June 25, 2014

Recasting of Building Assets Through the Eyes of Clergy


Recasting of Building Assets is a program conceived and delivered under the auspices of the Episcopal Church Building Fund. It is chiefly the work of Julia M. Groom, ECBF President, and Sally Dresser O'Brien, Vice President. The Episcopal Diocese of Iowa was a second-stage proving ground for Recasting. The program continues in its refinement. It is animated in every way by people who care very deeply about the vitality of congregations.

The church I serve -- St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa -- entered into the Recasting process more than three years ago. Much water has flowed beneath the proverbial bridge in that time. Yet sometimes I am asked about the program -- to summarize and recommend. I always recommend it wholeheartedly, yet I'm often unable to summarize precisely what it does.

It is difficult to summarize the total impact of Recasting to this point because for me at least, it represents several successive moments of leaps and bounds that are generally quite opposed to usual and customary church practices. Customary church work equates the idea of moving congregations forward with taking small technical steps toward some generally agreed-upon destination, or else naming goals so big and far-fetched that we’ll never get anywhere near to follow-through. We tend to nudge rather than shove. We tend to play nice, throw underhand softball pitches, and placate antagonism and antagonists. Communications tend to be obfuscated, language-prettified, and overly theologized. We heavily invest in congregational “life-support machinery” and underfund congregational “birthing wards” and “infant care” and then go on about our desire for the coveted young-family demographic. We draw on finite resources to fund the future ad infinitum, but we don’t like to talk about the level of discomfort such borrowing engenders. We rarely address actual need at a level of fundamental underlying causes, and we avoid anything but a superficial truth because it can be unfortunate for pet projects and individuals. We adapt to irritations well before we deal with them. In other words, we regularly shoot ourselves in the foot.

If any of this sounds familiar, know that these conditions are present to some degree in even the best of our best-practice churches. But decades of being and doing church in this way have made us immune to the only fair criticisms that would undo any of it. We are ripe for change but don’t know how to talk about it or assess what’s best for us. We just know it’s time to deal with it. If we can. For Recasting, that admission alone makes a fine place to start.

What Recasting proposes to do (or at any rate what it does) is to create a space where placating and self-deceit are wrested away from us, and the only thing that matters is the unblinking truth. We aren’t able to play both ends against the middle, or lie to ourselves, because Recasting’s job is specifically to hold the space open long enough to avoid that. That doesn’t mean that some won’t resist the truth, even to the point of turning away. And actually, that’s okay; really, it’s probably best to walk away if you’re this kind of church -- for if you can’t tell yourself the truth in a few things, you may find yourself creating massive oversimplifications and impossible workarounds. But for those who choose to remain and be lovingly confronted, clearing out space where transformation is possible becomes the sanctified work of the church influenced by the clear actions of the Holy Spirit. It is out of this sacred alchemy, well attended, that unexpected growth can occur. “Unexpected,” meaning hardly ever what you thought it was going to be when you started.

Recasting takes the form of urgently-framed, non-aggressive confrontation over matters of fact. Participants are asked to perform extensive diagnostic analytics with their congregations over a variety of metrics, and a picture of the truth of the situation begins to form in the minds of those involved. Some arrive at the point of the truth faster than others; it then becomes their task to turn around and help everyone else over the transom. Groups and individuals are challenged out of the deepest Christian charity and compassion to ask themselves, What is really the situation in our congregation? What are we stuck on? What does a better future look like? What do we genuinely need to move forward? What are we going to have to leave behind that we’ve been clinging to? The answers are always a little different, yet in other often more fundamental ways -- once the general patterns are observed -- they’re always kind of predictably the same.

Actually, a lot of those questions could be filed under just one big, nasty umbrella question: What is it that’s threatening us that we just can’t bring ourselves to talk about? (Beware: there’s a subtle version of this question where you avoid an issue by talking about it so much that you just end up numb to it; the result is the same.) This is almost always the thing that everyone’s already thought about at least once and that members of the clergy are woken up by at around 3 a.m. That thing, whatever it may be, that is the gnawing in the gut.

So in some sense, Recasting is sort of like a highly practical and often numerically-driven version of what we have come to call congregational development. The 800-pound gorilla is announced to the assembled. “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible -- and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.”


If you do it well (i.e., in an invested way), Recasting is hard work for a number of reasons. It comes with a good number of expenses. These costs -- which are also benefits -- can be roughly, overlappingly filed according to their natures.

