The Episcopal Church: An Outside Perspective
By: The Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers, Staff Officer for Church Planting
Don’t worry, I’m not actually going to try to write about The Episcopal Church from an outsider’s perspective. My Episco-credentials read something like Paul in Philippians – baptized as an infant at Saint Andrew’s, confirmed at age 12, ordained a priest and working for the denomination! The title of this reflection arose from an on-boarding question someone asked during our Church Planting & Redevelopment team meeting this morning: If the whole Episcopal Church were to come learn from you and your experiences for a week, what would you name the course you would teach?
Obviously I’m not qualified to teach “The Episcopal Church: An Outsider’s Perspective,” but I’d love to take such a class – and invite some of my colleagues across the church to take it with me! What could it be like to have a really wise, honest feedback circle of people who are relatively disconnected from, or ambivalent to, the traditions, policies, politics and good intentions of our denomination? I’d love to ask such a group what they think about the way we gather and worship, our ordination process, church numerical decline, the fact that we have more women and people of color in the House of Bishops than ever before, our definition of “members in good standing,” and what we say is our mission versus what our mission appears to be from the outside.
I remember the first time I experienced this kind of learning. When I was a 25-year old transitional deacon, Mike, the city bailiff, came to see me. He explained his disillusionment with the Southern Baptists and said, “I believe I would like to start coming to your church.” But what I need to know is…if I’m not rich enough to be Episcopalian?” Until then, I hadn’t realized that financial wealth is often a stereotype of Episcopalians, at least in small Alabama towns. Mike’s question resonates with me to this day in my work with starting new congregations and in my own personal way of sharing hospitality.
Of course, it can be downright annoying to get feedback and advice from someone who has no actual understanding or investment around what I’m doing (though it should be pointed out that we get plenty of this from within the Episcopal Church as well as from outside!). But I think that more often the “stuckness” my church feels is more due to survivorship bias; we only think to solicit feedback from people who are already within our “thing.”
At our gift assessment retreats for potential church planters (Discerning Missional Leadership Retreats), we like to ask leaders what kind of friendships they have outside the church and what they’ve learned about faith communities from those friends. The answers are always incredibly revealing, and can be an indicator of whether or not someone will flourish in missional leadership.
As the Episcopal Church reimagines itself post-covid and into the rest of this century, what are we willing to learn about ourselves from the outside?