’s not so much that all of a sudden there are people out there who don’t believe in God or aren’t on a spiritual journey; they just don’t want to do it the way we’re doing it.

And so whose fault is that? The reality is a lot of people are on their spiritual walk alone, because we didn’t go with them.

Q: How does the book fit into this?

This book, “Church: A Generous Community Amplified for the Future,” is the thought-leader book. It’s the book packed with ideas.

In October, a second book is coming out, called “A Generous Community: Being the Church in a new Missionary Age.” It has a video series, curriculum and resources for further reading to help leaders engage the people in their communities.

What I’m most hopeful for is putting resources in the hands of our leaders to hold conversations with their people to imagine and take on the work of the future church.

Q: You read widely, and I wonder what you’ve learned from folks such as Daniel Kahneman and Nassim Taleb that influences your leadership.

Robert Bellah really believed that the churches in the modern era removed themselves from the conversation around science and culture and society. What that meant was we resigned ourselves to a very small part of the culture and the cultural conversation.

And then on top of that, when we did engage with the culture, it was typically to shake our fingers at the culture and tell them how they were wrong.

Then you have somebody like a Daniel Kahneman, who is this world-renowned economist researching how things work and how people make decisions, who is not able to be translated into our church context.

So we’re missing out on some of the best organizational thinking; we’re missing out on some of the best economic thinking; we’re missing out on the best missional thinking.

What does it say that Apple actually has an evangelist and understands that it has a mission, and yet we [the church] don’t want to talk about it?

That’s a weird world. That is a strange situation, when the church abandons the language of mission and evangelists but Apple doesn’t.

So it’s not that people don’t like the term; they don’t like what we did with it. So how do we reclaim that? How do we have those conversations? How do we benefit from conversations that we’re not a part of?

As an artist, I was trained in postmodernism, which means of course not just the deconstruction of things, but it really is an integration, a re-integration, of disparate parts of things.

So you’re always putting things into juxtaposition with something else to create art.

That’s something I find interesting. Kahneman, Taleb, the maker movement, Johansen, all of those people, Margaret Wheatley -- these are huge thought leaders in our community that inspire me to understand how those things that seem to be not connected actually are intimately connected.

And they bring the tradition and our opportunities for leadership into the present context in a very living way for me.

And so consequently, work around community-based research, community organizing, the health care conversation that’s going on -- those conversations really impact the way we think about how we do mission. How do we serve our neighbors?

A lot of the way we serve our neighbors is either through charity models that are outdated or 1930s food-pantry models.

So the church is going to have to look at the forefront of work in poverty and health and education, and it has to step into that. It’s going to have to step into the venue. So we’d better come ready to talk and ready to listen and ready to use new forms that are leading the future of education, health care and neighborhood planning.

Q: That’s a lot of ideas.

Yeah. But we have thousands of people. My diocese alone has 70,000 people. Think of all of the Christians in the Methodist Church; think about all of the Christians, and think of the CEOs.

Imagine a CEO or a chief financial officer that is no longer only going to participate in your congregation by serving on the vestry or at the altar in some way but that actually is unleashed to use these gifts and talents that they bring to their corporate life, and to use those out in the world on behalf of the church.

So we have huge assets. The reality is we haven’t been courageous or visionary enough to see how the assets that we have can be used.

This isn’t about the church becoming what Andy Doyle thinks; this is about us together praying and opening our eyes and our hearts to what God would have us be doing with God in the world around us. And so that’s what I’m excited about.