  • Spiritual and Psychological Costs. As self-understanding grows, folks find themselves out in the desert for a time of wilderness searching. They don’t know their left from their right. They don’t get why they have to do this anymore and regret ever having started. They aren’t sure where they’ve just come from and they aren’t quite sure where they’re headed. Rabbi Friedman’s “identified patients” start showing up; they don’t know what’s going to happen to their beloved congregation. (“If you sell the church, what will happen to my ashes in the columbarium?” is a real and earnest question.) They can only ask God for help. This is simply the walking of a good and tangible spiritual pathway. Individuals and groups that have a spiritually strong and committed core of both formal and informal leaders will find their feet faster. The “lesser anxiety” of prayerful, grounded clergy and other leaders (especially patriarchs and matriarchs) will prove an accelerant toward positive momentum. Key texts like The Cloud of Unknowing or Dark Night of the Soul will suddenly acquire deeper meaning and resonance. The postmodern voices of researchers like Diana Butler Bass and public historians like Phyllis Tickle will also prove helpful. In general, those who lead should be prepared not to offer pat answers but to have frank conversations and to admit that change is hard AND that change is necessary. If a congregation operates with a baseline of trust and mutuality, it will make things go a thousand times more smoothly. If nothing else, emphasizing Jesus’ words that “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall [eventually, after some pain] set you free” will produce many fruits.

  • Budgetary Costs. Churches will be confronted with simple questions about what has been overlooked in a cost array over a year’s time and why money is being sunk into things that are not offering real ministerial or material return. They will be shocked to find that 85% of their physical plant goes completely unused 85% of the time, and they will be forced to admit that that is really just terrible stewardship. Those “lone voices” on vestries asking why we spend $XXX on YYY when there is no perceived benefit will suddenly be empowered and encouraged to be heard more clearly. Congregations may ask, What can be eliminated? And How can we do that without offending So-And-So? The conversation about clergy costs (see below) may come into play, but not until after a priest has left office or retired -- unless clergy willingly and deliberately lead finance groups and vestries into this territory.

  • Communal Costs. Despite best efforts to quell gossip (and the congregation I serve has made stellar inroads to try to put an end to gossiping), it will proliferate anyway in the larger community. A priest, vestry member, or Recasting team member may know perfectly well that We are so far only dealing with hypotheticals and nothing has been decided, or that We are still collecting information and are bound to consider all possibilities along the way, but it will still come as a shock when the rumor comes back that the church is going to close forever, and soon. Fortunately, there is a built-in component to Recasting that forestalls gossip (it’s about going out into the community and doing a lot of polling about what people need and want), but congregations will often skip this element because it’s hard and it requires a willingness to engage. My advice: don’t skip that step.

  • Clerical Costs. As the breadth of the scene is arrayed before them, and a greater truth known, clergy may find themselves reconsidering what their leadership has been about during the preceding time of their tenure to date. They may wonder and ask God about what exactly they’re being called to help coach people into next. They may feel pressured to be something they’re not. (“I got trained to preach and teach and offer counseling, and now you want me to help people talk about how to be entrepreneurs?”) And as anyone should reasonably expect, as a result of these things they may undertake a sober assessment of whether they need to be “here” or somewhere else. It will be important for them to keep their feet on the ground using whatever healthy ways they possess (spiritual directors, more focused prayer life, sneaking out an afternoon movie, etc.) to do that. A commitment to this place and this people over the duration of this time of change -- a commitment made at the beginning of the process and reinforced throughout -- will prove exponentially helpful.


In addition to the final bullet point above, here are a few more thoughts that members of the clergy -- specifically rectors/vicars/priests-in-charge -- should have in front of themselves at the beginning.

  • The urgency of Recasting is a real urgency. It’s more difficult to falsely construe a sense of urgency here because Recasting specifically forces participants to be honest about where they are at any given moment within the process -- as individuals, as a team, as a vestry or a congregation -- over present matters of fact. That urgency is both necessary and disorienting.

  • William Bridges book Transitions is useful in this arena of what transition-related disorientation looks and feels like. Other literature can’t hurt either -- especially Eric Law’s work on Holy Currencies, which encourages us to think of the different forms of capital we possess. And of course there’s Walter Brueggemann, whose biblical studies of orientation-disorientation-reorientation can lend assistance to preaching and classes.

  • The best place for leaders to be during Recasting is in front of the people, but not way out in front. Be seen and heard as supportive of the cause, but know that if you get too far out in front of people, there is a very real danger of turning around to ask for support and not finding a critical mass standing behind you.

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